Monday, 14 April 2014

Russia, Crimea and the West

The Cold War might have been officially over after the collapse of the Soviet Union; however, as the palaver over Russia’s annexation of Crimea following the unrest in Ukraine shows, it is easy to fall into the trap of “us” versus “them” mentality.

The Russians, since Crimea’s population has overwhelmingly decided to be with Russia in a referendum (no doubt the presence of Russian army helped the Crimeans to speedily make up their minds), are behaving as if they are at a loss to understand what all the fuss in the West is about.  Apparently more than 90% (or some such overwhelmingly high proportion) voted to cede from Ukraine and stay with Russia. Russians form almost 60% of Crimea’s population (the percentage rises to more than 70% in the city of Sevastopol) while Ukrainians are 25%, the remaining 15% being formed by the Crimean Tatars, the Turkish ethnic group, who formed the majority ethnic group in Crimea for more than three centuries, from its emergence as an Ottoman vassal state in the fifteenth century to almost the middle of the twentieth century, when Jo Stalin deported them en mass  to far flung corners of Soviet Union, in particular Uzbekistan and Siberia. The Tatar population fell victim to Stalin’s policy which combined psychotic paranoia, susceptible to detecting threats to the state and ideology when (probably) none existed, and zeal for vicious collective punishment that served as a lesson to the population in general. During the Second World War, when Germans occupied Crimea, some Tatar religious and political leaders did cooperate with the Nazis; there was even a Tatar legion in the German army. That was enough for Stalin, after the defeat of the Nazis, to view the whole Tatar population (who was Muslim) as Fifth Element, iniquitous to the existence of Soviet Union (never mind that a vast number of Tatar men served in the Red army and fought the Nazis) which needed to be disabled. (Stalin did the same with the Chechens whom he believed to have collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War, and ordered Lavrentiy Beria to deport them to distant corners of Soviet Union, although, with the Chechans, Stalin inexplicably and uncharacteristically changed his mind, and asked Beria—much to Beria’s disgust—to halt the operation half-way through, just when Beria  was looking forward to uproot the whole of the ethnic Chechens from the country where they had lived for centuries. Before you hasten to conclude that Stalin persecuted these ethnic groups because of their religion (Islam), bear in mind that he also deported almost half a million Ukrainian Germans, almost 20% of Ukrainians, and of course Russians, not to forget the Jews, all of whom he believed to be disloyal to the Communist ideology.) It was only during Gorbachev’s Perestroika that the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to the land of their ancestors, although they were not officially given possession of the land they had been made to forcibly vacate.

Those who are telling the world that Crimea was always “Russian” are either oblivious of the history of the region or are wilfully distorting it. True, it was won by the Russians during the long Russo-Turkish war of the late eighteenth century during which the Russians inflicted heavy defeats on the Ottoman Empire and Crimea—nominally independent—became part of the Russian Empire; true, Catherine the Great, tired of keeping up the facade of the Crimean independence, annexed the peninsula in 1783; true, the second Russo-Turkish war (of the 1790s), which was disastrous for the Ottomans, legitimized Russian control of Crimea via the Treaty of Jassy; true,  Crimea was a member of the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) between the two World Wars and, after the Second World War, until Stalin’s death; but it was not always so. And the Russians were not always in majority in Crimea. It has been a Russian majority region only for the last seventy years, for which the Russians have to thank a psychopathic Soviet era dictator.

There is little doubt, though, that Crimea, as it exists, is a Russian majority region. Indeed Russian speaking people form substantial proportion of not just Crimea but also Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine itself, over the centuries, has been controlled by and / or aligned to different Eastern European and Baltic states and empires. Indeed, during the reign of Catherin the Great, the whole of present day South Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Russians can also legitimately take credit for founding several cities in Ukraine including Odessa. Crimea, which Ukraine and the West are beating their chests about, under its powerful Tatar Khans, at the height of their powers in the sixteenth century, repeatedly invaded and pillaged Ukraine, and vast armies were required to protect against the annual Tatar invasion. Ukraine during this period, aligned itself with the Russian empire.  After the end of the First World War of the twentieth century, for a period, several different Ukrainian states emerged before what is now Western Ukraine was incorporated into Poland while Eastern Ukraine went to the Bolsheviks. It wasn’t until 1939 when Poland was invaded and defeated by the Soviets and Nazis (who were bedfellows at the time) that Western Ukraine was united with the rest of Ukraine. The unification of Ukraine, which many Ukrainian nationalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had dreamed of, thus, came into fruition (albeit as a republic of Soviet Union) because of the combined efforts of two brutal dictators. It is also worth remembering that Stalin made Rumania cede part of what was its territory at the time (Bessarabia) which became part of Ukraine. 

It was Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who had intimate knowledge of the region (Khrushchev was Russian but he was born and bred in Ukrainian border state), who “gifted” Crimea to Ukraine in the 1950s. It has to be said, though, that the transfer had little meaning, as both Ukraine and Crimea were part of Soviet Union. It was a bit like moving your furniture from the lounge to the spare bedroom in your house.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia agreed that Crimea was part of Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin. It is possible that Yeltsin, by then in the middle phase of alcoholic dementia, did not know the day from night, leave alone the piece of paper he was putting his signature on; but Russia did agree that Crimea was an integral part of Ukraine. Ukraine gave up its arsenal of nuclear weapons in return of Russia promising to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. (I bet they are regretting it now. Would Putin have dared to invade / annex Crimea if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons?). Russia was nevertheless allowed to have its troops, artillery, and military planes in Crimea; and its Black Sea fleet was allowed to have a base in Sevastopol until 2042. (Moscow, in return, wrote off millions of dollars of Ukrainian debt annually.)  

The trouble with looking back too much into history (to justify one’s deeds and strategy in the present) is that almost any international act of aggression can be justified on historical grounds. When Saddam Hussein (who was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of Stalin) invaded Kuwait and tried to justify it by citing historical evidence that went back to the Ottomans, he was not wrong (at least he was not quoting history wrongly), but  the invasion of Kuwait was still deemed illegal by the international community and triggered the First Gulf War. But then Saddam was small beer for the West (or so they thought), which meant that America and its cronies in Europe could invade Iraq to “liberate” Kuwait. I do not think invasion of Russia is on the agenda of Obama. Russia entered (invaded, if you prefer a harsher term) Crimea; held a referendum; and Crimea has once again, after a short hiatus of twenty years (or seventy if one goes back to Khrushchev era), become part of Russia, as it was for the hundred and fifty years before that. The referendum carried out in Crimea, under Russian guns, is no doubt illegal in the eyes of the current international law. Crimea, before the Russians invaded and annexed it, was Ukrainian territory, no two ways about it, never mind that the majority population in Crimea was Russian and probably had allegiance to Russia. In the eyes of international law, people living in a geographical area cannot simply decide that they no longer want to stay within the country and become either independent or join another country. If that were the case Kurds would get their homeland; Basques would secede from Spain; and Bradford might become an Islamic Republic. Obama became cantankerous when the Russians drew parallels with the referendum engineered by NATO and America in Kosovo, which was bitterly opposed by Serbia. The Kosovo referendum was carried out with the heavy presence of NATO army.  The Russians do have a point. NATO and the Americans would argue (they are already doing it) that the Crimean referendum can no way be compared to the Kosovo referendum, because there was no evidence that ethnic Russians in Crimea were discriminated in Ukraine whereas the Serbs (so NATO and America allege) were carrying out ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (as also in Bosnia and Herzegovina). What was going on in the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia, was civil war; and the situation arose because various groups of people, Kosovo included, living for centuries in certain geographical areas, decided that they no longer wanted to be part of Yugoslavia, which they saw essentially as Serbian domination. Their wish to secede from Yugoslavia, it might be argued, was no more legal than the wish of the ethnic Russians to secede from Ukraine (if one believes the Russian engineered referendum). The civil war situation in the Balkans arose, in the most simplistic terms, because Serbia would not give up control of these regions. And, lest we forget, the Americans illegally smuggled in arms and weapons into Bosnia and Herzegovina at the start of the civil war, in spite of an explicit UN ban. It is also worth noting that there are still scores of countries which do not recognise Kosovo as an independent, sovereign country, no matter what Obama says; which means that in the eyes of many countries in the world the referendum in Kosovo was illegal; as illegal as the referendum in Crimea, the Americans and NATO say, is.

