Saturday, January 04, 2020

An Arab Enters a Bar

One Last Drink At Guapa
Saleem Haddad
Speaking Tiger, 2016
Pages: 358
Price Rs.499/-

The Gay Arab Idealist
Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is about a 27-year-old gay Arab youth caught in the vortex of the Arab Spring, the fight for democracy that consumed the lives of hope-filled Arab youngsters from December 2010 onwards. And thus in one stroke, the writer manages to engage the reader in at least two concurrent issues – the invisible gay Arab (an unacknowledged presence, unlike the very apparent gay Caucasian), and the ongoing dormant fight for democracy in the affluent yet stormy world of Arab dictatorships.

It’s an entertaining and empathetic narrative that leaves one laughing along -- or touched. It’s an inside-look at a youthful Arab society that is dismissive of Islamists,of youngsters busy with the business of life, of identity and finding oneself, coming out of the closet if so inclined, or quietly marrying as expected; of pragmatism versus idealism.

And Haddad is a valid voice considering that he is also a self-acknowledged gay Arab, a multi-ethnic mix, an activist-writer, mostly Muslim, partly European-Christian.

Fittingly, the story is set in an unnamed Arab country that could be any place– Egypt, Lebanon, Libya…the clues are strewn about in lines that evoke laughter and recognition: ‘You can measure his (the President’s) popularity in certain neighborhoods by how many posters of him the government has put up. The less popular he is[S1] [S2] , the more posters the thugs hang in defiance.’

The novel follows the narrator-protagonist Rasa as he wakes up with a feeling of shame – a dominant motif through his life, vocalized in the book through the Arabic term eib, which signifies shame and loss of honour. Rasa who lives with his grandmother Teta, has been discovered in bed with his obsessive love Taymour; the latter has sneaked out, the outraged Teta unseen, but Rasa needs to move on.

The book is essentially a diary of the next twenty-four hours through Rasa’s chaotic life, as he tries to make sense of conflicting emotions – eib at his stupidity in being discovered; anger at the unfairness of it all; resignation about the political situation around; fear for a close missing friend Maj, the drag-queen, activist-humanist; extreme aching love for the lover who shies from being acknowledged in public…it’s a wild ride around Rasa’s head and his day through this unnamed Arab city.

As he goes through the motions of his mundane job—at a translating  service – Rasa relives his years : a childhood centered around a dedicated dad  lost to cancer, after his loving, freethinking  artist mother  suddenly upped and left; a youth  shaped by a British school and   American television ; a grandmother who deified her dead son, simultaneously saddling the grandson with the albatross of eib – and importantly, college years in America post nine-eleven: the encounters and books  that shaped  Rasa’s thoughts , his newly discovered  empathy for the underdog, the quiet American  acceptance of homosexuality, the realization that an Arab-Muslim in America simply learns to survive suspicion – and here he is back home restless and  hopeful, despite the chaos around.

Rasa recalls taking part in the revolution, a few months earlier: the demonstrations, his exhortations to friends abroad –‘We need you to help us rebuild’. And then the insight: ‘We were so hopeful then, so ridiculously naïve.’

And it is Guapa, the underground dance bar, that helps Rasa and his generation cope. It is here that he meets up with friends and survivors like Basma his current boss and old female schoolmate-friend; Rasa’s soulmate Taymour who marks his presence unobtrusively unlike the wildly campy Maj with his popstar impersonations -- but now missing since the night before. Rasa’s search for Maj leads him   to a city prison, where his encounter with prison officials leave him bone-chilled…. the day ends at the flashy wedding of Taymour to Leila, another mutual friend who dreamt of the revolution…but is now prepared to blend in.

But Rasa isn’t so willing. And in a rather melodramatic meltdown, the book’s central gay character comes clean at a wedding of all places – but not exactly in the expected manner as understood.

