Monday, February 6, 2017

2016 in reading

Following is the list of books I read in 2016, from my Recent Reads page:
  1. The Lady and the Monk - Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer ***
  2. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie *****
  3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry ***
  4. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk ****
  5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy ***
  6. The New York Trilogy by Paul Aster ***
  7. Mosby's Memoirs by Saul Bellow **** (Short stories)
  8. Smart Money by Andrew Palmer **** (NF)
  9. Macbeth by William Shakespeare ***
  10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr ***
  11. Voss by Patrick White ****
  12. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway *****
  13. On Writing by Stephen King *** (Memoir)
  14. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri ***
  15. If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvio *** Translated
  16. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams *** (SF)
  17. Browsings by Michael Dirda *** (NF -Collection of notes/ essays on books)
  18. The Years by Virginia Woolf *** (If everything were as simple as good, bad, or ugly, this one had a lot of ugly in it)
  19. Rabbit, Run by John Updike ***
  20. Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov *** (SF)
  21. The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier **  (Short stories)
  22. Islands in the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke *** (SF)
  23. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf ****
  24. The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick *** (SF, kindle)
  25. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad ***** (kindle)
  26. Middlemarch by George Eliot **** (kindle)
  27. Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick *** (SF)
  28. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury *** (SF)
  29. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf ****
  30. The American by Henry James *** (kindle)
  31. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot *** (kindle)
  32. Hunger by Knut Hamsun **** (kindle). Translated. 
  33. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis **** (Literary comic(?))
  34. Contact by Carl Sagan *** (SF)
  35. The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen ***
  36. Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield *** (Short stories)
  37. Collected Stories by John Cheever *** (Short Stories) 
  38. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli **** (NF)
  39. The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clezio **** translated
  40. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem *** (SF)
  41. The Occupation Trilogy by Patrick Modiano ****
  42. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison ***
42 books! My highest so far. Happy.
  • I read a lot of science fiction. 7
  • Read some wishlist books - War and Peace, Satanic Verses, Middlemarch
  • Bunched up reading periods through the year. A few months when I read a lot. And a couple of months, nothing. 
  • For the non fiction, often books don't end up in the 'recent reads' list since I drop them when my interest is satiated rather them completing them 
  • Read a few authors for the first time and enjoyed them
I have so far read around 5 in Jan 2017. Trying to read one non fiction each month. Currently reading through 3 big books, fiction classics - all 30-50% read, so will be some time before I come back to these pages to update. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Solairs by Stanislaw Lem

Very quick read. Page turner. 200 or so pages.

It is a long short story kind of sci-fi. A single interesting idea, which could be the starting point of so many different ways to develop a story. The idea of a planet size other being/civilization - what to call it? And then, the anthropomorphic contact from a different intelligence is reminiscent of my other recent read, Sagan's Contact. 

There is a George Clooney movie as well on the story. Haven't watched the movie yet.

The book was very interesting. However wouldn't rate it at the top with the best kind of sci-fi. Great idea, but there could be so much more. There was a lot there, but somehow, I ended up reading quickly over the bits about the other world's history, and the politics of the science etc. There were some brilliant concepts, and insights about human approach to new exploration. Some ideas that I quite liked:
- the single consciousness lost in some sort of contemplation about the universe and its own nature?
- the frequent expression and destruction cycle - the creative representation, the art, the math.
- the idea that it copies, replicates to try to understand the other
- the way of contact - of literally reading the conscious and subconscious thoughts, of communicating through dreams.
- the general approach and discussion around contact, and the human aspiration of contact. And the general idea of a consciousness which is not human.

I enjoyed reading it, but I guess I am biased when it comes to sci-fi. I expect so much more! And forget that it is fiction. And end up getting disappointed. However beautifully or brilliantly written, the fiction cannot quench the thirst of needing to know what is out there.

Still, we seek.

PS: Normally I do not link other external articles here, but for a good quick read on Stanislaw Lem, and Solaris and the movie, visit this article from Wired. As to linking external blogs - there are hundreds of places I can begin, but where do I stop? So, as a matter of keeping it simple, will remove this external link once I have done my reading around Lem.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Loved this book. Beautifully written. Haunting imagery. Stays with me even after the story has ended.

There are so many different emotions that books might leave you with. Books and good stories. Some happy, some satisfied, some sad, some angry, and some making you want the story to go on and on.
This particular book, leaves me at peace, quiet and calm.

It is a beautiful, slow, rich in its sparseness kind of narrative. Serene, poetic, lyrical.

This is my first complete read from Le Clezio. I have a couple of other books from him, which I tried to begin reading a few years ago, Fever (stories), and The Giants. I left Fever on its first story since I felt it too closely for comfort (I got temperature around the time of reading it). And I hoped it was not psychosomatic. Some day, I'll read it. The other book, The Giants is very different. It does not look like a narrative, and I don't know how to approach it.

When I picked up The Prospector, I had confused Le Clezio in my mind with Patrick Modiano. For the first few pages, it even read like a Modiano narrative. And then it dawned on me that I might get to add to my 'Read the Prize' page. It is so very different from the other two books that I have from the same author.

On to the book - This is a translated book. This edition - translation by C. Dickson (Atlantic Books imprint) seems like published this year itself. Set in early twentieth century, this book is based in Mauritius and we travel with the narrator as he grows, on his journeys, in Mauritius, and its nearby islands (Rodrigues), and a bit of First World War action territories.

I have never read anything from Mauritius earlier. And this book is a book of the islands and the sea, and journeys, and a quest - seeking something, may be some treasure or may be peace, which we seek and seek outside like the narrator, but which we invariably, in the end, find within.

It is interesting how stories of so disparate times and lands can resonate with people across the gap of time and place and culture. In the end, the questions we all seek answers to, we are on our own journeys, and the derivative/ the setting may change, but the underlying emotion stays the same, and that is why perhaps we love such stories.

Like the 4 chord songs - everyone loves them!

Enjoyed every moment of reading the book. Not in a rushed, or 'what's the next page' kind of way, but 'I'm quite enjoying the journey' kind of way. Off to look for more from the author.

A good read. Definite recommend.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and other related books

This blog post is a different exercise. Free writing all my thoughts after reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and then supplementing it with Stephen Hawking's lectures (The Theory of Everything).

I read Rovelli's book twice in the same day. It is a tiny, 70 page book. A series of newspaper articles. The book beautifully simplifies the complicated concepts for a layperson - boiling them down to essentials. Hawking's book helped me in further understanding some of the questions raised by the first one. But I have not completed it yet. Read through most, and got a big list of things to look up further and ended up reading a lot of other science sites/ books and wikipedia.

I often start reading science books. As they say, they are good for the soul. To instill and reignite that sense of wonder, awe and humility. To realize that how tiny a speck we are in the grand scheme. I start reading these science books with high aspirations and then at some point, when the things I do not understand become greater than what I do understand, I end up giving up the book, instead looking up the not understood. My bookshelf is full of tomes which have been lovingly collected, but never fully read. Carlo Rovelli's is a finish in a long time.

After every such full/ partial read, I come away brimming full of ideas and notes, and following is the spillover. Indulging myself and putting them here. Bear with me

~ The concept of  'here' relates to space. The concept of 'now'  is similarly related to time. Carlo Rovelli notes that past is different from future because of heat. Only because of heat. If you take heat out of equation, one cannot figure out the arrow of time. Or something on those lines.

~ Space is made of quanta of space. Joined together. Einstein's second relativity paper - the general one, not special.

~ Bulges in the space-time fabric because of mass. Earth makes a bigger bulge than moon. And sun even bigger. So the space is bulged and curved because of the mass of so many different bodies. And so is time. For a moment, I can grasp space being curved, the same way that even though all around us we see flatness, we know and can understand that we live on a curved earth.

~ As someone said, we learn the unknown in terms of the known. Or the new in terms of the known.

~ Gravity is part of the fabric. The space time fabric. The bulges are the reason things move. Sun bulges the fabric majorly, and teeny-meeny earth is sent on a forever kind of roll around the sun’s bulge's funneling incline - what we call the pull of gravity. (There is no up and down since we are already in 3D, and all this bulging is happening in 4 or 5D) So it is up and down both.

~ So space being curved means what we see is not straight out there, but somewhere on a wavy thing, bobbing up and down if the waves move swiftly, or just hanging there if the waves move slow. And as the bulges curve the space, what does it mean? And now, trying to picture time being curved.

~ I once saw negative space chessmen. Where the chess pieces are cuboids. And the emptiness inside them is the shape of the chess piece - a pawn or king. It is the void which defines, not the substance. So gravity is akin to negative space. What we think is empty and pulls, is full of space quanta and is bulged hence the pull!

