Friday, June 8, 2018

Fiction free days

I tried to keep the month of May free of fiction. Fiction engrosses me. Pulls me away from other things. Sort of a pleasure land. I can spend a lot of time there. I tried this in March too – the no-fiction month. It seemed to work out well, mostly. Of course, in March, there was the looking for and moving houses to be completed which left me with little time and energy to think too much about what I was reading.

May had other things. At the moment, tennis (May 1, Lesson day 1) has captured my imagination completely. It is exulting when the racket contacts with the ball with a beautiful sound, and so much better if it gets over the net. Such intensity of joy locked in so simple a thing! I ardently hope that my beginner enthusiasm will last long enough to pull me through the not-so-good days. There have been a few when the progress doesn't seem good enough. or when I feel I can't reset enough. It is still early days of what looks like a very long journey.

So, for the moment, I am satiated. I like it that I could read a bit all these months, and I like it that there is a limitless ocean of reading to look forward to. And I also like it that I can restrain myself (albeit with other delightful attractions) and not start running towards the tempting waves. What’s not to like?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Reading & Writing, continued

There are a few authors you read that seem to compel you to write. You read slowly, softly, feeling every word. And then you nod, you agree. The emotions are beautiful, at times you believe you too have some of them, but those words, that language, the way to weave all those things together, beautifully, poetically is a gift! After reading those authors, you feel compelled to try to write even though you feel short of words to express yourself adequately. And then it hits you well and truly that writing is difficult. And the more you read, the more you realize your limitations.

This must sound selfish -  this reading of books and constantly comparing, measuring myself against the level or intensity or clarity of their thoughts. Does it hint towards a deeper desire of being able to express myself as precisely and beautifully as all those writers that I read and admire? Or is it not just a way to appreciate the nuances better? Isn't it that when you pick up the pencil to sketch, you observe better and recognize the effort in a painting? When you begin to learn a sport yourself, you better appreciate the performance of its top players, and the super-heroic stuff that they manage to do. When you yourself try to cook, you better appreciate the mastery of certain recipes and chefs and the way they can make food intensely flavorful yet retaining its lightness. Or trying to learn chords on a guitar, you open up new heightened senses to the music you hear. May be, it is about walking in their shoes for a little distance.  May be, it is just that trying to write, makes you appreciate the terrain from where the writers send their messages better. Or helps you recognize that what seems effortless, is not really so.

It is ironic that these thoughts were inspired by a translated book. A few weeks ago, I read ‘Autumn’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It is a collection of little personal essays on objects, written to his unborn daughter. The collection is part of a Quartet. Perhaps the first one to be translated. He decided to write about something every day to introduce the unborn child to different things in this world. A sort of personal notebook, a mini encyclopaedia, a personal take on everyday objects. Most of the time the objects are sort of departure points to convey other thoughts. And it is beautiful.

Other couple of authors that evoked similar feelings recently are Elizabeth Von Arnim (my recent reads include Elizabeth and her German Garden, Vera, Solitary Summer, The Benefactress) and Simone De Beauvoir (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, again, a beautiful translation). Both of them are new discoveries for me, and very pleasing ones. With Knausgaard, Von Arnim and De Beauvoir, I can (somewhat) identify with the feelings they go through. Even if I have not felt it expressly, I seem to know what they are saying. Some of those emotions might be around me as a fog, but they have converted them into something physical, actual, real, tangible by verbalizing it. They speak to me, and they seem in a similar realm and world, although on a much different plane.

Contrast them with two other writers I revere, and read recently more from. Against a similar backdrop as Knausgaard's Scandinavien landscape, I recently read Isak Dinesen's collection of stories, Winter's Tales. A superb book. Similar to her Babette's Feast, the stories are not commonplace. They are filled with a lot of wisdom, and level of feeling and insights that make you wonder about how intensely a human being can feel, observe and recreate that reality for you. And you wonder whether you can ever do even a little bit of that?

Similarly, another of my recent reads - a collection of stories by AS Byatt – Elementals, was another other-worldly sort of writing. A unique set of stories, rich and colorful - a beautiful collection. It is similar to her Matisse Stories, delectable morsels of short stories.  There are water nymphs, ice princesses, people walking out of their own lives, and people lost in nightmarish realities. Dream-like low-probability sequences. The starkness of these stories pretty much keeps the excitement up throughout. Every emotion is heightened, deeply felt and seemingly new.