Therein lies the rub for America and its sidekicks like the UK. In large parts of the world America has absolutely no moral credibility, she is held in utter contempt, and is viewed as a bully. It is the recidivist duplicitous American foreign policy, and its proclivity to go around the world meddling, interfering, and invading that has made America probably the most hated nation in many parts of the world. When large swathes of the world dislike you there is probably a good reason: you have not conducted yourself correctly. George W Bush, the mentally unprivileged former president of America, was a war criminal, as was Toni Blair, the most mendacious and dishonest man who disgraced British politics. 

Obama described Russia as a regional power (as opposed to America, which he fondly believes to be a world power). Russia might be a regional power, but it is a big regional power. Also, you don’t become a world power just because you go round poking your nose into businesses that don’t concern you. David Cameron, the pompous windbag (who perpetually wears the look of a man defeated by his bowels), no doubt believes that the UK is a world power. The chubby dictator of North Korea (who perpetually wears the look of a man a couple of hundred bowel movements behind the game) probably believes his country is a world power.

International law is only for the weak who do not have the power to bend or break it to suit their expediencies. Those who can—the Russians, the Americans—trample upon it as and when they want, but throw complex partial seizures when the “other side” does it. The reality is: Putin has annexed Crimea. Large part of the world does not give a toss; and those who do, can do sod all about it. Has Putin taken a gamble in Crimea he would come to regret? He might have and he might. A lot will depend on the stance the Chinese will take. Now hereis a world power.


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Book of the Month: The Hand that First held Mine (Maggie O'Farrell)


Maggie O’Farrell won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) award for her novel The Hand that First Held Mine. This, O’Farrell’s fifth novel, roughly follows the same format of her previous four novels: characters haunted by their past, of which they may not be consciously aware to begin with, but the past begins to assert itself via a series of apparently chance happenings until the day of revelation arrives, which turns the protagonist’s world upside down.

The story of The Hand that First Held Mine takes place in two time frames: the past and the present. The past is the 1950s London, and the reader is introduced to the feisty Lexie Sinclair, who leaves her stifling home in rural Devon and arrives in London to follow her dreams. She starts working in a departmental store but is soon swept off her feet by the dashing Innes Kent who is the owner and editor of a magazine that has literary pretensions. It is only a matter of time before Lexie joins the staff in Innes’s magazine (where she learns the ropes) and Innes in his bed. Innes and Lexie start a passionate affair, and the knowledge that he is unhappily married to Gloria (though living separately) and has a daughter named Margot (who he believes might not be his) does nothing to lessen Lexie’s ardour. Then Innes dies unexpectedly, and Gloria, who is Innes’s legal next of kin, closes down the magazine. Lexie’s friends at Innes’s magazine help her to find another job, as a reporter. In the course of her work Lexie meets the handsome but feckless BBC reporter, Felix. Over the next few years Lexie and Felix have an on-again-off-again relationship. Lexie has a son from Felix whom she names Theodore or Theo. Felix is temperamentally unsuited for, and therefore unable to, maintain a monogamous relationship. The proverbial last straw for Lexie comes when Felix sleeps with Margot with whom Lexie’s relationship over the years has been frosty, to put it mildly. Felix then allows himself to be unhappily married to Margot while Lexie starts a tentative relationship with another married man, a biographer whom she meets when she interviews a reclusive Irish painter.

In the present we meet a couple: Elina and Ted who have recently had a baby. Elina is half Finish half Scottish while Ted is English. Elina is an artist while Ted works as a film editor. When their story opens Elina is struggling with postnatal blues and is having a great difficulty in remembering things and faces. This understandably is a great source of concern for Ted. Ted’s overbearing mother with incurable busybody tendencies and once-handsome-and-still-slightly-lecherous father are of little practical assistance. Into the bargain Elina is plagued by the suspicion that her mother-in-law does not like her much. Gradually Elina’s mood and memory improve and she is better able to look after herself and the baby, and can occasionally muster up enough energy to make a trip to her ‘studio’ (a shed at the end of the garden) to paint. It would appear though that it is Ted who is now having problems of memory—of a type that is different from one Elina suffered soon after giving birth. Whereas Elina had difficulty in remembering—in other words she forgot—, Ted is from time to time has recollections—images of places, heard conversations—that he has great difficulties in putting a context to. These snippets of recollected events are sudden in their onset and overwhelming in their nature. The puzzle for Ted—and hence the distress—is that until these memories began to force themselves, abruptly and acutely, on his conscious being, they were completely subterranean. And what he remembers or sees in front of his mind’s eye makes no sense to him, as these recollections do not fit in with his conscious memory of past events; nor do they tally with what his parents have told him about his childhood.

The Hand that First Held Mine is a haunting and moving tale of how past can’t be repressed indefinitely and is only waiting to claim what is its due. The novel is essentially two stories, set in different times, told in alternate chapters. The link between the two segments of the plot is initially unclear. However, as the story unfolds the reader becomes aware that the two stories, and the characters within them, are linked. The reader makes this connection roughly half-way through the novel. It then remains to be seen in what way the events and people are connected. Like a consummate conjurer O’Farrell, step by tiny step—revealing just enough in each chapter—, brings the reader to a gradual understanding of what is happening to Ted as he struggles to make sense of what is happening to him.

O’Farrell creates an emotional ambience of suspense, raising the reader’s expectations and eagerness to find out what is going on. The resolution (for the reader) happens in steps, and, when the final piece in the jig-saw falls in place there is a palpable sense of relief. The novel is a page-turner.

However, to describe The Hand that First Held Mine only as a suspense drama would be to do injustice to the novel. The novel is also about emotional bonds between a parent and a child. There are passages of incredible pathos in the novel, yet it is to O’Farrell’s credit that at no stage does she allow the narrative to sink into saccharine, hyperbolic sentiments, which would have been a risk given the plot. It would be impossible for anyone who has been a parent not be moved by the feelings coming out of the pages which (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley) gather around you like a mist; its shape can be guessed at as it approaches, but not when it is directly on you. O’Farrell has managed the perfect balance of emotions and sensations.

O’Farrell describes the travails and tribulations of parenthood with great acuity and understanding. The only (slightly) discordant note—because, though described at great length in at the beginning of the novel, it plays no further part in the plot—is the post-partum memory difficulties experienced by Elina. In an interview she gave at the time of the publication of the novel, O’Farrell said that she herself suffered from a memory disturbance after the birth of her second child, to the extent that the date of publication of the novel had to be postponed. The forgetfulness, mercifully, was temporary; one guesses that the experience must have been so dramatic for O’Farrell that she felt compelled to include it in the novel, where at best it is a red herring.