~ And now, coming back to time. Time passes much more slowly near the surface of earth.

~ They say time inside a black-hole will pass in an instant (a black-hole being a rebounding star), the time outside, or as for us, as observers, it will take forever. Because the space-time near and at singularity is fully curved. Nothing escapes, no light, no time?

~ Another interesting fact – the bigger the star, the shorter its life.

~ And a speck of dust is to Earth as a subatomic particle is to speck of dust!!! I still can't get my head around it.

~ Are blackholes some kind of punctures in the universe?

~ Everything swooshing out of them. Going where?

~ The universe is somebody’s big tyre.

~ And blackholes are the puncture.

~ Coming back to time. How does ‘now’ relate to 'here'? When I go away from 'here', I am the one gone, ‘here’ still stays as such. I can come back to 'here'. And I’ll find it so, at least what is perceptible to me. The placement of atoms and quarks may be different.

~ When I go away from ‘now’ can I come back to now? Will 'now' still remain as 'here'?

~ Or the 'here' is the planet

~And 'now' is the time scale of this planet

~ To a bug, a full life is a day. The timescale for a bug. 

~ To humans, life is several decades. Still, nothing.

~ To human species, life is a few million years?

~ To the sun, life is 10 billion years. Middle aged Sun.

~ To the universe that we know, since the big-bang, life is 14 billion years so far. Young or old?

~ Expanding, wavy, rippling away.

~ What we see is there and not there.

~ We move through space, and time moves through us?

~ Another amazing fact: All elements are possible solutions to a single equation. The whole periodic table.

~ And that is what all the reality that we see is made up of.

~ Different possible solutions to a single equation!

~ And at the heart of the solidity of what we see, the predictability of interactions of these elements that we have based our lives on, there is a probability function.

~ An electron can be there or not there. It ‘manifests’ itself doing quantum leaps

~ So we are probability manifestations. So there'll be a probability manifestation where the non happening events exist. Or it doesn't matter. We are all hypothetical.

~ How does this differ from the old Hindu philosophy, that everything that you see and understand is some sort of illusion, Maya. You need to step up and away from the manifestation of the form, to see the content.

~ Like the 'ineluctable modality of the visible'  as James Joyce notes in Ulysses (my other current aspiration read), so in our life, we are forever doomed as a species to see form over content - the illusion?

~ In universe, in a way, everything is super simple. There are just a few basic alphabets. And they combine and manifest in myriad ways to form this book. This saga of universe? Or this little Koan?

~ So are we some kind of expression for someone with multidimensional capabilities. Here, Exhibit A is Universe, Exhibit B Black Holes, Exhibit E Earth and here be consciousness in living matter.

~ Should we meditate on this, and wonder, or keep trying to push the boundaries of our understanding. May be that is the purpose of consciousness. Do you ever get to fully comprehend what is it that you are?

~ We understand the new in terms of the known.

~ So there were times, when Earth was thought of as flat. Then times when everything moved round and round the earth,

~ And now we do understand that we are in some far flung arm of a mediocre galaxy

~ And we are just one set of representation of chemical equations

~ Have we, as human beings ever tried to form something as elegant as this universe? Basic few blocks, a beautiful equation with multiple solutions and then each solution so different from the other?

~ Or the difference is just a small block on spectrum? Like visible light on electromagnetic spectrum. We think we see everything, until you see the wavelengths that are visible. It is a revelation. A humbling experience

~ And so the chemical solutions of equation, is it all we see because that is what all we can see?

~ Coming back to the slippery slope of fathoming time. How do you figure it out?

~ Imagine a big massive ceiling fan, with really long blades. We are on one blade, at the very far end, towards the edge. And a blackhole is in the centre. In one second, say (or what? I thought one second is one second wherever it may be). But say for a recorded period, we move the arc a particular distance, since we are tracing a bigger circle, and for the same period, someone at the centre, moves a lesser distance since they are tracing a smaller circle. Now suppose the distance we are covering is that of time. Then does it make sense? The time we cover is more for the same recorded measure as the centre traveller.

~ But then how can we measure time both for marking the experiment and for the distance!

It is frustrating. What constraints does human mind and lifetime have! So much, so much, out there to understand, and we get limited by our visible spectrum and whatever chemical elements made us and left us floating in this bubbly bulgy space quanta ocean of time where the ladder of the known leads us only a little bit further, to larger and bigger unknowns.

The supreme perversity of the ineluctable modality of the visible!

This doesn't even make any sense.

I know we have come far from the days of flat earth. It is just another sand particle worth of distance covered on a mile long beach. Here's wishing with all my heart that we get to understand some more of this amazing wonderland that we live in!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Collected Stories by John Cheever

Like a kaleidoscope running through suburban America of mid 20th century. Like Revolutionary Road, or Rabbit Run or Updike’s stories. What is described as the American way of life. Interesting stories, but dysfunctional families. Most stories have the man going out to work on the morning train, and wives at home, their suburban lives, them picking up their husbands from the station in the evening. Their lives not happy. But the stories do not showcase angst the way Yates did, these stories are more matter of fact.

I took my time reading this 900 page tome - a couple of months. 50 stories or so. One can read them for the description. Or read them as good stories, short, contained, well sketched out characters, straight narrative. Or read them to get transported to the place where the author places the story and empathize with the characters. Do not read seeking epiphany.

Not sure whether I’ll read any more of Cheever in the near future.Even though well written and enjoyable, somehow, they leave me with an unhappy aftertaste. They leave me with some unease, some sort of discomfort, wondering how much of ourselves do we lose in the humdrum of everyday. And that for some, the humdrum becomes the mainstay! (And when this happens, there is little left in life). 

And may be that is where the author succeeds - creating that discomfort.  However, for the time being, pushes me away.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

For Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf notes that hers was the only writing she (VW) was perhaps jealous of. I had heard the name often, but never read anything. Finally, I got to read this small collection of stories in a beautiful Bloomsbury Classic bound pocket size book.

Born in NZ, she studied in England, and lived in France. And her stories seem to be based there (in France, and Europe). I loved the writing - charming is the word that comes to mind. Flowing, transporting you to the time and place where the characters are.

In terms of subject, she deals with those that seem non-conventional in her time. Or modern, then. The settings seem Victorian, but what happens is not. In that sense, she is more modern or further ahead of her times than VW or other contemporaries.

Emotional. Some of the stories just capture a span of few days or moments. But they present an undercurrent, or the view from very new angles (one which I am not used to reading). The power of surprise, in terms of content (not twists). The stories seem to hold a moment or two in the characters' lives as we hold a bauble, and examine it closely, minutely.

Engaging read.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen

What do I feel about Leonard Cohen’s book? Dream-like, poetic, restless.

Listening to his music, and reading his words, you see him flashing through. Is it fiction, or is it part of him? His deep spring of ideas which flows through in his songs, his book, his poetry. The book is lyrical, rhythmic, poetic, slow, invoking rich images. Still, not heavy, light.

Had started reading this first book of his after reading his profile by David Remnick in New Yorker last month. Since then his songs are on a loop (Apple music playlist - Leonard Cohen Essentials). 

When I first began reading the book, was not very sure whether I wanted to continue it. It felt different than my other readings. It seemed raw, unpolished, dark in certain places, restless, and hence a bit ruffling. I realize, consciously or unconsciously, I avoid dark, loud, or ruffling – something that bothers, questions too much, is uncomfortably unfamiliar or shows scars. And this one felt a bit like that. Was going to leave it alone,...but then I heard about him passing away.

I began it again, with his music in the background. The book is episodic, building up scenes and scenes, dream-like sequences and lots of space to breathe. And you recognize his turn of phrase, his countenance and attitude. Divided in four books, and almost 20 chapters each over 250 pages, it is a delight to read.

The book seems autobiographical. It is not the kind of work I would read often, not a subject matter I would pick up. Also, it is not the kind of person I would read often about. But somehow, in this book, Breavman (the lead) does not come across as revolting. He comes across as a poet, a singer, Leonard Cohen in making. You can almost sympathize. It is not the world view you may have grown up with or approve of, in fact it may be something to be regarded as reproachful in people, but somehow, in an artist, in him, in someone in spite of themselves, it is forgiven.

I have always felt that books by poets are somehow better than those by non-poets. Be it Sylvia Plath or Joseph Brodsky. Or here, Leonard Cohen. The way they use words is lighter, more precise, how to put it best? They say much more in far fewer words. 

Enjoyed reading the book. 

