Thursday, December 30, 2021

My 2021 in books


2021 was a year of ennui. I discovered very late in the year that there is a medical condition that could potentially describe my state of mind through the year - languishing. 2021 is also a year marking a momentous change in my life, a change that could affect my reading choices for the next few years. Given the circumstances, I am happy to have read any book at all this year. I read 17. Towards the end of the year, I took up a Quixotic project to review every book I read this year before New Years' Eve. I failed my deadline, but I still intend to try and write about many of these books in more detail. In the meantime, here are some quick thoughts on the books I read in 2021.

I started the year with Pearl S. Buck's Kinfolk. This was my second Pearl S. Buck novel. Kinfolk did not meet my expectations that had been set by the first one I had read, but in its own way, it was a pretty decent read.  Kinfolk follows the Liang family as they grapple with the problems of being immigrants in America and of being outsiders back in China, as they try to settle back in their home country. Unfortunately the backdrop and the historical context is not as well drawn out as I would have liked. I wrote more about Kinfolk here.

The second book I read was Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Persepolis has been on my To-Be-Read (TBR) list for many, many years now and I finally got to it in 2021. Persepolis is a memoir of a teenage girl growing up in a tumultuous period in Iran -- the late 1970s and the early 1980s -- which witnessed a revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and a war. I liked Persepolis while simultaneously feeling that I would have liked it more if I had read it when I was younger. I wrote more about Satrapi's work here.

I have been wanting to learn about stock markets for a while now. Unfortunately, I find this subject dry. I found a very helpful reddit post with a  list of resources to learn Value Investing, starting with some books. For 2021, I can say that I made an honest attempt, without much success. I started my journey with Joel Greenblatt's The Little Book That Meets the Market. Greenblatt targets adolescents, and starts with a very simplified example of how stocks and bonds work. He then proceeds to provide an algorithm, which he calls the "magic formula". This set of steps, if followed diligently, has been shown to beat the U.S. market and a couple of other markets in a few academic studies. Despite the loaded word magic, Greenblatt's formula has firm value investing foundations, which he goes on to explain in simplified terms. But his magic formula is not something I personally have the patience or diligence to try. I topped Greenblatt’s book  with Peter Lynch's Beating the Street and One Up on Wall Street. The former is more of a memoir of Peter Lynch's time managing the Magellan fund at Fidelity, one of the most consistently successful mutual funds on all times. The latter is a guide on picking stocks. Lynch has some strong opinions on investing in bonds and mutual funds, and details the criteria he uses to pick stocks. His thesis is that Wall Street fund managers are at a disadvantage compared to the laymen while picking stocks, and with discipline and curiosity, a layman can consistently beat the markets. Lynch punctuates his writing with some wry humor, a lot of which is mildly off-putting. Peter Lynch's larger point is well taken, but I do feel that sometimes he underestimates the power he had as a fund manager of a very popular mutual fund to gather information that you and I can't. A more diligent reader would take notes and make much out of Lynch's advice, but I realize now that I have not been able to put into practice most of Lynch's advice.

I then moved back to fiction with Salman Rushdie's Quichotte. I had huge expectations for this novel set in the present day U.S.A. Rushdie chooses an ambitious narrative structure of a story within a story, with characters that are imagined, and imagine other characters. His writing is, as always, witty and stylish. However, instead of delving into the psyche of an everyday American, Rushdie dives into U.S. cable television listings. Quichotte entertains, but falls short of Rushdie's best. I wrote more about Quichotte here.

In "My 2020 in books", I had mentioned Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer - a terrific spy fiction thriller doubling down as a terse and piercing critique of the U.S.A. from the perspective of a Vietnamese-American. In one of the few promises I kept in 2021, I read The Committed, Nguyen's follow-up to The Sympathizer. The Committed picks up right where The Sympathizer ended, in a boat packed with refugees escaping Vietnam - the so-called "boat-people". This time, the unnamed protagonist lands in France. This is primarily so that Nguyen can now focus his sharp observation skills on the French, a nation that first colonized Vietnam, but whose people now consider themselves sophisticated in comparison to the Americans. The focus also shifts from spy games to gangsterism, drugs and debauchery, as a Vietnamese gang gets in conflict with a Moroccan one. The Committed did not work for me as much as The Sympathizer did, but if Nguyen writes a follow in the next couple of years, I would definitely want to read it.

