Growing up in an extremely cramped one-bedroom apartment on the bottom floor of a multi-rise building in Mumbai, I was looking for one thing -- escape. And while India had been independent for just around 25-odd years at that time, the vestiges of colonialism remained. Try as we might, my friends and I could never bring ourselves to call Mumbai's fantastic train station Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It would always be Victoria Terminus to us -- in fact, even the name Mumbai took a while to sink in. Growing up, it had always been Bombay.
These colonial aftereffects showed themselves most readily in the English fiction my friends and I read. We grew up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton books in elementary school. The images of endless feasts with scones and crumpets and clotted cream were enough to get us through the dreary Mumbai monsoons. I was introduced to the world of P. G. Wodehouse when I was in eighth grade, and these books completely took over my every waking moment. I devoured every Wodehouse book I could get my hands on, including many from the Bertie and Jeeves series. Most of Wodehouse's work is set around or before World War I, and portrays a deeply class-based British society. In Jeeves and Wooster's world, the worst that can happen is Wooster getting himself into a comedy of errors with a person of the opposite sex. There is no war. No unhappiness permeates this idyllic landscape.
Wodehouse has been faulted at times for creating a world too removed from real-life events. When war broke out in 1939, Wodehouse was living in northern France. He had taken up residence there a few years earlier to avoid double taxation on his earnings by both the USA and UK, as he had split his time between the two since 1914. He and his wife chose to stay in France, and he was subsequently arrested and interned as an enemy alien when it was occupied by Germany. He was released about a year later, at which time rumors surfaced in Britain that he must have done a deal to get out early. This was actually not the case, as he was released on schedule as per the Geneva Convention. After his release he lived in Berlin before moving to occupied Paris. During this time he made the extraordinarily naive decision to broadcast some radio recordings for American audiences (who, at that point, were not in the war) that joked about his captors and poked gentle fun at his situation. His fellow Englishmen were livid. They accused him of sympathizing with the enemy, and even of treason. Eventually Wodehouse's name was cleared, but the incidents scarred him enough that he chose to settle permanently in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1955.
It is true that the "Wodehouse world" seems unreal, naive and, worse, completely out of touch. But I would argue that with its grand visions of a pristine and green English countryside, where everyone sits down to spectacular banquets, it was necessary escapist fodder for a middle-schooler growing up thousands of miles away.
Shortly after I was done with my Wodehouse "phase," I re-read my worn copy of The Diary of Anne Frank given to me by my father on my 11th birthday. It was a reminder to myself not to be naive, but, instead, to be wary; to acknowledge that life can be horrific, and that the world can be plagued by real evil. It was a perfect counterbalance to Bertie and Jeeves, and my rose-colored glasses came off soon enough. Yet, while it lasted, my Wodehouse phase sure was fun. Even today, I am a fan.
Right Ho, Jeeves was well worth the detention I received in eighth grade for "reading unwanted materials." I remain convinced that Mrs. Tandon confiscated my copy just so she could go home and curl up with Bertie and Jeeves. I don't fault her for it, but I do question her methods.
by Poornima Apte
First image of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus by Joe Ravi
Second image of Wodehouse
Third image from Very Good, Jeeves! published by Penguin
This article first ran as the "beyond the book" article for BookBrowse's review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks
In addition to reviewing books, BookBrowse goes "beyond the book" to explore interesting aspects relating to each book we feature. Here is a "Beyond the Book" feature for Tim Winton's Eyrie:
Tim Winton, the author of Eyrie, is that rare thing: a literary best-selling writer. While most American readers might still be getting to know this prolific author, he is as close to a national monument as person can get in his native Australia.
Born in 1960, Winton started work on his first novel at the age of just 19 when he was enrolled in a creative writing course at Curtin University in Perth. That first work, the novel Open Swimmer, went on to win theVogel Australian National Literary Award. Since then, Winton has written dozens of books: novels, short-story collections and books for children. His work has received close to two-dozen awards including the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Two novels, Dirt Music andThe Riders have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Despite his early literary acclaim, Winton and his family had many financial struggles; his wife, Denise, had to plead for a $150 bank loan to buy food and presents one Christmas. It wasn't until 1991, with the publication of Cloudstreet, that Winton began to enjoy commercial success.