RIP Leonard Cohen. Love your music – and for last few weeks, it has been the background music to my days. I can almost break into ‘Like a bird…’ in supermarkets, in libraries, while K and I have breakfast, while driving, while writing this and while not writing this, gazing out at the clear blue sky and the far away blue sea and mini clouds. It makes everything slower, richer, more peaceful.

‘…I have tried in my way to be free’

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

For this one, find my notes, here, on my other blog.

Contact by Carl Sagan

Nice well-rounded science fiction after a long time!

Written in 1985, the book is a long time behind the current world. But that does not hinder the development of the key plot in the book. The story pursues a scenario of contact by other intelligent beings in the universe.

Things that I love about the book -

  • Its premise - it is not outlandish or fantastic as some of the other sci-fi books tend to be, but a hypothetical probability explored; one element of contact from extra terrestrial intelligence explored while being fully grounded on Earth and recognizing human capabilities and constraints.
  • The lead - There is a strong protagonist, Ellie, sort of a rebel, searching for intelligence and decoding the message when one is encountered. One of the few books which have a strong female lead in non-conventional roles. There are many beautiful books with female leads but very few who have strong, rebellious female leads. My other recent read, Mill on the Floss had one, but her rebelliousness was constrained by the times she lived in. 
  • Balance - Despite it being science/ imaginative fiction, there are enough snippets of history/ culture, stories and information on the key scientific principles, which leave you with a lot of things to think about. It was a well balanced read - giving the pleasure of fiction showing the interplay of characters set in the context of science and all the other extra-terrestrial elements. And most of all, it had a positive, hopeful tone. (Which I felt so lacking in Rama II).

However, as all such future focused/ speculative books and movies end up doing, you expect to be marveled, but they end up falling short (the end). Like Interstellar, the movie. Or Rama II. Even though the journey, the reading through, the watching is fun, the end somehow does not live up to the build-up. It falls short, feels silly. But then, isn't it bound to happen? It's not the author's fault. We are talking about the most existential questions we face as humans and hoping to find answers in scenarios. If somebody could or would have shown the answers, explained the universe, this life, then they need not be bound to earth. And in such cases, 42 (Hitchhiker) is as good an answer as somebody falling in black holes and sending messages to their family (Interstellar) or finding a circle in value of pi (Contact).

I haven't read Cosmos or Broca's Brain or haven't yet seen Contact, the movie. Will look them up. I like reading such works, for the feelings they leave me with. The questions and the sense of wonder which can never  be satiated in this lifetime.

What thoughts do I end up with? That we are so, so insignificant, and the time we have this consciousness is so little, the magnitude we live at is so tiny, compared to the vastness and the hugeness of this space-time. How would we ever decipher any part of this, or ever find out any answers? I just wonder while looking out at the dark blue evening sky full of early stars, and sometimes amuse myself with a hypothesis, that perhaps all the old stories we remember and retain in various cultures, at least a few of them happened because there was some contact from somewhere else (some other intelligence) ....and the collective memory retains some of those episodes, worshiping and mythologizing what could not be explained, ascribing powers to them which were perhaps not their's. May be, it was so. And may be, not so. Who is to tell?

Along these lines, one of the stories told in Hindu mythology/ Gita is about Brahma's age (a google search will present a lot of similar sources). Ignoring the part about what needs to be done to escape the cycle of creation-annihilation, it is quite fascinating to fantasize about the quantum of time represented in each day and night of Brahma (the creator) or his lifetime. At least, something I read on this planet which talks of scales comparable to this universe.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Reading update and goals

On trying to read better and more.

Reading is what they call a garden of forking paths. You read a book, you complete a bit, and then you get referred to hundred others. The more you read, the longer grows the reading wishlist. All the time, trying to make a dent in it and balancing it with all the other good things in life, and reading about reading and books and authors and their thoughts. And when not doing that, reading about the world, and watching and listening, and learning. Sometimes, I get this strange despair that even a lifetime of reading won't be enough time to read all the stuff I want to read!

Still, the way a good book pleases, very few experiences can be compared to it. So despite the never-ending reading list, I try to go slow, to get completely soaked in the story. Balancing these conflicting desires: one, to read quickly to get on to the next book, and the other, wanting the current moment to stretch and stretch to make reading a fully enriching experience.

These days, I have three open books. Was reading John Cheever's Collected Stories - a big book with lots and lots of stories (love the slow bit there. Savoring each one). Was reading this in September. Then came the holiday, where I decided to travel light and started reading Mill on the Floss on kindle.

I have been able to read some long-staying-in-thoughts books over the last few months. And each good book finished leaves me with this gaping, lost feeling. I want the story to continue and go on reading about the life of those well loved characters, or about that interesting world or sometimes just author's thoughts. There is this low that comes over me until I pick up something new and can immerse myself in. I loved Middlemarch and wanted a bit more of that world and time and George Eliot.

Midway on Mill on the Floss. And the third one is Contact, by Carl Sagan. Bought this for the plane ride back to Sydney. So much simpler to put on some good music and read a book on a plane than browse through the entertainment system and decide on which movies or shows to work through!

Both Contact (first 100 pages), and Mill on the Floss seem to have strong female leads. One seems to spot the rebel in both of them, and I like reading them side by side. And it becomes all the more stark given Maggie could not do what she pleased while Ellie (Contact), led her life the way she pleased. None of the Victorian heroines would have done that...could not do that. Even though there is still a long way to cover, world has grown up and come forward a long way from those times.

Apart from these fiction books, there are a lot of borrowed non-fiction books sitting next to me. I love the idea of exploring (without necessarily completing) a book. Especially those that end up being repetitive explaining the same idea over and over again. It is easy to speed work through them. There are only a few excellent NF books that you feel like not missing a word of. Hoping that sometime will be able to complete Antifragile and Second hand time. (Both are my recent purchases after repeated borrowings from the library could not make me complete them. They seem to be books which one can read only a little bit of everyday).

So, have been exploring and trying to improve my reading habits. Hoping that over the coming days, I'll have more frequent updates on this page. And even if it is a small note, I do hope that I write a bit on what I've read.

Happy reading.

(Draft from mid Oct)

Update (26/10/2016): Finished Mill on the Floss. And then, read the pretty much un-put-down-able Hunger by Knut Hamsun. And the bookmark is still almost at the same place on Contact. Reading Collected Stories on and off. Need to begin the aspiration list books (Svetlana A and Antifragile).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Notes on some recent reads

This is holiday time, break time, 'sabbatical' time. Call it what you will. For my part, I consider myself fortunate to get all this time, which I can use to do whatever. Glad that I have been able to read a fair bit during this time.

Here, I round up thoughts on some of the books read over the last few months. This post has been growing like a waxing moon in my drafts for a while now. Publishing it finally.
Not in strict order, but more recent reads are towards the top.

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk ****
I have read Snow and The White Castle by Pamuk in the past. I have tried to begin My Name is Red and the Black Book often, but they still stay on wish-list. This one though was an impulse purchase and a relatively quick read.

It is a sad-happy, bitter-sweet  story of an obsessive, and sort of - unrequited love. Set in Istanbul of the 1970s, it recreates the city, its people for you. In this book, Pamuk approaches story-telling in a fairly new way - creating an actual, physical museum of the fictional objects referred in the story as the story unfurls, and as he builds the characters. It reads at times as a museum guide, albeit a highly engaging one.

The book revolves around two central characters and spiralling around them, weaves the city of Istanbul and the life people led there from mid seventies to mid eighties. Everyday life of the relatively rich and well-to-do people. And at the crux of it all you get to see the Turkish society/ culture with different moral codes, and like most of the world, separate expectations and lifestyle for its men than for its women. Everyday normal life but such saddening emotional orientation of the narrator and the object of his affections! It is a different reading experience. One of a kind. And since it is Pamuk's writing (though translated), it works its magic.

Longish book, but I liked it. I have never been to Istanbul, but if I ever go there, then I think I'll go to the physical museum of this story.

(PS - I realised later on that the period in the book is that of significant political and financial upheaval in Turkey. Around this time,  after the oil price surge of 1973, Turkey became one of the first countries in the world to not properly honour govt loans, and economically, this was one of the worst times for Turkey.)

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie *****
Salman Rushdie is one of K's favourite authors. And this book as well. And in a way which only art can do - by trying to understand the art that people you care for love, you get to understand your loved ones better. The shared art then works as a shared universe of emotions, feelings, reactions, a chain of thoughts, context and wavelength accessed through the common trigger of the art in consideration. One of the things that only art can do when accessible and shared - lends you the common currency, or key to the cocoon.

