Tuesday, January 3, 2023

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I read in the previous year. In 2021, I had written about momentous changes to my life that left me little time for reading. The impact of those very positive changes continued, so much so that my only aim going into 2022 was to just continue reading, regardless of quantity. I managed to read 13 books. So while other readers (hello, Mr. Obama) spend time picking and organizing their favorite reads of the year, here are my brief thoughts on every single book I read in 2022.

I started the year with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. This classic American play is a seething critic of American capitalism and toxic positivity, but like any great story, this commentary revolves around an emotional core -- in this case caused by a conflict between a father and a son, both betraying each other in some ways. Despite it being written in 1949, I feel Death of a Salesman is relevant today, so much so that I compared the lead character Willy Lomar to Donald Trump in my review from earlier in the year. 

I came across Octavia Butler's name in a New Yorker article a couple of years back, and when I heard her name mentioned a second time in a book discussion forum, I was convinced I was missing out on something great. I picked up Parable of the Sower, the first of her abandoned Earthseed series, and was bowled over by the dystopian novel with an unusual protagonist, Lauren Olamina, who suffers from a condition called hyperempathy disorder. Written in 1993, Octavia Butler imagines America in 2024: a lawless region where climate change and severe wealth inequality causes an existence where violence is a way of life. Despite living in a walled community, Olamina senses that their safety is only temporary. When her predictions come through destroying her community, she is forced to lead a group of like-minded individuals on a dangerous quest. Serving as a backdrop is growing religious authoritarianism, with a popular right wing Presidential candidate spewing slogans such as "Make America Great Again!". Such was the clairvoyance of Octavia Butler.

My third read was a book I had no clue about before I picked it up. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears was suggested by a librarian because I love Umberto Eco's novels. I struggled through this almost 700 page historical fiction and regretted picking it up for about half the book. But by the time I got through it, I was really glad that I had persisted. The setting for Iain Pears's Magnum Opus is late 17th century England, which is a happening place, to say the least. The Cromwell era -- which started with a civil war and the execution of King Charles, followed by the abdication of Cromwell and reinstatement of King Charles II a few years later -- has just ended. It is also the beginning of the shift of Scientific renaissance from the rest of Europe to England, thanks to the presence of the likes of Issac Newton and Robert Boyle. Most significantly, there is intense religious strife, as Catholics, Royalists, Protestants are at proxy war with each other, while extreme puritans escape to the Americas. Iain Pears narrates a tale with 4 unreliable narrators. But at the center of all their narcissistic narratives is a young mystical woman called Sarah Blundy. For a long while, we feel that the narrative structure does not do enough justice to this wonderful character. However, things fall in place magnificently as we race towards the end.

I followed this up with Sidney Lumet's Making Movies. Sidney Lumet is best known for directing 12 Angry Men, but he was a prolific director working successfully across different genres. In Making Movies, Sidney Lumet breaks down the different aspects that go into making a movie in an extremely accessible style. Unfortunately, I had not watched a lot of Lumet's movies going into the book. Regardless, this was a succinctly written book that made me realize the many considerations and decisions that go into making a movie. I was blown over with Lumet’s description of the lensing techniques he used in 12 Angry Men to create an effect of claustrophobia as the jury's debates progressively gets more heated. Here is a useful visual description someone created on YouTube based on Lumet’s description. I have copious notes from this book, but I will revisit the book after watching a few more of Lumet's movies.

My next read was Frederik Backman's A Man Called Ove. An English movie adaptation of this book called A Man Called Otto starring Tom Hanks just released in the U.S., and there is already an acclaimed Swedish movie adaptation. After all, A Man Called Ove is perfect for movie adaptations - it is emotionally poignant and makes you smile and shed some tears. Frederik Backman's writing is lyrical and funny, and he sketches out some very well drawn emotional moments. I wrote a review of this book when I read it, but watching the original Swedish movie adaptation now, I feel I was a little too harsh on the book. 