I then read a couple of books for a diversity and inclusion book club at my organization. The first was This Is The Fire by Don Lemon. Don Lemon is a CNN commentator, and his prose is excellent as he writes about his experience of being black in contemporary America. Though Don Lemon's plea is compelling, I, without any skin in the game, feel a slight frustration that he does not go far enough. An American liberal needs to keep reminding us about the "greatness" of America to be mainstream. Coming from India, where the left is not bound to do so by nationalism, this is always surprising. My second diversity read was Isabel Wilkerson's magnum opus - Caste : The Origins of our Discontents. Wilkerson draws parallels between racism in the U.S.A, casteism in India, and the Nuremberg laws under Nazi Germany. She documents multitudes of instances of injustice in the U.S.A., and proposes caste as an overarching term for any systematic discrimination. Isabel Wilkerson's prose is extremely engaging and she draws memorable metaphors, which make it easier to get through her meticulous documentation of oppression across continents. However, she does fall into the trap of oversimplifying India. It is hard not to.

Apart from books, I also discovered Clubhouse in 2021, and spent an insane amount of time in the voice-based social media app. Not all of it was useless. I offered to comment on a self-published short story collection of an aspiring screenwriter, self-translated from Tamil to English. Relay Race was short, and most of the characters were well-intentioned. The writing had a hint of humor that was lost in translation. The second book that I discovered though Clubhouse was fortuitous. The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham is an amazing book. It is part travelogue, part historical document, describing a barrier created by the British empire to prevent the smuggling of salt into the Calcutta presidency, where the salt tax was kept inhumanely high. This barrier -- a hedge -- was comparable in size to the Great Wall of China. Moxham's writing is brilliant, and his observations as he travels through central India in search of remnants of a hedge that no one seemed to know about are sharp. Moxham's combination of studiousness and sense of adventure brings out a historical fact that was, strangely, overlooked by historians from two countries. I will definitely be reading more of Roy Moxham's books.

The Great Hedge of India was a minor detour from what was my project for the year - finishing Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I had read Eco's The Foucault's Pendulum in 2020, and was given The Name of the Rose (along with Quichotte) as a gift by an unknown secret-santa I was matched with in a reddit book exchange. I expected this book to take immense effort, and it did. The Name of the Rose is, on the surface, a detective novel. But this is a pretense for Eco to portray his immense research of 14th century Italy, where Christianity is beset by turbulence. The pope is in a conflict with the Italian emperor and shifts the papal throne from Rome to Avignon, France. There are theological debates on whether Jesus Christ owned property, and the debates are significant because Benedictine monasteries are getting wealthier. There are sects that put their side of the theological debate to practice, burning rich bishops and destroying property. There are also philosophical disputes on whether God meant for Man to laugh -- for some see humor as more dangerous to authority than violence. Within this context is a series of murders and an immense library set in the form of a labyrinth, with William of Baskerville (a nod to Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam, of the Occam's razor) attempting to solve the puzzle using logic.  Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is a postmodern literary achievement, and completing it is my humble personal achievement.

I generally don't reread books, but after we read the Caste, I proposed something related to my diversity and inclusion book club. Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla is a brutally raw read for Americans who do not have a lot of exposure to India, but I am glad I suggested it. I had reviewed it a couple of years earlier here. I liked the book the second time as well.

I went back to my bookshelf to pick an unread book, and I selected a short one that I wanted to finish quickly. Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories is a short story collection by the Japanese Nobel Prize laureate. The first few stories, including the titular one, are excellent. I lost the plot with the so-called "palm-stories" that are very short, allegorical in nature and need some context on Japanese mythologies and folklore. Yasunari Kawabata is from the school of modernism and his writing is poetic; and it has always been a struggle for me to understand both.