This being the reason I finally read Midnight's Children in the past after several unsuccessful attempts. And over time, I have read essays and other writings from SR, and grown to respect and enjoy his writing. But unlike others, this one was a completely different reading experience. Either I have grown, or Satanic Verses is a completely different level of writing. Extremely engaging.

This was an autographed copy - autographed to the kid, when recently Salman Rusdie visited Sydney (Opera House - Dangerous Ideas). Loved the construct, the story. Reminded me of so many other authors I have grown to love - Marquez, Pynchon, Borges, DFW. Loved the brilliance of story-telling, and of language. It is set in London, Bombay and several timeless places in between.

There are so many other sub texts to reading this book, or writing about it. One gets tempted to research around the book, around the fables that underlay the cultural context, around the ideology that go on to constitute any religion in this world. And around all the controversy surrounding the book.  It is, after all, one person's take on the story, a version of fiction or fable, which can be as good as anyone else's. Since none of us was here centuries ago, no one really has the full complete story of how history, religion, people behaved. And as the author himself notes, "when you throw everything up in the air, anything becomes possible." And so it goes, surreal, steeped in magic realism and driving through some sad truths that form the foundation of our civilization.

One of the better books I read recently.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry ***
A saga of four lives. India - 1975. Emergency years. Quite saddening stories themed on the unfairness of life. Reminder of Slumdog (without the millionaire part). Reminder of Ivan Denisovich at some places. Reminder of all things that are not right, that are unjust in this world.

The period during which the book is set is more of my parents' teenage/ early adulthood years - when things were limited, resources were limited, and more than two billion people in this world lived very limited, confined lives. The period after the world wars, before globalisation, when most of the countries had their own independent worries, before the whole world became irredeemably interconnected.

Each country must have different stories of those years. At least the few Asian countries which form the population bulk in this world. I and my generation were not yet there, and if we were, maybe at the margins, perhaps as babies and just had a partial view into that world. Hence, it stays an enigma - that period of recent history, not as well documented as the wars before it, or the period that came after it. One then reads about Pamuk's Turkey, Doris Lessing's England, and Coetzee and Gordimer's Africa, Iyer's Japan, Paul Aster's NY and Rushdie's S Asia from that period to get a sense of how lives were being lived then. 

Language wise - after Salman Rushdie's brilliance, this one was very paperback styled, fast read. But then I don't think the idea was for it to be a masterpiece. The idea was telling of a tale of four lives from that era facing so much unfairness, and writing about that time when the world was still quite closed - it has several coincidences like a Bollywood movie. Unlike as I do with most other books, I do not feel happy after reading this one. It is the unfairness without any easy way of resolving it. And for that very reason, I realise anew that I refrain from reading fiction about India. Or around India. Guess too close for comfort!

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy ***
A massive book. Read on kindle. Has been on my reading wish-list for a really long time. I guess the suggestion of BBC War and Peace ads all over the city for the last few weeks nudged me gently towards finally picking it up. Haven't seen the show yet. It took me a couple of weeks to finish reading this tome on kindle. (Goes on to some 23,000 locations - over 15 mini books).

It is a saga of a few families from the Russian elite (counts and princes and the like) - not the mass Russia - set against the backdrop of Napoleon's pursuit of Russia during early 19th century. The world was very different -  a world sans any technology and an army of 100,000 marching from France to Russia at the onset of Russian winter with cavalry, infantry and all the old world ways. Today, they find place only in period dramas. For a war to be fought like that, it is perhaps not possible any more. And when it happened, it affected millions of lives.

I quite liked the way the context is set, and conveys the slow development of history, and author's reflections on the war, history and leaders and leadership. But most of the time, I was reading to move forward. It is fairly straightforward translation, with average language, and sometimes extremely repetitive . And approaching the end, I had little patience for the un-refrained, essay-ish writing. To pace myself, and for another flavour, I was alternating this book with Janet Malcolm's essays, and her writing was so well worked with, so pointed and sharp, that it magnified the contrast to this rounded prose significantly.

It's been a long time since I read Anna K, but somehow I recall that Anna Karenina was a better book than War and Peace - in terms of the story flow. However, the key message is well delivered through the saga of War and Peace - that events happen, and history takes it course over time and ages, and individuals, be it Bonaparte or Natasha Rostov, with their short lives, and human capacities, have limited control over them, and are merely instruments.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster ***
This one is what they call postmodern fiction. Three pseudo-detective stories. Interesting premise. Written in 70s I believe. The time and age which is now lost given the constant knowledge and traceability of people that is the defining feature of current times. And the non-traceability is sort of the theme in these three detective styled, inward looking stories. Quite unique ideas, at times dark and at times disturbing. People trapped in diminishing time, in mirror stories, in language.

However, the way it is written, it is difficult to forget that it is a book. There are two kinds of books/authors.  There are books that make you forget yourself, and forget that it is a book, and forget the existence of the author. And then there are other books where at times, things seem forced and you start imagining the actual writer and are very much aware through the book that you are reading a book.  You are unable to lose the awareness of reading, and unwittingly, start thinking of the structure, the language, the way things are put together. This one feels like that.
The Lady and the Monk - Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer ***
This book documents the author's early life (late 20s if I recall) - a year of that period spent in Japan. He just left everything and went to live in Kyoto for a year. Travel + culture intro + the author's love story. Zen, Japan, sketches of people, seasons, culture and lots and lots of adjectives.

At times, it felt quite adorned with adjectives. But it is a good look into Japan - an outsider's take of Japan who eventually married a local person and looks at this outsider view from a far away, insider lens. One of the things that struck me, or made me feel a bit hostile to Japan was the male/ female role divide. At times, Japan starts sounding like Middle East or the oil countries given this gender bias albeit much more sorted and advanced.

As a tourist, very keen to visit Japan. The book does not diminish the intrigue. It builds it and makes you wonder and imagine and day dream. Worth a read if someone plans to visit Japan soon, or wishes to understand the culture better.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf ****
The book has been with me for years now, waiting to be read. Short book. Stream of consciousness styled. They say, one of VW's more accessible novels. I have read her essays and since I often fall back on her diaries, I was keen to read some of her novels. There are a few that I have collected over time.

Mrs. Dalloway is another day-in-the-life story. I recently read about Ivan Denisovich's day. This day-in-life writing is an interesting approach to characters, to slowly portray their world, their thoughts and what drives them, what worries them. The book is a wonderful sketch. I read this one pretty much as a day in my life. Had other plans apart from reading, but right now I have much more control over my days and can change gears as I feel like it. Love days like this when I can just sit and read.

This novel reminded me so much of VW's diary notes. It is her life, or people in her life it seems portrayed masterfully. The way she builds up the people, you get so much engrossed with their lives, their thoughts. And VW portrays the London post WW1 and the mood, the sentiment. It is a beautiful day in June, and as I sit here in Southern Hemisphere, in December, I go through a similar day (weather wise) and I try to mirror the hours and read and you get through the day with them. Not a routine day, since this is the day when Mrs. Dalloway hosts her party. And then we get to know her better and the few people that cross her path that day. And get a window to her life.  And you get to read a love story that has a lost kind of feeling to it, sweet regrets of things not going the way they should have and as real life goes, ends with a bitter -sweet, full of some expectancy and some kind of ecstatic vibe, conveying as it closes, that those who have loved and lost are perhaps richer in feeling than those who have not loved at all.

Enjoyed reading this one.

Hemingway ****
I recently got to read a fair bit of Hemingway. And pretty glad that I did! I read the short stories (49 stories) over a few weeks. Each story builds a new character (mostly) and a new setting, and even though they are short, it is difficult to read one after the other. You need to pause, break the flow, get away. The stories continue to play on in your head for a while, getting themselves a longer life beyond the time spent reading them. Hemingway being one of those authors that acquire mindspace even when you are not reading them. You keep thinking.

And I love his writing. To the point, bold, direct, succinct. He says so much in few words,, quite like the poets writing prose. I also read The Sun Also Rises. Loved it. Feel like visiting Spain!

After reading the Moveable Feast and Paris Wife earlier in the year, I was quite looking forward to more of Hemingway. Only if one could write like that! Plan to pace myself on reading more - difficult to put down those books. I read about his work habits as well somewhere and the effort he used to put in, the work he used to do shines through...even though the theme in his books and stories is effortless output, a lot of effort went in to make them look like that. It's as one realises, it is easy to complicate life and things, quite difficult to keep it simple, to reduce it to the essence. Inspiring.

Doris Lessing and African Stories ****
I enjoy Doris Lessing's works. There was a time a few years ago when I read through most of her  work that I could lay hands on. Still quite a lot to go I believe.

