Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mount TBR: March Checkpoint

It's March and time for the first check-in as we climb the mountains of books that always seem to be spilling-off the shelves.

Well, I am not aiming too high. All I have to do is to read 12 books in order to scale my small Pike's Peak. And I seem to be making adequate progress, having already read 3:

From Sawdust to Stardust by Terry Lee Rioux
 Kartography by Kamila Shamsie
To Make the Deaf Hear by S. Irfan Habib

Of these my favourite cover has been this:

The two men are Indian revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt. They got themselves clicked before they went and threw bombs in the legislative assembly. Though the bombs were manufactured in such a way as not to kill anyone, this dare-devilry was sure to get them either hanged or incarcerated. I have often wondered what must have been passing through their minds as they sat facing the camera.

The Urdu couplets on top are from the Jail Notebook of Bhagat Singh. The first one reads thus:

Give me a heart of such temperament, O Protector
That it may pass the hour of sorrow also as a happy hour.  


If you want to go mountain climbing (and be rewarded for your efforts), click here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forgotten Books: Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham.

It's strange that soon after going through Margot's post on novels with a compressed time span, I should find myself reading a book which spans just two days with the main action taking place one night when things simply spiral out of control, changing lives forever.

William Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa begins with a description of almost unbearable loveliness: The villa stood on the top of a hill. From the terrace in front of it you had a magnificent view of Florence; behind was an old garden, with few flowers, but with fine trees, hedges of cut box, grass walks and an artificial grotto in which water cascaded with a cool, silvery sound from a cornucopia.

Who wouldn't want to stay in such a place, especially if you could lounge about the garden and read books? Mary Panton, a young widow, is staying in the villa, recuperating from the physical and emotional trauma endured during years of marriage to an alcoholic, wastrel, wife-beater, womaniser of a husband whom she could not leave because of his emotional dependence on her. His death in an accident frees them both and her lawyer sagely advises her to marry next time for position and companionship. At that time Mary had found the advice absurd having no desire to get married again but now having received a proposal from Sir Edgar Swift, she wonders whether she should say yes to a life that would offer her security and comfort. Edgar - years older than her and actually a contemporary of her father in the Indian Civil Services - has cared for her right from the time she was in her teens. And now he has been offered the governorship of Bengal and he wants to get married to her before taking up his new position in India. Touched by his long devotion to her and thrilled about being the wife of a man in such an important position, Mary is yet in something of a fix and asks for a couple of days to think it over. That night, even as Edgar leaves town for an important meeting, Mary goes to a party where there a few other English expatriates. Amongst them is Rowley Flint, known as something of a scoundrel with a bad record of loving girls and ditching them. He had been paying a great deal of attention to Mary but even she is shocked when he proposes marriage to her. Two proposals in one day! Mary who thinks Flint is simply being odious, sobs out the story of her wretched married life and makes up her mind to marry Edgar.

On her way back, she runs into a young man who had been playing violin at the restaurant they had dined in. He is a wretched player yet Mary had given him a hundred lire note in a burst of generosity. Now seeing him standing forlorn, hungry, and tired, and being in an overwrought condition herself, she takes him to the villa and quite before knowing it she finds herself cooking for him, waltzing with him, and finding herself in bed with him. Karl (that's the name of the violinist) tells her that he is the son of an Austrian policeman who shot himself when the Nazis marched into Austria. He himself rebelled against their rule and was put into a concentration camp from where he escaped later and made his way to Italy where he barely manages to scrap along. Sometimes, he says, he wants to end it all the way his father did. Full of pity for the young man and yet desirous of seeing him leave before dawn breaks, Mary offers him money.

It is absolutely the worst thing she could have done and soon enough there is blood spilled and the villa changes from a place of sanctuary to a haunted place of dark deeds.

Up at the Villa raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. How far should one play with the emotions of another human in order to exalt your sense of the self? The English expatriates, living in a blissful paradise, seem unconcerned about the happenings of the world as it slowly falls to pieces. (The book was first published in 1941 and depicts the period just before the second world war). The dismissal of Karl by the characters and the narrative seems ominously like what happens to little people in all grand narratives. More than the Empire-builder Edgar Swift, the stiff-upper lip Mary, and the lovable scoundrel (as only the British can be) Rowley Flint, it was the marginalised figure of the Austrian refugee who really made an impression on me.

This book had long been on my wishlist and I found it unputdownable, finishing it virtually in one sitting.


First Line: The villa stood on the top of a hill.