I went completely out of my TBR list with Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, a horror thriller set in the 1960s U.S.A. I enjoyed learning about the pop cultural references from half-century ago. Rosemary's Baby had a weirdly fascinating climax that worked for me. I followed Rosemary's Baby with one another book that has been on my TBR for many years now - Aldous Huxley's The Brave New World. The book edition I read comes with a foreword by Cristopher Hitchens, and the long essay called the Brave New World Revisited written by the author himself more than 30 years since the publication of his dystopian novel. Reading all three together, I was not able to separate Huxley's problematic views on race and eugenics from his book of ideas. Despite Huxley's astute observations on how distraction and happiness are potent weapons for a fascist dictator, The Brave New World did not work for me. 

I ended the year with another book picked by the diversity and inclusion group at my organization. The group was reeling from the impact of Caste and Ants Among Elephants, and decided to go with fiction. Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino stories by Julian Herbert is a collection of short stories, with the titular story being more of a novella. The stories are set in Mexico or deal with Mexican characters, and like the list of books I read this year, it is hard to categorize the stories. They are postmodern, and extremely well-written. The titular story is narrated by a film reviewer who is kidnapped by a dangerous cartel boss desiring to assassinate Quentin Tarantino. We get a summary of the narrator's masters thesis on the subjects of literary review, with a focus on Shakespeare and Tarantino, intercut with violence and intrigue. The other stories are equally fascinating, with unreliable narrators, elements of magical realism, a lot of absurdity, and humor. I especially loved a story about a half-eaten croissant left on a German train seat. I do not think I completely understood a few stories from this collection, but Julian Herbert is a fascinating author I would explore more.

And that's about it. Goodreads tells me that I read about 4200 pages this year. That is nothing to be proud of, but I will take it. I am happy to be reading at all. Here is a Goodreads summary of the books I read this year, with the original picture used above.

Wish you all a great new year and happy reading.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Review of Salman Rushdie's Quichotte

He said he was trying to write about impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationship, sibling quarrels, and yes, unforgivable things; about Indian immigrants, racism towards them, crooks among them; about cyber spies, science fictional and "real" realities, the death of the author, the end of the world.. incorporate elements of the periodic, and of satire and pastiche... And it's about opioid addiction, too.

- Rushdie in (and of?) Quichotte 

I'm no critic, sir, but I estimate that you're telling the reader that the surreal, and even the absurd, now potentially offers the most accurate descriptors of real life. It's an interesting message, though parts of it requires considerable suspension of disbelief to grasp.

                                                                                                                   - 'Kagemusha' in Quichotte 

There are few things that I remind myself of before starting any of Salman Rushdie's books - that his writing is quirky, that he loves wordplay, and that he threads the very thin veil between craziness and brilliance often veering a little into either side. Ever since I learnt about his latest novel, Quichotte, set in present day U.S.A, I was waiting with anticipation. Having spent my last 4 years in the U.S.A, I can completely relate to his categorization of the current times, here and elsewhere, as the "Age of Anything-Can-Happen", where "a whole nation can jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings".

In his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco writes that the "postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited; but with irony, not innocently", adding that postmodern texts are categorized by "Irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared". As far as I understand, meta-modernism is postmodernism infused with hope and sincerity, and if this understanding is correct, Quichotte is a meta-modern novel. It is loosely based on Don Quixote by Cervantes, a so-called picaresque novel consisting of various episodic narratives on a quest.

It is not easy to summarize Quichotte. It primarily seems to be about a "traveling man of Indian origins, advancing years, and retreating mental powers.. Incipiently unstable, unpredictably capricious, increasingly erratic, and mulishly obsessional cast of mind". However, it is also about a mildly successful author trying to write a career-defining novel, about a greedy pharmaceutical company owner who profits of the use of an injectable opioid substance. There are his victims, who have their own complexities in life, who feel that "(t)hese days the only way to experience joy was through chemistry. ", and hence play a willing role in their own destruction ("It's lithium and Haldol and Haldol and lithium. Can't do without it pals, doll, and so I just live withium"). There is a former Bollywood actress who has established herself in Hollywood as some sort of a mixture of Priyanka Chopra, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. There is an imagined character, and a character imagined by this imagined character, and a talking cricket imagined by the latter. There is a former immigration lawyer who is on the verge of being "cancelled" despite having led a life dedicated to rights of the unrepresented ("To be a lawyer in a lawless time was like being a clown among the humorless: which was to say, either completely redundant or absolutely essential."). And there is a not-so-subtle parody of Elon Musk, in name and in persona : Evel Cent, a bad stink. To some people that was what he was, an unpleasant self-promoting capitalist fart, but to others, mostly young others, he seemed like a kind of prophet, and here he was on television, doing a prophet’s work while also justifying the opinions of those who thought him a phony egotist skunk.

