Just like everybody else on the planet, I am growing old remarkably fast, and one of the saddest fallouts of this: I forget all the books I’ve read. Days and nights of reading remain in my memory as just snatches – a foggy idea of the plot, just a feeling, or just one image. Many times, nothing at all. I’m often stuck looking at the bottom of my glass trying to recall just what the hell Jailbird was about and whether it was Vonnegut at all, while some guy in a plaid/linen shirt is going on about how Vonnegut should have given up writing to draw, and the faded Vonnegut fangirl in me is affronted, but the drink has been too expensive to throw in plaid/linen shirt guy’s face.
To avoid such sticky situations, this year on, I’ve decided to keep track of all the stuff I read. Note that these are not reviews. I’m incapable of objectivity and love nearly everything I read. This makes me the perfect workshopping louse – finding positives even in a rag of chloroform, and giving unsolicited advice even to the works of Dante.
Some of these books I began in December 2013, and out of sheer book-greed, committed some unsuccessful book-polygamy, and had to back up several chapters. And as I write this, I’ve already forgotten so many memorable bits of these books I’ve read, and this deeply saddens me. I will consider getting my head checked for ADHD, but in the meantime, here is some copious note-taking:
Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down – Dave Barry
The year began with Dave Barry. It’s a bringing-in-the-new-year tradition that I have with friends – we read Dave Barry aloud to each other, and laugh like hyenas till we’ve finished our drink mostly via spritzing it through our noses.
To illustrate how much of an impression he makes on me: I was recently asked what book I would take to my grave, and my prompt reply was, “The Bell Jar and any Dave Barry book”. I have gorged on and enjoyed almost all of Dave Barry’s stellar bibliography, except his disastrous novel, Big Trouble, which I like saying was a lapse of judgement. I was happy to find that I still had two of his column compilations left to read – Dave Barry is From Mars & Venus, and Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down – and that means more occasions to giggle at the intelligent use of “booger”.
On the trip, we chose to read Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down. The book features his staple topics: adventures raising his son, spending money on utterly useless things, guy stuff, current affairs, public policy, weird and strange phenomena (read: public policy), news items that other publications carried, and what a gigantic joke real estate/home decor is. My favourite here was a few-part series where he went on about the woes of plumbing, and he lambasted an actual 1992 American law that banned people from using toilets with 3.5 gallon cisterns, and mandated 1.6 gallon cisterns in view of environmental concerns. His accurate science estimated that because of this law, he was forced to spend about 26% of his adult life successfully flushing all the three toilets of his house. Of course he pissed (ha ha) off a whole bunch of green people, but people are always getting hurt around a Dave Barry column.
As usual, his work was liberally sprinkled with, “I am not making this up.”
Make no mistake, Barry is capable of stunning profundity, as he proved in these two 9/11 memorials: Just for Being Americans, and a year later, On Hallowed Ground. And his pieces about his son always touch a note of loveliness. But I guess Barry is best remembered as pioneering a brand, a signature style of comic writing that I have found some Indian writers inadvertently imitate. His style is a case study of how when people are involved, absurdity and reality have no semblance of a line between them.
Gaysia – Benjamin Law
I ripped Gaysia off Editor/Critic Faiza S. Khan’s Twitter feed a while ago, when she’d raved about what a rollicking read this is. And now I think I trust her judgement on two counts: the first volume of Life’s Too Short (which I also read this month), and how much I thoroughly enjoyed Gaysia.
As the title suggests, Benjamin Law follows the trail of alternate sexuality across Asia, and his findings are surprising, shocking, and often, so, so saddening.
Law covers a whole vibgyor of people: lesbians and faux heterosexual marriages in China, HIV-afflicted gay sex-workers in Burma, moneyboys in Indonesia, Japan’s biggest gayest TV stars, Thailand’s beauty pageant for transgender women – possibly Asia’s only, and definitely Asia’s biggest. His ballsiest bits are face-to-face encounters with India’s own Baba OfCourseItsHim, and a clergyman in Malaysia, who both offer a cure for homosexuality.
