Saturday, August 24, 2013

What I'm Reading



These are quick comments on some of the books currently in my life. As you will see, my reading is a bit haphazard (I was going to say "eclectic," but who am I kidding). Not necessarily the "latest stuff," and almost surely no economics.

There is also the problem that I forget very easily what I've just read. I don't forget what's in the book if I am reminded of it; I just can't remember which books. And that, my dear technophobes, anti-digital elitists and assorted manuscript-wielding Luddites --- that is where electronic reading comes in. For most reading devices also leave an ant-trail of books you've read.  

As I write that I realize I'm being slightly hypocritical. As much as I love the real thing --- pages that you can touch, turn, scuff, and smell, I also love the enormous convenience of getting onto a plane with a hundred books and all of this year's New Yorkers. So it's not just the reading log, my friends. Not at all.

Anyway. Luddites will be Luddites, though I managed to converted one of them. Last month, my mother traveled with the kids and me from Kolkata to London. My mother was nervous about what she was going to put in her handbag. "Take the ipad, Ma." "No, I'm not taking that silly gadget, and I have no space anyway! Just enough for a  small Sarat Chandra novel and my sudoku puzzles." Then I downloaded a sudoku app for her ipad. The rest is history. (Suffice it to say that Sarat Chandra never made the plane, at least not in "analog version".)
Anyway, here are some books from this summer. The first one is from last year, actually, but for several reasons it's been on my mind.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie

I'm a huge fan of Midnight's Children (the book not the movie, I hasten to add) so I felt obliged to read Rushdie's account of the infamous fatwa. About halfway in, a passing remark caught my eye:

"There had been a huge earthquake near the city of Rasht and forty thousand people had died, and half a million more were homeless, but that did not change the subject. The fatwa stood."

I am not exactly sure what Salman Rushie meant by this observation. Perhaps he meant it as a filler, because the remark appears as part of a longer paragraph presumably designed to show how the days and months passed as he waited, imprisoned by Khomeini's verdict. (What else happened in that four-sentence paragraph? In the first sentence, Nadine Gordimer collects signatures by eminent writers for his release. In the second, he dines "at the Pinters'" with Carlos and Silvia Fuentes. In the third, he refers to a London Islamic cleric as a "garden gnome", not for the first but perhaps for the tenth and certainly not the last time, and follows it up in the same sentence by referring to all the clerics of Tehran as gnomes. And the last sentence I have quoted for you above.)

I had been reading the book, initially with great interest, then with growing dismay and finally reading memorable sentences out loud (once again with great interest, but of a different kind). But this paragraph brought something home to me, which later parts of the book continued to reinforce.

1. The obvious. Rushdie's megalomania knows no bounds. In fact, I've been getting secretly pleasurable megalomania rushes by simply picking up different parts of the book and reading them to myself and to the dininishing few who will listen. It is a dizzying feeling to see the world and everyone in it, the Gorbachevs and the Gordimers, the Havels and the Hurds, the Vaclavs and the Vonneguts, the Sontags and the Soyinkas, all revolve in unified orbit around Salman Rushdie. It is a mind-blowing experience and (as often happens when a place looks familiar but is yet not quite right), slightly nauseating. 

2. The not-so-obvious, at least not to Rushdie, and certainly not what he expected to teach us. That free speech is deeply problematic when (to use economists' language) the externalities are pervasive, when hundreds of lives (or even a few) are at stake. Does that prevent us from tackling the great issues of intolerance? Not at all. The heinous nature of fundamentalist Islam, or fundamentalist Hinduism or Christianity for that matter, can be unequivocally pointed out. But, I am sorry to say, not in the way in which he did it. 

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

The year The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Booker, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger won the prize. All power to Adiga for his angry tale of Gurgaon hell. (And in passing, I have no problem with the subaltern speaking in any language he pleases, unlike this review.) But it all pales next to Barry's book, for no other reason than the sheer lyricism of his language.