If that is not rich enough, there are pop culture and literary references galore. The narrative structure is borrowed from Don Quixote, and there are repeated references to Pinocchio as well. There are references to Tennyson, Hans Christian Anderson, Moby Dick, The Death of a Salesman, Arthur C. Clarke, and more. Salman Rushdie's primary window into the American mindset seems to be through T.V. shows and movies, so there is a humungous list of pop culture references about every kind of show that's on American cable T.V., most of which I am not familiar with. This is another sense in which Quichotte is postmodern.

But Quichotte is not just an encyclopedia of books and stories to read, myths to know and T.V. Shows to watch (or skip). There are some very well developed characters spanning mid-20th century Bombay, the U.S. and the U.K. Rushdie seems to have made a conscious decision to portray every major character as an Indian immigrant. The core of the story consists of genuine issues such as child abuse, sibling rivalry, familial dynamics, and grievances that fester and manifest in complex ways and resonate across continents and time. There is also a New Jersey town whose people turn into mastodons, in a glaring metaphor for neighbors who turn unrecognizable thanks to conspiracy theories. Of course, the title itself demands a mention of Q-Anon, and we get it, almost as an afterthought.

On the flipside, Quichotte needs some patience to get through. The references and sometimes unnecessary facts that pepper the narrative hinder it. It is hard to keep track of what is imaginary and what is real in the frame of frame of frame narrative, but if you take a mental step back, you realize that it is the imagination of Rushdie that we glimpse into. Quichotte begins with a road trip across the U.S.A which sounds extremely exciting in theory. But the journey is largely flat, except for a couple of incidences of racism in mid-western U.S.A. Finally, this is a book about the literate, for the literate. "A good knowledge is the classics is the sign of an educated man" says one of the characters. But it seems off-putting at times to read a book where every character is well versed in literature, especially when the primary setting is a country and time where derision of literature and arts is on the rise.

I read Quichotte a few months ago and it was not a breezy read. Looking back now for writing this review, I have fonder memories of the book. Rushdie's observation on the present day U.S.A. is on the dot : "this is the way things are these days in America: that for some of us, the world stopped making sense. Anything can happen. Here can be there, then can be now, up can be down, truth can be lies. Everything is slip-sliding around and there's nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart in seams. For some of us, who have started seeing the stuff the rest of us are too blind to see. Or too determined not to see." His solution to this is story tellers, and immigrants. And in making a case for immigrants, he also defends his complex and sprawling narrative.

An interjection, kind reader, if you'll allow one: it may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today's stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have traveled to the four corners of the (admittedly spherical, and therefore cornerless) globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of all to cling to hope and love, and these broken people--we, the broken people!--may be the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth, wherever we travel, wherever we land, whatever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed-spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows is where it will, until we lodge in an alien soil, where very often, we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.

You will enjoy this book if his argument convinces you. I did. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Review of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

It is hard to classify Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. The medium is Bande_dessinĂ©e – a French precursor of what English readers would come to term as the graphic novel. But this is not a novel, it is a memoir of a teenager growing up in tumultuous times in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s narration starts during the Iranian revolution which ultimately led to the overthrow of Iran’s last Shah belonging to the house of Pahlavi. We then go into a brief flashback to get introduced to Satrapi as a kid, her parents, and her grandmother. Marjane Satrapi grows up in an upper middle class household which is not particularly religious, and her writing has a sparkling sense of humor, conveyed both through her words and illustration. There is profundity, but Satrapi does not dwell on it.

Satrapi, as many great writers, grows up with books. And she soon discovers communism, thanks to a leaning towards Marx's ideas that already exists in her family. However, her family, like many others, are communists only in the abstract.

