Book List – February 2014

Posted on May 15, 2014

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It has only been the first quarter of the year, and I haven’t followed a simple resolution through. Naturally, I am ashamed of myself. Not because I failed the resolution, but I sort of failed the purpose of it. I will come to this later.

Here I offer my excuses post-haste. February and March have been eventful months – with A LOT of travel involved. I’d say a good 20 days have been properly invested in the fine art of gallivanting. Despite a good deal of solo-traveling, I managed very distracted reading. And at other times, especially during train journeys, I was usually hogging the seat at the door, or wolfing strange train and off-train fare, or appreciating very mature Goan grapes, or I was in giggle fits. As you can tell, my soul has been replenished by a genre of spirituality I am inclined to call Hello Kitty.

Back to self-flagellating – I have obviously forgotten a lot of what I read (aforementioned purpose defeat), and now I will go on to simply document the ghosts of these books that remain within me.

FEBRUARY 2014

Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro

If I were to find likeness in Photography, I feel Alice Munro’s writing is like Landscape Photography. More accurately, a composite landscape. Munro just fits a lot of things together to plot a landscape – sometimes within a person, sometimes geography, sometimes a system of rules and logic – but it’s always a collective, it’s always a study in interior design where stuff is thrown around to make a picture with excellent balance, and the reader can choose what it is he/she wants to dwell on. I suppose another reason why I find it landscape-y, is also how exotic the locations of all these stories feel. The spaces these stories play out in – physical place (usually America, Canada), time, ethical and cultural systems.

The story that haunts me most is actually the first in the book, called Dimensions. Featuring an extremely fucked up woman getting over something terrible her husband – the only man she has ever loved – has done. The plot points of this are entirely inside this woman’s existence, and the story is told with almost no sentimentality, a numbness that is actually signature Munro, and here, serves the excellent purpose of mood.

I have a feeling I’ll be rereading this book soon. In the meantime, here are 18 of her short stories available for free online. Don’t miss the list of other freebies, and fold your hands and thank the wonder that is the Internet.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Is funny as hell. This woman was once a stand-up, a playwright, a tomboy, a waitress, a ridiculously poor person, and a whole plethora of awesome avatars before she wrote this lovely, heartwarming book about the journey and the loneliness of writing. She makes such light and gaeity out of the whole thing, it’s almost morbid, but in a very Erma Bombeck way. You feel a passionate kinship – and you can’t wait to get started on what is essentially glorified doom.

I also understand the mild meta here, me noting what is good about a book on writing well. Lamott is such a classic storyteller in that she teaches you 40,000 things about writing and living, and you never really feel the lessons, because the most valuable lessons are in the asides she takes. Of course, there are also the technique things that are clever and sticky and stay in your head in a very *My Very Earthly Mother Just Said Unbelievable Nachos Potty* fashion.

For example, the story of how the title came about is pretty sweet. Apparently, when they were children, Lamott’s younger brother came rushing in, weeping the day before school reopened after summer holidays, with a project report on birds to finish. Their father had assuaged his fears, saying they would tackle the beast of the task by going at it, “Bird by bird”. And that is how Lamott teaches you a lesson – put the story in there. Put it in, word by word.

Lamott introduced me to the most reassuring thing I have heard about writing, which keeps coming to mind whenever I feel the distinct frustration of being lost in a muck of words. E. L. Doctorow said to nobody in particular, then to her, and now to me: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Brainpicker has obviously done a far better job at compiling Anne Lamott’s Timeless Advice, a read for anyone remotely interested in creating anything from an Origami fish, to a functioning jet.

I’m trying very hard to remember more, because at this juncture, I have procrastinated this post by way more than three more weeks.

Difficult Pleasures – Anjum Hasan

In the tortuous, land-mine-ridden landscape of Indian Literary Fiction (which I will bitch about in detail, in March), Difficult Pleasures, dear reader, is an oasis.

I’d read a couple of Hasan’s stories on the internet, both of which make an appearance in this anthology of short stories. The first story I had read, The Big Picture, hadn’t really hit it off with me when I read it at the time. But the reason why, was later articulated by Hasan herself, in the title of her collection of 13 brilliant, brilliant stories. Difficult Pleasures is a title that is just so significant in, and so accurate a description for, each story’s universe. When I think of the second story I’d read then, Wild Things, I am again reminded of how tender and careful the wording of Difficult Pleasures really is.

I want to gloat so much about this book. It meant so much to me that Hasan was brave enough to make her characters as flawed, as broken, as cruel, as required. Maybe this is the editrix in her. Maybe she has grown up well. But she doles reality to you in the most appropriate manner – and leaves you to grieve, or rejoice privately. Many of her stories had the inevitability of the kind dentist turning out to be the evil man to pull your tooth, like in Birds, or Saturday Night, or For Love or Water, which had my feet cold in dread, or the wincing slap in Immanuel Kant in Shillong. She straddles discomfort, sexual tension, whimsy, the spontaneity of wickedness with great ease. But that is not to say Hasan is not capable of levity – her humour is subtle, her irony is flawless. Her sense of poetry shines in the last story of the collection, my favourite, Fairytale on Twelfth Main, which explores an *idea* in itself, a short story that is borderline speculative fiction – what if a lover’s wish of freezing time with his loved one, comes true?

