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2014 in Books

Halfway through this year, I moved back to India. The most tangible change in my life was the immediate loss of access to two of the world’s most well-stocked libraries, which I’d been enjoying for the last three years: the Bodleian and then the Sterling. It’s hard to describe the strange sense of loss that you feel when you read about an interesting book online, and suddenly realise that you can no longer step outside your door, and embark upon a five minute walk to take it down from the shelf where it is certain to be – a loss compounded by frantic  searching on Flipkart or Amazon, and the sinking feeling on seeing the prices. Kindle (and torrents) help sometimes, but what is that compared to the sound of rustling paper and the feel of a book in your hand?

I left the United States in the middle of reading Arab novels, and also realised that – barring the odd Naguib Mehfouz – Delhi bookstores carry next to nothing of Arab writing. Per force, my exploration of that genre had to stop, but perhaps fortunately, there was no accompanying dearth of Latin American fiction, which I turned to, determined to carry on a thread begun with Borges a few years ago. Here is 2014 in fiction, with a five-star system of (admittedly reductive) ratings, as ever.

 

Arab Writing

Elias Khoury, Little Mountain: **** and a 1/2 Khoury’s surrealistic, first-person description of Lebanon during the civil war is a beautiful and harrowing read. It has a wonderful introduction by Edward Said, who discusses how and why Khoury’s writing contrasts with the realism of Mehfouz.

Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters: *** Also set in Lebanon, also about the civil war, the context here was a little too thick for me to be able to enjoy it as much as I did Khoury.

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North: *** and a 1/2 The canonical post-colonial novel, moving between Sudan and England in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, a great example of political critique through personal narrative.

Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain: ***** Perhaps the book I loved most of all this year. Set in a fictional Jordan, treats the eternal themes of revolution, youth, poetry and memory in a deft and moving way that no other book I’ve read comes close to doing. Traces of Kundera (and a marked reference to Life is Elsewhere).

Naguib Mehfouz, Children of the Alley **** and a 1/2: From Palace Walk to Miramar to Children of the Alley – Mehfouz varies his style and themes and is yet so effortlessly brilliant. Children of the Alley is a gorgeous retelling of the Creation Story, Fall onwards, all set in a Cairo alley.

 

Latin American Writing

Carlos Fuentes, Inez: *** Enjoyed it while it lasted, but a little too brief, and the characters a little too under-developed, to make a real impact.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: *** Probably a heretical thought, but I really don’t think that Marquez does love very well. This book started off wonderfully, but had begun to drag towards the end, and some of the last few scenes were deeply disturbing – but not really in a positive way, like One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: **** Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel of a hilarious, riotous relationship between 18-year old writer/newsman Vargas and his 32-year old Aunt Julia, punctuated by “radio plays” written by a once-brilliant, now rapidly deteriorating creative mind, is just an unabashedly fun read.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat: **** and a 1/2: Much darker, much grimmer, the retelling of the day that Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator, was assassinated, and the reverberations of his regime decades later. Reads like a thriller, but for all that, Llosa’s done some wonderfully painstaking historical research.

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz **** and a 1/2: The story of Mexico’s long civil war and its aftermath, retold by the dying Artemio Cruz, revolutionary-turned-ruthless-landlord, through thirteen flashbacks of memory. Reminiscent of Pedro Paramo at times, and Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. A heartbreaking section about the Spanish Civil War as well.

Ariel Dorfman, Heading North, Looking South: ***** Hands-down my book of the year. Dorfman’s memoir about living with his American and Latin American roots, struggling with the competing pulls of bilingualism, and above all else, his wonderful description of the last days of the Allende regime make for a devastating read. Language, history, political memory, personal reflections all combine, and not a word feels out of place. Here is a paragraph:

“That Spanish out there contained my future. It contained the words of Garcia Lorca I would say to Angelica one day, Verde que te quiero verde, the lover-like green of desire, and the words of Quevedo I would say to my country, Mire los muros de la patria mia, watching the walls of my fatherland crumble, and the words of Neruda I would say to the revolution, Sube a nacer commigo, hermano, rise and be born with me, my brother, and the words of Borges I would whisper to time, los tigres de la memoria, the tigers of memory with which I would try to fool death once again. I would realize one day that the word for hope in Spanish, the word esperanza, hides within its syllables the sound and meaning of esperar, to wait, that there was in the language itself a foretelling of frustration, a warning to be cautious, to hope but not to hope too much because the experience of those who forged those syllables tells them that we end up, more often than not, being violated by history.” 

Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden **** and a 1/2: Well, after that memoir, anything would have felt a let-down, but Death and the Maiden came darn close to matching it. A short, intensely-written play about the after-effects of torture upon the individual, and the after-effects of a fraught transition to democracy upon the survivors and the perpetrators of the old regime.

It’s rather interesting to have dipped into Latin American writing immediately after Arab writing, and to spot similarities and differences. I found both sets of novels to be intensely political (which is unsurprising), and also – in some way – speaking to, or trying to deal with, a history of dictators or, at the very least, crushing State power over the individual. Every writer is unique in his own way, both in asking the questions, and in deciding how and whether to answer them, but sometimes the similarity in thought, and even in expression (Nasser and Fuentes on memory and nostalgia, for instance) is startling.

 

South African Writing

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace **** and a 1/2 An absolutely wonderful novel about race and human relations in the post-apartheid world-turned-upside-down.

 

European Writing

Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler **** This, I suppose, might be called magical realism, and Calvino’s hypnotic writing accentuates the magic and makes us forget about realism.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: **** and a 1/2 One of my favourite books of the year. Marco Polo’s descriptions, to Kublai Khan, of all the cities he has traveled to (real or imagined?) is best summed up by a word I learnt recently: “hiraeth” (‘homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire…’)

Carlos Luis Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind *** An utterly disappointing ending was a substantial let-down after some great suspenseful storytelling about books, book-burning, Barcelona and young love.

Leonardo Sciascia, Equal Danger ****: A completely compelling detective/mystery novel about politics and corruption in mid-late 20th century Italy. Featured one of my favourite lines this year: ““It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”

Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich **** and a 1/2 A darkly brilliant set of loosely connected short stories (reminiscent of Koestler, at times) about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarian governments. Most of Kis’ characters are ordinary people, easy to relate to, who turn collaborators – which makes this novel seem frighteningly prophetic.

 

Indian Writing

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess *** and a 1/2 The story of the massacre of Kilvenmani, retold 45 years later, is worth a read simply because of the intriguing meta-fictional style, which doesn’t always work, but is brilliant when it does. Also, through its self-conscious, self-aware style, raises important issues – a la Jean Genet, of authenticity in narration, appropriation, “speaking for vs speaking of”, and so on.

Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozshah Baag: *** More heresy. I couldn’t really relate to Mistry’s detailed descriptions of life in a middle-class Bombay Parsi housing colony, and – like with Tiller of Waters – I felt that the context was too thick to allow me to really soak it in and enjoy it.

Ismat Chughtai, Lifting the Veil **** A wonderfully curated collection of short stories and essays, still as relevant as they were sixty years ago, and the eponymous title story is, of course, a classic for all times.

Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator *** and a 1/2 Waheed’s story about the “collaborator”, who stays behind in the Kashmir Valley while his friends cross the border to join the war, and makes his living stripping killed fidayeen for identity papers and more, stays with you a long time after you’ve put it down. Perhaps it was the effect of reading this book soon after watching Haider, but echoes of Hamlet were everywhere – in particular, ambivalence, delay, obloquy and the failure to act being the burdens carried by the protagonist.

 

American Writing

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint *** I sometimes wonder if the detailed descriptions of sexual, excretory and other graphic acts would have felt brilliantly subversive in the 1960s, because reading it in 2014, I often had the feeling that it was simply graphic for the sake of being graphic. Some brilliant moments, nonetheless.

 

Australian Writing

Bruce Chatwin, Songlines: **** I’m aware that this book has been heavily criticised, but I loved reading it. The concept of “songlines” – singing the land into existence as you go along, the connection of places, events and histories through music, and music as the underlying language of all creation – it might be reductive, but there’s something so very appealing about all this.

 

English Writing

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest: **** What to say? Nobody has a way with words quite like Oscar Wilde.

 

Postcolonial Writing

Aime Cesaire, A Tempest **** A wonderfully subversive retelling of the timeless Shakespearean play, in which Prospero is the coloniser, Caliban the resisting native, Ariel the ambiguous mulatto, and the conquest of language plays a crucial role.