A word about O’Farrell’s prose. It has a deceptive seduction to it. In sentence after immaculately constructed sentence, the story of this adroitly plotted novel unfolds for the reader. For the first 1/3rd of the novel, the story of Lexie Sinclair is the more appealing, more dramatic and faster moving. O’Farrell has created a very convincing milieu of the 1950s Soho. (In an interview she said that she did research to get the tone of this section of the novel right.) The present day story of Elina and Ted, by contrast, is slow to get off the post; however, slowly it gathers momentum and holds the reader’s attention. When a novel comprises two stories which run in parallel, it is not easy to get the balance exactly right, but O’Farrell has managed this difficult feat.


The Hand that First Held Mine is the second O’Farrell novel I have read. Don’t be put of by its corny sounding title; it is a superb read. 


Saturday, 15 March 2014

How to Say No

I must admit to several character weaknesses in my personality make-up. Call me squeamish, but I don’t like confrontations. I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. I am also a creature given to contradictory, usually short-lived but very genuine, enthusiasms. I have a near-compulsive need to rationalise; I try with the best of my abilities to put myself in others’ shoes; I try to understand; I attempt to find reasons when there are no reasons to be found; and then I try to convince myself, against my better judgment, that what is clearly unpalatable will be palatable if only I tried harder. The result, more often than not, is I end up making decisions I regret even as I am making them; I agree to do things I know I will hate even as I agree; and I accept things every rational part of my brain is screaming I should be treating with the same suspicion with which Prince Philip approaches the extended hand of an Australian aboriginal.

I have been a member of a book group for more than a year. Don’t ask me why I agreed to join the group (see the paragraph above). Essentially I could not say no when a friend of a friend invited me to join. To be honest I was also flattered—like when an unattractive teenager with spotty face and dandruff on his collar is asked out by the attractive girl in the class, with bouncy bust, he is secretly lusting after—when he said he and his book-mates would be very honoured if someone like me who was such a voracious reader joined the group. I got a bit carried away. I thought that in these monthly gatherings to discuss literary fiction I—the voracious reader—would dazzle the other members with my searing comments, mordant wit and incisive insights. 

A year down the line, I am regretting the decision. It was a mistake. It was never going to work. When a group comprises more than half a dozen individuals, it is impossible that they will have the same taste in reading. Now, you might say that that’s a good thing. People, in such groups, will suggest different genres, and you’d read books you’d otherwise not have read.

That is exactly my problem. I have been reading books in the past one year I’d otherwise have not read, and, reading them has confirmed to me that I was right in avoiding them all these years.

Then there are the members of the book-groups.

A group member relishes in describing himself as a “working class boy from East End of London”. I don’t know what he does for living (he works for some charity, I think), but he gives autumn parties, books tickets for the first day of the Ashes tests, drinks  white chateauneuf du pape (and is a member of a frigging book club). But he refuses to consider himself even an honorary member of the middle classes. The man does not strike me as mentally privileged and his command over English is shaky at best.  Probably for these reasons he claims to hate middle brow fiction. Which basically is any novel that is literary and does not have gruesome murders in it. Sometime ago we discussed The Good Soldier. The man read the first ten pages of the novel and apparently lost the will to live. He could not carry on. It’s a matter of regret that he did not kill himself.  That’s what he does with any novel that challenges his attention span, and announces in the meetings that the novel was full of “middle class nonsense” and he simply could not read such tosh. He gets on my nerves. He is forever sugegsting novels of writers like Carl Hiaasen and George Pelecanos. A couple of months ago, probably just to have a break from his moaning, the group agreed to read a George Pelecanos novel called The Cut. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel was. It really had no redeeming features. It was an easy read, but, since I am not a fast reader, I still wasted four days finishing it. When the group met, it turned out that the majority had not liked it. A few members laid into the novel, and I actually found myself arguing that the novel was not all that bad; that it had some witty dialogues; and that there was a semi-believable depiction of the soft underbelly of Washington D.C., the city in which apparently majority of Pelecanos’s novels are set.

This brings me to my second problem. In the past one year I have not managed to dazzle the group with my searing observations and mordant wit. Indeed I have not managed to say much at all in the meetings. There are a few reasons for this. It seems to me that for some group members the ability to listen to others is about as useful, in this day and age, as the ability to make fire with twigs. It is not necessary; they can do without it. As soon as the discussion opens these guys launch into their monologues as if a yearlong curfew on speaking has just been lifted for a few hours. They are fluent, I will grant them that. (Do they rehearse in front of the mirror what they are going to say in the meeting? Surely, even these losers couldn’t be that sad.) Some of them have done creative writing courses and, even though they have not got round to publish even a short story, they use lots of technical words with the relish of a gynaecologist explaining hysterectomy procedure to his patient. It is not that they don’t have a point. Unlike the “working class boy from East End of London” these guys have an interest in reading. (The “working class boy”, I suspect, comes mainly to eat, and also because he has probably heard that sophisticated, cultured people join book groups, although he would soon shoot himself between the eyes than accept that he wants to be cultured and sophisticated.) But they talk too much, probably working on the principle that it is a sin to be precise and concise when you can waste five times the required number of words. They are tireless and tiresome. As they drone on I try to keep myself awake, as I stab at my pepperoni pizza, by thinking imaginative questions such as why only fingernails continue to grow while the rest of the body stops, and whether the plump waitress sashaying seductively between tables (although for all that sashaying not great in the tits department) and wearing improbably tight trousers would burst an artery in her pelvis. On the rare occasion when I manage to get a word in edgeways, I, to my disgust, find myself saying mealy mouthed wishy-washy things which are vaguely complimentary. Even when I have not liked the novel (which has been the case 75% of the time so far) I avoid criticising it harshly. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reason I do not make a fuss when waiters are rude in restaurants, or when a young mother demands to get ahead of me in the queue at the till because her child is cranky, or why I don’t ask the old biddy, who happens to sit next to me on the bus and who attaches great importance to telling me her entire life history, to shut up. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be nice.

If I were a man of metal, if I had the character strength of an iron skillet, if I were not obsessed with offering the world my unwavering amiability and appearing relentlessly reasonable, I would tell the other group members that I was sorry to be the bearer of a bad news but it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest anything different; that the book group meetings were so dire that I would rather have my teeth slowly extracted (without local anaesthesia) by a chatty dentist who has had lots of onions for lunch than spending an evening in a restaurant the white tiles of which put you in the mind of a urinal, in the company of people in comparison with whom meetings of Dagenham city council were like a gallon of coffee.

We are going to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry next month.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Book of the Month: The Ghost at the Table (Suzanne Berne)


The narrator of The Ghost at the Table, Suzanne Berne’s third novel, is Cynthia Fiske. Cynthia is a writer herself, a novelist of sort. She works for a small company that publishes a series of books for girls called ‘Sisters of History’. The books are fictionalised accounts of famous women ‘as told’ by one of their sisters. The books are meant to be cheerful, feminist stories, emphasizing the bond between the sister who was unusual from the start and destined to achieved glory and the other, remarkable—but not so remarkable—, sister. Cynthia covers literary women and has written moderately successful ‘fiction’ on Louisa may Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and Helen Keller, each from a sister’s perspective. She is contracted to write about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister. In her later years Harriet Stowe lived next to the family Samuel Clemens, better known to the literary world as Mark Twain. Mark Twain had three daughters, none of whom became famous and two died in their twenties. Cynthia grew up in Hartford, the town where Twain lived with his family, and a family heirloom, an old Estey player organ, according to the family legend, belonged to Mark Twain himself. Cynthia’s father has told his daughters that Twain gifted the organ to his mother when she was a child. This is partly the reason why Cynthia wants to write about Mark Twain’s daughters instead of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But is that the only reason?