Where the first three (Knausgaard, De Beauvoir and Von Arnim) talk about life as we know it, or even if we don’t know it, my pattern-seeking mind finds enough in these authors to paint corresponding instances from my own life and colors in its paintbox. Smaller, much smaller emotions/experience, may be quite dull and blunt against their sharpness but corresponding nevertheless. However with Dinesen and Byatt, there is no pattern I can fit them in. And throughout the stories, my mind keeps working frenetically in the background, looking through the repository of lived experiences to find anything corresponding; but nothing emerges. Except perhaps a few dreams. But dreams are received, not lived through with any control of your own reactions, they are quite random, and weird and alien. So is in Dinesen's and Byatt's stories, there is so much alien emotion. And hence it is all the more wonderful. It is all the more engrossing because the mind has to work a lot to create the new frameworks and reference points for the worlds they portray.

Another way of looking at it could be that Von Arnim, Knausgaard and De Beauvoir are talking about personal experiences. About life as it happens to you, me or them. About the inner human landscape. While Dinesen and Byatt go into these specific realities, and worlds, that, I am sure could exist, but in a low probability/ unlikely sort of way. In the way that I am sure one could perhaps come across a beautiful blossoming pink tree while on a walk through the bush. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, full of wonder when you spot one. But more often, you'll be looking at greens of different hues, shapes and sizes. And green is what you end up calling the forest.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Elizabeth Von Arnim

I stumbled across ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ while reading about one of those year-end weekend newspaper wraps where people talk about what notable or recommendation-worthy books they read in 2017. I had noted down the name in one of my many to-read lists. I eventually found the book at the library, in what they call ‘the Stack’. The Stack is where they keep those old or limited-edition books. This beautiful book was a 1915 reprint. So, over a century old! Bound, like a little notebook.

Intrigued and hooked, I read more about the author after finishing Elizabeth and her German Garden. As I was reading about her, and around her, I came across an interesting trivia that Katherine Mansfield is her cousin. (More on Katherine Mansfield later). Small world. And Von Arnim was born in Sydney; Kirribilli to be precise. So, there is the nexus element.

The book is a diary. An interesting one. It talks about her effort to make herself home in Germany. About her struggle with her garden and her gardeners, and her love of reading and writing along with her norm of being a sort of outsider, although a countess, in a foreign culture. And above all, her thoughts, her views of the world.

I wanted more. I found her books on Project Gutenberg. And then I had a new favourite open page on my phone. I read Solitary Summer which is in a way sequel to Elizabeth and her German Garden. I loved both of them. There are passages which I have clipped and saved. There is an articulation of feelings that I can completely nod and agree with. And feeling that nobody could have perhaps expressed better.

And then I read the next book, The Benefactress. Where the first two were inspired directly from her life, this one was fiction. The book tested my patience. Still, I wanted to read to the end because (a) It was an easy quick flip. And (b) I was hoping that it will redeem itself as it moves forward. I was genuinely surprised to think that people can have such saintly, unbounded generosity as shown by the heroine, accompanied with extreme naïveté. However, in the book, I did like the author’s meditation on what makes people happy, and lets them stay happy. It echoes with my own thoughts around human flexibility. I agree and believe that human beings get used to comforts and discomforts pretty quickly and re-adjust their norm, and what they define as happiness. It is during the bit when things are being adjusted where most of the emotional upheaval lies, or where lie the peaks of happiness or unhappiness, after which they lose the newness and become part of the for-granted. [1] [2]

After The Benefactress, I tried to read one of her later books, Vera. Like The Benefactress, I didn’t enjoy this one as well. But it was interesting to see where Daphne du Maurier draws her inspiration for Rebecca. It has been years since I read Rebecca, but it was an unforgettable sort of book. Where Vera revolves more around the couple, Rebecca was more about the new Mrs de Winter and the old one. Vera had a sarcastic, satirist comic element. Dark humour. A brat-boy-man who controls everything (a different shade of Huntingdon from the Tenant of Wildfell Hall: more about it later). One recoils at the dependence of women on men. You feel like wanting to reach through the boundaries of time, space and fiction to shake the person out of her misery, and to make them see for what things are.

And that is where I stopped reading Von Arnim. Delightful diaries. Loved her reflections and thoughts in her fiction books as well (though not the fiction per se). I would recommend the diaries to anyone who loves that sort of writing.


