And who. pray tell, is Inspector Chopra? The creation of author Vaseem Khan, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a self-effacing, rigorously upright member of the Mumbai Police Department. On the day that we meet him, he’s in the process of retiring after a long and distinguished career.
True, he can do this officially and physically, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, police work is in his blood. He cannot stop himself. No sooner has he cleared out his office than he begins, on his own, to investigate the mysterious death of a boy. Although ruled accidental, Chopra becomes increasingly convinced that it was murder – a murder that’s being too conveniently swept under the rug.
Ashwin Chopra and his wife Poppy live in an apartment block in Mumbai. Early in the novel, a baby elephant arrives to disrupt their rather simple existence. It seems that this lovable but somewhat depressed creature has been left to Chopra in the will of his recently deceased uncle. Part of the fun of The Unexpected Inheritance lies in watching Poppy and Chopra attempting to cope with this rather cumbersome legacy. At one point, “Baby Ganesh” ends up actually inside the Chopra’s apartment!
Ashwin and Poppy are extremely appealing individuals; even more so, the city of Mumbai itself can be considered a character in this novel. Chopra has much to say about the city he loves, and indeed, generally speaking, about his native country in its present incarnation. Upon visiting a mall filled with high end luxury goods, these are his thoughts:
Chopra did not need Van Heusen and Louis Philippe shirts, he had no use for Apple accessories and Ray Ban sunglasses. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole country was being rebranded. He imagined the lines of Indians moving past booths manned by representatives of foreign multinationals as each Indian went past he was stripped of his traditional clothes, his traditional values, and given new things to wear and new things to think. Branded and rewired, this new model of Indian went back to his home thinking that he was now a truly modern Indian and what a fine thing that was, but all Chopra saw was the gradual death of the culture that had always made him proud of his incredible country.
That sounds rather gloomy and heavy, but this novel is for the most part optimistic, if cautiously, and even at times humorous.
In the biography on his website, London-born Vaseem Khan tells how when, arriving in Mumbai in 1997 to work as a management consultant, he beheld an elephant walking down the middle of the road. This amazing vision…”served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels.” Khan concludes his biographical sketch thus:
Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
(For the complete biography, click here.)
Just for fun, to get you in the mood for things Indian, here’s one of my favorite music videos, the manically cheerful and riotously colorful “Kal Ho Naa Ho – Maahi Ve:”
Last February, I wrote a post in which I expressed my disappointment in A Murder of Crows, then the latest installment in P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series. I was not sure that I wanted to read A Chorus of Innocents, the novel following that one. Then I saw the Kirkus review, in which the writer concludes with this assessment:
One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries… combining all the historical information readers have come to expect with a swiftly moving story featuring a strong woman whose romantic aspirations have yet to be fulfilled.
The strong woman in question is Lady Elizabeth Widdrington. In A Chorus of Innocents, she is determined to solve a murder that smites her sense of justice deeply. It is more or less unheard of that a woman, even – or especially – a noble woman, should involve herself in a murder investigation, but such considerations do not weigh greatly with Lady Widdrington.
She has the great misfortune to be married to a thoroughly nasty man who beats her and refuses to share her bed. The same unbending rectitude that impels her to pursue the malefactor in this case also governs her behavior as a wife. She believes she must submit to her husband because he is her lord. Unlike many women of her rank, she is without exception faithful to her spouse, no matter how odious his treatment of her. What makes this situation especially remarkable, not to mention painful, is that she is deeply in love with another man, Sir Robert Carey, and he, equally with her. Sir Robert serves in Queen Elizabeth’s court when he’s in London and serves as Deputy Warden of one of the Marches located in the border country between England and Scotland. (This is an altogether tough region to police; it very much reminds of the early days of the American West.)
P.F Chisholm is on record as having taken her inspiration for this series of novels from her reading of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, but I hit almost at once upon this quote:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
Chisholm’s depiction of this clash of civilizations is robust and amazingly vivid and convincing. She writes terrific dialog, redolent of the speech patterns and eccentric vocabulary of those who dwell in the border regions. They are as lively and irreverent a gang of folk as I’ve met in a long time, or perhaps ever. Religion is invariably a hot topic in these parts, and in the midst of a debate over the afterlife, this view is offered to Elizabeth:
“….all the borderers go to hell; it’s warmer there and better company.”
Quite naturally, she can’t think how to reply and so remains silent.
Throughout this novel, times of intense activity and excruciating suspense alternate with moments of tenderness and heartache. Along the way there is a good deal of humor, though mostly laced with irony and sometimes even bitterness. The Kirkus reviewer is right on the mark: this is outstanding historical fiction.
A Chorus of Innocents is the sixth entry in the Sir Robert Carey series. As I’ve read the five previous titles, I’m undecided as to whether a reader can begin here, or whether it’s needful to go back to the first book, A Famine of Horses. That novel was similarly wonderful; the three immediately following were enjoyable rather than stellar, and the fifth, as I’ve already said, was below par in my view.
So, Reader, it’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t miss the series opener and this latest installment. You will be amply rewarded by both.