Cynthia has always felt a modest connection with Twain’s daughters and not just because they had grown up only a mile from the house she grew up in. Cynthia’s family too has three daughters and Cynthia, the youngest, believes that she was the least favourite of her father, just as Jean, Twain’s youngest daughter, was his least favourite. Cynthia’s mother had taken ill—with an illness which was initially thought to be psychosomatic but later turned out to be early onset Parkinson’s Disease—soon after her birth, and her abiding memory of her mother is as a valetudinarian, forever confined to her bed, the bedroom smelling of a concoction of stale medicinal smells, her remissions becoming more and more infrequent, before she finally succumbed when Cynthia was thirteen. Even here, Cynthia feels, is a similarity with Twain’s family: Twain’s wife too was a chronic invalid and died when the daughters were young. Cynthia is invited for Thanksgiving by her middle and only surviving sister, Frances—the eldest, Helen, having died of cancer a few years before—, to her house in Concord, New England, not very far from where they grew up. But there is a catch. Frances also intends to invite their father, who—eighty-two, paralysed with stroke, and in the process of getting divorced from his much younger second wife—has been shifted to a nearby Nursing Home, for the Thanksgiving dinner. Cynthia, a woman more sour than a lemon tree in full bloom—having worked her way through a number of unsatisfactory and unfulfilling relationships, the most recent of which involved an affair with a married man, she finds herself unattached and on the wrong side of forty—, has issues with her father. She does not like him. She considers him to be ‘selfish, cruel, and just this side of venal’. She blames him for having an affair when their increasingly infirm mother was alive and allowing the woman—who has disposed him off now that he has had a stroke—to move into their house within days of his wife’s death. She blames him for putting in a perfunctionary appearance at the memorial service of their eldest sister. Above all she blames him for their mother’s death. Over the years Cynthia and Frances—with whom Cynthia had an uneasy relationship in childhood—have gone over these issues again and again, and Cynthia has always believed that Frances shares her views of their father. Cynthia is therefore surprised when Frances—now married happily, for all outward appearances, to a doctor and having two teenage daughters of her own—invites her to the Thanksgiving dinner to which she is also planning to bring their father—to whom Cynthia hasn’t spoken in years—from his nursing home. Frances would very much like a family reunion because, she says, their father, who is in very frail health, is not long for this world, and Frances does not want any regrets. Cynthia is not convinced but allows herself to be persuaded to visit her sister, telling herself that she would visit Mark Twain’s house in Hartford the day after Thanksgiving. When Cynthia arrives in Concord she has a few unpleasant surprises awaiting her. Firstly, her brother-in-law, Walter, who comes to pick her up tells her that he and Frances are going through difficult times; he also puts forth a very convincing case which leads Cynthia to believe that her sister is on the verge of accumulating all the symptoms that would have the psychiatrists get their prescription pads out and write a hefty dose of Prozac. Finally—and this really throws Cynthia—Walter informs her that her father is still in his martial home in Cape because of some mix-up of dates with the nursing home and that Frances is planning to drive to Cape and bring him back, except that she has lost the confidence to drive, which means Cynthia will have to drive to Cape. When Cynthia arrives at Frances’s home she finds her sister a bit preoccupied but not in the midst of a heavy-duty mental breakdown which is what she has been led to believe. The two sisters drive down to Cape the next day where Cynthia endures a very awkward encounter first with his father’s second wife, and then with the manager of the nursing home who informs them bluntly that there is no vacancy in the nursing home and what is more she had informed Frances about this very clearly almost a month ago. The sisters have no choice but to bring their paralysed father to Frances’s home where he would stay until some old biddy in the nursing home pops his clogs and a vacancy arises. Cynthia begins to suspect that Frances has actually planned all this; that there was no mix-up of dates with the nursing home; that the reason Frances wants her father not just for a few hours on the Thanksgiving day but for several days is the surviving members of the Fiske family, forced into closed proximity over two days, would clear the air poisoned ever since their mother died all those years ago. Over the next three days, an increasingly prickly Cynthia manages to get into awkward situations with Frances’s family, including her brother-in-law, her nieces, and Frances herself. During the Thanksgiving dinner she successfully ruins the festive mood by telling stories of the unhappy lives of Mark Twain’s daughters, hinting heavily at the similarities between Twain’s family and her own family. She eavesdrops on conversations between her nieces and friends and believes that they are worried about their mother. Finally, it is time to lift the lid on some unwelcome home truths about what really happened all those years ago in the night their mother died; who did what and with what intentions; and who was responsible.

The Ghost at the Table is a well-paced novel that is part family chronicle (of a dysfunctional family) and part mystery. Berne keeps the reader’s interest going by drip-feeding titbits of the Fiske family via a series of strategically placed flashbacks. It is an astute and poignant portrayal of the lies that families tell themselves and others and go through their lives believing in them until the moment is reached when dissembling is no longer an option. The tale cambers over an array of themes, some of which uncomfortable. The climax, when it arrives, has, one gets the impression, a deliberate anticlimactic feel to it, but it is no less wise and humane for that, and believable.

Berne is very adept at evoking ambiance. The Thanksgiving dinner, for example, is described in a way that luminously calls forth the awkwardness felt by those sitting at the table, accentuated by the attempts of some at false bonhomie, the posturing and sneering of adolescents, barely suppressed hostility of some members of the party towards others, and the unspoken—and for that reason unrequited—expectations. It is altogether very compelling.

A great deal of pleasure of reading The Ghost at the Table comes from Berne’s simple yet pellucid and vividly evocative prose, made crunchy by a wry sense of humour. At the same time an understated tone of menace pervades the narrative, reminiscent of To Kill A Mocking Bird. The reader experiences a sense of unease as the plot progresses, as he tries to fathom what is lurking under the surface of superficial cheeriness. It is all done very subtly. The interspersing of the Fiske family history with the real life family history of Mark Twain is a deft touch. The parallels between the lives of the Twain girls and the Fisk women are drawn, like everything else in the novel, almost impalpably. There isn’t one false note in the almost-300 pages of the novel. Berne is like a master choreographer who has planned the performance to perfection.

Suzanne Berne won the Orange prize for literature for her brilliant debut novel The Crime in the Neighbourhood. With The Ghost at the Table, her third novel, Berne makes a return to her scintillating form after a slightly lackadaisical second novel. It is a marvellous novel which Berne as a writer in the tradition of Harper Lee.





Monday, 17 February 2014

The Mighty Bush

If you are a habitual reader of The Independent, you would not have failed to notice the raging debate that spread like bushfire last month. It was triggered by a book published by that intellectual giant, Cameron Diaz (not just a pretty face, I’d request you to keep in mind), which, sadly, I have not yet got round to read.

In the book Diaz devoted a whole chapter, imaginatively titled “Praise of the Pubes”, waxing lyrical about pubic hair. Diaz likes them. She grows (presumably) lots of them, these days. Pubic hairs are natural, Diaz would like to inform the world. Not wanting pubic hair is like—Diaz told a girlie magazine—not needing your nose. “Don’t wazzle your vajayjay,” urges Ms Diaz (may be not in these exact words). 