Title: Up at the Villa
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1967
First Published: 1941
Pages: 95
Trivia: The book was filmed in 2000 by Philip Haas.

Other books read of the same author: Cakes and Ale, The Magician, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, and Numerous short stories.


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

23 March: A Remembrance in Books

Today is 23 March. A day when we remember the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, three young men who laid down their lives for the freedom of India. I thought this would be an appropriate occasion to talk about books related to them that I read recently.

Professor S. Irfan Habib's To Make the Deaf Hear discusses the ideological development of the revolutionaries of the HSRA, a secret revolutionary organisation that was formed in the 1920s. As compared to the earlier revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and his comrades had progressed much beyond the usual 'we want to free India from the clutches of the British' refrain. These young revolutionaries understood that simply a change in political leadership was not going to usher in a new dawn for India. If social oppression and denial of rights continued in an India ruled by Indians than it was no freedom but just a different type of slavery:

We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want. The political revolution does not mean the transfer of state (or more crudely, the power) from the hands of the British to the Indian, but to those Indians who are at one with us as to the final goal, or to be more precise, the power to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support. After that, to proceed in right earnest is to organise the reconstruction of the whole society on a socialist basis. If you do not mean this revolution then please have mercy. Stop shouting "Long Live Revolution." The term revolution is too scared, at least to us, to be so lightly used or misused. (185)

 More than 200 pages long, one-third of the book is devoted to the writing and speeches of these young revolutionaries explicating their thoughts on various ills that plagued Indian society. Even if you have little idea about Indian history this book will hold your attention as it brings alive a time of great debates as India recovered her voice. Much recommended.

"How does one study the literary life of intensities?" is the question that Prof. Udaya Kumar asks in his Forward to Nikhil Govind's recently published Between Love and Freedom which analyses the image/ construction of the revolutionary in the novels of three Hindi writers: Jainendra Kumar, Agyeya, and Yashpal. The second chapter of the book 'Bhagat Singh and Gandhi: Competing moralities regarding the question of revolutionary sacrifice' discusses "certain similarities and divergences of their notions of the political practice of freedom" (76). 

I must admit I was very surprised while reading this book. Firstly, I never expected Govind to have anything to do with Hindi literature, but this book ( a published version of his doctorate thesis) demonstrates a love for the language that is refreshing. Secondly, I expected a book full of jargon and thus difficult to understand but this book is entirely accessible so much so that even though I have read but a few of the novels discussed, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The third book is a play Kranti ki Laptain (Flames of Revolution) by Dr. Chandramani Brahmdutt. The author dramatises certain key points in Bhagat Singh's life, especially his trial at both Delhi and Lahore. The revolutionaries had themselves used the courts as public platform to air their views and indeed these scenes are the best in the play which otherwise does not impress much.


First Line: The rising of 1857 marked the beginning of India's struggle for independence.

Title: To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades
Author: S. Irfan Habib
Publishing Details: Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2007
First Published: September, 2007
Pages: 231
Other books read of the same author: None


First Line: The figure of the youthful revolutionary, on the run from the police, torn from family and love, isolated even amongst his peers, uncertain of whether he wold be able to live to see and share the future he was resolved to deliver, is an enduring image in the mid-century Hindi novel.

Title: Between Love and Freedom: The Revolutionary in the Hindi Novel
Author: Nikhil Govind
Publication Details: ND: Routledge, 2014
First Published: 2014
Pages: 180
Other books read of the same author: None


First Line: Ek hall mein halki si roshni ho rahi hai, ek taraf Lenin ka chitra tanga hai, kuchh kitaben ast-vyast si dikahi pad rahi hain.

Title: Kranti ki Laptain
Author: Dr. Chandramani Brahmdutt
Publication Details: ND: Kalawati Prakashan, 2009
First Published: 2009
Pages: 119
Other books read of the same author: None

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Friday's Forgotten Books: Ed McBain's Downtown

It is Ed McBain's day at Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase. Well, I haven't read much of McBain. In fact, have read only one book of his so far: Fuzz. That was truly enjoyable and yet I haven't really read more of him. Now that I think of it,this is definitely strange because there was a time when if I liked an author/ character, I'd go searching for his/ her books and would not rest till I had kind of read them all: Enid Blyton, Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, Perry Mason, P.G. Wodehouse, James Hadley Chase, Paul Scott, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler. So what has happened now? Do I fear that I might start finding them repetitive and thus boring? Or is it that there are just too many to read? Or is it that I do not want to run through authors and so be through with them? Or is it that now my reading is conditioned by reading challenges? Or is it that I have become more discerning and nobody enthuses me the way it was earlier?