I love reading short stories. One could compare short stories to water colours and sketches and novels to perhaps oil paintings? You don't have much time and forgiveness in short stories to get things done. They also take longer on the reader's part to read since each one creates its own new world. Reading short stories by a story-telling master is like stepping into an art gallery full of author's work and perspectives. Takes so much longer to go through than observing mere single painting and can be so much more rewarding.

The other thing that makes DL so appealing is the literary sci-fi she wrote. However, this book here was very much grounded, about the human condition in Africa. These are snippets of life from a colonial South Africa -  people mainly based in farms and at times in the up and coming towns and cities - but the life is so different. Each story weaves the characters, the context, and the unjust situations that most of the characters find themselves in. Some read like novellas.

Thinking tangentially - there were people who came to Australia, there were people who went to Africa, and then there were different people who came to India. India were more trade/ civil servants. They were not settlers. But Africa and Australia were settlers and that changes the world view significantly of the first generation and the generations to follow.

As I lay Dying by William Faulkner ***
I had read Faulkner's Light in August long time back. And I guess then bought most of the popular titles by Faulkner.

One of the spellbinding thing in the book is the way it is structured. It speaks from  many vantage points. A family of five kids, and the father are taking the journey from their home in a village to Jeferson - to bury the mother. It is told from view points of the different people, the family members, the neighbours. The story progresses as people talk about the different happenings from their each vantage points.

The world seems so strange, so different in the book. Like those fairy tale worlds in a nasty way. It is a different age, different time, different place. The problems are different. It was intriguing, interesting. And the story telling is beautiful, but the miseries are very different from the current world. The active effort and the single minded focus is on getting the cart safely to Jeferson -  a distance to be covered in bad weather through overflowing river. They face a lot of troubles and misfortunes, and as they describe them, each in their own way,  you get to understand each one of them better.

Kurt Vonnegut ****
Discovered Kurt Vonnegut recently. Read two of his novels, apparently the two of his best - Cat's Cradle and Slaughter House Five.

Both have sci-fi concepts, outlandish concepts thread through both the books, but unlike other sci-fi authors, KV is very much a human condition explorer.

Slaughterhouse Five explored the involuntary time traveling protagonist, the planet Tralfamadore and the concept of  'so it goes'. At times, the disparate link-ups sound like Pynchon. Set during the World War 2 and drawing from the author's own personal experience, this is perhaps his way of conveying to the world the horrors and the absolute ridiculousness of war - the brainwashed people fighting and living unnatural lives for what? Around the time of reading this, I also watched Saving Private Ryan, and some of the imagery that came to my mind was inspired by the movie.

Cat's Cradle had this concept of a very different culture - the utopian Bokononism (which reminded me of Franco's The interview), and the element that instant freezes water (ice-nine) and starting off with the atomic bomb, goes on to an end where things change for the whole world. Similar concept and takeaway - we live in a ridiculous world, inter connected to the hilt and treading a fine line. Hoping that nothing unsettles the balance, because once it does, nothing much left for humanity.

V. by Thomas Pynchon ***
This one kept sending me back to Google. There are so many references. But then it is Pynchon for you. Half the fun is lost if one does not understand the context I guess. Enjoyed this book and I can just marvel and the depth and breadth of thoughts and ideas. How do people even manage to think like that?

I don't know if I understood it completely. It stayed with me for a while though. Set in the context of war, and flowing like a technicolour movie, I kept getting flashes of Inherent Vice (the movie) through it. I tried to begin another of his book, but gave up early on. Will grow up to it I guess. Good to have an aspiration list as well.

Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse ****
Another of those futuristic novels. I seem to have read quite a few of them last year.  But future in this case is just mindspace. It could be anywhere, it is some sort of timeless world. The idea of the game is much more central and important.

The book and the game describe culmination of art, culture, and all the knowledge in the world and several existential debates and view points. I enjoyed the premise, the set up of the book, the way it is built through, but I guess started losing interest in the middle where the dialogues become too long drawn. Picked up attention again in the end.

It is set up as a biography of a future leader, and then in the annexure, has some of the future leader's own writings as well. Sort of short stories - or where as an assignment the students of the game had to imagine lives lived - imagining themselves as some character in some different time and place and describing the life. Loved those three lives or short stories.

The book has a lot of ideas and fodder around mindfulness, around education, around empathy (the lives exercise is worth asking everyone to do it - kids and adults alike to inculcate empathy. (I'll begin mine as well).

My takeaway stays meditation, music. And the concept of deep still waters  - mindful, unruffled existence, empathetic human beings. The importance of collecting oneself and of always keeping the perspective. So easy to get lost in the shallow waters. If only one could find the depth and stillness, and simplicity in life. Too much to ask?

Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera ***
Last year, June. Milan Kundera's latest - first in ten years; airport purchase; short read.

Airy, light, breezy, sort of insignificant (which it celebrates),  and a few really deep thoughts that remain with you forever. I don't remember much of it now. But I had jotted down a couple of points - The note on 'infinite good mood' - and how everything can be hilarious. And the note on Joke/ Stalin.
Contrary to what I said earlier, as I look now at this second note, I realise I have forgotten the context of the Joke/ Stalin, and the book is buried deep in new books collected and reshuffled over the last six months. Will look it up next time I take out one of the older books. And edit this paragraph.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov ***
It is beautiful writing,  but the subject matter is just so random. It is like a caricature. I do not have any strong thoughts or views that I recall. I am also trying to read his collected short stories, but not really getting there. Will try again in a few months/ weeks. Another author that I need to grow up to.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton ***
Loved the book. Was a friend's recommendation on Australian fiction. Similar to Faulkner, this one is of a time and land which seem so different in modern time and day. Even as people stay the same - emotionally, behaviourally. The world has changed but how we relate to each other, our pursuits, the human condition, continues to stay the same when one gets down to the brass tacks.

Reminded me of Steinbeck's California at times.  And at times, it revived the memory of the Thorn Birds...the story was around early settlers in Australia. I should look up that book again,  read it ages and ages ago.

Want to read more of Winton, and then another on wish list - Voss (Patrick White).

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015 in reading

Happy 2016!

2015 was a great year for reading. Could read a lot, perhaps most in a year since I have started keeping this blog. Read wide as well - some very interesting books, short stories, essays, sci-fi. And mostly loved what I read.

I recently took a sabbatical (should I call this holiday a sabbatical?) which allowed me to read non stop. Luxuriously spent this time discovering the beautiful open secrets of Sydney - parks and harbour views, walked and walked during spring when Sydney turned purple, clicked lots of Instagram-able pics, explored endless aisles in bookstores and the city's wonderful libraries and read to my heart's content. Half of the books I read in 2015 were read during this break - the last couple of months or so (15-20). I think I read well through rest of the year as well. The essays and 2666 were big achievements earlier this year.

Book list from my Recent Reads page:
  1. Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi. (January). **** Short Stories
  2. The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer 
  3. Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (March) **** three short novellas
  4. Emerald City and other stories by Jeniffer Egan (April) **** short stories 
  5. One flew over the cuckoo's nest by Ken Kesey (April) 
  6. Drown by Junot Diaz *** short stories
  7. Both Flesh And Not, David Foster Wallace ***** essays
  8. Less Than One, Joseph Brodsky ***** essays
  9. 2666, Roberto Bolano **** 
  10. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain ***
  11. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway *****
  12. The Festival of Insignificance  by Milan Kundera ****
  13. My Struggle 1 - A Death in the Family - Karl Ove Knausgaard ***
  14. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov ***
  15. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton *** 
  16. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou *** 
  17. V. by Thomas Pynchon *** kindle
  18. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald **** Oct
  19. Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace *** short stories
  20. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut ***** 
  21. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut **** 
  22. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke ***
  23. African Stories by Doris Lessing **** short stories
  24. Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu **
  25. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood ***
  26. The Search For Roots - A Personal Anthology by Primo Levi ***** (anthology/ extracts - essential reading as recommended by P. Levi)
  27. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn *****
  28. Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee *
  29. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway ****
  30. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse ****
  31. The First Forty-Nine Stories by Ernest Hemingway **** short stories
  32. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ***
  33. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf ***
  34. Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari ****
  35. Between You and Me by Mary Norris ***
A few notes:
  • This is the year when I read Hemingway and around Hemingway and enjoyed his works a lot. Hope to read more.
  • Happy with the number of short stories I could read. 2016 - I have started reading Borges to keep up the tempo. Loved some of the short story collections I read in 2015. They were worlds in themselves. Esp, African Stories by Doris Lessing and Hemingway's pursuits and life depicted in his stories. Love both of their writing. Sketches; Like an art gallery - a short story collection.
  • Lots of essays. By the masters. My notes on them are long overdue, but I am glad that I read through them. They were savoured, read slowly. Both Wallace and Brodsky are masters, and written words from them are worth their weight in gold. (That would make Infinite Jest very expensive!) They dive so deep and still maintain a lightness, poetry - quite a privilege to read these authors.
  • 2666 was one surprise book of the year. Quite liked it - the structure, the way it gets tied up (though the violence was a lot to deal with).
  • Lots of science and future fiction too. Discovered Kurt Vonnegut. Liked the novellas. Loved Rama by Arthur Clarke even though the series was disappointing. Was saddened by Handmaid's Tale. 
  • Tried reading Knausgaard, but not sure whether I want to read the next books in the series. During the year, I tried reading book 2 often but could not complete it. Yet to try Elena Ferrante. Another similar book was the one about Hadley and Hemingway.
I love these breaks whenever one can get them. This year holds a lot of my aspirations and ambitions. The future is still hidden, a yet-to-be discovered territory ...we'll get there when we get there. Until then, we try to read more and read better.