Returning to tough books that take forever to get through, I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  It's been more than a decade now since I first watched Kubrik's acclaimed film adaptation, and I remember watching the first few scenes of the movie with horror. The payback was in the form of thought provoking questions the movie made me consider, forcing me to realize Kubrick's greatness as a filmmaker. Anthony Burgess's novella is a completely different beast. With most of the dialogues written in an invented dialect, The Clockwork Orange is not for the faint hearted. I wrote a lot more about Anthony Burgess's Pelagian beliefs and his own thoughts on the movie adaptation in my review.

My next book was a non-fiction - bell hooks' (lack of capitalization as per author’s preference) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. My first attempt reading an academic feminist text was enlightening. bell hooks' core argument is that black women face oppression through multiple avenues - from white men, white women and black men. This is essentially the concept of intersectionality, though the word was not in use when bell hooks published this book. My biggest lesson from this book was that when someone co-opts a well meaning word -- as white women did with the word feminism – a good approach is to reclaim the word instead of turning against the word. After all, feminism is a fight for equality (or even better, equity), and feminists, by definition, stand against all forms of oppression. More thoughts on this book are in my review.

My next read was probably my best of the year. In Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, I discovered a modern day great. I see a trend in many mainstream books critical of some aspects of America where authors, to some extent, couch their criticism in American exceptionalism. As a Muslim author writing about America, Akhtar does away with these formalities. The only concession he makes is in an overture, where he writes: "Every atom of this blood formed of this soil, this air". Once he claims the freedom of expression supposedly granted to all Americans, Akhtar allows himself to freely critique the American society, the Muslim community within American society, and his ancestral family back in Pakistan who wax eloquent about the western destruction of “culture”. But which Akhtar is the narrator? For the author choses a genre called Autofiction - a mix of autobiography and fiction. Hence, when Akhtar (the narrator) describes his father as a doctor specializing in a unique heart condition and Donald Trump meeting him for a consultation, I spent a few minutes Googling before realizing that this was the fiction in the auto-fiction. Ayad Akhtar's novel is intellectual, without being off-putting. Sample this sentence where the author compares his father’s gambling addiction and his slow disillusionment with Donald Trump starting from a place of glorification

Father's enthrallment with candidate Trump, first nascent, then ascendent, then euphoric, then disappointed, then betrayed and confused, and finally exhausted, a gamut of intensities whose order and range are proper to the ambit of all addiction- yes, a granular account of Father's addiction, his ceaselessly shifting emotions, his evasions and avowals and disavowals, the steady shedding of his civility, the daily obsession, the ad hoc rationalizations–all this might get of value to note, to show, and, in the process, through this unlikeliest of American Muslim lenses, to reveal the full extent of the terrifying lust for unreality that has engulfed us all.

There were some parts of Homeland Elegies that did not work for me. But then, I wonder if it was due to the the limited perspective of the narrator the author choses, rather than that of the author himself.

The next book I read was for a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity book club. It was "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition" by Anton Treuer. Unfortunately, I was sent the young readers edition, and ended up reading what I assume was a filtered version of answers to many questions that one might have about native American history, languages, culture and issues.  Nevertheless, this was a great introduction to a topic that I need to explore more.

I followed this with The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer. The title of the book is a translation of the Sanskrit word "Itihasa", which is a mix of "talk, legend, tradition, history". The protagonist, following the footsteps of his father, is a Sanskrit scholar. The Way Things Were deals with the tensions of an India breaking away from socialism to embrace liberalism, and the dangers of authoritarianism. The historical setting covers the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi; her assassination and the subsequent Sikh riots; and ends with the demolition of Babri Masjid - a fingerpost indicating the growth of Hindu nationalism. The core conflict is a son accepting and understanding his father, but there is also the conflict of a scholarly pursuit of Sanskrit and the history of India as opposed to a more reactionary pursuit that attempts to fit history in a pre-formed narrative. At the center of the later conflict is a "man without an agenda, without a tribe. A man willing to let history be what it was, without wanting to ram it into a frame which answered the needs of a particular group or faith or caste." I was at an extremely busy phase of my life when I read The Way Things Were, and I took way too long to complete it. However, that does not absolve the book of its problems - the repetitive parties and conversations where different characters take turns putting forth the author's view, and the amateur romance. Like with most books I read, I did feel satisfied with the ending. But I am not very sure if I would recommend this.