Importantly, this isn’t just a novel about a gay Arab’s struggle for dignity. Haddad makes some significant points: about a Pan-Arabism that is less about race and more about inclusive unity and solidarity; about bars being political nurseries; regime repression and the taming of the revolutionary spirit; about Arab youth’s dismissal of Islamic fundamentalism; about Rasa’s resigned acceptance of his beloved Taymour’s big decision: ‘If Taymour wants to act out the role society wants of him, who am I to tell otherwise? ‘

In the final pages, the writing simply soars.

Ultimately Rasa does end up with a consolatory key to his past, and possible happiness. Besides, Maj is there for him; both are ready to protest, fight repression – but only after a drink at Guapa.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

   Rediscovery by Rail
My review of Monisha Rajesh's book, Around India in 80 Trains, appeared in the Sunday Deccan Herald dated December 16, 2012. The book continues to be a popular read.


Travel is much more than discovery. Quite often it involves rediscovery, reassessment, of one’s past, roots; inner demons to be set free. Good travel writing often works on two levels — the personal and the public. As a veteran consumer of travel writing (from regulars like Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson to less popular but equally effective writers like Sarah Macdonald with her hilarious Holy Cow view of India), I was intrigued enough to wonder what debutant writer Monisha Rajesh had to say in her charmingly illustrated and well-packaged effort. After all, the very cover carries an endorsement from someone like William Dalrymple.

Happily, the complete meal was as satisfactory as the appetizer. Indian-Britisher Monisha Rajesh’s book is witty, interesting, factual, incident-packed, and finally, much more than an account of a rail marathon through India.

There is empathy, a 28-year-old’s attempt to understand a native land that has frustrated her during childhood encounters; appreciation of present day ‘Shining India’ with all its contradictions; precise language revealing Monisha’s journalistic training; and finally, acceptance and tempering of her own questioning mind... but I am getting ahead.

Inspired initially by a news item that spoke of India’s domestic aviation network touching 80 destinations, Monisha decided to turn into a modern day Phineas Fogg, attempting to rediscover her India roots, through 80 train journeys, very much in the manner of the fictional Fogg-Passe-partout pair that ‘did’ the world in 80 days.

Monisha had her own Passe-partout companion — a Norwegian friend who played photographer, minder, travelmate, and occasionally, moody opinionated skeptic, who could reduce Monisha to tears, anger, and a spell of risky solitary travel in lonely places.

The railathon began on January 14, 2010, when Monisha and Passe-partout (whose real name is not revealed) left home base Chennai — familiar ground from Monisha and family’s two-year spell in India in the early 90s. Train number one was the Anantapuri Express to Nagercoil, en route to Kanyakumari. Armed with two 90-day Ind-rail passes, all that was required was a map cum travel plan... but travel through the length and breadth of chaotic India, it’s not so simple.

Monisha Rajesh experienced it all through the next four months, on train and off — the Good, the Bad,and the Divine. Monisha’s practical train reservation needs were met through the colourfully portrayed Anusha Thawani of the IndRail UK desk at the New Delhi Railway Station. Monisha’s train companions frequently wondered aloud about her relationship with Passe-partout. A gold bangled, diamond nose-pinned brown Indian with a Brit accent and white companion?

On a Trivandrum-Mangalore train, Pawing Prabaker tries his luck, but luckily, Monisha catches on, in time. At Coimbatore station, Monisha joins a group of waitlisted ‘fellow fraudsters’, all attempting to sob story their way into reserved ticket status. She succeeds.

At a Madurai hotel, Monisha has the first of her many arguments with Prickly Passe-partout. Her serene nature wonders at his outrage over the obvious deification of Satya Sai Baba. Her own bag contains a couple of items pressed on to her by her parents. If talismanic symbols help people find peace, why cavil?

At the Osho ashram/resort in Pune, some attitudes come to light. Attempting to buy the mandatory orange robes, Monisha is brusquely informed by a Croatian Osho-ite store-minder that her Rs 1,000 note needs to be exchanged at the gate for a voucher. Apparently, greasy Indian money is unwelcome inside this foreign enclave.

