Tuesday, July 31, 2007

something for everyone -- reading, knitting, gardening

Quite some time ago, I promised you a piece of knitlit -- specifically, an excerpt about knitting from a wonderfully rich book that some critics have called an Indian detective novel: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. It is, but it transcends that genre, or at least stretches it to meet the best of its promises. Think of the very best of Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and James Lee Burke and the way these mystery writers so compellingly build a sense of place while developing complex characters. Then combine this with the rich texture of other doorstopper books that have tried to convey the chaotic wonders of India's cities, its culture, history, and politics--Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. At 900 pages, Sacred Games is a commitment, for sure, but such a satisfying one. Here's a taste, especially appropriate for the knitters out there.

To set the passage up, I need to tell you that, according to the Dramatis Personae helpfully provided at the front of the book, Major Shahid Khan is "a Pakistani intelligence agent who masterminds a counterfeit money operation against India." At home alone one Sunday, "after all responsibilities have momentarily been discharged, he feels that he can take an hour off. He goes to his bedroom and shuts the door. The front door is locked, and he knows nobody will disturb him, but he is compelled to make sure that his privacy is secure. Until now, only his wife knows he does what he is about to do."

When I read that, at the bottom of page 682, several actions presented themselves as possibilities in the micro-second it took to move my eyes to the top of page 683. But I didn't expect this:

"He sits in his favourite armchair, which faces the window. Good light is essential. He puts a pillow over his lap, the balls of yarn to his right. Then he begins to knit. He is making yet another scarf. His wife donates them, usually to a madrassa or an orphanage back home. The needles click, and click, and Shahid's Khan's [sic] ease and drop. He has been doing this for the
last two years, since a doctor in Karachi told him that he had better learn to relax, or his ulcers were going to kill him. . . . [Khan first tries squash and then chess, but his competitive nature makes both too competitive and hence stressful and so he] called the Karachi doctor . . . and almost hung up when he heard what the man had to suggest. It took him two months to buy the yarn, and another three weeks to begin. But he found, even that first time in the hotel room in Tallinn, that his hands fell naturally into the rhythms. He understood the taut opposition of knit and purl, and did not need to think. He did not need to knit faster, or better, or even competently. He just made something, something red and oddly shaped and large, and decided later that it was a scarf.

So Shahid Khan sits facing the noontide sun. His eyes are wide open, and there is only a small burning within his belly, and he does not mind it. In a little while it too will be gone. He is breathing. The white yarn stretches against his skin, and then relaxes. The needles sound against each other. . . His mind, his heart fills with the radiant glow of Allah's mercy. The fabric
grows, and he is at peace."
That this passage is nestled so unexpectedly within the novel's interwoven's strands of adventure is emblematic of the treasures it holds. It's not in paperback yet, so buying it is as much of a commitment, wallet-wise, as the time you'll invest (altho' if you think of the entertainment hours per dollar, the book's way ahead of movies). Mine came packaged with a brilliant CD packed with music inspired by the novel. But if the August budget doesn't stretch to a hardcover copy, I'm sure your library has it, or you could put it on your gift wishlist.
Before I get to my academic reading (catching up on what's been said about Toni Morrison's Jazz in preparation for teaching that this fall--great book if you need another recommendation, and Jazz is only about 250 pages, much more manageable!), and then back to Harry Potter and my chair in the sun, I'll leave you with a few gardening shots 'cause they've been few and far between lately. These are of a few really useful, very attractive, "filler" plants. The alchemilla alpina here is a particular favourite of mine, and was given to me by my mom quite a few years ago.
It's related, of course, to the better-known Alchemilla, the commonly-termed Lady's Mantle. This one is much smaller, with glossier leaves edged in white. It divides very easily and it manages well with poor soil in dry areas(as alpine plants generally do).

And absolutely indispensable, I think, is this little corydalis lutea. The original plant in my garden was also given to me, this one by my friend, Alison. In the years since then, I first divided it to spread it around, and then left it to seed itself where it wants to. It's much happier in part to full shade, but also tolerates full sun, although it gets pretty bedraggled looking in those spots by late July.

You can see that it's getting a bit wan-looking in the sunny spot pictured above, but you can also see how pleasingly it mounds its lacy self up to fill in awkward spots. Here it is again (below), even happier with a bit of shade. Click to enlarge for a closer look at the dainty lace of its leaves and the delicate shape of the pretty tubular flowers.

What about you? Any recommendations you want to share for reading? Or for your favourite filler plants in the garden? If you do have recommendations, we'd love to see them in the comments below.


  1. I've been wanting to read Sacred Games... maybe you'll let me borrow it when we're over this weekend? (or Harry Potter!)

    I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and really enjoyed it (though have a nagging feeling I should be more critical of it...) I loved the narrator's voice but that might have to do with my slight obsession with teenagers and their self-consciousness and angst (witness my love for the OC). Currently reading Everything is Illuminated but not making much headway...

  2. borrow Harry Potter this weekend and read quickly--it's promised to Zach and will stay in his library, and I think he's coming up next week sometime. you're welcome to borrow Sacred Games and take a bit longer with it.
    Haven't read either Prep or Illuminated, altho' I've read a few student essays about the latter (for our dept's essay contest). Prep sounds as if it's a possibility for an engaging 1st-year read, so I should pick it up (or can I borrow yours?) And hey, that's what an English minor is good for--nagging you to be critical of a book you enjoy! sums it up nicely, no? (and that's how I make my living!)

  3. With your recommendation I may just order Sacred Games from Amazon or Chapters today. I haven't been reading a lot lately. I was given Ursula Hegl's Sacred Time at Christmas and only finished it When Jeff was sick at the Gite in France. I left it on the bookshelf there for someone else to pick up. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. I haven't read Ursula Hegl for years; thanks for the reminder of a very readable writer -- neat link here with the Sacred Games/Sacred Time. Wouldn't it be neat to find out how the next gite visitor liked your book?

  5. What a tremendous little discovery--thanks so much for sharing that quote. I'm definitely going to have to splurge (tho' I need another book like I need a hole in the head).

    PS: Love the Buffy quote of the day, too! Great idea.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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