There are many who might not like their noses; and have the option of going under the knife to have it the way they want, for a price that would put many in the mind of a second mortgage. You can change the size and shape of your breasts, ass, thighs, lips, tummy, and penis. I can’t think of a body part that you can’t get upgraded these days, if you have the desire and the financial resources. Getting rid of unwanted pubes is, by comparison, cheaper. Also, is it really fair to compare your pubic hair to your nose (to the nose or to pubes)? Most of us would agree that we do need our noses; a nose serves a function most will have no trouble appreciating. No one in his right mind, I will put it to you, will say that they don’t need their nose.

But pubic hairs? What purpose do they serve other than making your nether regions look like my back garden which has not been tended for months? Apparently they serve important medical functions. (I am full of admiration for the doctors. There is nothing out there that does not have some medicinal value. I read a report in the BBC sometime back that some research has shown that if you drank four cups of coffee every day you were less likely to kill yourself than those who were coffee-free. But four, apparently, is the magic number: you drink the fifth cup and all the benefits are lost.) Some doctors are claiming that shaving your vaginas will put you at a higher risk of developing infections from bacteria the names of which I can’t spell but which sound scary. Shaving your pudenda also makes the skin sore and itchy, the doctors say. Having a bald pussy makes you more prone to herpes, some doctors are warning. (Can’t these problems be avoided by using less blunted razor, and good personal hygiene?) A hairy bush is like armour which will protect you against these disgusting, if not deadly, diseases, though not, it goes without saying, against STD. (It may however serve as a very effective contraceptive.) (I am going to be blunt here: the subject of pubic hair seems to exercise women more than men; or, to be precise, Western women; or, to be even more precise, a large section of Western women; or—I can’t be more precise than this—those women who think the subject is important enough to write newspaper articles on it. Always nice to know that while the world might be facing many problems some women have more pressing and important matters, such as whether or not their girly bits be draped or not by the fur curtain, to write about; and there I was worrying whether I’d be able to pay the mortgage if the Bank of England increases the interest rates.)

Are there any disadvantages of a hairy fanny other than running the risk of catching your curlies in the zipper of your jeans? Sloppy personal hygiene will leave your pudenda with an immigration problem worse than that in the worst nightmare of the most rabidly xenophobic Tory working himself into a frenzy over Eastern Europeans; and the lice will face the more overcrowding than on London’s underground.

Do pubic hairs serve sexual function? That, as my philosophy tutor was fond of saying whenever I asked him any question, depends. 

Does a bush make you sexually attractive? That (again) depends. It depends on what your partner finds sexually appealing. If you have what the feminist Naomi Wolf describes in her book Vagina: A Biography, a heterosexual vagina and the sight of an overgrown patch of briars and brambles gets your partner’s juices flowing, then I’d say go for it. Let those curlies and twirls creep out of your knickers.  If, on the other hand, he does not have a taste for a hairy pie, you’d better do all that is necessary to wake him in the morning with a vertical smile.

Are there any non-sexual pleasures to be had from a bouffant down there? Apparently there are, as Caitlin Moran, a popular British newspaper columnist (and, of course, a feminist), reveals in her book How to be A Woman. Say you are lying down in a hammock on a sunny day, staring at the trees and the birds, thinking of what dress to wear for this evening party. Totally chilled out. What can enhance your pleasure? Why, a hairy fanny of course. What can you do with a hairy fanny? You can fingercomb it (Ms Moran informs). Fingercombing your fanny is one of the many pleasures of adulthood; ask Ms Moran if you don’t want to take my word for it. It goes without saying that Ms Moran disapproves heartily of the practice of robbing your crotch of its natural treasure.

The unspoken subject, the unasked question, the elephant (or the rhinoceros, according to the original German saying), in the esteemed opinion of Felicity Morse who was moved to write an article on the subject in the Independent, is of oral sex. I was saddened (but not surprised) to learn that men are wholly to be blamed. Apparently there are many men out there who don’t want their girlfriends or partners to wear a generous bush. A Brazilian landing strip is as far as they are willing to go. Sea weed is fine when it is crispy and on a plate and when you are in restaurant Hong Kong, but you don’t want it stuck in your teeth when you are licking the sweat off the old meat-curtains. This is clearly unacceptable, Ms Morse says. Your partner must find you sexually attractive as you naturally are; and if he doesn’t and is putting unacceptable conditions before he would consent to taste your bacon sandwich, you’d better evaluate your relationship, is Ms Morse’s (rather drastic) advice. Now, at the risk of sounding like a chartered accountant who sees the world as consisting in its entirety of detailed negotiations—pro versus cons, loss versus profit . . . those sorts of things—, I’d say that if you are prepared to end a relationship over this issue, probably something more is going on in the relationship than your partner’s refusal to get excited in the trouser department unless you remove your beetle’s bonnet. Also, supposing you do consider this matter important enough on its own to end a relationship, how would you ensure that you don’t make the same mistake of meeting another man of similar (perverted) persuasions? How do you find out that he is not going to start retching at the sight of your muff? How would you ask him to clarify his position—so to speak—on this subject before you lower your knickers? A bit awkward, I’d have thought.  

I have to say that quite a few women whom I had the good fortune to know closely over the years, and who never struck me as enslaved by men, refused to sport a generous bush on aesthetic grounds. Some years ago I ran into my immediate line manager in the company I was working for at the time. This was a woman—let’s call her Cathy (they are always Cathys or Hazels or Joans)—was abnormally thin—the type, if I remember correctly, described in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of Vanities as a bottomless pit—with  a flat face and a disproportionately larger bust. Cathy was not known in the company for her sparkling wit or easy manner, although, to be fair to her, neither was she malicious. She was, in fact, a bit peculiar. She had odd social manners. She never looked you in the eyes while speaking to you, focusing instead on a point behind you at a lateral angle. She also had the habit of jigging to and fro on the balls of her feet like a Morris dancer with haemorrhoids. She was not given to expressing emotions: you could have set her eyebrows on fire and she wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. To the best of our knowledge Cathy was single and prurient male colleagues would fill the lunch hour with ribald speculations about her sex life, which, the consensus was, amounted to her right hand. It would be fair to say that Cathy was not made for sex. (In my opinion Cathy was not secure about her body and—moved by the spirit of improving her self-esteem—I had thought of complimenting her on her watermelon breasts; but such things are more to be felt than said.) Anyway, when I crossed Cathy in the street, my then girlfriend, who was with me, screeched, as soon as we were out of earshot, “Oh my god! How do you know that woman?” “She is my line manager. How do you know her?” It then turned out that Cathy went to the same gym my ex-girlfriend went to. In the women’s changing room, the ex-girlfriend told me, Cathy would take all her clothes off and roam around stark naked, showing no urgency whatsoever to put on the gym clothes. The other women had taken to calling Cathy as “scary naked lady” or “mad naked lady”. “Why scary?” I asked. “Oh my god!” the ex-girlfriend screeched (she was inclined to invoke the lord’s name in vain), “you should see her bush!” I informed the ex-girlfriend that the chances of my eyes alighting on Cathy’s privates were less than slim. “Oh my god! The woman has probably never shaved in her life. Wild animals are roaming in the jungle down there.” The hair began, the ex-girlfriend—determined to spare no details—said, just below Cathy’s naval and progressed, in ever increasing concentric circle, to the point where the burgeoning line merged, like a river, into the Sargasso Sea on her mound. From there the hair invaded her inner thighs. “It is like a terrier has landed between her thighs,” the ex-girlfriend took recourse to metaphor to further illustrate her point. Words failed—she told me (despite the obvious evidence to the contrary)—to describe the horror of Cathy’s hairy fanny. “Why?” the ex-girlfriend asked plaintively, “Why would anyone do this to themselves?” I had to remind her that Cathy’s only crime was to let her pubes grow unrestrained. “Ugh! It’s disgusting. And why does she have to parade it? One look at it will make you bring up your dinner.” Needless to say that the ex-girlfriend was the type who waxed her fanny to within an inch of its life, wore half a kilogram of make-up, worried all the time that her ass looked fat in her jeans (it did), and (I suspect now) probably faked orgasms.