Happy new year, and happy reading.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rama series (1 & 2)

I recently read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. The prose read as any paperback, but I just loved the fantastic imagination.

A beautiful idea - and then it created a world around it. I have not read many literary science fiction, but the reason you don't miss the literariness is that the richness and the beauty of Clarke's ideas is amazing. Introduced for the first time, the concept of the alien spacecraft with its own ecology leaves you enthralled. Set in it is the wondrous cylindrical world described in detail. Through the book, it leaves your mind beautifully applied traversing concept such as, shifting gravity levels at different points in the craft (and how it would feel) or, wondering what would you see on the horizon if you were in a world which closed in on itself (inside a huge cylinder with scores of kilometres circumference rather than being on a sphere where the horizons tapers off and declines).

Your imagination works in tandem with the author's and you come out enriched from the read.  One realises in such books that narrative or characters are relevant only for the book to move forward. What you are truly after is the fabulous imagination. It was a short read with lot to think about. And had a positive feel good atmosphere around it.

And it really made me look forward to Rama II. I realised once I bought book two that Arthur Clarke had just provided the outline, the writing was not his. I still tried to stay optimistic remembering the science delights offered by the first book. But book 2 was a big let down. Earlier, I was keen to finish the series (there are two more books) but now, I give up. I cannot endure more of this. I need to recreate my AC image by reading some of his short stories or other writings.

What put me off Rama II? For one, Rama II had some really poor characters in the book. And also, it reads like some kind of Hollywood movie script rather than science fiction. There is very little science, and very little newness to the wonderful concept of book 1. All it does is some incremental build up. And worse, it becomes a paperback with series of poor characters. One is forced to wonder that what has the world come to, if within the sample of people selected to go to meet an alien spacecraft, only 20% are good souls or what you call excellent people or heroes. All other are self serving individuals, or more easily defined as villains in Hollywood terms. Their thought process defies logic. Situations are built up the way it happens in cheap thrillers.  May be, it was written as drama, but that is not what you wanted to read after the huge excitement of book 1. It does not make you feel very good, and is something that you can easily do without. It doesn't intrigue. It irritates. And I am glad it is over.

In summary,  Rendezvous with Rama (the first of the series) is worth a read. It had good characters, and anyway, the people are secondary in  that book. It is the massive idea and mystery of Rama that dominates the book.  From Rama I, I also had a list of things to further look up and understand including the double sunsets of Mercury (!?), Coriolis effect, further daydreaming about a cylindrical world, and a keener desire to read up all the sci and cosmos books sitting next to me.

But Book II can be easily missed. All the pleasures are well contained in book 1.

Another thought that I take away from all this is that when people write about ideas, and try to create stories around them, they are better dealt in short stories, or novellas (And AC's short stories are some of the best sci fi ideas). If you try to spin too much around one single idea (without any characters with depth), be it a book series or a television series, it is bound to disappoint.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

By Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn

I recently came across Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when I bought a book by him - August 1914, the first one in the Red Circle. I am yet to read that one. It is quite a formidable tome. I look at it and I start thinking of my failed attempts with War and Peace.

On one of my recent visits to a bookstore, I had picked up August 1914 with mostly an intent of buying it unless I came across something more interesting. As I was exploring the new (for me) bookshop further, this one slid behind and somewhere under the bookshelves that were connected and it took massive effort by the bookseller to get the book out again. So I thought I'll as well buy it for all the effort gone in retrieving it.

Reading through the opening pages, I realised that AS received the Nobel prize for literature in 1970. His was a life of imprisonment and exile.  This is how Joseph Brodsky (another author I admire) refers to Solzhenitsyn in his Paris Review interview: "I really think that in him the Soviet rule got its Homer: what he managed to reveal, the way he kind of pulled the world a little bit around".

So I was on alert mode for the author name, and in the library, came across this relatively small book - 'one day..'(150 pages) by the author. And I am glad that I read this book. One of the best books I have read in a while.

This book depicts a day in the life of a prisoner of a labour camp in Russia. This book was one of the first to talk about what went on in these camps (and is famous for that reason). But apart from the historical significance, what moves one is the way people live and the human spirit that survives. It is not a free life, but people find their daily victories in some way or another.

Sometimes it seems that human beings and human spirit are like water, just taking the shape of whatever vessel it is stored in. In prisoner camps, there is no money earned but people need to work hard in snow and cold without enough warm clothes or heating and without enough food in their bellies. Most of the people seemed to be imprisoned for political reasons -  for perhaps exercising a freedom of choice or that of speech. Since the sentences are for 10 years or 25 years, or more, there lives are more in the camp than outside it. They prefer work to not working; days pass quickly when one is working hard, when one is exhausted and there is not much thought left to spare or squander.  And you follow Ivan Denisovich for the day, and his ups and downs, and his thoughts and feelings, and his pursuit of whatever meagre he can get, and through him, you start pondering about life, happiness and what defines wealth and richness. It is not comfort but it is the content spirit that struggles and achieves or is defeated in pursuit but keeps on struggling.

Time and again, books that leave a lasting impression happen to be those that showcase the indefatigability of the human spirit. At times, this one reminded me of Motorcycle Diaries, but then only because of the wealth of spirit. The inmates have nothing, their daily struggles are around fighting the biting cold with literally nothing, and how to get perhaps 100 grams of more ration to survive.  And that is it.

You read about them, and you then look around you. It is a world apart. It is so very easy to forget all the good things in one's life, all the things one should be grateful for; personally, as well as human beings of this time and age or of a particular country. I don't know whether I can capture or express the thought well, but the feeling it left me with is that our happiness, contentment is a function of our expectations, our gratefulness and perspective. Recognising what we have. Our bars for happiness or unhappiness seem to be so different. Should I speak for myself here, as I have no clue? Or do I? Isn't the popular media, entertainment an example of people's thoughts and worries and what makes them happy and what makes them sad?  Most of modern day normal life problems and decisions sound so silly when you read these accounts. In trading for things, have we traded the depths of our lives?

This book leaves me with a lot to ponder about and takeaway. An awareness of all the privileges and freedom - and recognition of its value. The understanding of how 'things and stuff' and decisions around the web of 'things and stuff'  need to occupy only so much of mind-space and not all of it. And then, to retain the perspective, and to understand that happiness or peace is not an external function, but so much radiated outwards by our own thoughts and spirit; be it in a Russian camp, or in the microcosm of the world I live in which is full of silly mindless problems.

On reading what I have written above, I realize I sound like a preacher, but this post is as much a note to self. A way to preserve the way I feel after reading about a day in life of Ivan Denisovich before I trample into the shallow waters of my own modern life surrounded by stuff and choices which mock the very reason of existence. Pursuit of deeper, still waters, and a proper perspective, is what I wish to remember this book by. That feeling is worth saving.

Highly recommended to anyone interested.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Search for Roots by Primo Levi

I like Primo Levi's writings. His prose is heart felt, flowing directly from his life, the vicissitudes he experienced beautifully meshed together with his scientific temperament and training.

Artists that influence you, your thinking, you try to read up around them and try to understand what all inspired them, what shaped their thinking and what led them to write the way they did. At some level one starts seeking a conversation with them who take up your mind-space and since the conversations are not possible, anything that provides more insights into their way of thinking is so much welcome.

Presented in this anthology are extracts of books that have influenced him with a forward/ introduction by Primo Levi. They go over different topics/ genres and most of them I have never read. Books that shaped him. Ranging from science to poetry mostly aimed at understanding the nature of human being and understanding his place in the world/ universe - through laughter, injustice or pursuit of knowledge.

