Monday, September 26, 2016

Readings: Under Major Domo Minor

Author Patrick deWitt is back with another wittily (!) titled little novel that manages to defy genre and era. However, this time the effect was not quite as novel (!) as the last time. This was primarily because the characters ultimately remained un-knowable. The strangely deadpan humor and almost exasperating roundabout conversational style is no doubt very engaging. But it does not hold up in the face of the fact that one is never quite sure as to why any of this is happening at all. 

The protagonist, young Lucien Minor, takes off from his village, the deadly dull Bury, after mysteriously escaping death from a serious illness. His father dies instead: a fact that seems to make him even less popular with his stoutly practical mother. He sets off to take up a job in the Castle von Aux, as second-in-command to its major domo, one Mr. Olderslough. Hence the inexplicable title suddenly becomes clear.

En route, he meets two petty thieves named Memel and Mewe whom he befriends, and in the village he meets Memel's daughter Klara, with whom he falls in love. Lucy, as he is known, has a peculiar penchant for lying. Other than that he seems pretty vacant and listless, but then he is only seventeen, and this seems to be a problem I face with such young protagonists. They're teenagers, so motivation and solid character traits are very difficult to pin down. 

So what happens during his job at the castle? Oh, nothing much, except that its owner, the Baron, is a raving (and I mean raving) lunatic, his wife the Baroness is estranged, the major domo himself appears to be slowly losing his marbles, the cook Agnes serves up only unpalatable gruel at all meals, etc. Lucy, however,  does manage to carry on a fairly successful affair with Klara when she's not being aggressively pursued by the local aimless warrior, Adolphus. 

Then the Baroness re-appears, and there is a party hosted at the castle soon after. The guests and the hosts proceed, at this party, to have a rather unsavory orgy which Lucy witnesses. Hereafter, the narrative totally loses steam. In fact in the last third of the book I kept searching for what the story was meant to represent, for surely I was missing a gigantic metaphor of some sort? The ending, also, was meant to tell us that there is a sequel, failing which, it will have left me feeling very unsatisfied indeed.

However, far from this being an inferior work, Under Major Domo Minor is in fact quite accomplished. It is not easy to construct a world peopled by characters whose exchanges are for the most part, unique, and at its heart the writing is quiet and lucid. (I particularly enjoyed the droll and circuitous chats between Lucy and the batty Mr. Olderslough.) It's just that at the beginning, the novel was so promising, and by the end, so disappointing.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Love's austere and lonely offices

The winter that I was eight, my family went on a vacation to Rajasthan. We took a train at one point, I don't recall from where to where but a guess would be from Delhi to Jaipur. In any event, it was mid-morning when we passed an enormous field of mustard. What I remember about this is not the mustard specifically, which was glorious enough in that great blaze of yellow under very blue skies. It is the fact that as we were passing it, my father pulled me onto his knee and pointed at the field, relating some little story of his own childhood and how happy he had been at the time he was recalling. (He grew up in Rajasthan.)

It was one of the best moments of my life, though this memory surfaces only rarely. A few years ago I and many others I knew were going through a particularly trying time in our lives. One night I had a dream that I was gifted with the power of effortless flight, and was flying over a great golden field of flowers under a blue endless sky. The dream brought much solace and peace. Why is it only now that I find the link between my treasured childhood memory and this obvious bit of comfort that my own brain had devised?

I find that this September is a similar time of trials. May everyone find their own dream of yellow flowers. 

I'm also inspired to post a particularly beautiful poem here, in honor of love and loss:

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? 

~By Robert Hayden

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two worlds

The whole house smells wonderful tonight. J has been preparing for cooking an Indian dish, spending almost three-quarters of an hour chopping, slicing, roasting, grinding, and then laying out the results in little platters on the counters. The overall effect is of a miniature banquet, totally at odds with the fact that these small treasures will soon be obliterated of their individual identities when they go into the making of a new dish.

It's at times like this that we miss that big old market we used to live close to in Bangalore. Set on both sides of a long, shady street, it would begin at sunrise and carry on to just after sunset. Sometimes we would wake up early, gather a few bags, and walk down. Now they mostly sold to wholesalers, so this resulted in a little bit of amusement when I timidly asked for only three lemons or a single tiny bunch of coriander. (One time the lady, with a gap-toothed grin, just gave me an extra fistful of green chilies for free. She was clearly unsatisfied by my paltry request for a mere bunch.) My rudimentary Kannada earned me many points, however, as did J's rudimentary Hindi.