An old woman, living her last days in a mental asylum where she has been confined for many decades, writes the secret scripture of her youth: stories of her father, of Ireland, of girlhood and of love. A not-too-young psychiatrist evaluates her, then is drawn to her, and then depends on her in ways that he cannot fathom. The two scriptures run along, emotionally intertwined in the strange poetry of the writing. (Until Barry breaks the spell by throwing in a "surprise ending," an entirely unnecessary and credulity-straining attempt to wrap it all up. Wtf Sebastian? Your writing just doesn't need this stuff.)
Oh, what writing. I loved almost all of the book, but an early chapter --- surreal in more ways than one as it turns out --- stands out for me. A young girl stands at the base of a tower in a cemetery, where her father (who is the gravekeeper) prepares to replicate Galileo's famous experiment at the top. Something about that chapter made me want to hold my own daughter, and never let her go.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

My tenuous grasp of the Tudors (and their diverse shenanigans) prevented me from reading Mantel's classic, but this summer I bit the bullet. I actually bit it in rather embarrassing fashion, first brushing up on Brit history via Wikipedia and then diving in with an ungainly, uneducated splash.

These books are the first two in a three-part trilogy that recounts the story of Thomas Cromwell, and his extraordinary rise to power as the right-hand man of Henry VIII (his subsequent fall from grace presumably to be the subject of Book 3). From a purely historical standpoint, Wolf Hall also chronicles the rise of Anne Boleyn, and Bring Up The Bodies her heart- (and head-) wrenching decline, with Cromwell a central player in both acts. All very exciting. But to me, Wolf Hall is remarkable for another reason. In a way that I cannot precisely describe or even fully understand, it gets at the great problem of how to write historical fiction in some credible fashion. Think of the seemingly insuperable problems --- the language, the setting, the innermost thoughts of well-known historical figures --- think of conveying these with a certain sense of "realness," and you will understand how hard the problem is. Mantel pulls this off by a device which both distances us and gets us close: a spare, minimalist writing style that creates the distance, along with quick slashes of feeling, memory, dialogue:  knife-stabs into a tapestry that covers history so that we can see glimpses through the gaps, with never an attempt --- doomed to failure --- to pull that tapestry entirely off.

What a book. 

Bring Up The Bodies is more mundane, I must sadly add. (Though it isn't hard to see why it is more popular.) Wolf Hall is an incredibly delicate balancing act and it is hard to avoid falling off. Add a bit more of linear narrative, a bit more dialogue, tarry a bit longer in the head of your principal man, and you will fall off. Yet it is absolutely extraordinary that she managed to climb up there in the first place.

Or maybe not so extraordinary. I've been a Mantel fan for years. For sheer writing beauty, try Beyond Black

Here is a list, very briefly annotated, of what else I've been reading of late:


A fascinating chronicle of Bengalis in the United States, starting in the 19th century.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

An account of the takeover of Czechoslovakia by Hitler's National Socialists, and the assassination of Nazi Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Pretty gripping.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

I'm a fan of Murakami and I particularly loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this book was pretty awful. By the way, did you know that at one point in 2012, Ladbroke's was offering 2:1 odds on Murakami winning the Nobel Prize for Literature? (Bob Dylan has 10:1, still pretty wild but infinitely more reasonable.)


Loved it, a lot of fun, though not as extraordinary as Logicomix.

From The Ruins Of Empire, by Pankaj Mishra

An interesting and informative book on the intellectuals of Asia. I am not a huge fan of the writing style, but that is a matter of taste. 

The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante

Difficult to read, a chronicle of a marital break-up. The writing is incredibly powerful. But who is Elena Ferrante? This won't tell you. If you read Italian or can use Google Translate, try this.

The Glass of Time, by Michael Cox.

Excellent sequel that I finished a month or two ago to a gripping book: The Meaning of Night.
And, as a last course:  I've just started, with great pleasure:


If you haven't met Vish Puri, Hall's Delhi-based detective, it's about time you did. You may want to start here

If you have an interesting book you've read recently and want to tell us about it, please comment.

P.S. None of the above links are monetized. (And for the grammar purists who are out to get me, take that!)