Australia, with its wide open spaces, is a vibrant part of Winton's stories. He lives in a small town a few hours' drive from Perth in Western Australia and is fiercely protective about his privacy: "It's just a little cray-fishing town in the central west. There's nothing there, just 600 people and 450 dogs," Winton says about his home town. "It's that small that there'd be nowhere to hide once people knew. And it's great, because no one gives a toss who I am up there; I go surfing with people who don't read my books and couldn't give a rat's."
In 2013, when a rise in water temperatures lead to a massive die-off of the local abalone population, Winton saw it as cause to write a play, Signs of Life, that addresses environmental issues. In Eyrie, the protagonist, Tom Keely, is a disillusioned environmentalist, leading some to wonder if he isn't modeled, in part, after Winton himself.
In 1993, Winton set up the Tim Winton Award for Young Writers to encourage writing in kids aged five to 18 in Western Australia. It is hosted by the city of Subaico, and 2014 marks the 22nd year of the award. Active in the environmental movement in Australia, Winton has been named a Living Treasure by the National Trust, and awarded the Centenary Medal for service to literature and the community. Perhaps he truly is a national monument.
2013 Shrine play
2012 Signs of Life, play
2011 Rising water 2008 Breath
2006 Small Mercies, novella
2005 The Turning
2001 Dirt Music
1999 Down to Earth, with photography by Richard Woldendorp
1998 The Deep (Children's)
1998 Lockie Leonard, Legend, (Children's)
1995 The Riders
1995 The Collected Shorter Novels of Tim Winton
1995 Lockie Leonard (Children's)
1994 Local Colour, photography and text by Bill Bachman; additional text by Tim Winton
1993 Land's Edge
1993 Blood and Water: Stories
1992 Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo
1991 The Bugalugs Bum Thief (Children's)
1988 In the Winter Dark
1987 Scission and Other Stories
1986 That Eye, the Sky
1985 A Blow, A Kiss
1985 Minimum of Two
1982 An Open Swimmer
Photograph of Tim Winton, courtesy of Penguin Books Australia
High Street, in Fremantle, the town in which Eyrie takes place, courtesy of Mitch Ames.
Ningaloo Reef. In 2003, Winton was awarded the inaugural Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Medal for his work in the campaign to save the Ningaloo Reef. Image courtesy of womangoingplaces.com.au
In addition to reviewing books, BookBrowse goes "beyond the book" to explore interesting aspects relating to each book we feature. Here is a "Beyond the Book" feature for The Blessings by Elise Juska...
The Blessings is a novel, but it's also a portrait an ensemble in which assorted members of three generations reveal various complexities and challenges. Here is a handful of other books that also offer multi-generational stories about family.
Sandra Gulland on 17th-century French theater, and a moving people's protest against authority.
Five years ago I went to Paris to research the life of Mademoiselle Claude des Oeillets. It was going to be a challenge, I knew. Claude--or Claudette, as I think of her--was a two-bit-player-turned-lady's maid, and she had lived over 250 years ago. As it is, there is often little in the historical records about the serving classes.
At BookBrowse, we don't just review books, we go 'beyond the book' to explore interesting aspects relating to each book we feature. Here is a "Beyond the Book" feature for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma about famous literary spats...
When famous figures spar, their words become part of the public record, particularly when those quarrelling are popular writers.
Ernest Hemingway, for example, was notorious for his antagonistic relationship with many of his contemporaries. While once close, he had a disagreement with his mentor Gertrude Stein over their differing opinions of Sherwood Anderson's works. As the friendship deteriorated, Stein published an unflattering portrait of Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Hemingway countered with A Moveable Feast, in which he criticized Stein's writing for its use of "repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket."
At BookBrowse, we don't just review books, we go 'beyond the book' to explore interesting aspects relating to each book we feature. Here is a recent "Beyond the Book" feature for The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond:
The True Tale Of The Monster Billy Dean, first published in the UK in 2011 by Penguin's adult imprint, Viking, was reviewed as David Almond's debut for adults, but it was simultaneously released as a young adult novel by Puffin, another Penguin imprint. It is one of a growing number of books that straddles the borderlands of adult, young-adult, and middle-grade fiction while the adult audience for YA and MG literature continues to grow.