I took my time reading this anthology - have been reading this one for the last few weeks while in parallel I dipped into other books (most of them seem like lit Sci-Fi or war histories).

This book triggered quite a few thoughts and I end up with a list of books to explore further. Book list for my ref:

  • Charles Darwin - The origin of species. Here P. Levi picks up the section on beauty and the utilitarian aspects of same. And lays out in simple, clean concepts. Would someday love to read the book.
  • Sir William Bragg - Concerning the Nature of Things (Lectures) - About atoms and how atoms arrange themselves including those in soap bubbles. Loved the read. Will look up the lectures.
  • Jonathon Swift - Gulliver's travels. This section on immortality.
  • Antoine de Saint Exupery - Wind, Sand and Stars (section on surviving in Sahara). Had some of the most pleasing and appealing lines and thoughts. Not sure if this one is easy to find. One of the bits from it:  "I can no longer understand  those dense crowds on the suburban trains , those men who think they are men and yet who are reduced like ants, by  a pressure they do not feel, to the use that is made of them. When they are free, on their absurd little Sundays, how do they fill their time?"
  • Marco Polo - The travels
  • Frederic Brown, Sentry, Galaxy (Sci Fi)
  • Arthur C Clarke - Profiles of the Future: An enquiry into the limits of possible. I love AC's writings. And this one is more of future envisaged by him. Will look this one up first in the whole list.
  • Hermann Langbein - Humankind in Auschwitz
  • Kip S. Thorne - The Search for Black Holes. One of the most packed science passages in the book. A lot said in simple terms in a few pages. Take away fact - if we were to make a black hole out of  earth, then earth will need to be reduced to a circumference of less than 5.58 cm for escape velocity to reach 300k km/s.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale

This Sunday, I bought Margaret Atwood's  The Handmaid's Tale.

It is great writing, but it is a sad book and quite despairing portrayal of an alternate future. It affected me. Most well written sad stories do. And I end up spilling over the emotional overload in my daily life. Irrational, and not a good thing for people around you!

It hits because it is so well written. But I do not understand why one would envisage such a bleak future. The book is more or less a diary, of a woman in some future where women have been reduced to nothing. It depicts the implosion of a society, how the hunger for power and control (it must be that, right?)  turns life and a country upside down; how systematically the females are cut off with nowhere to turn.

It portrays fanaticism - an unrealistic world which defies a logical justification - and it is like fanaticism of any type but the anguished ones here happen to be females and not a religious sect. The world has shown us in the past what low levels humans in a group can stoop to, and perhaps those doing it do not understand what they do; perhaps they create justifications for almost any crime, giving it some religious higher purpose, or they are just mindless sheep following random directions; perhaps. How can one otherwise do such things!

I do not like the book because of the heart rending alternate reality it depicts. What happens to all the spirit, spunk, the life in people? What do they then even exist for? They are tied down with machine guns, thoughts of their loved ones who might be jeopardised, and the politics of all - it all builds up like the water coming to boil around the gradually alarmed frog.

I know it is unreal. One of the more literary sci-fi they say, but this is some kind of return to blindfolds or some kind of savagery that only religion can bring out in people. Or some kind of deep, selfish, hunger for power.
It is all so, so sad and so wrong.

It is stifling. Finishing it, I seek fresh air, some nicely ending, some wonder lending sci -fi.

PS - and I got it. I watched The Martian last night. And loved it!! Way to go, human spirit!
Also, feel like seeking out next part of Rama. They talk about a world united (more or less) facing a new common challenge.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bolano's 2666

Picked up the book in India. (That is what I remember now. Memory can be elusive). Had bought this one a while ago...the year it was released I guess. However, it lay there, big  and fat, in the collection that I left back in India (read and unread) that I couldn't carry back or wouldn't ship to myself across the seas.

So instead of reading the newly bought books, I picked this one up and read through most of it pretty quickly through year end holidays. The book is engaging read, and unlike many that I read - reminding me of Garcia Marquez at times, but much more direct. It is 900 pages long - five books in all, common theme/ characters. Three of them were good fun and almost page turning reads. Fourth one became a very difficult read - for the violence it depicts. So much so, that after I finished fourth, the book lay untouched for last six months since coming back from India. I tried reading/ re-reading but lost interest.

But I had to finish book five since the secret of how those different books link together is in the fifth one, and you don't leave engaging stories unfinished.  Recently, I picked it up, and I was delighted. I thought book five was the most poetic of all.

Starting with critics, book authors, artists, journalists and lots of killed women - 2666 is a mixture of fiction and reality-  and since it talks about an author and his works, it is sort of meta fiction as well. The aspects it touches are unbound. Reminding me of a more language constrained DFW at times, and in themes, as people point out - Pynchon (and I agree from what I know of him from Lot 49).  It goes from different parts of Europe and different times of Europe (war times to current times) and a bit of North Am to end up in Mexico of late last century or earlier this century in all five of its books. Some people say it is one of the greatest novels of recent times...I can just recommend. If you can go through the detailed reportage of scores of women (or was than hundreds) found dead in a town in Mexico over a decade, everything else in the book calls out for reading.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife - Hemingway and Hadley

Husband narrates one (real), and the wife narrates the other (fiction), and the reader is the lucky one - getting to experience this one of the most poignant real stories.

The Paris Wife reads like a bit of those quick read page turners (read and forget types) - you read because it is Hemingway and Hadley that the book talks about, you read on. I enjoyed it, but it reads like a soap script, and is fun, but just that.

A moveable feast is delectable - as a feast itself. His direct style. His clean composition - it all sticks so well. And you keep thinking about it for a much longer time than Hadley's narration. These are sketches, so they don't flow unlike the other one, still, you want to read more and the next one, and you finish them off quickly.

It is very interesting to see the life, to see the other famous artists through their eyes. And then, if you just read a few other Paris Review interviews of some of the contemporaries, you broadly get a good picture.

It is also interesting to read the world views - the vantage points being different. What floats at the surface of people's mind, what touches them deep. I liked it.

What I didn't like was the general helplessness, or the lack of independence that Hadley has.  And I don't like Hemingway for it. She has a lot of grace, but I just don't like and don't want to accept the way things turned out for them.

However, people do what they do, and they choose what they choose.

The books touched me - the heartbreaking end that it leads to. You want to hate Hemingway, but Hadley doesn't and Hemingway partly redeems himself in the last few pages of Moveable Feast.

What I liked - his discipline, work ethic of sorts. Groundedness until the 'rich' come in their life. The intensity. The very live/ very sharp/ very intense living, observing, experiencing.

The other thought that stays - people don't really know where life can take them ten years down the line. It is interesting to see the young Hemingway struggling...especially in their case, life changes so much and so many people come and go, and sometimes you start feeling...if only they had known!

I have not read much of Hemingway. A book or two I guess. I tried to read his stories, but you need to grow up to them was what I thought. I'll look for them now, and try reading them.

I am really glad I read both the books together, and that I read these in the first place. It's quite something to note that they were the happiest when they were poor, and young. Its a good pairing (them, and the books) - and you see one better for the another.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wishlist 2015

As of right now.
My pursuits tend to get modified as time dulls some of their sharpness. Some of these titles might get replaced as my mood changes.
Like today itself, I added a couple more to this wishlist  - history and some more essays.
The stack is a bit taller now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Moments of Reprieve

Collection of Stories by Primo Levi. I have been thinking about the Periodic Table on and off. This one is similar...sketches of people drawn from his life. He sketches himself for you as he portrays the world around him. Grounded, humble...a life that has gone through so much injustice but the prose does not complain about it, it just shares his life with you. I am glad that I read this book. In the mad rush of things, such thoughtful prose, drawing all sorts of insights and perspective from a life that has seen the peaks and troughs is a valuable, peace lending thing. 

In many ways, Primo Levi and Ernesto Guevara sound similar - their prose, thought process. One had the wanderlust, and the other a very open observant heart, but both have a humility, groundedness, an innocence, and belief in the goodness of people individually (even though as a group, people become fanatics and thoughtless), and hence, a prose which restores faith in humanity. Their books always a good idea when the world seems a dark place - the lightness of these spirits sure can lift one up.