The next two books I read were Honesty for Sale by Koushik K R and How to Tell Stories and Other Essays by Mark Twain.The former was written by someone I met in social media and I wanted to give it a try. It was a very good attempt at a novel aimed to be made as a movie - think Shankar meets Michael Crichton meets The Family Man. The plot is fast paced, but the writing is inconsistent. The latter was a small book that did not hold much context for me and I wouldn't have continued it if it were not extremely tiny.

I finished the year with another non-fiction - Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann. This fast paced book deals with the end of the British empire in India with a focus on Lord Mountbatten, Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. Tunzelmann choses to highlight the drama between people, and argues that personal rivalries and romances played an oversized role in the hasty withdrawal of the British, and the chaos that followed in India and Pakistan. While other historians may debate this, it is definitely an interesting perspective. Tunzelmann has great wit and humor, and aims most of her acerbic lines at Lord Mountbatten - who is shown as a bumbling Administrator with a penchant only for branding and showmanship. On the other hand, Edwina Mountbatten is depicted with immense respect. The relationship between Mountbatten and Edwina, and the more consequential relationship between Nehru and Edwina, are the core of this book. Indian Summer is a very entertaining read. I, for one, was extremely surprised to learn that Lord Mountbatten and Edwina Mountbatten acted in a short film directed by Charlie Chaplin. Enjoy the movie here.

Ending 2022, I feel like I did not have a lot of agency in what I read. I could pretend that this was the reason I did not read as much this year, but to be honest, life got in the way. For 2023, I hope to be more deliberate in what I read.

Wish you all a very happy new year!

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Review of ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism by Bell Hooks

Less than a year after my arrival to the U.S.A, and soon after the inauguration of the country’s  45th President, hundreds of thousands of women decided to send a message to the new administration. In what was dubbed the “pussyhat” riots, women across the country marched wearing pink pussy-hats in an attempt to demonstrate solidarity against the President who had confessed on tape to grabbing women by their pussies. I was, as always, in the thick of things – by which I mean I was comfortably sitting at home scrolling ardently through social media trying to catch the most widely shared clicks, clips and bytes. One particular YouTube video caught my eye, and has stayed with me since. In this video, a black man confronts some of the protesting women, and questions their knowledge of the history of the feminist movement in the U.S.A. Scrolling through the comments on the video, I grasped, based on the authority of YouTube commenters,  that the  women's suffrage movement, a.k.a., the first wave of feminism in the U.S.A, was tainted with racism. 

Words and phrases are pliable. Since they work by association, concerted efforts to link a word or a phrase to a certain connotation are often successful in drawing unwarranted reactions against it. Take “political-correctness”, for instance. Taken by itself, it is a meaningless phrase. However, the rightwing ecosystem in the U.S.  has so successfully associated a  disagreeable meaning to the term that supporters of fascists across the World use the term. “He", for it is usually a he, "says  it like it is, and that’s why we like him.”. Does he really? Will he still say it if it is politically inconvenient for him? If it is so politically incorrect, why did so many people support him despite saying it? What about all those times when he demonstrably lied? Try asking such questions and you will be met with circular reasoning. “Feminism” is another such word. By the use of convenient straw(wo)man arguments, the word has been sullied so much that some people disown the word, despite finding nothing disagreeable with what feminism actually entails.

Bell Hooks was an 18-year old right in the middle of the second wave of feminist movement in the U.S.A. when she started writing “ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism”. She would eventually publish it ten years later.  The effort spanned a time when African-American women were skeptical of feminism which was largely spearheaded by white women and represented their concerns. The civil rights movement was in the recent past, and racial identity took precedence over gender identity for many African-American women. Bell Hooks argues that sexism and patriarchy are as harmful, if not more, than racism. “Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation— a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology”, she concedes. But faced with a word tainted by association with racism, she does not forego the word. And in that spirit, this book is both a criticism of the feminist movements and a defense of it as a political ideology that needs to be reclaimed. Hooks calls attention to the struggle of being at the intersection of two marginalized groups : “When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” Though I had  understood the modern term “intersectionality” in general terms, Ain’t I a Woman is my first scholarly introduction to the concept. 