I really can't say but since this is about Ed McBain, here's something from a book of his that I bought from the World Book Fair held last month. Michael Barnes is in New York from Florida attending to some business of his. Having a few hours to kill, he wanders into a bar and strikes up an acquaintance with a good-looking smartly dressed woman who he guesses works on Wall Street. She tells him her name is Helen and they are getting comfortable with each other when quite out of the blue she accuses him of having stolen her ring. Enter a policeman who rough-rides over Michael's protestations of innocence, takes him out, searches him, and recovers the ring. Helen refuses to press charges however and both she and the police detective move away. A bewildered Michael returns to the bar, only to realise that his credit cards and dollar notes are missing from his wallet....

This is the opening of Ed McBain's 1989 novel Downtown and it does seem pretty promising. Perhaps soon I'll read the rest too.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A List of Forgotten Books

Last week, I read and reviewed Leslie Ford's The Town Cried Murder. At the end of the book - a Collins reprint - there was not only an ad of Lifebuoy soap, there was also a list of other Collins Reprints. I thought it'd be fun to share it to see how many of these books/ authors one has read.


Immortal Sergeant - John Brophy
Attack Alarm- Hammond Innes
Another Little Drink -Peter Cheyney

Brown Paper Twice - Colin Davy
Shabby Tiger - Howard Spring
St.George on the Dragon - Lord Elton

I Ordered a table for Six- Noel Streatfeild
Over my Dead Body - Rex Stout
Rachel Rosing - Howard Spring
The Smiler with the Knife - Nicholas Blake
Death at the Helm - John Rhode

Mrs. Tim Carries on - D.E. Stevenson
Tadpole Hall-Helen Ashton
Swamp Water - Vereen Bell
Your Deal My Lovely - Peter Cheyney
Hercule Poirot's Christmas -Agatha Christie

She had to have Gas - Rupert Penny
Conquest Marches on - Berkeley Grey
She Faded into Air - Ethel Lina White
The Young Doctor - Elizabeth Seifert
Death and the Dancing Footman - Ngaio Marsh
It Couldn't Matter Less - Peter Cheyney

Leave it to the Conquest - Berkeley Grey
Hudson Rejoins the Herd - Claude Houghton
The Black Gloves - Conyth Little
Double Blackmail - G.D.H and M. Cole
Murder at the Buzzards Bay - Anthony Gilbert
The Clock in the Hat Box - Anthony Gilbert
The Town Cried Murder - Leslie Ford
English Story, First Series - Woodrow and Susan Wyatt
Spear Head - John Brophy

Who Killed the Husband? - Hulbert Footner
Mr. Westerby Missing - Miles Burton
Darkness Falls from the Air - Nigel Balchin


My score is pretty pathetic as I have read merely four of these books: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie, The Clock in the Hat Box by Anthony Gilbert, She Faded into Air by Ethel Lina White,and of course, The Town Cried Murder by Leslie Ford.

Amongst the authors, I have read other books of Rex Stout, Nicholas Blake, John Rhode, Ngaio Marsh, and G.D.H and M. Cole. Have heard of Hammond Innes, Peter Cheyney, and Conyth Little, the rest are all unfamiliar names.

What about you? How does your scorecard read?


Submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Pattinase. Please head over there for the other entries.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Two Vintage Mysteries: The Secret Agent, and The Town Cried Murder

On 15th February, 1894, two members of the Greenwich Observatory  were startled by a 'sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air'. Looking out, they observed the door porter running across the courtyard. Following him, they saw the warden of the Greenwich Park and some school boys, crowding round a grievously injured man. The man who died some thirty minutes later was (as later investigations revealed) a French man by the name of Martial Bourdin who perhaps intended to bomb the Observatory though the bomb (that perhaps accidentally detonated in his hand) would have caused little damage to it. If there are a lot of 'perhaps' in this small note it is because the mystery of the Greenwich Park has never been fully resolved. But it did give an idea to Joseph Conrad to write one of his most remarkable novels: The Secret Agent. [For more on this event, read here and here].


First published in 1907, Conrad sets his novel in London of 1886, a year before Queen Victoria celebrated her golden jubilee, in an era when Britannia was ruling the waves. But there were undercurrents of discontent, people who felt that Britain's confident imperial march had to be halted. Thus, we find spies, anarchists, agent provocateurs, manufacturers of bombs, political agents, and even police men who know about these disgruntled elements but have their own agendas to fulfill.