[1] A tangential thought:  Can we hence say that our quest should be to maintain the intense colors of new happiness and to not let them dim to the for-granted palette of beige and brown? Else, to match our previous levels of happiness, we'll always need something bigger, better, more colorful or new. Given the human capacities, perhaps we can say that to continue to derive high level of happiness from things that supposedly makes one happy, to preserve the intense personal happiness, you need to relive or invoke the initial encounter, the very first feelings of joy – to bring in the delight of the newly privileged, of the child. Being grateful definitely helps and should be a good starting point. As for the discomforting, and the not-so-happy things, may be, one needs to do nothing. Perhaps, just give ourselves some time. And the new realities will gradually become the new normal. There seems to be enormous flexibility and capacity in human beings to get used to just about anything. Perhaps that is what makes life bearable for many.

One of myriad ways of interpreting reality.

On a similar note, somewhere, in a poem (For E.R., translated) Joseph Brodsky notes,

“The future has arrived and it is not

[2] I was discussing this view ([1] above) with K. And he has a different view of things. He believes more in the stoical way of looking at things - to let emotions pass through you, wash over you completely, and to not resist them or push them, but let them take their course. That things shouldn't make you too happy or too sad. He is a believer in equanimity. About looking at the happy as well as unhappy stuff in life with a detached, a bit removed point. Somewhat like the poem If (Rudyard Kipling). 

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;"

A worthy aspiration to live like that. 

Not so simple, is it? - This trying to interpret life and happiness.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Reading & Writing

Reading is ephemeral, momentary, a transient joy. It is a journey, an experience that leaves you with memories, impressions, thoughts and questions. Compared to that, writing is much more work (for me), but after the arduous journey of sentence forming, you are left with something tangible. A completed piece of writing. To top it off, there is this beautiful feeling of the joy of achievement.

In a way, writing completes the journey that reading begins. Through the process of sentence forming, it crystallizes some of those vague impressions that reading leaves you with. 

A joy of its own class. All yours for a bit of effort and some discipline.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Wrapping up 2017

This wrapping up of a year : does it matter if I write about it 50 days after the new year has begun?  The joy of this blog is less in  the recount or the compiled list, but more in the journey. The slow, book by book listing on the Recent Reads page - every additional book a marker. And at times, although infrequently, the pondering and ramblings, which get triggered from those books, and get logged here on this page.

2017 -  One of my best reading years so far, in terms of number of books. And a good year in terms of diversity of books. An average year in terms of reading aspiration-set books.

I could read 53 books. It has been a long held, silly sort of milestone - reading 52 books in a year. Towards the end of the year, as the milestone became approachable, I might have favored 2-3 small books. But otherwise, it was the usual way of choosing the next read. Which is, open a few books, read them all in parallel for a bit until one takes over.

Here below is the list. (SS = Short Stories. NF = Non Fiction. SF = Science Fiction)
  1. Tales of Love and Loss by Knut Hamsun **** (SS)
  2. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ***** (NF)
  3. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene **** 
  4. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht *** 
  5. The Europeans by Henry James ** (kindle) 
  6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens *** (kindle) - finally a CD book read! Seems like I have watched countless movies/ shows 'inspired' by those themes. Entertaining, like a high drama movie. 
  7. The Red and the Black by Stendhal *** 
  8. The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola *** (Or should I call it an education in modern retail?) 
  9. Animal Farm by George Orwell *** (Such unfairness, corruption, nepotism, politics! Heartbreaking. This book has long been staring at me from the bookshelf, for years now. Quick read, like a long short story. But packs a big punch, or satire showing how truth is created, recreated, and revised and created again to suit the ones in power. Good to read it as I pace myself through The Gene, and August 1814.)
  10. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee **** (NF)
  11. The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov (SF) *** Short Story like. Novella. (kindle)
  12. A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Book 2 of My Struggle). ***
  13. 1984 by George Orwell **** (kindle)
  14. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway *** (kindle)
  15. Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer **** (SS)
  16. Foundation by Isaac Asimov *** (SF)
  17. Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov ** (SF) kindle
  18. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley *** (SF) kindle
  19. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson ** (SF) kindle
  20. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis *** (NF)
  21. The Duel and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov *** (SS)
  22. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak *** 
  23. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee ****
  24. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje ***
  25. QBism - The Future of Quantum Physics by Hans Christian von Baeyer *** (NF)
  26. Youth by J.M. Coetzee *** (Sort of Book 2 in Scenes from Provincial Life)
  27. Summertime by J.M. Coetzee *** 
  28. The Age of Magic by Ben Okri ***
  29. Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah ** (Books that A reads and wants me to read as well). 29a. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeling L'engle. Enjoyed reading this Sci Fi. Another of Achi's term books.
  30. Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver **** (NF)
  31. Incarnations - A History of India in Fifty Lives by Sunil Khilnani  **** (NF)
  32. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen ** (SS)
  33. The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing **** 
  34. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton ***
  35. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson ***
  36. Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric **** 
  37. In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield **** (SS)
  38. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein ***
  39. The Faith of a Writer (Life, Craft, Art) by Joyce Carol Oates **** (NF | Essays)
  40. Other People's Trades by Primo Levi *** (NF | Essays)
  41. Daisy Miller and Other Tales by Henry James *** (SS)
  42. Babette's Feast and Other Stories by Isak Dinesen **** (SS)
  43. The Magician of Lublin by Isaac Bashevis Singer ***
  44. The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes **** (SS)
  45. Tell Tale by Jeffrey Archer ** (SS) kindle
  46. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver *** (SS)
  47. This is Not a Story and Other Stories by Denis Diderot **** (SS)
  48. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley ***
  49. A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig **** (SS)
  50. Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman **** (NF | Essays)
  51. South and West - From a Notebook by Joan Didion *** (NF)
  52. Pulse by Julian Barnes *** (SS)
  53. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres****