The lesson for me in all of this? Get off my ass and write more short stories. And then trash them, and write some more. Difficult Pleasures is a labour of love, and it is something that will shame every aspiring writer to do better, and to do it well. With this heaping of platitude dung here, I do next to no justice to the feat she has accomplished in each of her stories. Please consider this as an ad placement, and get your copy of Difficult Pleasures IMMEDIATELY.

I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie – Roger Ebert

So, I mostly learnt how to insult somebody without referring to their female-relatives from this delightful book. We will all agree that Ebert was a great critic, and he really, really earned these privileges of freely, but gracefully spitting at terrible cinema, simply by virtue of having sat through these abominations. Some of the titles the man has actually reviewed include, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and $1,000,000 Duck.

This was the first book I read in a non-linear format*. Meaning, I jumped to the Index, and worked my way through titles that interested me first, then titles that baited me, and finally, the titles that were left. A title that especially piqued my interest in category a) was In Praise of Older Women – a movie based on the book I had recently fallen in love with. In his review, Ebert makes no mention at all of the book, but precisely points at exactly where a film adaptation would have bombed: it becomes just a chronicle of a man’s sexual conquests, hardly ever stopping to note that these were not encounters, but actual relationships that fashion a person. Thank you Mr. Ebert, I will NEVER watch the movie.

Otherwise, the biggest takeout from this book for me was how important it is to participate in life fully – in more than just what you would call a passion. Ebert was interested in more than movies, and it is evident he consumed every form of culture with the same curiosity as he did film. To more clearly illustrate what I mean, read this artful decimation of everybody’s favourite growing pains drama, Dead Poets’ Society. A tl;dr of his biggest grouse with it, “None of the writers are studied in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; they’re simply plundered for slogans… At the end of a great teachers’ course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they love is the teacher.”

Ebert takes the badness of bad cinema really personally, and this disappointment yields some profound insights about Cinema and Where It’s Going. Here’s one that still stays with me. About Prom Night and its success lying entirely in its Marketing, he says, “It’s easy to make a great-looking thirty-second TV spot, so why bother making a good film?” Of the other insults that stick in my memory: he calls North the movie that inspired the title of this book, he calls precocious Patch Adams a pain in his wazoo, and he thinks adults ought to be really, really terrified of watching anything from the Home Alone franchise.

The quality of Ebert’s writing that I hold a candle to, even before I’d ventured to read this book, is its inclusiveness. It is single-mindedly about film, it holds intelligent discussions about film, but it is so without being aloof. It isn’t merely critique, it is good writing. This is a pattern I have found replicated in *any* Art that deals with niche subjects that come from a place of expertise. I hate to use bullshit Marketing jingoism here, but I think it’s called “Democratization” and/or “Accessibility”. The nearest example I can think of is XKCD – if you don’t know the science in question, well, now you do; if you do follow, good, more starry eyes for you.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

I read this book on an AC train, and I had a seat facing the opposite direction of the train, and this meant only one thing: PUKEY FEELINGS. So, this was very distracted reading, because I had to keep putting it away. And I also had a severely entertaining newly married couple whose conversations were engaging to everyone except the party involved.

As the title and the author should tell you, this was Sci-Fi. These many weeks later, I don’t remember much about this book, except being awed by this one contraption that featured in it, and being blown away by how the people in this world had evolved to use it in emotional situations. There is a Mood Organ – a contraption that allows characters to manipulate their moods and states of being. In the future, Dick probably believed, feelings will be attributed to chemistry, and a science of Brain Acupuncture will evolve, where we will know what to hit where, and when.

The plot, and resolution, of the book are literally in its title. A human battle is on to weed out hyper-smart Androids whose intelligence has overriden the algorithm designing them. And the protagonist feels the only way to detect these hyper-intelligent Androids, is by testing their empathy. There is also the subplot of an extreme form of extinction, where normal barn animals are so few in number, that humans who own the last few goats, cows, horses, sheep all have a place of status in society. Did you put two and two together? Thought so.

So, yeah, this book is loaded with brain-tingles. Do Androids… deals largely with how, in the future, our identity crises will spill over into the domain of realness – of whether or not our artificial intelligence will interfere with the organic-ness of our experiences, and whether a machine of artificial intelligence can have an organic experience of its own. A theme, I feel, that’s been more deftly explored in Ghost in the Shell. Speaking of which, just for jollies, here’s my FAVORITE bit in the whole film.

* This is so far the only way a paperback defeats a Kindle – and it’s not even a compelling argument: you cannot flip pages and skip chunks together, or open a page randomly. You could key in page numbers, or skip chapters, but button pressing doesn’t match a satisfying FRRRRRRRPPP sound. Anyway, contrary to popular belief, you CAN play book cricket with a Kindle, especially on one that lags. And you can even make highlights and notes – something you will feel terrible about doing to your paperback (and really deserves punishment). Stop whining. Get a Kindle.

Posted in: Books, Memoirs, On Writing