In the ambit of each of these themes, Law also explores the role of the Internet in empowering alternate sexuality, medicine’s hand in relating the body to sexuality, destitution in the third world, the moral vagaries of prostitution, the unfair correlation between venereal disease and homosexuality, the media’s exploitation of “anomaly” and “queer” – forcing transgenders into campy, slapstick imagery. Law demonstrates how everywhere it’s quiet desperation, guilt, alienation, and a gobsmacking absence of human rights. He concludes his journey in India – by happily attending the Bombay Pride despite his scale-8 food poisoning, and lauding the Delhi High Court’s verdict on section 377. Dear Benjamin, you spoke too soon.
In its own right, this book is a travel book – Law’s adventures while following other people’s adventures, proclivities and escapades. It is ambitious, documenting and demonstrating how offensively reductionist our labels of gender and sex are. What I appreciate most about Gaysia, is its activism that allows curiosity, invites questions, finds itself in very funny, human situations, and doesn’t wave a flag or chuck pamphlets and slogans at you.
I’m sure Law had plans to feature more voices of sexuality, but I’d have loved for him to also shed light on topics like the queer elderly, or the queer disabled. I especially missed the condition of transgenders in India – a story distinctly different from all other transgender voices featured across other countries. Aside, I wonder what he’d have to say about Grindr (the book’s writing predates it), and Shit Girls Say to Gay Guys. And I would’ve loved for him to have a chat with Bobby Darling.
Law’s choice of stories is already so compelling, and he lets the stories tell themselves without heavy hand or clever-craft. And this is a point I will make again, later, after I’m done taking notes on Perur’s If It’s Monday…
If It’s Monday, It Must be Madurai – Srinath Perur
Actually, I’d hoped Perur would debut in the big-bad-book world with a collection of short stories. I’d once stumbled upon this little wonder in one of the earlier issues of Out of Print! when I was doing a click trail of Samhita Arni way back in 2010. A little diligent
searching stalking later, I found another bright short, and I was convinced this guy was going to reinvent the South Indian short story. Of course, I promptly forgot.
Time did its thing. In my bookshelf, Dom Moraes happened. Bill Bryson went to Africa. Pico Iyer left from Kathmandu. And spot in the middle of an Advertising-related breakdown, a very talented, kind and excellent friend told me to drop everything and pursue writing, just like his friend Perur had. Perur was allegedly so badass, he’d snap his head, whip his ponytail, and ride tour-buses full of inquisitive maamis from Cherai to Cherrapunji. A couple of years later, Open magazine previewed what is my third favourite segment in Srinath Perur’s If It’s Monday, It Must be Madurai.
There is a moment in the book that I had the privilege of describing to Perur, in person, as “kickass” or something equally awful. A few pages into the book, Perur likens a woman rolling around the Vaitheeshwaran temple with the help of a female relative, to an LPG cylinder being barreled around. I remember I had laughed aloud, and glowed with a fondness for the storytelling that ensued: reflective, warm, sincere, so full of wonder and surprise.
The lesson for me in both Perur and Law’s writing is a humble distance of the narrator from the text. Both books are deeply personal – the happily-married Law explores homosexuality in more unfair quarters of the world, Perur finds shades of where he comes from, over and over again. And yet, both books transcend the two eyes they are seen from. They are bigger than the writer and his craft. The strongest sense I received from both these books is authorial humility: that the person the author listens to, has the better story to tell.
Although, my favourite moment in If It’s Monday… remains when Perur is in the thick of the many-lakh strong 12-day Wari pilgrimage, walking a sole-scorching 200 km across Maharashtra in the name of a god he reports an on-and-off relationship with. Circumstances find him actively participating in a ritual: he is dressed in a red dhoti, holding offering for the deity, and by mandate, has to avoid being touched by any of the other pilgrims. Somewhere in the midst of it all, he accidentally becomes a Warkari, “I even catch myself indignantly barking ‘mauli’, when someone comes too close for comfort, and find that I’ve become active party to an exclusion I don’t even believe in.”