As we get back to the present, we learn that Satrapi has a royal lineage on her maternal side, with her grandfather being one the many last princes of the Qajar family. The Pahlavi dynasty is installed by means of a coup d'tat supported by the U.S.A. and the British government against a democratically elected leader. Why? Well, oil. As the revolution heats up and Satrapi's parents take an active role in the anti-regime protests, we see violence in the streets, and we witness incidents such as the Cinema Rex fire, which killed more than 400 people. Though the Satrapi family believe firmly that the Shah was responsible for this incident, there is no historical agreement on this fact. Ultimately, the Shah is exiled, and takes refuge in Egypt as the Western powers -- Jimmy Carter being at the stewardship of the U.S.A. -- lose interest in him.

However, the joy is short lived as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes over the reins, and Islamic conservatism becomes mainstream. We also learn about a revolutionary streak on Satrapi's paternal side, as the new regime starts persecuting people, closing down universities, and implementing an Islamic constitution.

But that is not all. Iran soon get into a war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and we witness the impact of this war first hand, until Satrapi is sent to Austria for continuing her studies. 

This is an eventful book, and Satrapi is forced to pack a bunch of information in an unusual format. Despite this, she keeps the tone light and does not lose focus on the wishes and desires of an adolescent girl. It is worth re-emphasizing that Marjane Satrapi has a terrific sense of humor, sometimes of the gallows kind. She attributes this to the Persian outlook of life shaped by generations living in a historically turbulent region.

However, this lightness of tone was the first problem with Persepolis for me. This book is targeted primarily at adolescent readers as an introduction to the complexity, and also relatability (for people are the same everywhere), of life in Iran. Reading this as an adult, I feel a desire to know more about the events and incidents hinted by her. The second problem, if I may call it that, is the background of the Satrapi family, which admittedly only in some small ways, protects them from the most tragic aspects of war and revolution. This is not something that the author could control, and certainly not something that invalidates her experience of living in Iran. The solution to both these problems lie simply in me exploring more about Iran and the history of the middle east, and reading first hand accounts from many different perspectives.

Persepolis does not lack profundity, and my favorite fragment is this line uttered against nationalist fervor :

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Review of Pearl S.Buck's Kinfolk

 "It  takes a certain kind of person to live in China now," Chen mused.

"What kind of person?", Mary asked.

“Someone who can see true meanings, someone who does not only want the world better but believes it can be made better, and gets angry because it's not done, someone who is not willing to hide himself in one of the few good places left in the world-someone who is tough!”

Pearl S.Buck was an American born and brought up in China. This gave her a window into two vastly different cultures. Though her credibility as a representative of Chinese culture to the English speaking world has been questioned, I believe her mixed background is perfect for a novel like Kinfolk, which begins in Manhattan and moves into hinterland China. Kinfolk follows the Liang family as they grapple with the problem of being immigrants in America and of being outsiders in China.

The novel is set in the middle to late 1940s with a tumultuous background (“we have finished with one age to begin another”). Post the Japanese invasion, China was in the final stages of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government before Mao’s declaration of the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Dr. Liang is a Chinese intellectual settled in the U.S.A, writing for western readers. He has a firm belief in Confucian values and a stubborn moral center. But the China in his mind is the China of the past, and though he paints a rosy picture of his homeland, he realizes that he does not belong to the China of the present. “Surely men like myself represent more perfectly than peasants can the spirit of Chinese civilization. Our nation has always been ruled by our intellectuals”, he says at one point. Surely, not a view that would be appreciated by peasants in the midst of a revolution against their landowning feudal lords.

But Kinfolk’s primary focus is on Dr.Liang’s children - James, Mary, Peter and Lili. James and Mary feel a great desire to contribute to their home country. Peter and Lily, born in the U.S.A., are more Americanized. James, a skilled surgeon, takes up a job in his home land and, due to circumstances, is joined by his siblings. Kinfolk deals with their journey in trying to adapt to their home country, and getting accepted by their extended family. At the heart of the novel is a conflict between modernism and tradition, with Pearl S.Buck trying not to take a stand either way.

Personally, Kinfolk started off on a relatable note, thanks to the setting in Manhattan, especially the localities around Riverside Drive. Dr. Liang’s attempt to balance pride in his ancestry and shame on aspects that the Western World would consider despicable is also well portrayed : “Americans tend to think too little of us, and we should not therefore lend ourselves to their low opinion“, he says. 