Mumbai is described as “India in its most concentrated form”.

I found myself laughing and agreeing with Monisha’s observation on a typically Indian invention — the ‘side berth’. As she states, the side berth offers a narrow window seat and also the susceptibility ‘to a face full of passing backside’.

Crisscrossing the country through the spring of 2010, Monisha experiences a wide variety of trains, that include luxurious ‘royal’ cruisers, the modern and speedy Shatabdis and Durontos, quaint toy trains at Matheran and Darjeeling, the spic and span Delhi Metro that induces passengers to behave in a befitting disciplined manner.. she even gets crushed breathless in Mumbai’s locals, but survives with belongings and bones intact.

At Puri’s famed temple, Monisha endures a soul destroying whiplash of words from a righteous official; is in fact denied entry for not looking Hindu enough.

Bizarre encounters, a midnight flight from an unreasonable Passe-partout, a serene and healing week with The Lifeline Express team, more healing and soul searching at a 10-day Vipasana course… Monisha lives to tell the tale about a 40,000 km marathon.

Deftly narrated, with huge dollops of wit , Monisha’s travelogue brims with facts, fun, fulfillment. Ride it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Unreal Aliens


             A Romp with Real people in an Unreal World

  This hilarious political satire is a must read for any Indian ( or India follower) familiar with the loony world of Indian social media, with its seriously weird khichdi-cast of characters that populate the political- social circus of our public life. And Unreal Aliens presents the full parade -- mufflered mustachioed politician at large, a sleepy-head retired PM, verbose cricket commentator making painful puns, actors with unsought opinions,TV anchor stars who bully and outshout panelists and public alike, business savvy yoga gurus...and among others, a prime minister with a penchant for spiffy suits, colourful headgear and careful camera angles. Nobody is spared, many are named, caricatured, made fun of in a goofy, pretty bold, but good-natured manner....and one can't help but guffaw even if one is travelling by train while reading the book as I was. It's an unreal setting with real people -- and luckily no one's complaining -- and so may it remain. We need these laughs to survive tough times.

The book is authored by Karthik Laxman, a co-founder of the popular satirical- spoof website The Unreal Times, that till very recently, devoted itself to the honourable and necessary task of cocking a snook at our more colourful public figures. The website has (sadly) shut down , as of November 30, though one understands that it's Facebook avatar survives. UnReal Aliens is the second book that has emerged from this stable -- as a follow up to their first book Unreal Elections (2014), a satirical send up of the 2014 Indian election that proved a game changer.

This second book has plenty of chuckles -- and a trajectory that reminds me of popular Hindi cinema. It's got a rip - roaring first half, a somewhat muddling middle ( thanks to the author's love for Hollywood films like 'Inception' with its confusing dream within a dream concept) -- and a climax that is made to work despite its absurdity. That laughs continue right up to the climax -- which left me with a startled ( and satisfactory) what the eff feeling....but I am getting ahead.

In short the story is all about the world's first alien 'invasion'. And who do you think gets the honour? No, not good ol' USA which has made a gazillion films that show Americans saving the world from scary aliens .

A small company of aliens land in Modi's India, circa, 2016! And at the start, these guys come in peace -- similar to the American screen hero ET or our Indian Jadoo ( Koi Mil Gaya) , or the recent PK. Led by their commander Qaal-za, these grey- skinned hairy , four-armed Morons from the distant planet Mor are in search of their lost Prince, kidnapped decades ago, suspected to have been deposited ( and lost) in India. There is bonhomie ( covered by the media, but of course), a joint ' Mann ki Baat session to share mushy details about their budding friendship', plenty of talk about future joint ventures ( like 'manufacturing alien spaceships and saucers under the Make in India programme')....all of which dissipates into an uncomfortable standoff, when the aliens reveal their intention of searching for their long lost Prince.