It’s a lovely truth Perur uncovers, and perhaps holds as a leitmotif through his chronicle as a traveler watching other travelers – that despite the stance of observation we strike, as writers and documenters and curious onlookers, for all the removal of self from the scene, we are unwitting participants, extras and junior artistes who have been handed very specific roles.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
I had misgivings about McCarthy, because it turned out I had once tried reading Blood Meridian and had taken the lord’s name in vain. I looked very hard and didn’t find any great feelings for No Country For Old Men either. In short, I was distracted by, god knows, Meluha, and I’d make an early morning orange juice face at the mention of McCarthy – a crying shame for a masochist who braved Trainspotting, Infinite Jest, AND Heart of Darkness before they made it to a Flavorwire list of hardest reads in modern literature.
Why? Because McCarthy loves raising inappropriate fingers at grammar and punctuation, clumping clauses together, forgoing conjunctions, articles, and throwing in poetry-sounding fragments – stylistic choices that I’d dismissed as cheap gimmick. But here’s where the slap landed in my face – no, it wasn’t Stephen Fry shaming grammarnazis – it was pages in when it dawned on me that I had not missed a single beat. The telling is taut, and pacy, and I finished it in a sitting and a half. It occurred to me that this was a style probably born of editing, a shearing of convention and structure, and oh my god, it worked. It was such a sophisticated touch to a commentary on the breakdown of the world.
The Road is a bare-bones father-son story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is stripped of excess in the book – conversation, feelings, colour. And the writing is an additional character in the story – lean, hungry, functional, bulging-eyed from malnutrition, trying to pass unnoticed to predators. The hope supplied in an otherwise superbly bleak story, was also so meagre, and in such wisely doled portions. And yet, McCarthy shows off elsewhere. His descriptions of the father’s inventiveness are detailed with much care. And I am in awe of how McCarthy has described a consistently grey landscape in multiple tender, layered, and unboring ways.
This wise guy whom I exchange Yo Mamma jokes with thinks The Road is among his Top 3 books in the world. Heck, I wish I knew what was top 3 for me, but I read something that I think could be a strong contender in my Top 5:
In Praise of Older Women – Stephen Vizinczey
Every now and then, I find something that I know will change and evolve in meaning each time I encounter it. And I think this is one of those reads that I want to revisit time and again, because I know I will come back rewarded each time.
In a month loaded with great reads, this HAD to be my favourite. Set in the times of the Second World War, it is a collection of András Vajda’s meanderings in the world of older women. András recounts these journeys – they are too profound and reflective to be called escapades – as an older man, and so his stories are sung with a grace and charm and so much humour in a place rife with squalor. The atmosphere of the book is much like the film, Life is Beautiful: swollen with melancholy, but desperately, stubbornly hopeful.
Reading this in an era of Fifty Shades of You Can Really Do That!? Vizinczey’s book makes a very very sophisticated case for eroticism. There are no dirty bits to skip to. But it is an intensely sexual book that places sexual everything at an altar. If András Vajda has a gift, it appears to be an insurmountable curiosity of women, and a nonplussed acceptance of his own sexuality as a tool for survival. He conducts each act of intimacy with such reverence (an excellent throwback to his Catholic upbringing) and holds on to each fragile arrangement with an anchorage that reveals his Post-Modernism: we are here, and we are now, and only what we behold is true, because the world could be blown to pieces anytime now.
Vizinczey does several clever things to András Vajda. In each country that András goes to, his first name bastardizes to something else – Andre, Andrew, etc. – as if to show how András is a natural-born camouflaging animal, built for physical, mental, and spiritual longevity. András loses most everything to war, his boyhood, his nationality, his religion, his friends, his connection with his mother – and his lovers. But the one thing he does hold on to, is the wisdom he accrues from older women, lessons of love and loss that he values above all else. András is not infallible. He is young, arrogant, impulsive. He is insecure and needs constant validation of his abilities as a lover. And yet, when he finds himself entangled with a woman, he does not debase her to merely a half of an act, but finds what she is made of, with the love she has to offer. By setting András in WWII, Vizinczey deftly makes existing social codes farcical and laughable, and allows András to meditate sexuality as something sacred between just the two people involved. Although the title says, “In Praise of Older Women”, Vizinczey offers far, far more than just patronizing observations of woman-kind, and does not have patience with a war of the sexes.