The title of the book is borrowed from Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech of the same title in the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention. Apparently, recent consensus by historians is that the speech was not delivered in the context and not with the words it has been believed to be. But there is definitely a folklorish impact in the words quoted by Bell Hooks. Hooks starts by describing the treatment of black women in slavery, and argues that they were treated worse than black men. She also theorizes on the complex dynamics between white women and black women in a slave household.

It was hard for me to read this book, mostly due to my unfamiliarity with the feminist moment, and more broadly, the history of the U.S.A. This was further complicated by the fact that this is a theoretical book. Bell Hooks rigorously inspects speeches and writings from a wide variety of personalities and finds aspects in them that highlight either a patriarchal or a racist mindset. On one hand, she questions popular feminist literature and surveys of women as focussing solely on white women. “While it is in no way racist for any author to write a book exclusively about white women, it is fundamentally racist for books to be published that focus solely on the American white woman’s experience in which that experience is assumed to be the American woman’s experience”, she points out, and adds that a survey focussing on black women, on the other hand, needs to be qualified as such. Bell Hooks also makes a very relevant argument that applies to privileged people across the World : “In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem that their experience is representative”.

On the other hand, Bell Hooks also points out the sexism within the black community and propagated by its leaders. Starting with Frederik Douglas who, despite his support for women’s suffrage, prioritized voting rights for black people. Implicit in this is the exclusion of black women’s vote. Hooks is more severe on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed and the black power leaders. In this vein, Hooks writes extensively about black male sexism that discourages, among many other things, black women being friendly with white men. Many of these leaders felt having a white female partner, on the flip side, as dominating the white male.

The author makes more interesting observations. For instance, when white women started demanding equal working opportunities, they ignored the fact that black women had been working for long – first as slaves, and then as breadwinners for their families. The fact that black women earned, often in lieu of black men, led to scholarly articles on the "emasculation"  of black men by their women, and the "matriarchal" setup of African-American families. Hooks contends that though both these assumptions were readily accepted even within the black community, they were harmful.

ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism is an extensive book that covers a lot of aspects of American culture. Bell Hooks is severe on the very foundations of American ideals - imperialism, racism, sexism and even capitalism. On the desire to find meaningful work, she says “For a few lucky men, for far fewer women, work has occasionally been a source of meaning and creativity. But for most of the rest it remains even now forced drudgery in front of the ploughs, machines, words or numbers—pushing products, pushing switches, pushing papers to eke out the wherewithal of material existence.” Personally, this book was my first step in understanding intersectionality and feminism. I have a lot more to read and learn, starting with Hooks’s other works.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Review of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange


"It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good.. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?.. And yet, in a sense, in choosing to be deprived of an ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good. "

I woke up early this morning hoping to force myself to write a review of The Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. After all, I started this year resolving to pen my thoughts about every book I read, and have struggled to write coherently ever since. Having a mobile phone at an arm’s length does not help, and true to form, I started browsing “a bit” for “distraction”. This morning's content of choice was a set of videos posted by a documentary filmmaker who, along with his wife, was taunting a masked group of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi Patriot Front marching in and around Boston yesterday. One could even say that the documentary filmmaker was deliberately trying to provoke the group, testing the limits of his free speech in a way. The videos distil why it is difficult to read and review Anthony Burgess’s 1962 classic in the present day and age. Today’s date is not without significance as well. It is 4th of July in the United States, a day commemorating the country’s declaration of independence. It is as good an occasion as any to attempt to pen one’s thoughts on Burgess’s thought-provoking study on free will and determinism.