Saturday, December 2, 2017

On creating, recent reads, short stories and podcasts

Here after a while. As 2018 approaches, trying to see if I can begin the year with some new habits. ‘Early resolutions’ is one way to put it. The underlying to this one is the desire to ‘create’ rather than just passively ‘consume’. Consumption is fun, and surrounded by all those books which compete for my attention, something difficult to tear away from. And hence, the need of a resolution, of habit or discipline to bring myself to write. If not written, the books read just stay with me as moments of pleasure, of intense enjoyment – existing at the time of reading. But if I write about them, maybe I get to stretch the pleasure a little bit more, and make it more permanent than the elusive, momentary thing that reading generally is. Another way to consider this is understanding how much sticks. And there are chances of more sticking if I were reflecting about it. And to write, one necessarily needs to reflect.

So, the means to reach the deeper end of reflection is to commit to write, with discipline.


It is the first weekend of December, and my count of books read this year so far stands at 44. Is this the year I reach 50? Who knows? I have a few open ones which I hope to finish before the year ends. Last year, I had finished some 42 books.

A good place to perhaps note that the number of books I finish is may be one tenth of the books I wish I finished, or books I physically begin reading, exploring, skimming, and thinking about. Some of them are nonfiction which I find difficult to read cover to cover unless they are engaging. And if I don’t read them cover to cover, I don’t count them as finished books - so, there. I try not to judge the reading year by the number itself, but still, it is a fun number to track.


What am I reading these days? A lot of short stories. I enjoy short stories. I like it that I can sit with new characters and new contexts over a cup of coffee and go on this journey with them. You can do that with longer novels too, but they work at a different pace. Short stories need breathing space. Each one requires afterthoughts. And each one is like a new present to unravel. Reading a book of short stories takes more time too I think. You spend a lot more time with the author when reading short stories compared to if you were reading a novel of same length.

I recently read Henry James and Isak Dinesen.  Henry James’ Daisy Miller and other Stories were about all these American women in Europe (most of the times). And the cultural disorientation that it brought. Equivalent today will be books where Asians, Africans or South Americans write about life in the US or UK. It is a different enough world, even in this time and age - a bridge not fully crossed compared to that between Europe and US I would think. Dinesen’s stories were fable like. Babette and her feast staying in my mind for a while.

My last read was Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table. Unlike many other books, where the age of people is not as relevant (unless it is books with kids or young adults), here, most of the characters were people at the dusk of their lives. Old, with most of their life in their past rather than in future. And hence, in a way more grounded and real compared to other fiction I think. I guess at that age, eventually one comes to terms with oneself and lost dreams and promises not kept to oneself. Life’s accounting is much more real rather than forward looking then.  A lot of sadness in the book. It makes you wonder! Not a happy book, a bit disturbing. Still, enjoyed the stories and a couple of them – The Story of Mats Israelson, and The Things You Know stayed longer with me.