Kinfolk is structured in the mold of a classic, with well defined characters and fairly predictable character arcs. James is the character around whom the plot revolves, and he grapples to resolve the conflict between his scientific training as a surgeon and the traditional values of his ancestral relatives. Mary is his closest confidante, with a “honesty that will not be corrupted”. Her headstrongness clashes with the traditional patriarchy of her hometown. Peter is in an impressionable age, and has strong opinions. His initial reaction in China is “I don't like living in a country where everything is falling to pieces and all that is worth talking about is the past”. Lili is fully Americanized, and has the entitlement of an American. “Lili was so soft, she yielded everywhere -- until one knew she had really yielded nowhere.

There are other interesting characters in the fray as well. Liu Chen is the most admirable among these. He gets to mouth lines such as “scholar, landlord, magistrate, warlord - there you have the tyrants of the people”, and probably reflects the views of the author the most. I couldn’t help but love Young Wong, whose outlook of life is simply surmised by “with my belly certain of fullness three times a day, I fear no god or man”. However, the best character in Kinfolk is undoubtedly Mrs. Liang. Her defining characterestic is, at least initially, just that “she never thought of herself”. But as Mary comes to realize, “her mother was not at all a stupid woman. It was true that hers was a brain which could neither receive nor retain an abstract idea, that is, an idea that has nothing to do with the simple welfare of those she loved. Heaven, God, Government, Communism, War, Human Rights, Religion, all the large words which provided modern arguement she tolerated as amusement only for men”. 

But Kinfolk is not a perfect novel. It’s classical style makes the actions of some of the characters predictable. The 1940s is a tumultuous period in Chinese history, but the backdrop does not convincingly weave into the story. I expected to learn more about the upheavals in society, but Kinfolk’s focus is narrower. It seems as if the author does not want to take a political stance, and wants to take a centrist attitude in the tradition versus modernism debate. The conclusion is abrupt as well. Pearl S. Buck does attempt to anticipate this criticism with the concluding lines “what is the end of the story? There is no end. Life folds into life, and the river flows on”. It did not work for me.

What worked for me however is the portrayal of Mrs. Liang. She is portrayed as a “bridge between these centuries” (the 18th century of pastoral China and the 20th century of modern China). In fact her transition into one of the central characters in the eyes of Mary is what made this book work for me.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Review of Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun

 A house gun. If it hadn't been there how could you defend yourself, in this city, against losing your hi-fi equipment, your television set and computer, your watch and rings, against being gagged, raped, knifed. If it hadn't been there the man on the sofa would not be under the ground of the city.

Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun begins with Harold and Claudia, an upper-middle class white couple in post-apartheid South Africa, getting an urgent message from their son’s friend. As is natural, they fear bad news, and the news is bad, but not in the way they expected. They discover that their son has been arrested and held responsible for a murder. The House Gun explores their state of mind as they process this information and go through their son's trial, in the process exploring the psychology of their son, each other, and themselves.

The House Gun is unlike any other novel I have read, in terms of the aloofness it maintains from its central characters. This would put off a lot of readers. But despite this being my first encounter with Nadine Gordimer’s writings, I suspect that this detachment from her characters is deliberate. After all, Harold and Claudia themselves lead a life detached from any outsiders -- including each other -- living by the unsaid motto that that they “never belonged in the public expression of private opinions”. Claudia is an atheist and a doctor, someone who attaches significance to the close physical contact she has with her patients on a day to day basis. Harold is a catholic, and a corporate executive. He is also “what is known as a great reader, which means a searcher after something that is ambitiously called the truth; both conditional concepts he would be the first, amusedly, to concede”. 

Harold and Claudia are liberal from afar. Which means that in theory, they support equality, are open to people making their own choices, and try not to be racist. But they are prey to their conditioned instincts. Hence they take a skeptical view when their son hires a black lawyer. This is not racist, they say - or rather, they think, for this is a novel that operates purely on a psychological level. They justify this, as one would : “We don't have to attribute that doubt to racist prejudice, because it is a fact, incontrovertible fact, that due to refusal prejudices in the old regimes, black lawyers have had far less expertise than white lawyers, and experience is what counts. They've had fewer chances to prove themselves; it's their disadvantage, and you would not be showing racial prejudice in seeing that disadvantage as yours, if entrusting defense to most of them.” As they discover more about their son, we learn more about the prejudices they still hold. Liberalism from afar is great, but how hard is it to be progressive when it involves your own children? 