 

Classics

Lermontov, A Hero of our Time **** Finally got around to finishing this book. Lermontov’s Byron-esque, half-nihilist protagonist is disturbingly easy to relate to, and his grand, sweeping style is ideal for the geographical backdrop – the Caucasus Mountains.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed/Demons **** Didn’t quite rip my heart out by the roots, a la Brothers Karamazov but – like vintage Dostoevsky – left me unwilling to get up and start the day, for a few mornings.

Leo Tolstory, Anna Karenina I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t finish this book. The scenes with Anna and Karenin were brilliant, but the long, unending descriptions of Russian farming simply bogged me down. I will try again.

Flaubert, Madame Bovary **** Unlike Zola, who I found extremely hard going, Flaubert turned out to be a solid, well-paced read, and even the awareness of how the book was going to end did little to dilute its pathos.

 

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne **** The compulsory, annual re-read.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We **** The novel that began the genre of futuristic totalitarian dystopias, the precursor of 1984Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451. Written in Soviet Russia in the first decade after the Revolution. Often, while reading, I’d pause and say to myself – “such a cliche!” before suddenly realising that this book was the first time that it was being used!

Howard Jacobson, J *** and a 1/2: Reviewed this for Strange Horizons – a grim, disturbing and wonderfully-written story about the creation and destruction of identities and narratives, set in a futuristic semi-dystopia, which somewhat resembles Sheldon Wolin’s ‘inverted totalitarianism‘.

Patricia A. McKillip, Ombria in Shadow ***: Like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the point to McKillip is not plot, structure or character, but simply lush prose and a fabulous, atmospheric style. It can’t always carry the novel, though.

 

 

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2012 Wrap-up

I’m flying back home for New Year with the family, and will have only dubious access to the internet until January 8. So, slightly early, here is my 2012 reading list. I’m going to do two – rather foolish – things with it. First, try to sum up (mad pursuit!) what I consider to be the essence of the book in a sentence. And secondly, rate it on a very simplistic rating scale. I don’t think I’ve read any bad book this year, so the rating system is: * for a good, solid, decent read; ** for something very good; *** for excellent; ***** for brilliance in writing, plot, characterisation or even in episodes (insert appropriate markers for poetry); and ***** for, well, life-changing. I know this simplifies to the point of distortion, but for want of anything better…

A. Literary fiction

1. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables: Annoyed by the constant preachy moralizing, enthralled by the richness of description (Waterloo, sewers, slang), and utterly enraptured by the scope, colour and movement of the 1831 Revolution. ***

2. Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere: A savage – yet brilliant – indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution, and their inevitable, tragic entanglement. ****

3. A.S. Byatt, Possession: Tedious and over-described at points, gripping at times, and fairly compelling both in its parallel descriptions of two love stories spanning two centuries and two very different societies, as well as its account of the literary academic life. **

4. J.L. Borges, Ficciones: Takes our conceptions of time, space and existence, and twists them around until they become unrecognizable, until dreams mingle with reality and we can’t tell the two apart, until our heads are absolutely exploding. *****

5. Oscar Wilde, The Collected Short Stories: Light, darkness and dappled shadows characterise these short stories, ostensibly for children, but clearly of much greater depth – and also, incidentally, possessing in one of them the most brilliant subversion of the soul-body relationship that I’ve come across. ***

6. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel: Borges, in his preface, calls this the perfect novel, and you can understand why – “brilliant” simply doesn’t do justice to the force and power of this short novel to radically destabilise our firmest convictions about the human condition. *****

B. Speculative Fiction

1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (re-read): Epic fantasy in the time of the troubadours, and quests, wars, love and poetry, all in language that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien. ***

2. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (re-read): Epic fantasy set in a world resembling the Italian city-states of medieval times, with a dash of sorcery, and a wonderful theme of memory, loss and the power of naming. ****

3. China Mieville, Railsea: Classic Mieville – a brilliant premise, outstanding writing, and an ending that goes out like a damp squib. **

4. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris: I always knew this was part of the SF canon, and now I know why – a profound treatment of the eternal themes of love, memory and humanity, all of which intertwine beautifully within a hard, scientific setting – I cannot recommend this highly enough. ****

C. Poetry

1. Lermontov, Collected Poetry: Brooding, melancholy, ironic and deeply compelling. ***

2. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: —- *****

3. Borges, Collected PoetryA wealth of references, most of which I’m sure I missed, weaving in his pet ideas about time and space into verse, and filled with delightful imagery. ****

