So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Sister India

Sister India by Peggy Payne
In Sister India Peggy Payne masterfully mixed her travel writing background into a novel about three guests and their fateful week staying at The Saraswati Guest House alongside the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Each is new to India. Marie Jasper is 75 and, after the death of her husband, is seeking peace in her soul. Jill Thornton is a young businesswoman doing some sightseeing after a business meeting, and T. J. Clayton is a married man from Florida on a grant to study river pollution. The Saraswati Guest House is considered to be a worthwhile experience for adventuresome travelers, largely due to the unique perspective of the massive proprietor Madame Natraja, a 300-400 pound blonde practicing Hindu from North Carolina, who has spent the last 20 years of her life in Varanasi.
The story of the week is told from the viewpoint of Madame Natraja who has spent the past 20 years turning herself from thin to obese suppressing her feelings by stuffing herself with Indian sweets. My favorite sentence in the book is on page 271 when Madame Natraja muses to herself: "Surely there is in each life a natural process of unfoldment, like the gradual bloom and ripening of the papaya, which even the most skeptical will agree is foreordained." Maybe Payne puts these words in the book to explain why it has taken 20 years for Natraja to face her inner demons. She, her Indian cook Ramesh, and these three guests will all take a new look at their lives after the killing of a Muslim man by two Hindus just outside the guest house leads to a week of retaliations and curfews.
Sister India is a short book that provides great detail without overdoing it. While experiences are related carefully and accurately, the background details of the culture and conflicts in Varanasi are given sparingly so as to not bog the reader down in history or theology. I found myself often looking up things online that Payne mentions but does not explain. While this is not necessary to understand the story line, I found it useful to see how much research Payne did in writing this work. I recommend Sister India to those who like stories about the natural healing power of the human spirit and who enjoy a novel set in a distant place.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Spider House

Spider House by Van Wyck Mason
I heard of Spider House because the Oxford English Dictionary says the first usage of the phrase "cold as a witch's tit" appears on page 210 of this book:

Quote: 1932 Van Wyck Mason, Spider House p. 210 It's cold as a witch's tit outside.

I had been trying to find out where this phrase came from, and Cecil Adams' The Straight Dope listed the OED reference and goes on to say: "Van Wyck Mason was a writer of mysteries, at a time when colorful metaphors were common. There is a strong possibility that he invented the phrase himself." So I started looking into the book and Van Wyck Mason, its author.

Fortunately my local college library has the original 1932 edition of Spider House. As a special treat this copy was originally owned by Merle Norman whose famous line of cosmetics is known around the country.



The story is about a man named Ezra Boonton who made a fortune on Wall Street taking money from poor good-hearted people. He became known as The Spider of the Street and is now retired and living in fear for his life in a specially built house in New Brunswick, NJ, where he has blockaded himself on the 2nd floor with a guard and security systems to protect him from being murdered. On a particular cold November night he has asked State Trooper Captain Janos Catlin to visit him because he is in "a momentary danger" of his life. At the house are his butler/guard Kelly, his nurses Dora DelRay and Hans Gruber, his brother Juan Boonton, and Dr. Lewes his physician. Two more troopers join Captain Catlin to provide extra security. Then, in this secure house, first the butler appears to shoot himself while cleaning his gun and then it seems a gun with a silencer is used to kill Ezra Boonton, but the murder weapon cannot be found. All that can be determined is that several people heard a low hum and there is a smell of burnt hair.

By the time it is solved this is quite an elaborate mystery with lots of excitement and intrigue. Van Wyck Mason's writing suffers from racial and ethnic caricatures that, while acceptable in the 1930s, make this book hard to read now. As for the famous phrase in the book, "It's cold as a witch's tit outside," that would outlive the author's fame, it was one of seven similes for how cold it was that Mason used in this book. The others being:

Cold as an Arctic gale (p.74), Cold as all hell (p.107), Cold as human greed (p.107), Cold as a grave stone (p.210) Cold as a witch's tit (p. 210), Colder'n a loan shark's smile (p.214), and Cold as a Pharoah's heart (p.272).

This gives credence to Cecil Adam's theory that Mason was just trying to use colorful similes to get across the frigidness of the weather.