But Modi and co refuse outright to give up any Indian who may or may not be the kidnapped alien prince. Though they do arrange a Lagaan style cricket match, between the inexperienced newbies and the Indian cricket team -- a riotously funny account; and this section alone makes the book worth its modest price. The visitors lose the match ( after some other- worldly shots) and a fair chance to search for their prince. Then the unhappy delegation now get bushwhacked by the waiting forces around them -- the opposition politicians, the TRP hungry media, our opportunistic rogue neighbour Pakistan ever - ready to create trouble for India.

And now the angry aliens really invade India. More Morons arrive , landing quietly in places as far apart as Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu ( at an Amma canteen in Chennai, no less) , Mumbai's TOI office, Lutyen's Delhi...the nation is at war, as zombified Indian citizens and a clueless central government wonder what to do.

It's a crazy rollercoaster ride from here, involving dreams within dreams. There's plenty of action, farce, hilarity, confusion, confrontation and a concocted climax that concludes a zany UnReal story situation, but peopled by real guys like Subramaniam Swamy as the 'Inception' inspired leader of the defence team -- which stars among others, worthies like a sleepy retired PM, a sleep inducing economist cum former PM -- and the mufflerwala CM with his perpetual complaint :' Sab mile huey hai ji.'

The book's varied and merry cast includes a politician mother and her child-like grown up son -- we know who. Of course, the author does not shy away from naming anybody. In any case the caricatured characters are all inhabitants of an UnReal impossible ( yet life like) India -- so any litigation angle is taken care of, I guess.

The book is very visual, reading like screenplay for a satirical film. It's all in good fun -- though Rahul , poor chap does get it more than others.

Ultimately what sticks in memory are the very life like situations and dialogues. -- drawn out as exaggerated subversive caricatures. Sample :

On the Northern outskirts of Islamabad....stood Pakistan's proudest educational institution, the Pakistan Institute of Terrorism Science, more popularly known as 'The PITS' in its military- jihadi circles.

General Raheel Sharif is speaking to the new students : 'Our faculty is truly world class. Seven of our faculty members are Nobel Laureates in terrorism, which means they have made it to the top ten of the US' most wanted list. Hafiz Saeed is a faculty member here. Al Zawahiri teaches every alternate year. Osama Bin Laden was a residential professor at PITS before his um, retirement.'

Beneath the humour real issues are quietly addressed. A teenage girl in a UP village is captured by the aliens but manages to escape, reaches home -- and realises that one of her brothers is threatening to kill her for 'bringing dishonour to our family.' The girl flees -- back to the spaceship and her erstwhile captors.

The ironies of India 2016, have been captured well in a most delightful manner. UnReal Aliens is well worth a read or two.

Some book reviews published in the Sunday Herald

                                              Published on September 14, 2014


                                                       Published on July 12, 2015


                                              Published on May 22, 2016


                                                 Published on November 27, 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Comedian Revisited



Quite like my earlier trip to the US (summer 2014), this time around too it’s been family, museums and …… books. A visit to the local William K Sanford Town Library, browsing the well-stocked shelves; and a couple of hours later, armed with a load of sweet-smelling tomes, stagger out with the pleasing prospect of bliss through the ensuing weeks

One of the books I picked up was a charmer, last read in Chennai, a couple of years earlier. The book in question – ‘I shouldn’t even be doing this!’-- is a memoir from Bob Newhart, the gentle American comic of the Newhart tv series (and sundry films) fame. And unsurprisingly, the lines sound and feel just like Bob – quietly hilarious.   

   As the jacket blurb declares, ‘That stammer. Those basset-hound eyes. That bone-dry wit. There has never been another comedian like Bob Newhart.’ In this his first book (published back in 2006), Newhart takes his readers and fans on a warm witty ride that starts with his childhood in Chicago, continues through his early attempts at having a normal career as an accountant (when he tried to reconcile petty cash by using his own pocket change), his early forays into radio and audio-comedy -- and then dwells drolly, on his tv and film career. But rest assured that it is no compendium, no bibliographic account of his days in the spotlight. Rather it’s a look-back, a revelation of funny inside stories, a fuzzy-wuzzy tale of a catholic upbringing that turned a normal American youngster into a graceful funnyman.

