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 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).

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