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.

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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.

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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.


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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.


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