I remember one occasion when, overcome by the beauty and freshness of the produce, J and I simply went overboard. We could barely return home with our purchases, so heavy were our bags. I had bought mangoes, limes, curry leaf, ginger in great quantities, some bunches of tiny local finger-sized bananas which I could never do without, and a great heap of creamy jasmine blossoms. When we got home, I arranged most of this on the dining table. The mangoes, plump and heavy, smelled vaguely of rain and were tinted with just the faintest flush of rose pink. (Did we even eat them all, I wonder now, or just gape the rest of the week?)

Today we searched the shelves of a local supermarket. We did find a small bottle of coriander seeds, pouncing on it gladly. I experienced the usual odd, juxtaposed feeling of existing in two places at once: One half of my brain was back in that market under the trees, the other was in this Southern California market with its hand-sanitizers and its hybrid fruit and gluten-free what-nots.

Friday, September 23, 2016

French movie Friday: Chic!

"I don't do fashion," said Coco Chanel once," I am fashion". A good philosophy to live by, apparently, since Alicia Ricosi in Chic! has built a fashion empire, is considered a goddess by others in the business, and has a (terrified and sycophantic) staff who will go to absurd lengths to cater to her every whim.

Alicia, played by the magnetic Fanny Ardant, has a rather strangely warm aura for all her kookiness and self-aggrandizing; you can see why her staff is so worshipful. Her second-in-command, the craven, highly temperamental and yet hilarious Alain, is at his wits' end when she goes into a funk following a bad breakup. He turns to his second-in-command, Helene, to rustle up a fellow who will bring Alicia back to herself, her through whatever means necessary. This is a high-risk situation, since Alicia is unable to create a single sketch for the upcoming collection and their entire reputation is at stake. 

Helene, however, delivers a dud. Meanwhile, she is herself being mean and unnecessarily harsh in classic 'kick the cat' progression, with her landscaper, a rustic Breton named Julien. Ultimately, Julien ends up being the much-needed 'muse'; he gets served up to Alicia like a grand entree, and things now seem set to go in a certain direction. But then comes a slow and sly change. You do see it coming, but its pace is leisurely and thus doesn't seem absurd. And there's a nice neat ending to tie things up...but I almost, almost wish for a sequel.

Of the characters, all except Julien were quite a bunch of meanies overall. Still, because they're all so self-aware and capable of great wit and vulnerability, they're not one-dimensional, but human. As a bonus, everyone has spectacular houses, especially the swoon-worthy one in Bretagne belonging to Julien. And Helene and Alicia have the great gift of panache in carrying themselves, making me admire the clothes all the more. (I wished to see more of the couture though.)

Finally, Chic! was just funny in a sort of painful and almost-implausible way; in fact it's the humor that carries the story through in the midst of so much bad behavior by almost everyone. As Alicia tells Alain on one memorable occasion, "If you have to be a shit, be an elegant shit!" Indeed.

Director: Jerome Cornuau
Overall rating: 8/10

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Readings: Johannes Cabal the Detective

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L.…
Necromancers can be detectives too. Of course if the necromancer in question is a certain Johannes Cabal, I suspect there are any number of things he could be. Metallurgist? Horologist? Alchemist? I rather like all these ideas. Now if only his creator, the unstoppable Jonathan Howard, would take note. 

In any event, this time Cabal is trying to escape the authorities of some uptight country called Senza because he's stolen a priceless and much-guarded book from its national library. To seal his escape, he dons the identity of one of its civil servants, and proceeds to board the Princess Hortense. This vessel, however, is not a ship, but an even comes with its own delightfully detailed diagram. It's a kind of zeppelin-meets-hot air balloon, and it is here that Cabal runs into some serious trouble. As though impersonating a somewhat-sociable civil servant weren't hard enough, now he has to contend with someone trying to off him by pushing him off the Hortense!

Leonie Barrow from the previous novel, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, is a prominent character here too. The author does try to explain Cabal's and Leonie's antecedents, but readers who haven't read Necromancer might end up feeling a bit foggy. The rest of the cast though is brand new, and no one has any trouble being memorable. The format is classic old-world evening-dress and chit-chat laden, with the quintessential 'suicide or murder' question being presented early in the voyage of the Hortense. Cabal with his relentlessly probing brain notices things about the 'suicide'; very soon after he begins investigating comes the attempt on his life and then he really starts to play detective.

