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.