4. Milton, Paradise Lost (re-read): Things unattempted yet – or since – in prose or rhyme. *****

5. Virgil, Aeneid (re-read): Epic, lyrical, stirring, passionate – of course, but so much more – musings on the ever-unattainable ideal in the beautiful image of an always-reaceding shoreline, meditations on Empire, a “private voice” that subverts the dominant paean to Rome even as it is being established, constant defamiliarisation of comfortable bracketed categories of good and evil, civilised and barbarian, us and the other. *****

D. Drama

1. Ibsen, Love’s Comedy: Flawed, of course, but brilliantly compelling while reading, and stays with you for a long time afterwards – another destabilizing analysis of the ideas of love, permanence, decay and time. **

2. George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma: One of the few works I’ve come across where a modern writer manages to insert a classical moral dilemma in the style of Greek tragedy without sacrificing plot, pacing, dramatic intensity or anything else, for that matter. **

3. Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: Admittedly, extremely powerful, but I was left numbed, depressed and with the unshakeable – although temporary – conviction that there was nothing in this world but sheer hopelessness. **

4. Goethe, Faust: Musings on the clash between radically opposed world-views of romanticism and the enlightenment, the fragility and incompleteness of all human endeavor, the agony of that realisation, and what a man can do – or wish for – to overcome that agony. ****

E. History

1. John MacLeod, Highlanders: A History of the Gaels: I bought this book at Culloden Museum, while traveling in my beloved Scottish highlands, and found it to be a solid and informative – if unspectacular – account of the history of that tragic region. *

2. James Hunter, Glencoe and the Indians: Beautifully weaved together the stories of the Highlanders and the Native Americans as victims of Empire (as well as mercantile capitalism), with deeply moving accounts of Glencoe, of Wounded Knee, of the Trail of Tears, of the Ghost Dance (and so many more), that all seemed to fit together in one litany of the crimes of colonialism. ***

F. Essays

1. Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An erudite analysis of the European novel, the art and nature of translation, and in particular, Kafka. ***

2. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novels: Focuses almost entirely on the history and evolution of the European novel, in the broader context of European culture (music and art) as well – lyrically written and painstakingly analysed, an exhilarating read. ****

3. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Essays: His thesis on the meaning, nature and purpose of art – the erudition and detail is astounding, and his ideas deeply challenging and subversive – a must-read, especially the four essays on art. *****

4. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism: Probably extremely outdated now, but I did find some good ideas in there. *

5. Hazlitt, Essays on Shakespeare: The interesting thing about these essays is that rather than subjecting the plays to an overarching analysis of theme, plot, characterisation, language etc. – Hazlitt instead picks out one or two themes from each play that he finds specifically interesting, or worthy of analysis, and the result is extremely thought-provoking. ***

6. Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Western Drama: The fact that this was written in the 18th century and reflects the deep-sated prejudices of the time hardly takes away from the fact that it is a brilliant, detailed and erudite birds-eye view (if that isn’t an oxymoron) of the development of the European drama from Aeschylus down to the time of Schlegel, with stopovers in France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy. ***

7. Borges, Collected Essays: See description of Ficciones, and add to that some very thought-provoking analyses of Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge and The Arabian Nights, to take just a few examples. *****

8. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism: I cannot now imagine reading and appreciating Baudelaire, or the broader context in which he wrote, without having read Walter Benjamin’s stunning analysis of 19th century France and the themes of Baudelaire’s poetry. (Thanks, Aparna, for the heads-up)

G. Miscellaneous

1. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: Intoxicating and heady, but ultimately, once the (Dionysian) madness wears off, fails to persuade. **

2. Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents: Disturbing and rings disturbingly true. ***

3. Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends: The Inklings at Oxford, of the creation of Narnia and Middle-Earth, of drinks at The Eagle and Child and strolls along Addison’s Walk – what more could a Tolkien-and-Oxford-lover want? ***

**

I also have the beginnings of a proposed 2013 reading list.

1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda

2. Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (I saw the review over on ANZ LitBlogs, and knew immediately that I have to read this one).

3. Proust, Swann’s Way (but only after June, and the ending of the academic year!)

Any suggestions of any kind would be appreciated. I know the 2012 list doesn’t really give you anything to go by, since it is utterly random, but I’m game for trying anything, time permitting.

Have yourselves a great last few days of 2012, and a lovely 2013, everyone.

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