"Play" is of course a loosely-used term. Cabal is still Cabal, after all: a misanthropic loner who only wants to pursue his science in peace. Still, there's the complication of his having gotten his soul back from Satan in his previous caper, so now he has to deal with strange new feelings, i.e., his own conscience. And the redoubtable Miss Barrow is always giving him headaches too. 

All is tied up at the end. I did have a fundamental question about how one of the main characters even got to be a passenger aboard the aeroship considering its ultimate mission, but I will let it rest. There was enough else going on to occupy me, this being a different world altogether from the carnival-train of Necromancer. However, I did miss Horst, Cabal's hip brother, and kept hoping he would make an appearance somehow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In my corner

About two months ago, I found out that the younger cousin of a close friend had died. This cousin, I will call her A, had been facing quite serious health problems since birth. My friend, whom I'll call B, is years older and is the naturally giving type. So when A had been in and out of hospital, it was B who was at her side. (A was working and living alone.) 

Finally A's time was up. She collapsed in B's arms while recuperating from her latest hospital stay. A nightmarish sequence of events followed, what with ambulance delays, bureaucracy and other such ugly facts. At the age of 26, A's story ended. 

Through the years I've listened to how B has held her hand, chided her, tried to shepherd her down the path of more rigorous self-care, monitored her, fought with doctors, and advised her. When A died, I heard a real sense of resignation in B's voice. Many years of giving of herself like this will no doubt leave their mark. (B is one of the more empathetic souls I've ever known.) 

I was a good listener during my last phone call with B. But in the emotion of the moment, I realized later, I had neglected to say how lucky A had been in the final years to have such a fierce and big heart in her corner. May we all be so lucky. 

All this makes me appreciate the little things all the more. So when I find that as a present for a special occasion, J has procured a bag of black licorice shaped exactly like Scottie dogs, I want to weep with joy.

I'm off to write to B.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I've never been so enthusiastic about television in my entire life. When we first got t.v., we had a b&w one and one channel. There was no remote, and programming began only in the evenings. Now, t.v. is a different beast indeed. I keep discovering new things, and since I am not a binge-watcher, this is enough to keep me satisfied. I have quite a juicy crop going right now:

Les Revenants: A moody, artistic yet creepy version of events when the dead start returning to life in a small French mountain town. Not the zombie variety of un-dead, mind, but the same living and breathing person who just walks back into town with no memory of his or her own death. All this has something to do with the explosion at the local dam, I'm discovering now that I am on to Season 2. A little slow-moving, this, but entirely without high-pitched drama that delivers it straight into disturbing-but-compelling territory.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: The novel on which it is based is an energy-sappingly hefty tome, so when I found this on Netflix it solved my problem. (The problem being, I was itching to read it, but how to devote months of attention to what was probably densely-packed text?) My fretting has ceased now, especially since the one episode I did watch was satisfying and beautifully produced. The subject? Magic, in 19th century England. The two title characters are the 'chosen ones' of sorts to resolve the situation of magic not being practiced, rather, merely studied, like theology or grammar...the return of English magic, if you will.

Lark Rise to Candleford: This is the replacement to the sweet but too-short Cranford. It's the story of two neighboring English villages sometime in the 19th century. I'm only two episodes in but am charmed by the production design which is lovely, particularly the lighting. And English village life, in fact, two English villages! Of course.

Indian Summers: Season 2 is on PBS. It's 1930s India, Shimla, to be precise, and political turmoil is underway along with a lot of personal scheming and entanglements. Despite some maddening errors in casting and language, it's well-directed with convincing characters, plus it's very visually appealing.

Chef's Table: France: This too is a replacement, to the excellent A Cook Abroad which had, regrettably, only six episodes. (The best of these was chef Tony Singh's journey from Scotland to India.) Chef's Table has blown our socks off with the only episode we've watched so far, in which a chef named Alain something-or-other makes the unthinkable leap of cooking only with vegetables. In FRANCE, the brave fellow. Suffice to say, vegetables will now forever look ugly to me when I cook them myself. In fact, it is hard to say when I've seen food presented so beautifully. 
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