Nadine Gordimer’s writing is as precise as a swiss watch. Even the professions of the characters are meant to convey their characteristics. But the same precision contributes to the book’s aloofness, making it difficult to relate to any of the characters. This is a shame, since some of these characters exhibit a great potential to be explored in much more depth. Personally, this book made, and continues to make, me ruminate on a lot of themes - what it means to be truly liberal, remnants of racial tensions in post-apartheid South Africa, gun violence, parenting, capital punishment, possessiveness in a romantic relationship (“He closes his hands on what he wants so tightly that he kills it”), and marriage. I enjoyed the book, but I would be cautious in recommending it to everyone.

Friday, January 1, 2021

My 2020 in books

I have a link to my blog in my resume, which also smugly mentions "writing" as one of my hobbies. A recruiter took the effort to visit it and wrote a quick note to me about it ("Unfortunately we decided not to proceed with your application at this moment"), triggering memories of long, long ago. I took a quick look at the blog myself and realized that despite being constituted of one part silliness and remaining two parts pretentiousness, I can't believe that I wrote these posts. My writing abilities, like many of my other abilities, have diminished with age.

I know this because I have a draft post saved from last year simply titled "My 2019 in books", with a single image and a single word ("2019").  The last few years have widened my perspective of the world, narrowed the little self-confidence I had, and made me a model 21st century media consumer. I can not survive a few minutes without consuming some profoundly useless information online.  I do not have original thoughts. When I do, I do not have conviction. When I do, I realize in a couple of days that I am wrong.

I realize this is all driven, partly, by how little I read these days. Not for lack of wanting to. I have been buying a steady stream of books that I would love to read, sometime in the future. One day. Maybe next year. But I wanted to write something about what little I did read in 2020. 

I started this year with V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. Back when the Wachowski siblings adapted  V for Vendetta for screen, I made it a point to watch it and was mesmerized by it. I was recommended the book many years back by a friend and never got to it. I finally managed to read it this year after wrestling through Umberto Eco's terrific Focault's Pendulum last year. Unfortunately, the graphic novel did not make as much an of impression on me as the movie did a few years back, primarily because the movie had been a mostly faithful adaptation. Also, Alan Moore's focus is more on the plot than the characters. Regardless, Alan Moore's seminal work is definitely recommended for its originality and vision.

The classic A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens had always been on my wish-list. I had read the famous opening lines ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times") and the first few pages a couple of times as a kid, but I finally managed to plough through them shamefully late in my life. Reading it now, the characters and their dialogue seem overly dramatic. However, Charles Dickens' mastery over plot construction and tying up loose ends is evident throughout. Dickens does a wonderful job of capturing the apathy of French aristocracy that leads to the violence, ugly in his eyes, of the French Revolution. Even though the twists and turns were predictable, this was still a fun read.

I then took a slight diversion into popular novels with John Grisham's The Appeal. When a Mississippi court rules against a chemical company for polluting a town's water supply with toxic waste, the company's shares take a dive. The company's owner appeals, and aims to install a Supreme Court judge who would rule in favor of corporations. The Appeal was written in 2008, but the politics of America is largely similar. John Grisham highlights the conservative machinery with churches, corporations, and multi-million dollar donors working in tandem to try and uproot a perceived (a perception they create) liberal female judge. There is even a Trump like wildcard character thrown in the mix. The only dated factor in Grisham's page turner is the fact that in today's world, the wildcard would be the protagonist.