Last Thursday’s AAUW Readers planning session was most enjoyable and productive. Here are some of the highlights:
As she was not able to come, Susan suggested via email that we read Richard Russo’s EVERYBODY’S FOOL. This is the “rollicking sequel” (as per The Seattle Times) to NOBODY’S FOOL from 1993. The latter was made into a film starring Paul Newman, of blessed memory. (While I’ve read neither of these titles, I do have a fond recollection of Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS.) Additionally recommended by Jean was Russo’s STRAIGHT MAN, a novel that sounds made to order for those of us who have labored, at some point in our working lives, in the groves of academe.
Barb brought WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman. Columbia, a planned community in Maryland where most of us live and some of us work, is composed of ten villages, of which Wilde Lake (est. 1967) was one of the first (possibly THE first?). Laura Lippman graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1977. Her novels are usually set in Baltimore, but this time, she’s brought the action back home to Howard County.
It’s safe to say that many readers in this area are eager to get their hands on this book. As of this writing, the local library has 360 reserves on it. (I’m number 165.)
Phyllis recommended THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin. At this suggestion, several of us chimed in enthusiastically. The Literary Ladies – another book group to which I belong – had a terrific discussion of this title last month. Click here for a brief review and some striking photographs of a bygone era.
My recommendations were as follows:
THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD, by Andrea Wulf: An amazing book about a great scientist and a true visionary. Essential reading for anyone who cares about the environment, science, botany, conservation – anything related to the natural world. Beautifully written and fascinating from beginning to end. (I’m gushing, I know, but I can’t help it.)
DEEP SOUTH: FOUR SEASONS ON THE BACK ROADS, by Paul Theroux. After a lifetime of fruitful laboring in the vineyard of literature, Theroux may now have written his masterpiece. Sick of dealing with airplanes and airports, he got in his car and drove to points south – deep south, primarily Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His goal was to see how the people in these places were faring. What he found was poignant, heartbreaking, and at times inspiring.
For me, reading DEEP SOUTH was both an exalting and a humbling experience. How could I have been so oblivious to the pain and the vitality inherent these lives, in this vast swath of the country which is theirs as much as it is mine? He made me want to go there.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny. Penny’s Three Pines mysteries don’t always work for me. The denizens of this strangely obscure village seem overly precious at times, except for the nasty poet Ruth and her pet duck, who veer in quite the opposite direction. In this particular series outing, all of these characters and more get tangled up in a truly Byzantine plot. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing read, and it’s based on a highly unusual, not to say bizarre, true story. (Gentle hint to this author: Could you possibly make more sparing use of the expletive “G-d damn?” Maybe it jumped out at me repeatedly the way it did because I was listening to the audiobook.)
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout was suggested by Rosemarie, who also mentioned THE MORNING THEY CAME FOR US: DISPATCHES FROM SYRIA by Janine di Giovanni. LUCY BARTON looks good – not least because it’s blessedly short – but I have to admit that Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, beloved by book clubs and awards committees, left me cold. Rarely have I encountered a drearier, more humorless cast of characters! (On the other hand the film, with Frances McDormand in the title role, was a real tour de force.)
In addition to THE NATURE OF THE BEAST and WILDE LAKE, two other crime and suspense novels were mentioned at our meeting. Dottie suggested MALICE by the Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino. (The Usual Suspects discussed THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by this same author as part of our “international mystery” year in 2015. Most of us were favorably impressed by it.) And Jean brought IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, by Ruth Ware, a novel designated “a slick debut thriller” by NPR reviewer Jean Zimmerman.
Additional recommendations were as follows:
FIRST WOMEN: THE GRACE AND POWER OF AMERICA’S MODERN FIRST LADIES, by Kate Andersen Brower
WHAT YOUR BODY SAYS (AND HOW TO MASTER THE MESSAGE), by Sharon Sayler
DEGREES OF EQUALITY: THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY WOMEN AND THE CHALLENGE OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FEMINISM by Susan Levine
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
AHAB’S WIFE: OR, THE STAR-GAZER by Sena Jeter Naslund
WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED AND OBAMA TWEETED: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF POPULAR CULTURE IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Tevi Troy
MAESTRA by L.S. Hilton.
JEFFERSON’S SONS: A FOUNDING FATHER’S SECRET CHILDREN by Kimberly Bradley
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer
So there we were, faced with the challenge of narrowing the list down. We needed to decide on five titles for the coming year. (We meet every other month.) Lorraine’s suggestion that we put it to a vote worked extremely well. Those present could vote for multiple titles, if they so desired. We decided on the following:
THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE
I think everyone present felt that we’d generated some terrific ideas for worthwhile reading, whether for group discussion or for individual enjoyment.
I feel lucky to be a part of this articulate and passionate group of fellow book lovers. Thanks to all of you!
“None of us can tell the future,” said Gamache. It was an intentionally banal response….
“Oh, I think some can, don’t you?”
Something in his tone made Gamache refocus and give the scientist his attention. “What do you mean?”
