A few weeks ago when I was knocked flat with the flu and afflicted with squinty, puffy eyes and a foggy brain, I looked for light, fun books that wouldn’t put too much of a strain on my system, and I found them in a far-east drama, a tale of reincarnated felines and an absorbing British photography book.
As soon as I started reading In Beautiful Disguises (Bloomsbury) by Rajeev Balasubramanyam, I knew I would want to read this story to the end. The narrator is a teenage girl living in southern India—and the only character in the novel who is unnamed. Her world consists of service within a family bound to silent tradition; she finds her only pleasure at the Majick Movie House, where she studies the graces of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and dreams of being a starlet. Eventually she runs away to escape the threat of a terrible arranged marriage, but in the city she has to go to work as a maid and finds it even harder to be elegant and sophisticated. Balasubramanyam has a good grasp of a young woman’s consciousness, but not a perfect one, and one-dimensional “cold-amoral-English-person” characters occasionally spoil the mood of the story. But these missteps are balanced by the historical contextual material he weaves throughout the narrative, such as the girl’s tales of the beautiful Pandavas, mythical warriors whose subterfuge and battles reflect her own attempts to see beneath her social disguises.
I knew I’d like Waiting for Gertrude (Douglas & McIntyre) because Bill Richardson is just so damn likeable. In his latest tale, the illustrious dead of the Pére-Lachaise cemetery in Paris are reborn by the litter, destined to scratch out new lives between the tombstones. Jim Morrison becomes a swaggering, tritesticular tomcat, a father and a threat to a thousand kittens. Oscar Wilde falls victim to the neutering affections of old lady Ondine, yet still pines for the feral, well-endowed Morrison. Marcel Proust works as a four-legged detective who finds clues in the aromas of his hindquarters. Edith Piaf, Isadora Duncan, Modigliani, Colette—all are befurred and all are manipulated by Alice B. Toklas as she tries to force the return of her beloved Gertrude Stein. Trickery and mayhem follow: forms may change, but natures stay true as the famous are “translated” into the feline. The story is as lighthearted as a tale of murder, spells and missing legs can be and it’s full of Richardson’s easy wit. Like a cat, it’s warm and fuzzy and perfect company for the flu. And were I a believer in reincarnation, I would borrow this deluxe deathbed farewell from Richardson: “I wish you a safe and eventful journey. I wish you an easy and speedy return.” In my aching misery, I had to be allowed one book where I could just look at the pictures.
The Bus (Harvill Press) displays the startling results of a twenty-eight-year reunion between the photographer Daniel Meadows and the subjects of the Free Photographic Omnibus, a project he undertook in 1973. In classic ’70s form, Meadows had ranged across England in a double-decker bus, offering free portraits to working class people. In 1994 he found the photographs while sorting through his archive and was inspired to track down as many of those subjects as he could find to record their histories and re-photograph them. He arranged them in the same positions for the new portraits, and Then and Now appear side by side in The Bus. I found myself helplessly engrossed in the faces of strangers: I studied the aging process, looked for stories in the subjects’ postures and noted with emotion some absences in group shots. But for me the text of The Bus didn’t meet the standards set by the images. Meadows told too many stories about himself and his work: it was the fate of the subjects, and the stories to be read in their faces, that engaged me.