My introduction to The Clockwork Orange, like that of most people, was through Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation. In fact, The Clockwork Orange was the movie that made me take notice of Kubrick as a director. The 1986 America edition that I read has an introduction by Burgess where he rues the fact that his literary oeuvre is represented by, and often only by, The Clockwork Orange, thanks to Kubrick. Burgess has plenty to say on the movie adaptation, but he calls the book itself “too didactic to be artistic”, since “the moral lesson in this book sticks out like a sore thumb”. The heart of his discontent is the 21st chapter. As a prolific music composer, Anthony Burgess structures The Clockwork Orange as 3 sections of 7 chapters each. When initially published in the USA in 1962, the publisher insisted on publishing the book without the final chapter (the chapter was reintroduced a quarter century later). Stanley Kubrick based his screenplay on the American version of the book, and did not see the point of the 21st chapter even though he became aware of it before filming his movie. So, what’s it about the 21st chapter, apart from structural integrity, that is so polarizing? In Burgess’s view, the 21st chapter is the “denou-ment” that turns the novel from being “a fable” or “an allegory” into a genuine fiction. This is because, Burgess believes, fiction as a work of art needs a character transformation. The American publisher, on the other hand, believed that the original ending was  “bland and it showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil”. "My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it", Burgess remarks. Notice the reference to Richard Nixon, which is not insignificant.

Burgess is, hence, an author of the classic bend. He derives his morality from a formerly heretical sect(s) of Christianity in the 5th century A.D. – Pelagianism – encompassing a set of beliefs that did not accept the idea of “original sin”. Man does not inherit the sin of Adam simply because one can only be held accountable for their own sins. One can be good, or evil, and has the complete free will to choose between the two. This is the central theme of The Clockwork Orange. Should mechanistic morality be imposed on a creature oozing juice and sweetness? 

The second regret Burgess has is his use of the Nadsat language – Anthony Burgess’s own creation of a slang language that borrows heavily from Caucasian languages, with a mix of cockney colloquial words and school boyish rhyming phrases. The novel is a first person narrative by Alex, the fifteen year old protagonist, and Alex’s use of the slang permeates the book. Some people just read through until they get used to the language, while others give up on the book. I, on the other rooker, my brothers, skorrily ittied to a dictionary whenever I viddied a new slovo. This, of course, hindered the pace of my already slow reading.

The Clockwork Orange begins with Alex, the fifteen year old narrator, who is enjoying a Milk Plus – milk plus any drug of your choice – with his friends at the Korova Milk Bar (pictured by Kubrick later through a memorable zoom out shot). Alex is the youngest, but the most cunning member and the de facto leader of the gang. Soon we see that Alex’s life outside his school is one of “ultra-violence” : rape, thievery, and violence just for the sake of it. When caught, he volunteers for a novel reformative treatment introduced by the new Government - Ludovico’s technique. A form of behavioral conditioning, this technique attempts to create a subconscious association between violence, music and nauseating symptoms. However, is such a treatment moral? And will it be effective?

This is not an easy book to read, thanks to its invented language. The violence could also be a turn-off for many readers. The Clockwork Orange is a novel of ideas set in a dystopian setting and following the tradition of Huxley's The Brave New World. However, I found Burgess’s work to be much more enjoyable thanks to the wit of the protagonist, Alex. Alex is also self-aware to an extent. At one point, he goes into this rumination explaining his actions :  "But, brothers, this biting over their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into what is the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? ... More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddly knockies, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines?”. He sums this up simply as “what I do I do because I like to do.

In short, Burgess’s protagonist is an amoral creature caught in a fictional work of the classic bend. No wonder then that the final chapter seems sudden and forced. Burgess is clever enough to connect the fact that Americans loved the nihilistic 20-chapter novel and its movie adaptation with the rise of Richard Nixon. And reading this book today is jarring, knowing that the rise of Nixon set the stage for the current rise of Donald Trump, and with him, the neo-Nazis of the U.S.A. It is probably only me, but Alex’s use of endearments like “my brothers” and his tendency to refer to himself as “Your Humble Narrator” constantly reminded me of Trump, and his self-referential “your favorite President”. As if that’s not enough, Alex seems to obsess over cleanliness while Trump is reportedly a germaphobe. Unfortunately, reality more often follows the structure of an allegory than the structure of fiction. Nevertheless, The Clockwork Orange is worth a read.

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...