  There are the asides, the throwaway lines, lessons from a life well-lived; to wit:
'For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results.'
‘Most comedians are committable. People say I’m the most normal of all comedians – and I’m still certifiable.’
‘I always thought we were from an upper-middle class family until I met an upper middle-class family and realized that we weren’t.’ When Bob Newhart’s maternal grandfather moved in with them and took over Bob’s bedroom, the realization hit home­­: ‘we weren’t middle class.’
‘…like most kids I didn’t pay much attention in church, and I only took communion because I was always hungry.’
‘All religions are basically saying the same thing, and that is: “Be nice to each other.” ‘
‘Being a comedian means you are anti-authority and subversive at heart.’
After making it through a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and a Catholic College (where he got an undergraduate degree in management and accounting), Newhart joined a law college affiliated to the Catholic Church. He dropped out of law school mid-way, but study of law gave Newhart an appreciation of the precise word. And here is Newhart on lawyers and comedians:
‘…trial lawyers are actors. They stand in front of judges and juries and entertain them with borderline preposterous stories -- not unlike those told by stand-up comics, come to think of it.’

In 1952, Newhart was drafted at a time when the Korean War was on; but he talked his way into training within the confines of the US. His experience did however form the basis of one of his first comedy routines (The Cruise of the USS Codfish/The Submarine Commander), something that proved a springboard to later success. As the comedian remembers: ‘It was all about how someone totally unqualified can rise three levels above their competency because the organization is so big that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.’
 The book is replete with entire chunks from Newhart’s most popular comedy monologues—all quietly deadly funny. One can actually imagine Newhart play the bumbling submarine commander addressing his men on the USS Codfish, prior to completing two years at sea: ‘OH, all right. I’ve just been notified that we will be surfacing in a moment, and you’ll be happy to know that you will be gazing on the familiar skyline of either New York City or Buenos Aires. Dismissed, men. That is all.’

   Draft duty done, Newhart passed time as an accountant in Chicago, all the while contemplating a possible future in comedy. ‘Swapping absurd stories on the telephone with a friend in advertising’, led to the duo’s first radio routines – and the minimal payment the budding comedy pair had gingerly requested. But as Newhart recounts, ‘After thirteen weeks, we had lost $325 on the venture and our comedy enterprise collapsed in financial ruin.’

Newhart wished to discover whether he was funny only to friends, or…was there a living, somewhere in it? Unmarried still, with no family to provide for, Newhart took on part time jobs, still keeping his secret dream alive. And as he worked he made mental notes on all the foibles of his fellow men.

 It was finally the un-remunerative radio shows that provide Bob Newhart with small openings into the world of stand-up comedy, televised or not. But a viable living in comedy was still some time away.

The inevitable happened soon enough. Bob Newhart’s success story started with a comedy album in April 1960; The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a Billboard #1 topper for weeks; it was soon followed by seven more of the same, besides rewards in the form of three Grammys. And along with success came a delayed marriage but a happy big family, besides more on the professional front: touring the clubs in places as different as Las Vegas and Peoria; a film career of sorts where Bob did small roles in big films (apparently he was there in MASH) – and of course a fantastic tv career through the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

 My own introduction to the Newhart brand of quiet hilarity came in 1990, when Indian television opened up to the wonders of satellite tv. The Bob Newhart Show was our first experience of an American sitcom – and our family liked it very much indeed.

In the new millennium, an older but still twinkly-eyed Newhart continues to charm us occasionally; he was my pleasant surprise in the film Legally Blonde 2. Sometimes he makes a guest appearance on a sitcom or soap – and talking about this sort of new television, Bob lets it rip: ‘Then there is Desperate Housewives, which is either a serious drama or spoof depending on which side of the humor scale you fall.’