I suppose why the book left a lasting impression on me, is because of the lucidity with which it explains the significance of intimacy. It usually goes unsaid, muted by all the overwhelming sensations of the act itself. Where I come from, we are told sex is a sort of final destination in commitment, or in some places, a score to keep; we are often warned that what lies beyond is pain, or shame. Vizinczey rubbishes everything, and makes intimacy something that keeps András’ humanity intact.
The Life’s Too Short Literary Review – New Writing from Pakistan. Vol. 1
So, there was a brilliant Landmark sale. And I grit my teeth and waylaid temptation like a nun at Lent. Only to succumb when I found this fantastic anthology for a steal, along with a hardcover of Nilanjana Roy’s Wildings, also for a steal, and oh my god, a supercute Penguin-Classics-cover-inspired bag that reads “A Suitable Bag”, guess what, for a steal.
So far, my forays into Pakistani Writing in English had only extended to usual suspects, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, and Mohsin Hamid. But this collection of thrilling short stories, translations, excerpts, and a photo-essay, carefully thrown together by Faiza S. Khan and Aysha Raja go such a long way in showing off an impressive repertoire of literary talent in the country. Off hand, I recall some excellent moments, like a crisp, stunning description of a full-grown man’s eggs-sunny-side-up ritual in Madiha Sattar’s Ruth & Richard, and Danish Islam’s hilarious account of hair-dye issues in Mir Sahib’s Hairdo, and a haunted dream that a hyper-imaginative child suffers at the hands of The Six Fingered Man by Aziz Sheikh. Also a teaser from a mildly Animal Farm-esque graphic novel, Rabbit Rap, that I hope to read in February.
These stories are new writing, I guess not just in terms of exposure, but the milieu the stories come from: empowered urban English-speakers, many who still live in the wake of the colonizer-patronage-privilege, very strongly bound to an old-world, creating new interpretations of their heritage, who are cast constantly in the shadow of blanket stereotypes. It’s the same struggle all developing nations share. As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TEDx talk, nobody in the first world expects us to have normal growing-up problems; because to them, our narrative is distilled to two-dimensional single stories like rampant poverty, chasing cows, and in the case of Pakistan, fundamentalism. The anthology is actually a lesson in curating, picking stories from a spectrum of themes: magic realism, feminism, body image, fidelity, coming of age, aging, lesbianism, displacement and the idea of home, feudal and filial relationships, and of course, living between bomb-shells. If much of a developing country’s story needs to be stuffed into a book, this would come pretty close.
Y: The Last Man | Vol. 1: Unmanned – Bryan Vaughan, Pia (hehe) Guerra
I started this series while standing in the aisle of Landmark, during aforementioned Sale, practicing aforementioned restraint, which was easy, given the price of the book. I think I ought to reserve comment until I’m at least four books down, but suffice to say I can’t wait to go back and gobble them up.
But up until now, this seems like an interesting inversion of gender politics. Y, or Yorick, is the last male on earth, and has a strongly symbolic pet monkey. He’s being, ha ha, sought after for many reasons. I’d read somewhere (of course I don’t remember where) that if it came down to it, females in the human species can propagate themselves asexually, because of their even XX chromosome, where as men are kind of doomed because of their Y. Ergo, Y, the last man. I’m confused if the source of this information was Science, or some ultra-feminist trump card to deride men. Anyway. I wonder if the series ever takes this titbit head-on. It’d be interesting to come out unscathed from such a clash.
I’m being snooty literary-fiction reader reading a graphic novel, but GNs really should go easy on the symbolism. Okay, will reserve more snooty, half-baked notes for times post-devourment.
While on a train back from Bombay, I also began reading Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness – yet another collection of her short stories, and at the time of writing this, have made much headway into Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book on writing difficulties. I have avoided “how to write” books up until now, but I guess I felt like a little ass-whooping. Naturally, the next book will be Stephen King’s On Writing – the only Stephen King I own in physical form.
Now for dinner. And actually writing.