But surely, I hear you thinking, whether to have your nether region bald as Andre Agassi’shead or hairy as Brian Blessed’s face is a personal choice. I agree. It is no one’s business but yours, or, if you are inclined to include another person in the debate, your boyfriend’s. But, apparently, I am wrong. It is a feminist issue. Why is it a feminist issue? According to Caitlin Moran, as she helpfully elucidates in How to be A Woman, it is a feminist issue because modern women are brainwashed into believing that a shaved crotch would make them look more attractive and more feminine. In other words, if I have fully comprehended Ms Moran’s logic (which I might not have), the decision of the modern woman to shave her fanny is highly suggestive of her cultural oppression. Whose fault is it? Ms Moran knows: the American porn industry. America’s cultural hegemony apparently is not limited to forcing down your throat tasteless food high in saturated fat that will make you the size of a double Decker bus and eventually bring on a coronary; America—via its porn industry—is determined to brainwash modern women into shaving their clits, according to Ms Moran. Modern women obviously spend a considerable portion of their waking hours watching porn—perhaps their boyfriends make them watch it—and think to themselves, “I know what I want. I want my tits to be the size of a cantaloupe melon, like that porn star, and, since I don’t have the dosh to do that I will shave my vagina. That will make me more attractive to men.” Can it really be as simplistic as this? I doubt it, but I am not a feminist, so probably am mistaken.  Or maybe boyfriends or partners of modern women are addicted to American porn and insist that their girlfriend offer a hair-free zone on which they can set their tongues to work. (I can say with complete confidence that those of my ex-girlfriends who chose to go “bald” did so entirely of their own accord. Not a single one of them felt obliged to ask my views.) But maybe porn is to be blamed for the problem of vaginal hair (or lack thereof) in the anatomy of most modern women. On a related (or shall I say nearby?) subject, Naomi Wolf, in Vagina: A Biography, lays the blame squarely at the door of the porn industry for the penchant of the modern men for forcing their girlfriends to have anal sex. Even the Mormons are doing it, would you believe it?

I hope I would not be quartered if I said that the issue remains contentious, with chances of a consensus being reached more remote than the lasting peace in Afghanistan. There are those feminists,  (old, lesbian, Communist types, according to a female friend of mine, though obviously not including Ms Moran and Wolf) who would have you believe that shaving your clit is the single-most act of betraying the sisterhood. And there are those who believe that shaving their vaginas to within an inch of their lives empowers women. Indeed there are those, like Ms Boyle (Sian, not Susan, I should add; in the latter’s case it’d probably be forest not a bush), another writer of article in the independent, who have chosen to permanently remove their pubes by the laser technique. Not because their partners are insisting that they should cavort like porn stars in the bedroom but because they have made the informed decision of getting rid of unwanted minge-mat just in the same way many would want to get rid of the unwanted fur-coat on their upper lips.

If I were an epidemiological researcher of women’s pubic hair, I would consider dividing women into following categories based on their preferences and attitudes towards pubic hair. (a) Women who don’t like their pubic hair and shave them off. There are occasional reported cases of extreme phobia (a case in point Ms Sian Boyle) where the subjects may take the extreme step of permanently removing pubic hair. (b) Women who don’t mind pubic hair but indulge in regular fannicure. They want to pamper their bush and give it a trim from time to time. (c) Women who probably belong to category (b), but just can’t be bothered to have a quim-trim and let the hair grow. (d) Women who deliberately, intentionally and in full knowledge of what they are doing do not shave. A proportion of such women might consider themselves to be feminists. These women might view the women classified here under category (a) and very probably (b)—if they were to become cognizant of the true intentions of category (b) women—as man-pleasing barbies who have taken leave of their free will and senses. (The category (a) women greatly resent such labelling (see Ms Boyle’s article in the Independent) and would be at pains to explain that they want every possible body part as smooth as possible in their quest to appear young.) A further proportion  of category (c) women might be labouring under the belief that having a generous muff makes them more feminine and sexually irresistible.


Finally, there is a compelling case to be made that whatever the women choose to do with their private hair, it is somehow fault of men. I have still not figured out (despite reading How to be A Woman and Vagina: A Biography) how it is men’s fault, but am very sure about my conclusion. Such men, however, are deserving of compassion and sympathy, because they are in all probabilities addicted to porn or chronic masturbation or both. 


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Book of the Month: Girl with A One Track Mind Exposed (Zoe Margolis)


On page 257 of what is best described as her memoir, Girl With A One Track Mind—Exposed, Abby Lee (real name Zoe Margolis) describes a conversation with a friend, which, for a change, is not preceded or followed by or in the midst of sex. This female friend, who is identified as Cathy, demands sex tips from Margolis, reminding her that she wrote a whole book about her sex life. Margolis protests that the book was not solely about sex; there was a lot of psychoanalytical and political deconstruction of events and feelings, rather than just descriptions of bodily functions; it was not an erotica. The friend responds by saying, ‘Yeah, yeah—but there was a lot of shagging in it.’ Margolis sportingly concedes the point. There then follows a three pages long—I kid you not—dialogue between the two friends during the course of which Margolis explains, using fingers as a substitute to aid the demonstration, how to give a perfect blow-job. Here is just one of the many useful tips: it is essential to keep a glass of water handy, which will keep you hydrated (in the eventuality, I guess, of it going on for so long that you run the risk of collapsing of dehydration) as well as ensure that your mouth is moist. It would appear that giving a blow job is not just about sucking a dick; there is lot more to it than just sucking a dick, just as there is a lot more to Irish alcoholism than just drinking Guinness. I was left admiring the considerable thought Ms Margolis has given to this subject. And, in her case, she has backed up the theory with practice. This is a woman who has sucked a lot of cocks.
I borrowed Girl With A One Track Mind—Exposed from the local library, hoping for some light entertainment, and also hoping, if I am honest (isn’t it curious, the use of phrases such as ‘to be honest’, ‘if truth be told’?: as if we all lie as a rule, and feel it necessary to warn others when we become aware of an impending attack of sincerity—but I digress), for a modicum of filth.