There’s plenty more of this sort. It is not exactly a new book; a decade old to be precise. But it still makes for a fun read.  It could even impel one to search out Bob Newhart on YouTube. In any case, intelligent entertainment  is guaranteed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Book Review of The Americans, a novel by Chitra Viraraghavan

                                            An Indian-American Burrito Bowl        

I have read this novel after returning to India from a three month stay in the US, my mind, a mélange of images involving all who constitute the melting pot called America. So, a new book called ‘The Americans’, authored by a Chennai-based Indian -- it sounded intriguing.

Of course, through the past decade, I have read a few ‘Diaspora Novels’ written by America-based Indians, about their own and others’ immigrant experience. Generally these have been breathless affairs about lonely souls languishing in a frozen impersonal landscape, remembering the warmth and bustle of India, caught between two cultures.

At some point this school of writing did get monotonous. And I stopped reading them, preferring instead the witty self-deprecating views of ‘international’ Americans like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux.

In Chitra Viraraghavan’s debut novel, I hoped for a fresh perspective, different in tone from the ‘sitar-whine’ of a few other famous works.

Luckily, the book   lives up to the promise of newness, displayed in its artistically designed cover.

Expectedly, and ironically, the title refers to Americans who are for the most part, Indians. It is also a rather unlikely novel as far as structure goes. The characters get introduced chapter by chapter as they  move the story forward;  people and stories intermingle, and at select points, conclude each tale, though not always with a period. Sometimes it is a question mark.

 Be that as it may, the book begins well enough with, real, relatable, familiar people, – some, rather startling in their emphatic individuality.

 We are first introduced to Tara, a thirty-something self-employed professional, returning to the US after eight years. She is there at the invitation of her doctor sister Kamala – who needs her help. There is an autistic son she is attempting to understand; a seemingly bratty teenage daughter who needs unwelcome supervision and baby-sitting; a coping spouse; and Kamala’s own inner battles and outer conflict zones. And this is where the first non-Indian character appears—an Israeli lady housekeeper with her own back story.

These people are introduced by and by, but the character that charmed me, the gentle retired teacher from Chennai, C L Narayan – luckily, he makes his debut at the beginning, in the second chapter. Here is somebody one could relate to, understand. His hesitation  and misgivings as he makes his first trip abroad, his attempt to change his dollar supply ( a hundred precious dollars) to make a phone call while  at Chicago’s airport, his gratitude at finding  helpful fellow Indians – it’s all quite real without being boring.

Later on quiet Mr. CLN proves to be   surprisingly resilient and innovative, as he deals with indifference from a self-centered offspring. And I was actually cheering for him as he stepped out, explored and discovered a new country and its people.

The cast of characters is rich and varied, adding depth to a rather unconventional novel without a single trajectory. But the various lives do touch each other, leaving a few questions answered, and some with just a hint of promise or even despair as the case may be.

Some of the more unusual characters include, among others, a voice from the past – an African American student who connects with her empathetic Indian professor. Then there is weird, hyper sensitive Akhil, trusting no one, seeing enemies in shadows. And you have poor perceptive wise unlucky Shantanu, exploited by Indian gangsters in a foreign land. The poor chap,   a secret songwriter, is also ultimately a hero, but one destined to remain in the shadows.

 Completing the cast, somewhat, is an unhappy Indian couple. The wife is full of yearning and technicolour dreams while the contemptuous husband does his own thing – and yet finally, the man is there for his unfortunate bitter half.

This is character driven novel that simultaneously sparkles with dialogue, drama, action, feeling; there is also some humour, albeit  in small doses. Walking through a very Indian locality in urban USA, Shantanu sees the gaudy jewellery stores, clothes emporiums and restaurants; notices ‘the subtle difference in the way cars were parked on the street…He could have been in Lajpat Nagar market.’

Ultimately the story is essentially that of Tara, the pivot to this Indian merry go round in America.

However, I did feel that the ride ended rather abruptly, as the characters walk off to their own sunsets, some to a brighter dawn, some to a questionable future. Perhaps that’s life. There are no pat solutions.

