Wheel Love

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This made me smile.

It also made me think two thoughts.

First, I thought of a wizened man in white kurta-pajamas who would come and shout in our neighborhoods: “Do you have something to sharpen?” ┬áHe would come with a bicycle fitted to a sharpening wheel. It was a basic contraption – a wheel with a hard, rough surface that could be coupled to the pedals using a belt. Housewives would take their old knives and scissors and flock to him in groups of two or three. That was how it used to be – people didn’t throw their stuff away to buy new things only to throw them away again. Pay a few rupees to this periodic visitor and the knife would be as good as new. As kids, we weren’t interested in the sharpening; it was the sparks that made our day – orange flickers along the wheel’s tangent. Not oppressive welding sparks that you couldn’t bear to see, but sleek flecks of energy accompanied by a hiss of roughness and metal. I longed to touch the wheel to see if it was hot. But, I never did.

Then, I also wondered how we don’t do things with our hands anymore; we touch them on a screen and think it is all very cool. We don’t fix things; we just replace them. We don’t make things; we just buy them not knowing who made them or what went into their making. I know it’s about civilization and technology and how it makes for a better life – the greatest good for the greatest number. But still, it’s reached a point where we think that making things is something cute, a sort of playful deviancy for slightly crazy persons. So cute, that like the Peseta Caps in the video, we keep them in a museums. At arms length. So we can entertain ourselves when we are bored. This makes me a little sad.

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Everyone has a Nancy Drew story

On the radio show called To the Best of Our Knowledge, Anne Strainchamps talks to Melanie Rehak, author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. In the interview, Rehaks mentions that in her latest incarnation published by Simon and Schuster, duly revamped for the new millennium, Nancy has a hybrid car, speaks the current teen lingo and narrates the mysteries in the first person.

I don’t know if kids around the world still grow up with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys (probably not), but back in the day, my sister and I devoured books from both series, she faster than I. I started around the age of ten or eleven and in the space of five years had gobbled more than a hundred books. I remember keeping a list of the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and the terrible Case Files series, which I stopped updating around #102 or somewhere close. I read The Hardy Boys strictly as mystery stories and was never really impressed by Frank and Joe as personalities, but for many of my middle school years, I found that none of the girls in class measured up to Nancy Drew. How could I have known that she was “designed” to have no flaw at all?

Continue reading “Everyone has a Nancy Drew story”

Precious Ramotswe revisited?

Finished Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club on the Hangzhou-Beijing train. This is the first mystery featuring Isabel Dalhousie, who attempts to resolve life’s muddles, while holding a part-time job as the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel sees a man plunge to his death – falling “from the gods” in her words – and cannot help investigating the sorry affair. A nice story, comfortably short, tender, humorous and sincerely compassionate, but it has too much in common to McCall Smith’s earlier, and now famous, series on Mma Ramotswe.

Like Precious, Isabel lost her mother at a young age, and her father relatively recently. Like Precious, Isabel has had one relationship at a young age that ended badly. As Precious cannot do without bush tea, so Isabel cannot do without the Times crossword. Like Precious, she has an able, if flawed, assistant who is named Grace – when I think about this last, I am sure that it is not a coincidence, and I wonder if McCall Smith is making a private joke. Yes or no, I am too much in love with the “life” in McCall Smith’s characters to resist reading the next book in the series: Friends, Lovers and Chocolate. As The Globe and Mail gushed, “Isabel lives. A series is born.”

Trouble in the Benedictine Order

It was a strange and wonderful experience reading The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco's extraordinarily lush story of intrigue and death in a powerful Benedictine abbey in the 14th century. For someone who has never read Eco before, the style was difficult but compulsively engaging, especially when Eco describes the thoughts of Adso, the narrator of this tale of seven sinister murders, as he confronts his own passions and tries desparately to reconcile the austerity enforced by his order with the images of physical depravity that surround him in the monastery. At many stages in the novel, the stark and austere lives of the monks are juxtaposed with some of the unapologetically titillating architecture of the abbey, and often men who have enforced celibacy and poverty upon themselves are forced to think about wanton sexual exploits. As a reader, one beings to harbor uneasy thoughts of forbidden things, somewhat akin to the experience of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

At its heart, this is a mystery with the role of the detective being played by Adso's master, Brother William of Baskerville, a Benedictine monk who seems to have found the great middle path between the constricting dictates of his religion and the liberating rationality of Roger Bacon. Without spoiling the novel, it can be divulged that William, during his task of unearthing the murders, realizes that they pertain to a secret which has, thus far been viciously guarded in the complicated labyrinth of the monastery's library. To get to the secret, William and Adso must first decipher the structure of the great labyrinth, and it is just a joy to find out how they do it. Many other issues crowd the novel – the duel between the Papacy and the Emperor, issues about the poverty of Christ, and the terrible fate of heretics – and in combination with the dangerous secrets that fester in the abbey, they make for a startling and brilliantly conceived experience for the reader.

The book seems to be written especially for someone who will read for the sake of the joy of reading, and in that aspect is reminiscent of A Suitable Boy, with one important difference. For all its endearingly rambling style, Vikram Seth's prose is simple to read, and Seth made it a point not to encumber his readers with difficult sentences. Eco's is a lot more difficult, and it is possible that this difficulty may prevent readers from going further. This impulse, of course, ought to be resisted for much more is to be gained in the bargain.