Did I know who Abby Lee was? Yes and No. I had seen her first book Girl With A One Track Mind: Confessions of the Seductress Next Door in the Waterstone’s a few years ago, although I had not bought it at the time. There were a few reasons for that. Firstly, the title and the picture of a woman wearing only knickers put me off a bit. It would be embarrassing for a bloke to even go to the counter with a book, which is a cross between a girlie book and an erotica. The second reason was that I did not want to spend money on the book even though it was included in the 3-for-2 offer at Waterstone’s. On the cover 4 of the paperback edition brief information was given about the author. The author was Abby Lee, who had run a highly popular blog entitled Girl With A One Track Mind, for a few years, and the book was essentially a compilation of her blog postings—at least that was the impression I remember forming at the time. And, the tightwad that I am, I thought why waste money on buying the book when I could go to the website and read it for free? Thirdly, I thought, the book would become a tad monotonous. In as far as I made out, this woman, Abby Lee, had put herself about in order to have sex with a lot of men, and then written about her experiences on her blog. There is not going to be a great deal of variation in the descriptions: after all there are only so many orifices, so many cocks (at a time), so many positions, so many locales, and only so much one can do. If you have read one such posting, you have read all. (This is probably more a reflection of my restricted imagination.) I did not know that the book also offered a “psychoanalytical and political deconstruction of events and feelings, rather than just descriptions of bodily functions”.  Finally, I assumed that by giving a miss to a diary describing escapades of a sex-blogger I was hardly going to miss out on the next Saul Bellow. All in all, I concluded that the book would not be a good value for money. I knew that Abby Lee was a pseudonym of the writer; but all the brouhaha surrounding her outing completely passed me by (again a reflection on the restricted, uninteresting life I lead than anything else).

Sometime back I read Paul Carr’s hilarious and immensely readable Bringing Nothing to the Party, a chronicle of his failed attempt to become a web millionaire in one year. In the book, while discussing web celebrities, Carr devotes a page or two to Abby Lee, a.k.a. the Girl With A One Track Mind. It was then that I realised that Abby Lee was in real life Zoe Margolis and that the Sunday Times had outed her days after her book was published. Carr had also described how Margolis, in her Revanchist fury, created something called a ‘google bomb’ directed at the editor who had removed her cloak of anonymity, which I thought was quite funny. Sometime ago, Margolis wrote a blog on the Guardian website, giving its readers the benefit of her views on sex education in Faith Schools. It was a well written article and I found myself in agreement with what she was saying. However, I would be lying if I said that my admiration wasn’t a tinged with jealousy: firstly—it was the sign of times we live in, I thought (shaking my head), that a woman whose only claim to fame was that she slept with a lot of men and wrote on a blog about it had come to be regarded as something of an expert on all matters sexual; and secondly I could not write half as well as she even if my life depended on it.

So, when I spotted the book Girl With A One Track Mind Exposed in the local library, I hastily put it in the bag. It was, as I was expecting, an easy read—I finished it in a couple of days—and, as I was hoping, was full of filth.

The book is in a diary format and seems to be a compilation of Margolis’s postings on her blog—which she has continued with even after her true identity was revealed—and entries in her personal diary, probably written for the book. It is funny in parts; I enjoyed the entries made under ‘Girl’s Guide’. (In the “Girl’s Guide for Summer—for Men’, the first tip is: “Wash your armpits and wear an anti-perspirant deodorant. Stinking out a tube carriage in summer is just rude.”)

On the flip side, the book, as I suspected, became a tad monotonous after the first hundred pages. In this memoir, Margolis approaches a few themes repetitively, albeit from different angles, metaphorically speaking. These, in no particular order of importance, are as follows:

    •          Having sex is healthy. Talking about it is healthier. Ergo, having a lot of sex and talking all the time about it is a very healthful combination.
    •          Women need to be assertive and should set the boundaries clearly. Therefore when a guy is straddling you with the tip of his erect penis the length of your forearm uncomfortably close to your nostrils, you tell him politely but firmly that you do not want him to come on your face, and guide his dick (politely but firmly) to your breasts.
    •          There are lots of women out there who lack self-confidence. The reason women don’t climax as often as they ought to is they are insecure and unfamiliar with their bodies and lack confidence in bed. Solution? Wank a lot, which would give you an idea what works for you.
    •          Be open to new ideas and experimentation so long as it does not mutate into perversity. It was only after she was f**ked doggie style that Ms Margolis made the discovery that her G spot was best reached in that position.
    •          When you have made your reputation as a sex blogger hiding behind a pseudonym, it becomes a bit difficult to write about your sexual exploits with the same gay abundance as before, after you are outed. (Indeed, if you have deluded yourself into believing that you have become a celebrity and are instantly recognised everywhere you go, on the questionable evidence that a couple of D-list television celebrities contacted you and you had sex with them in some grimy hotel room in London, it may temporarily result in a loss of confidence in your prowess in chatting up men.)
    •          When you have made your reputation as a sex blogger hiding behind a pseudonym, and when your parents and close friends are unaware of what you have been up to in your spare time, it leads to many a monumentally embarrassing situation, after you are outed.
    •         Finally, shagging like a jack-rabbit is no guarantee that you would form a happy, fulfilling relationship (although it should be pointed out that the converse is not necessarily true: you are probably even less likely to meet someone to have a fair go at forming a happy and fulfilling relationship if you don’t shag).

While you do not necessarily have any issues with any of the above, you do wonder whether it could not have been put forth more concisely, say, in 150 pages instead of 320 plus?

The reader is also made privy to a lot of personal information about Ms Margolis, some of which is given below:

    •          Ms Margolis has very large breasts of which she is very proud. The breasts, she will thank you to keep in mind, are extremely sensitive, and at the merest touch, her nipples become rock hard.
    •          Ms Margolis loves to take up the shithole.
    •          Ms Margolis loves to be spanked on her buttocks
    •      Orgasms come as easily to Ms Margolis as shitting. She can climax up to six to eight times in a session (which suggests that they come more easily than shitting).
    •          Ms Margolis’s orgasms are so intense that on occasions she, rather her vagina, expelled the cock with the sheer force of contraction.
    •          On one occasion Ms Margolis climaxed so forcefully that the bedclothes underneath her became soaking wet. She is thus in a position to confirm that women can squirt too; it is not just a myth spread by the porn industry.
    •          Ms Margolis is very horny when she is having her periods. Actually she is horny pretty much all the time; she is—shall we say?—at her horniest when she is having her periods.
    •          Ms Margolis likes to wank. A lot.
    •          Ms Margolis is bi-curious.

All of this is about as interesting and fascinating about, say, reading the dietary habits of Emperor Bokassa. I mean, it is kind of interesting to know that he used to eat children for dinner, but beyond that what? I should hazard a guess that not many women would open their backdoors to men just because Ms Margolis does.
Finally, no amount of pseudoscientific exposition and deconstructive theories can disguise the fact that the book is full of sexually explicit and filthy (albeit grippingly filthy) details that tread a fine line between main stream literature and pornography. The only reason I would not describe the book as porn despite its almost-pornographic content is because of Ms Margolis’s repeated assertions throughout the book that her aim is not to titillate. So, if any of the male readers of these memoirs experiences—while reading the description of a man sitting astride Ms Margolis’s legs and stroking himself and exclaiming ‘Fuck! Your tits are fantastic!’, as she leans over him and presses her breasts together and slides them over his erect member, her nipples pressing against him—more than a soupcon of frisson, it is not because she wants to titillate; they should not pass the blame on to her and take responsibility for their own reactions, however involuntary.

The Girl With A One Track Mind Exposed exposes the limited shelf-lives of Web celebrities like Margolis. Her blog, as per Cover 2 of the paperback edition, became hugely popular and attracted over 7 million visitors. It was named as ‘the world’s most famous sex blog’. No doubt Ms Margolis would have preferred to remain hidden behind the Abby Lee persona, which would have allowed her to carry on disemboguing into ether the juicy titbits of her sexual encounters (which may have inadvertently titillated some or more of the male visitors to her blog), and which she would have published periodically as books. You might say that her attitude towards the proverbial cake was pro having it and pro eating it. What she found out was the more popular her blog became, the more the media became prurient and eventually her true identity was revealed. And the revelation removed at one stroke the attrait of her fame: her anonymity.  She, as they say, had it coming.