To me, the value in the book lies in its richly drawn characters along with many telling lines. To quote one, the thoughts of the gentle 69 year old retired teacher: ‘Something perhaps that baffled his generation, something they were unprepared for -- the foreigners they seemed to have bred.’

Incidentally, during my recent visit, I discovered and enjoyed the burrito bowl. Something foreign, but Indian too, satisfying. Just right!

Here is a link to the book and its publishers:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lines from a Library-fest

One of the joys of this US summer holiday has been this -- access to a wonderful public library. Every fortnight I make a trip to the William K Sanford town library and spend a happy hour or two savouring a varied collection of books and periodicals. Have come across books that I am not likely to come across in India, considering they are not exactly bestseller material, nor particularly  India-centric.Then I cart home half a dozen books that please me and also spouse (who dips in, reads a bit, then dozes off). Me, I read all of it, then reluctantly return same to library. In Chennai i have often bought books that I have loved-- i mean purchased for a price when possible, from my very good local lending library, Murugan library, part of group. Can't do that here in the US! 

I re-read for the third or fourth time, one of my all-time favourites --  Bill Bryson's iconic work (now being filmed) --  A Walk in the Woods. Here's  a sampler.
From Chapter 8: 'Each time you leave the cossetted and unhygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations --  a kind of gentle descent into squalor -- and each time it is as if you have never done it before.' 

From The Angry Island by A A Gill -- a witty critique of current day Britain -- some telling lines:

'It is in the nature of TV and the nature of nature on TV that it comes with a plot, a narrative and a purpose.'

'The English can cover nature with their own blanket of sentimentality and create a world they want it to be, not to be part of it, but to oversee it, to be custodians.'

And here is a line that is particularly fascinating :
'It's worth bearing in mind that the defining characteristics of fascists and psychopaths are great sentimentality combined with amoral cruelty.' 

Here is a dig at Americans and Britishers, together:
'Only Americans and those imitating Americans play basketball; and only those with some weird desire to imitate the English would possibly want to have the world's biggest dog show -- Crufts.'


From a wonderful collection, 2013 Pushcart Prize 37 Best of the Small Presses; the introduction:

'It's the MOST GHASTLY of times and the most glorious of times.

First the ghastly: politicians; lifestyle; consumers; a culture of celebrity glitter; an internet tsunami of instant facts, factoids and nonsense that obviates knowledge and wisdom; a 'greed is good' oligarchy; vanity publishers taking over the commercial publishing empire; legitimate and terrified publishers in a race to the best-seller bottom; bookstores collapsing; Kindle in charge; profiteers cashing in on wannabe authors with zero talent -- the result? A new censorship of clutter.Everybody into the pool and you don't have to know how to swim. A cacophony of drowning shouts.

Yet it is also the most glorious of times: of course there are thousands of examples -- for instance, the authors of the stories, essays, memoirs and poems printed and mentioned in this edition.....The Word survives indeed thrives in the ruins.'

From the collection, a hilarious and touching story published by Conjunctions, a small NY publisher.

A Family Restaurant by Karen Russell


This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY'S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you. 

"Write the story.It's a menu, Leni, it's supposed to have the story."
"Which one?"
"Jesus, I don't know, the story, our story! The family story!"

.....Nineteen seventy-five: A restaurant opened up across the street from us. Ray's Italian Feats.
"Italian Feats? What, he's turning Dago cartwheels over there?"
"I think it was supposed to be 'Feast'. "

 The following poem is said to be the contribution of a fourth grader, Rasheda White. Published in ECOTONE


I hear an old man and woman playing chess
for some false teeth.I hear a tree knocking
in the sand and the sand flies up and down
and it sounds like a window. I hear cold
old shadows chattering their teeth in the winter.
I hear my sister polishing the shadow's fingernails.
I hear shadow kids playing with a shadow beehive
in the yard and a shadow kid gets chased by the bees
and all the bees are gone so a homeless man comes
down and gets some honey. I hear my mother
in the kitchen drying out the darkness.