My surprise pick and probably my best read this year was Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. I take pride in accidentally discovering books that make a significant impact on me. I have been living in the suburbs of Boston for a year and a half without realizing that I did not have to reside in Boston city to be a member of the Boston Public Library. As a quick side note, one thing people did not tell me about life in the US is that the libraries here are amazing. They are extremely welcoming places with a ton of resources, most of them free. Anyway, the Boston Public Library had a curated list of Pulitzer Prize winners which introduced me to Viet Than Nguyen, apart from making me aware of the fact that there is a Pulitzer Price category for fiction. His The Sympathizer cannot be fit into a single genre. It is part historical fiction, part Conrad-ish spy novel, and mostly a study of culture of three people - Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese-American. Amazingly, the author's wit allows him to fit all these into 300 odd pages. The one downside is, again, the characterization, or the lack thereof, of women. If I, this blog, and the world survive 2021, I expect that my next edition of this post will contain Viet Thanh Nguyen's sequel to The Sympathizer - The Committed.

I love Bill Bryson, and his ability to explore a subject deeply and convey it to readers with wit and humor.  Having read a few of his travelogues before, I picked up his A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail this year. This time, Bill Bryson attempts, unsuccessfully, to hike the complete Appalachian Train, spanning more than 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. His adventures simultaneously encourage and dissuade us from attempting a similar exercise. But I do wish to visit parts of the trail in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine one of these days. Bill Bryson does seem a bit uncharacteristically mean and cruel in this work while describing the people he encounters in this hike. From my own experience, I am guessing it is age. For some reason, as I get older, other people are turning into senseless morons.

Another accidental discovery through a recommendation from Boston Public Library was China Meivelle's The City and the City, winner of the Hugo Awards for 2010. Belonging to a genre called Weird Fiction, Meivelle's work imagines two cities that are located in the same geographical place, but which are separated by culture, and strictly imposed ability of people to "unsee" the other city if they lay eyes on "foreign" people, buildings and streets. Conceptually this was difficult to wrap my head around. But so would borders be to a tribal people. Once you accept Meivelle's strange setting, the plot is a reasonably regular investigative thriller. I wouldn't call The City and the City an extraordinarily good novel. But it makes you think, introduces you to a world of possibilities, and allows you to reflect on your own world. That's good enough for me. I would definitely explore more of China Meivelle's works.

I grabbed another classic, The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway next primarily because of how short the book his (a little more than 100 pages). This is a simple, but gripping tale of grit and determination. I couldn't relate to the setting and milieu surrounding a fisherman in a Cuban coast. But that didn't stop me from enjoying this quick read.

I then tried my hand with Fyodor Dostoyevsky's's The Gambler. I had loved Crime and Punishment when I had read it ages back. The Gambler is primarily focused on addiction, something I can relate to thanks to my own addiction to consuming content. This is a fairly short work written when the author himself was recovering from a bout of addiction, and the characterization is not as sharp as in Crime and Punishment. However, there are still moments I loved. There is always something to learn from the work of a master.

I ended this year with Nadine Gordimer The House Gun. There was a book sale at my local public library where I was allowed to grab a huge bagful of books for a measly $5. I picked a few books solely because the covers indicated that the authors were Nobel Prize winners. In this work, Nadine Gordimer introduces us to post-apartheid South Africa, where violence is widespread and guns are commonplace. An upper middle class couple's lives are upturned when their son confesses to a crime of passion. Nadine Gordimer takes us through their personal struggle, while setting up a macro view of political, social, and legal changes in the country. While I enjoyed the macro view, I couldn't sympathize completely with the lead characters. Gordimer conveniently uses their professions as a stand-in for their personality. As a software engineer who rarely makes logical decisions, I found myself personally attacked. This was still an eye-opening read that gave me a lot to think about. 

I have mentioned earlier in this blog that I strongly feel there is a right time to read certain books. Here is something that reinforced that belief in me. The House Gun was published in 1999. The novel depicts a South African court that is built replacing a former quarantine center, leading to to this exchange between a couple of characters.

Where do people with infectious disease go now? 

Very slowly, she smiled, for him. Most of those epidemics don't exist any more. So no more Fever Hospital. People are inoculated as children. What we have to worry about medically is only communicated intimately, as you know; so it wouldn't be right to isolate the carriers from ordinary contacts, moving about among us.

Reading this in 2020, I couldn't suppress the thought that Nadine Gordimer might have won a Nobel Prize in Literature. But she is not winning one for clairvoyance.

PS : I promised myself that if I finish this post, I will include the image referred to earlier from "My 2019 in books". So, here we go.

Image source :

My 2022 in books

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