It seems to me that Margolis has milked her sexblogging persona for all it is worth and it is about time she gives up her nom de Plume for good, and directs her considerable writing talents in some other direction. How about a juicy novel?

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Book of the Month: Great House (Nicole Krauss)


Nicole Krauss announced herself as a writer to watch out for with her second novel, The History of Love. The History of Love was published in 2005 to great critical acclaim and was a world-wide bestseller.  It won Krauss many fans (I count myself as one of them). It was a very clever novel characterized, amongst other things, by its plot-structure. To call the plot of The History of Love puzzling would be an understatement. Trying to solve the riddle of the plot is a rewarding exercise in itself as you read the novel; and Krauss brought all the seemingly disparate strands of the novel very neatly towards its climax. The History of Love was a graceful, fresh novel of great poignancy.

Six years after the success of The History of Love Krauss published Great House in which Krauss attempts another tale of mystery and suspense, but not with the same success as she did in The History of Love.

Like The History of Love, Great House is built around multiple narratives at the centre of which is an old desk.

The novel opens with Nadia who is a moderately successful American writer of Roman a Clefs. Nadia has written most of her novels at a massive desk that was given her years ago by a Chilean poet Daniel Varsky. Varsky’s anme was suggested to Nadia by a common friend who knew that Nadia, recently split from her partner, was looking for furniture. Nadia and Daniel meet only once before Varsky goes back to Chile where, two years later he disappears, assumed to have been tortured and killed by the secret service of the then Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. In the present, more than two decades after Varsky’s disappearance, Nadia is contacted by a young woman who calls herself Leah Varsky. Leah tells Nadia that she is the daughter of Varsky; apparently Varsky had a brief affair with Leah’s mother—who now lives in Israel—before he went back to Chile and disappeared. Leah wants to know whether Nadia still ahs Varsky’s desk with her. Without making any further inquiries about this supposed daughter of Varsky Nadia allows Leah to collect the humongous desk which has been in her apartment for several years; however, afterwards she is assailed by doubts soon after and decides to travel to Israel to make further investigations. Nadia’s narrative is addressed to someone whom she refers to as ‘Your Honour’.

Next the reader is hurtled into a long monologue—bristling with barely concealed fury—of a retired Jewish lawyer named Aaron who has recently become a widower.  Aaron has two sons—Uri and Dovik. His relationship with his younger son, Dovik, is troubled. Dovik has returned from London, where he had lived for several years and was a judge, to Israel to attend his mother’s funeral. He has informed his father—with whom he has, for years, involved in entrenched combat—that he has resigned his position in London and now wishes to live for the foreseeable future with him. The link of Aaron and Dovik to the novel’s plot does not become clear until the end.

The third narrator in the Great House is another widower named Arthur Bender. Bender has been married for decades to a survivor of the Holocaust named Lotte Berg, who, like Nadia, from the first narrative segment, is a writer, albeit of literary short stories. Originally from Nuremberg, Lotte lost her family in the Holocaust and managed to escape the camp just in time to arrive in England.  Lotet and Arthus are childless and Lotte, who was almost 30 when she first met Arthur, rarely talked about her past. The only possession of any significance Lotte has when Arthur first meets her is a huge, slightly menacing desk. The desk travels with Lotte wherever she goes and she too has written her stories at it, until, in 1972, she is visited by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky who announces himself as a fan of her work. Lotte gives the desk as a present to Daniel.  As Arthus Bender’s narrative continues the reader learns that Lotte has died of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the final phase of her illness Lotte has said something that has made Arthus question the foundation of their marriage. Lotte had a son before she met Arthur, whom she gave away for adoption. The son would have been the same age as that of Daniel Varsky who met Lotte in the 1970s. Arthur is obsessed with this son of his wife whom he never met; he wants to find out more about him.

Next ‘I’ in the narrative stream in Izzy or Isabel, an American student studying at Oxford in the 1990s, who meets Yoav and Leah Weisz. The brother and sister have led a peripatetic existence as they are hauled from city to city, across continents by their widower father, George. Yoav and Leah were born and raised in Israel where their father still lives in a family house. Izzy falls in love with Yoav but soon figures out that the siblings have an uneasy, almost oppressive relationship with their father who is in the habit of descending upon them at short notices. George is an Antique dealer. His speciality is tracking down properties confiscated from Jews by the Nazis before and during the Holocaust. George is an Hungarian Jew and, after his family perished in the Holocaust, has made his way to Israel at the end of the Second World War. George’s family home in Budapest used to have a study which had a desk at which his father used to write. It has been George’s life-long mission to create the study of his Budapest home in his Jerusalem home by tracing down all the objects from that study.

The plotting of Great House is fractured. As the reader goes from one segment of the story, a novella in itself, to the next, a kind of suspense builds up. You are eager to find out how the different strands of the narrative would connect; you want to know whether the different narrators of the story are connected with one another—and with the desk—in a meaningful way. Alas! That never happens. Too many strands are left unexplained. The desk Lotte Berg gives to Daniel Varsky ends up with Nadia, who gives it to Leah Weisz who poses as Daniel’s daughter at the behest of her father who is tracking down a desk belonging to his father. Why does he send his daughter to Nadia to obtain the desk which he ought to know—if he is as good an antique hunter as he goes around telling people—cannot be his. The relationship of Aaron the Israeli lawyer and his son Dovik to the main plot is so superficial—almost incidental— that you wonder whether it was really necessary to devote so many pages to that strand. Daniel Varsky, the Chilean poet, is central to at least two narrative segments—Nadia’s and Arthur Bender’s. His entry into the lives of Arthur and Lotte is so contrived, it lacks credibility. As to why Lotte decides to give Daniel, whom she has never met until then—he is indeed a fan of her stories and has travelled to London to meet her— her huge desk, the only memento of her vanished family, is left unexplained. The trail of her adopted away son—he is not Daniel Varsky and is adopted by a couple in Liverpool—is another loose, unnecessary, and irrelevant strand.

The prose style of Great House is heavy, ponderous, melancholy, and, with the exception of Aaron’s narrative, monotonous. All the narrators—even the scouser who adopted Lotte Berg’s son and has probably not travelled beyond a five-mile radius of Anfield—speak with the same measured tone and make profound observations on the human condition. And they all sound the same, as if they are all on the psychiatrist’s couch. It is as if Krauss is unable to change gear when writing for characters removed for one another by upbringing, continents, and generations. (A novel that comes to my mind is David Mitchell’s superlative Cloud Atlas, which, like Great House, has different narrative voices. To me, it is a sign of Mitchell’s great talent as a writer that he takes on and sheds different prose styles when writing different sections of that novel. ) It is exquisite writing, mind, but even as you read page after page of brilliantly constructed sentences, it does not somehow ring echt; the experience wearies you; and the writing does not touch your heart.


Great House is a novel of ideas. It is a meditation on loss, grief, and the soul crushing burden of memories. But it is an elusive novel. Reading Great House is akin to listening to someone who is ever so slightly out of focus and tells you about almost everything, leaving out the vital pieces of information, which leaves you with a sense of partialness.