The books that I am reading currently include Katherine Mansfield’s Complete short stories, and stories by Denis Diderot and Raymond Carver. Mansfield is someone I have been seeking more of after reading Bliss and Other Stories earlier this year, or sometime last year. I read her stories from the German Pension recently. And finally found two more books. I love her writing, and do not want to finish it quickly - savoring them slowly so that they last longer. Mansfield’s short stories are quite haunting. I think of them at random times. They are very vivid. They make you wonder whether you saw a TV show that the images stay so vividly with you. Her stories are episodic, like instances, like a portrait, or a live picture of a very short slice of life.

The Collected Stories has all of Mansfield’s work in it (not much given her short life), including her unfinished stories. The unfinished ones are difficult to read since they are unresolved. Part of the reason I abandoned another book this year- Pushkin’s stories where the first few stories were not finished. And there are few things as annoying as reading unfinished stories.

Carver and Diderot are both new authors for me. I am enjoying Diderot. But Carver - I feel a revulsion as I read some of the stories. It reminds me of Cheever, of Updike, of the American suburbia and the subject matter of life with such bleak aspects, that it is a bit of work to read those stories, even though they are tiny. And is that what makes a good story? The way it can inspire those emotions in you? It is not like Henry James taking you through international episodes over 50 pages. These are 5 pages, and a life full of agony glimpsed through each story.

Incidentally, I heard Carver’s “Why don’t you dance” narrated on Paris Review podcast today – third episode, and since I had read the story just last week (it is the first story in the collection What we talk about when we talk about love), it was an interesting replaying at a distance of one week.

And? I know I am not borrowing more from Carver anytime soon.


Getting on a tangent from the last paragraph – I have rediscovered podcasts. I have been occasionally listening to New Yorker fiction from its very early days some 10 years ago. But seems like right now is a good time to get reacquainted with the medium. There is enough good material created already, and enough coming from trusted sources, that you know your time listening wouldn’t be wasted listening to people go on about banalities. There is a huge library, and you can pick and choose and create a worthy playlist. My current list for books includes Atlantic Interview, Paris Review podcast (both new releases), BBC books, the New Yorker fiction and poetry podcasts, and Monocle’s ‘Meet the writers’ – timeless quality to most of them. Enjoying all of them - and hoping to find more.

What I love about podcasts is that they ease my chores immensely. While cleaning and tidying or tending to the laundry or the plants, I listen to them and don't feel one bit like I am doing any chores. Sometimes, in fact I look forward to the chores! I bet they wouldn't have thought of this happy application while recording those podcasts.

Most of my drives and workouts are still set to music. Not yielding that space yet. Yet.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The act of reading

Everyone reads their own book. The same book read by you is different in your mind from the same book read by me. We are no blank slates. We come to books with our baggage - our contexts, our histories, our experiences and our aspirations. With all that material we take in the book and the book, like an overflowing rivulet comes in seeping in different nooks and crannies of our minds, and finds material to interact with, to grow, to burst into a hundred different questions and thoughts. A new unique experience which only you and the book could have created together.

While writing the book, the author has captured their state of mind from a period of time. A sort of time capsule. A reader then uses their own mindset and its current shallow and deep thought stock to read that book. The drama that unfolds thus is very individual, informed by the understanding and the general landscape of the reader's inner life. It is, as if the text were some sort of code, some sort of spell, and depending on where it unfurls, it creates a very personal, very individual experience. And hence, the versatility, the robustness, or shall I say anti-fragility of the medium.

The same book read by you at different ages of your life can lead to a different reading experience. Such unique entertainment! We should then perhaps, count not the number of books in this world, but the number of potential reading experiences.

Would it be then wrong to say that comparing notes on books read despite the intentions to the obverse, is at best, cursory, perfunctory? Or can I say that even though what each of us takes away from a book might be different, or that each book and a reader is a unique experience, the act of reading is the common thread tying us all together - a book, any book is just a means to the larger end of exploring our own thoughts and inner landscape, and of getting to know ourselves a little bit better.

That it is not the outward journey to the book - which is unique to each one of us - but the inward, the act of reading itself, the time we spend reading is the time we spend travelling inwards, the precious journey to the heart of hearts which is what binds us in the same circle.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mid-year reading update

Half way into 2017, already. Six months have gone by in a flash. Time to take stock.