After reading such accounts, I sometimes wonder if my generation or a previous one had to live in the world of wars where almost every house had somebody out on front fighting or if the world were changing significantly from day to day, month to month, such that there is nothing long term, I am not sure how we'll cope.  It is not about the war, it is about behavior in face of an ever changing landscape. Our world is so stable (for most of the people), and life's aspirations so mediocre (for most of the world) - that there is no higher purpose left except to settle and aspire to little luxuries and little victories. A couple of generations ago, it seems people had much more to deal with and many more difficulties to surmount. There is no major issue in most people's lives these days, and then smaller things expand to take that place instead. Such degradation of the quality of lives lived! Even though the world becomes more stable, it is important to retain the perspective of what is worth fighting for and what is just mindplay since mind has no better problems to deal with.
Easier said than done I guess.

PS: Picked this one up in the library. Fast read. I tried to look for more P. Levi books during my vacation but couldn't find any. This one hence as soon as we returned. Again for this one, this is time taken out from 2666. It is almost a month since I started reading 2666 still continues. I have reached the last book. Hope to finish it in January. (Didn't like book 4 - it is very saddening, very wrong, and  unlike the first three - but am too deep in the book and quite curious to understand how it all ties up, so finish it I will)

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Happy new year!
Time to close year 2014 on this blog.
I don't read as much these days. Below from my closed page. A quick recap of what I read in 2014.

  1. Periodic Table by Primo Levi (deadtree). Beautiful sketches of people! And you get to wonder so much more about Turin, chemistry, War, prejudices, with the author's very clean succinct draws you in. The curious in me got really intrigued by Chemistry and geography - and noticed what the author says about the land on my recent trip to Italy and the Swiss land. Keen to read more from him. He shares so much more on the world around him in those times...enjoyed it, and would rate it ****
  2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (January) - deadtree. The book gladdened my heart! The middle one third might seem like a drag, but the different culture, different landscape, makes it so much more interesting!) My recco to anyone who wants to learn a bit more about Japan in a fun way.
  3. Raised from the ground by Jose Saramago (April/ May) - deadtree (picked this up on vacation in Italy. Was trying to pick up something more local but ended up with Portugese. Liked it much better than the other Saramago I've read - Seeing or Blindness, one of them)
  4. Clifton Chronicles - 3 - Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer (May; quick read, airport buy; deadtree) - its more like I had to read it. A very quick unput-downable read - both of them)
  5. Clifton Chronicles - 4 - Be careful what you wish for by Jeffrey Archer (Kindle (finally!!). . And I have promised myself not to read any more page turners until I finish a couple of proper lit. (So Stieg Larsson 3 has to wait)
  6. An artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (May, deadtree). This was bought long long time ago, but finally got read in almost one go. I realise for whatever I might have said in the past, I am not an Ishiguro fan (this is my emotional self speaking). The book is another amazing piece - on Japan (and different times Japan than deZoet's - this one is around the wars, and just post war), and the changing mindsets. In its heart the book carries a sort of disappointment - in the autumn of your life if you realise that you have lived your life for a wrong cause, its not highly heartening. Read it for understanding the land and what shaped some of its people some more. But try to read something happy soon after. (I am reading Science by Asimov - have been learning all new sort of intriguing facts. Sometimes, a dose of wonder is good to kill disappointments; it brings back a lot of perspective)
  7. Circle by Dave Eggers (May, deadtree) Concept is intriguing, but there is a lot that I disagree with. But as K says, you can't disagree with people opinions or judgement, they are true for where they come from, they are not universal facts...but when people make such bad choices in the book as if they are helpless...when they clearly have a choice, and they do not stand for themselves or speak against the issues ...that's where I gave up on the book. Then it becomes just about the drift of the story, and like any other fast read/ not lit page turner - I don't think it claims to be serious lit anyway. Very interesting premise, but the writing is non remarkable. Read it for the premise and what it portrays. (Emotions post reading - unresolved. Didn't like the choices and the weakness in people, disagreed, but I was hooked)
  8. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (June, deadtree). We read the part 3 after reading the first two parts 3 years ago. So it was good that I watched the Part 1 movie recently. I had Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth in my head...and yes, Robin Wright as Erica Berger as I breezed through the book. Well, its the end, and it ends the leaves you wanting to read some other thriller... but I guess its shortlived feeling. I'll watch the other two movies sometime. How to rate it - read it for the thrill. Rest its the same feeling I got last time...its very transactional text.
  9. Murder in the dark by Margaret Atwood (July) - deadtree. Short, poetic book. Seems like I might have read this earlier. This one is akin to a series of blog posts with interesting premise and thought flow and sketches. Playing in mind - "How does it feel to play God - even for five minutes"
  10. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (September, kindled on idevices)...quick notes: a bit of a let down like his other books...don't know why I expect more from him. As I begin his books, as in the last two as well, generally I like the premise and hope and wish that he would deal with them better. Its a good very fast read, but then I wasn't hoping for a page turner...Don't expect greatness, awesomeness...'read and forget' category, like so much of the fiction I read this year.
  11. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (September, holidays)...really don't want to say much about this one. Goes in my 'read and forget'...I just didn't like the characters...the book asks for no empathy...its not even like Archer or Larsson kind of thrillers. Picked it up from Sydney airport before the holiday - was in the rank 1 box.  
  12. The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (November) ****. Loved the book, pleasantly surprised by it. Che Guevara is adorable. I am not sure many people will begin with that. But first time ever in my life I actually gave thought to learning & practicing medicine (as a would have been!). And given that this is the same weekend as watching Interstellar, I am quite enamored by the whole 'explorer' spirit. 'Old men should be explorers, here and there does not matter'.  (Am really glad I finished any book after a long while. The book came as a gust of fresh air which I was seeking badly at some level - lifts me up a bit, and am thankful for that.) Will recommend to anyone keen to know more about Latin America, probably supplemented by one of the fiction accounts of those regions, and then just for feeding the youth within us. And before this book, I had never thought about Che. Now I want to buy a Tshirt with his image (and a beret ;).
  13. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (November, deadtree, ***). My first Pynchon! Not a long one, this one is a novella. It has been with me for a long while, and I have attempted many many times to read it (given the length, it was a very attractive target to kickstart reading), many times reaching almost a third....but finally, managed to read it. It reminded me of the way subjects are touched and woven together...the thread through the books is that of mail delivery/ and I was intrigued to look at how messenger services were so central to the rise and fall of this age and time, one forgets! Good to imagine an older world.... Someday I might write about the book. Not today. Other things beckon.
  14. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith (December, deadtree, ***) This is a longer short story than a book. Different to what I have read recently. I feel at times that I need to grow up to some of the books. May be read again later to see how they end. I end up feeling that I need to know more about those characters..and understand what happens next rather than let the story end where it ends. This took less than an hour...and is time snatched from 'On the Road' by Kerouac which I have been reading for a few weeks now. Somewhere midway.
  15. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Nov, Dec - deadtree ****) Just a couple of words: 'beat' and 'dig it'! Later - writing this after a few weeks of reading the I travel through India right now, I get reminded on and off of the author's road trips...and the objective of finding oneself through the road trips. Nothing so dramatic here, but still, as they say, some books stay longer with you...this one is surely one of those.
  16. Guerrillas by VS Naipaul (Dec - deadtree ***) Picked the book at Lucknow airport before boarding a flight to Mumbai. Glad to get back to reading with this one. Sounds so much like Nadine Gordimer. May be, its the description, the struggles...but this one had so many dark much of despair floating around in the book. Books like these though give one a lot of perspective, and at least some understanding of how the world lives, breathes, functions...the rest of the world, outside of the homogeneous world that we occupy. These are good to ground remember that life can be so different,..its just by fluke that I am writing this and you are reading this. It could have been very very different. And then, a gratefulness that we have what we have, the resources, the thoughts, and the most important thing - freedom to think, say, write, can be such a different life. The book is set on a Caribbean island, and runs through a few episodes over the course of a few months. Lots of immigrants, and struggle to control resources, and probably, some struggle for freedom...some politics...(it would be a different world if politics were devoid of personal ambitions)...I didn't understand the exact struggle completely...and may be some of that was the point of the book. 
Takeaway: I read quite a bit of non lit/ fast read/ page turners this 16 is tainted. Need to read more but then need to do so many more things as well! For a moment I thought I'll be able to read 3 books a month...but it seems difficult. Still, lets strive for it. And then, to read from different countries...there is something about books and fiction which portray the daily life at a particular point in time in a particular country, it can lend you a lot of thought fodder..and a lot of perspective. And then there are some high RoI books and articles....sometimes people spend months and years writing those books and essays researching, thinking, and you can get so much out of them just by reading them. When the time which you can spend on reading is limited given the 100 different pursuits, the time is better spent on reading such high impact/ efficiency writings...the idea is to collect such books, authors and essays...explored separately in the other blog which I hope to bring live some day.

As always, here's hoping that we read more and better this year. Happy 2015!