“I mean some can predict the future because they create it,” said Rosenblatt. “Oh, not the good things. We can’t make someone love us, or even like us. But we can make someone hate us. We can’t guarantee we’ll be hired for a job, but we can make sure we’re fired.” He put down his apple cider and stared at Gamache. “We can’t be sure we’ll win a war, but we can lose one.”
From The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
There is always a garish carnival across the boulevard. We are born, we eat and sleep, conspire and mourn, a birth, a betrayal, an excursion to the harbor, and it’s done. All of it, done.
From “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman
(This story can also be found in Best American Short Stories 1991.)
In the silence that followed, Dodd reflected that it was always interesting to watch the way a man held a sword, providing he wasn’t facing you at the time.
From A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)
The People in the Castle is a new collection of short stories by Joan Aiken. In her introduction to this volume, Kelly Link makes some insightful observations about the form. These came about as a result of a literary festival she attended, where she detected, on the part of certain participants, a decided negative attitude toward the short story:
The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into— novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest.
Link, herself a distinguished writer of stories, respectfully disagrees:
…. it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space.
I think she’s really on to something in that last sentence. (It puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s telling locution, “a great reckoning in a little room.”) For instance, in Guy de Maupassant’s story “Looking Back,” a world of feeling opens up toward the end of a conversation between an aristocratic woman and the parish priest who has been her dinner guest. This short tale is both specific to its time and place, and universal in the poignant sensation it evokes in the reader.
I came upon this story in an unassuming little paperback anthology I picked up at an airport several years ago. Edited by Milton Crane, 50 Great Short Stories first came out in 1952; it was reissued several times subsequently, the last being in 2005. This terrific collection contains some of my favorites:
Poe’s terrifying and memorable “Masque of the Red Death”
Shirley Jackson’s iconic “The Lottery”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors. Her blend of dark – very dark – humor with the apocalyptic onslaught of fate scares me senseless!
“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. His ability to move and to disturb the reader remains undiminished over the years.
I fear that the airport bookstore is fast becoming a thing of the past. I especially lament the passing of the Hudson Bookstore at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International), a store with a carefully curated stock where I formerly loved to browse. At any rate, it appears that 50 Great Short Stories is still in print and for all I know still turns up now and again in airport outlets. I recommend it.
At the front of the book, Professor Crane asks the question, “What makes a great short story?” In response, he offers the following:
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time….
He goes on to suggest that a short story “…can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume.” It’s instructive to reflect on precepts such as these now and again while reading the stories.
An anthology I’m particularly fond of is The Library of America’s two volume set of American Fantastic Tales. Selected by master of the genre Peter Straub, this collection features one gem after another.
From Straub’s Introduction:
For now, let us at least take note that loss, grief, and terror echo throughout the two volumes of American Fantastic Tales. If the fantastic story originates in such emotions, as I believe it does, it is constantly confessing its origins, and with helpless fervor. Gothic literature in general is inherently melancholy, and melancholy is generally its most cheerful aspect….in most of the cases here we are dealing with the gothic sensibility, the many avatars of which are riddled with isolation, loneliness, and dread.
(This eloquent exposition has put me in mind of the plight of Helen Clarvoe in Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View.)
In point of fact, not only I have I not yet gotten to Volume Two, I have yet to get past the half way point of Volume One (Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”).
The first story is entitled “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown. The tale itself is preceded by an italicized superscription which largely consists of an excerpt from the Vienna Gazette of 14 June 1784. The article relate the events of an actual crime which supposedly took place in Silesia and upon which the fictional story is based. There is some reason to doubt the veracity of this piece:
That Brown himself created this “extract” is possible. Scholars have been unable to locate this story either in the Vienna Gazette or in any of the periodical literature from that time. No one has been able to produce a copy of the article, nor has anyone been able to find for certain that the Gazette was even published in 1784….
[from Charles Brockden Brown and the Literary Magazine: Cultural Journalism in the Early American Republic, by Michael Cody, published in 2004]
From the actual short story:
All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.
A home truth, eloquently articulated and crucial to the feeling of dread that gradually and inexorably accrues in “Somnambulism.” (I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal‘s aphorism: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”)
Like his novels Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Charles Brockden Brown’s fragment of fiction called “Somnambulism” is set on the American frontier between civilization and the wilderness. And as is the case with the novels, the fragment’s setting and action reaffirm Brown’s ability to use this frontier as a space for exploring ideas about an American life in transition. Within this setting, Brown utilizes some rather typical Gothic conventions—darkness of night, a young woman in danger, an unknown presence, and the like—to tell the story of a tragic murder and the search for information that hopefully will lead to the author of the crime.
[from “Sleepwalking into the Nineteenth Century: Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Somnambulism'” by Michael Cody]
Poor Charles Brockden Brown: his life was brief and his literary renown, apparently even briefer. Yet he was arguably the forerunner of Hawthorne, Poe, and other bright literary lights. His story is immediately followed by a veritable roll call of greatest hits of early American literature:
And numerous others.