I could read 25 books over the last six months. This has been one of my better reading years so far. I am fortunate in terms of time to read, and access to good books. List of books here. And notes as follows:
  • Non-fiction – 4 books so far. Aspiration was 6, one for each month. Antifragile, The Gene, Qbism and The Undoing Project.
  • Short Stories – By Chekhov, Nadine Gordimer and Knut Hamsun. Gordimer’s was an excellent collection (Jump and other stories). Little brilliant morsels to be savoured, not devoured. So, so heartbreaking. Touching one to the core.
  • Science Fiction – A bit of Isaac Asimov (Foundation, Prelude to Foundation and Bicentennial Man). Loved Foundation, but by the time of Prelude…, I think the novelty of the imaginary universe created in Foundation had worn off, and most science fiction is to be read for where it can transport you, not for the language (I believe) or the dialogue, or the characters. They are functional and means to an end, not really aesthetic or the end itself of that art form. I could also read Snow Crash, Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World.  Maybe not all is science fiction, but a lot of dystopian, alternate reality fiction. Loved parts of Snow Crash. Somehow reminded me of David Foster Wallace, the way a replica or a picture is reminiscent of something which is not there.
  • The French –Stendhal (The Red and the Black), Zola (The Ladies’ Paradise). The first one is the first modern novel ever, and Zola’s is literally an education in modern retail – modeled on the first department store ever. Stendhal’s was set in 1820s and Zola’s in 1860s France.
  • The Russians – A fair bit. Chekhov and Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), and struggled and reached midway somewhere in the 1000-pages long August 1914.  I’ll begin it again sometime soon. I am currently reading Sketches from A Hunter’s Album by Ivan Turgenev. And some Russian poetry (and poetry in translation is not the real thing. Thinking again of the analogy of a picture to the real thing). Curiosity got piqued with Zhivago’s poetry, and of course Joseph Brodsky’s essays which I dip in here and there refer to a lot of Russian poetry, and Brodsky’s own poems. Poetry is not something I read cover to cover, just here and there when gripped by the desire.
  • My first Dickens was read this year. I read Great Expectations. Enjoyed it. The complexity grew as the narrator grew. Was interesting to compare Pip with Julian from the Red and the Black – their inner lives and adventures in the same times but different country, a different social set and a vastly different culture.
  • Known authors, new books – Henry James (The Europeans), Knausgaard (second book in My Struggle - A Man in Love), Coetzee (Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life), Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms). From all over the place. Coetzee's is poignant. Stark, crisp, pithy narrative but so, so rich in imagery. Didn't really enjoy this one from Hemingway. I think I enjoyed his short stories most. And for Knausgaard, I have to say that I am drawn in, I read and I read, but eventually it all starts feeling quite petty, negative and irritating. I then leave a note to self to not go in that direction in the future, but I know from my past experience that my reading foot-steps will find their way again to the next in series, but hopefully, not until next year.
  • New authors - Tea Obreht (The Tiger's Wife), Michael Onadtaaje (The English Patient), Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana). And many of the above listed Russians, French, Orwell, Huxley, Stephenson, NF authors. The English Patient - the book was impressive, the movie not as much. Liked the poetic feel. And a good narrative in a good literary style which was not a translation or a classic. Dreamy. Sad. Questions everything since it is set up in a time which questioned everything for its people.
  • And all those unfinished books which do not make it to the list -  August 1914, Paul Aster’s 4321, Thinking Fast and Slow, poetry books, and a lot many non fiction - essay or non fiction books by fiction writers, history, economics, the new world/ popular culture books and subjects that I feel drawn to at the moment. But since the completed list is cover to cover, they do not make it to the list. For non-fiction, my approach is to explore wide, open many ideas, and I believe in serendipity, of juxtaposing ideas, of contrasting approaches and subjects. One is then not bound to finish the book, but well placed to draw what one needs, and move forward. One such area for me is Science. Reading on the deeper questions of stuff we are made up of, and trying to fathom the concept of reality itself is a philosophical, mystical thought space for me. I like going there often. It connects me to how I feel about most things, and it lends me good sense. Some people find that in meditation, some in religion. I find it in trying to understand the forces that manifest us. It lends me the necessary sense of awe, humility and wonder, and a lot of perspective.
I only wish that some of the science were easier to understand. It is a proper garden of forking paths out there. And it is evolving, and forking as we speak. And sometimes, backtracking on itself. QBism has currently sent me to the Bayesian Probability world, and I am also tracing my steps back on the science since I do not understand everything. Resorting to some interesting picture books on Quantum. Will post a few pics here as keepsake. 

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).