Monseiur Verloc is settled in London where he has a shop selling pornographic material. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, the mentally-challenged Stevie. However, Verloc is also a secret (double) agent who has his comfortable existence shattered when he is asked by his political masters to do something more drastic than merely provide 'worthless' information. Desperate, Verloc comes up with a diabolical plan which exploits the affection that the simple-minded Stevie has for him. However, he had not counted on the love that Winnie had for her brother whom she had always seen as more of a son than a brother.

This book had been on my wishlist for long, partly because I feel in love with its cover:

That rain-drenched evening, the hansom, the man with the black umbrella is so quintessentially Victorian that I simply had to read it. The cover (according to the blurb)  shows a detail from Hamstead Hill (1883) by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

First Line: MR. VERLOC, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.

Title: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Author: Joseph Conrad
Publication Details: London: Penguin, 1988
First Published: 1907
Pages: 269
Trivia: Ranked the 46th best novel of the 20th century by Modern Library, The Secret Agent was noted as one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media around two weeks after 11 September 2001. (Source: Wikipedia)
Other books read of the same author: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, Youth


Leslie Ford is the pseudonym of American author Zenith Brown (nee Jones). She also wrote under two other names: Brenda Conrad and David Frome.

The Town Cried Murder, her 1939 novel, is set in Williamsburg, Virginia, some years after the restoration began which saw the city acquire its lost glory. The narrator of the novel is Lucy Randolph, a woman (as Yvette would put it) of certain years. Having lost her lover in the Spanish-American war of 1898, Lucy has transferred her affections to a young cousin, Faith Yardley, who lost her mother in the flu epidemic of 1918. The other members of the Yardley family are Dr. Peyton Yardley, a philanthropic doctor who has withdrawn from the world after the death of his wife, Marshall Yardley, a struggling lawyer virtually adopted by Melusina Yardley, the sister of Dr. Peython and Faith's aunt.

For some reason throughout the book, I kept on reading Melusina as Mehrunnisa which was the original name of Mughal Emperor Jehangir's wife Nur Jehan. And there is something of Nur Jehan's ambitions and lust for power in Melusina. The town lore has it that Melusina can go to any extent to keep her hold on Yardley Hall, the family's ancestral home. Having refused the offer of restoration and forced to selling the artifacts round the house, Melusina now seems determined to sell her niece to a wealthy, middle-aged philanderer Martin Seymour in exchange for his wealth that would restore the house to its former glory. Lucy, of course, cannot bear to see somebody whom she has always considered her own daughter bartered away in this manner. The notice announcing the engagement appears in the papers and sets off a chain of events involving murder and mayhem.

Though I have read many mysteries set in small towns of England, there are only a handful that are similarly set in the US, so it was a pleasure to read one so steeped in the local culture of the American South. At one point, the narrator reflects: "Oh," I said weakly. He knew about Hallie Taswell, then. And Hallie, I thought abruptly, had been an old flame of his eldest brother, and Hugh Taswell was some kin to the Crabtrees. That's the worst of Williamsburg - you scratch the grocer's boy and you find a cousin. (98)

I also got to know about a few interesting things like the Spanish-American war of 1898 about which I had no idea whatsoever. Nor  had I any idea about Rockfeller's restoration of colonial Williamsburg. I am glad to have become acquainted with these things. But one thing I cannot understand is why authors are so enamouerd of golden-haired, blue-eyed waifs. It would be a nice change to see not the innocent maidens like Faith Yardley but wild, passionate girls like (the town's tramp) Ruth Napier getting their men and living happily ever after. In fact, more than the sorrows of Faith, it was Ruth's passionate but doomed love for her man that really touched me.

According to the articles on the Net, the author has received a lot of negative press for her portrayal of Black Americans. I do not know about her other books but in this there is hardly any thing of that sort except for the fact that unlike the other residents of the town Martin Seymour has a white man as his servant which is presented as another black mark against him.

First Line: The first I know that Faith Yardley was actually going to marry Mason Seymour was the afternoon her aunt Melusina Yardley stopped me going in to the Powder Horn in Market Square to a meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Title: The Town Cried Murder
Author: Leslie Ford
Publication Details: Madras: WM. A. Collins, 1944
First Published: 1939
Pages: 146
Other books read of the same author: None

Submitted for various challenges.