Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Year-end books round-up

Every one else is doing it so why shouldn’t I? (As the crowd chorus in Life of Brian goes: "YES! We are ALL different!") So here go scribblings on The Reading Experience, 2004.

Some highlights:
The Plot Against America (Philip Roth): Easily the most accessible of Roth’s recent fiction, because much of it is written in the voice of a frightened 8-year-old – Philip Roth himself, living in an alternate world where Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes US president and makes peace with Hitler.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susannah Clarke): struggled with the first 200 pages but after that, wow! Magical, entrancing, bewitching and plenty more. The brief, unrecorded appearance of the Raven King, John Uskglass, towards the end was one of the most poignant passages I read this year, and the fact that it was in a book about magicians and evil fairies probably says disturbing things about me. (Added plus: with a book this heavy, who needs barbells? Downside: I developed tennis elbow without once lifting a racquet, or a cricket bat.)

Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell): infuriating, bombastic, often impenetrable book, but one I couldn’t help but regard with awe. Sometimes great ambition can be its own reward. There’s no way I’m ever going to recommend this to anyone unequivocally, but I’m bloody glad I saw it through myself. Learnt an important lesson about not dismissing something just because it seems pretentious and overblown; inverse snobbery often grows out of laziness.

Corridor (Sarnath Banerjee): probably my favourite Indian read of the year, and it had a welcome side-effect, plunging me headlong into the world of the graphic novel. Art Spiegelman’s Maus was the only book I bought when I visited England earlier this year, and I subsequently devoured Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis I and II as well. Next on the list: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I’ll have to keep out of Putu’s claws.

My Life as a Fake (Peter Carey): A mesmerising Frankenstein story for the literary world, examining the truths and the deceptions that are a necessary part of any written work. Loved the very Aussie rhythms and cadences; very distinctive while not as difficult as the writing in Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Already on my to-be-reread list.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (M G Vassanji): probably the book that affected me most strongly at a personal level this year, perhaps because the idea of "in-betweenness" – sitting on the fence, never completely sure about what side to take – has a private resonance. The In-Between… is also my strongest argument for carrying on with book reviewing, which I sometimes get so fed up with: there’s no way I would have read it if it hadn’t been given to me for reviewing.

My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk): have to admit I drifted off in parts, but was still enthralled by Pamuk’s device of different chapters narrated in the first person by different people, each of whom is unaware of what the others are up to (which means the novel’s structure exactly mirrors its story of a group of miniaturists working separately on components that will make up a larger design).

The Sari Shop (Rupa Bajwa) Refreshingly unshowy debut from a young writer. Didn’t completely succeed in avoiding the "India in a Bun" syndrome but at least it wasn’t a shameless exercise in pretentious Exotica. I was probably influenced by the fact that I read it around the same times as the wretched The Last Song of Dusk.

The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst): firmly in the "admired a lot but didn’t enjoy all that much" category. It beat out Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, but I’m on David Mitchell’s side.

Favourite older book read this year:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, his first novel but the one I read last. Agreed with Ajitha that it doesn’t read like a first book. It’s a circular narrative with hints of surreality, much like his last two novels, and seems to belong with his later work. (After A Pale View... Ishiguro’s next two books were An Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day, which were both straightforward narratives.)

Some cherished short stories:

Robert Bloch’s "The Legacy";
Douglas Clegg’s creepy but affecting "Where Flies are Born";
Ian Watson’s sometimes-facetious but entertaining "The Eye of the Ayatollah";
Manjula Padmanabhan’s collected stories in Kleptomania, especially "Betrayal" and "The Girl Who Could Make People Naked";
Many Asimovs, notably "Breeds there a Man...", "The Billiard Ball" and the masterful "The Final Question";
loads of classics by S J Perelman and Woody Allen, notably Allen’s "The Kugelmass Episode" about a man who can enter any literary classic he chooses to and ends up having an affair with Flaubert’s great heroine. ("I’m doing it with Madame Bovary," he marvelled, "Me who failed freshman English.");
the essays in the Granta Book of Film, especially Maarten 't Hart’s compelling "Rats", written, paradoxically, by a man who doesn’t think that much of cinema as an art form but who finds himself mesmerised into inaction during his work as a consultant on Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.

I’m not that much into non-fiction as a rule, so it’s surprising that there are quite a few titles on this list. Finished delightful memoirs by Luis Bunuel (My Last Breath) and Peter Ustinov (Dear Me) and was pleasantly surprised by Lance Armstrong’s two autobiographies, especially the first It’s Not About the Bike. There was also Ved Mehta’s The Red Letters, which closes the "Continents of Exile" series, and Ali, Rodney Hartman’s biography of Ali Bacher which was, by extension, a history of the politics of south African cricket. And perhaps the best of them all - because it could be picked up and read from anywhere - Isaac Asimov’s I. Asimov, less a chronological work than a collection of his thoughts on various topics, ranging from fellow science fiction writers to Jewishness to writing prolificity.

Guilty pleasures:
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): this is where I meet the P3P. But I’m not going to deny the sheer thrill of reading this. (Besides, with all my time-management issues, any book that takes just 3 days to finish has my approval.) And Brown’s Angels and Demons, which had me thinking very seriously about ambigrams for all of two days.

Five Point Someone (Chetan Bhagat): yes, I admit it, I enjoyed this fluff about the misadventures of three IIT students! Flunk me! (My defence: it took two hours to finish.)

Plain guilt:
Still haven’t found time for Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, though it’s been four-and-a-half months since I coerced a friend into giving it to me for my birthday.

Currently reading:
Pamuk’s Snow, which will easily make it onto my 2004 or 2005 top 10 list, depending on when I finish it (oh yes, I’m a pedant); Sebald’s Austerlitz; McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Looking forward to:
Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled; Ishiguro’s latest, worryingly titled Never Let Me Go; and Thomas Harris’s new book with the Hannibal Lecter back-story (the last with a mix of dread and anticipation; Harris is a favourite writer but this prequel is likely to be a cynical, money-motivated exercise). And oh yes, Samit Basu’s Simoqin sequel. (Plug, plug.)

New year’s resolution:
Will not buy books with small fonts. Eyes can take it no more. If this means only hardcopies, well then so be it; will learn how to steal.

Book of the Year:
Ha! I’m not officially doing this, but if I absolutely HAD to, I’d probably go with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1, a book that is every bit as frustrating and unclassifiable as the man himself. Written in a style that marries Mark Twain with Jack Kerouac with Hunter Thompson, it still has "Dylan" stamped all over it. Full of awkward, ungrammatical sentences, colloquialisms, odd twists of phrase, it leaps madly about like a kangaroo with a pouchful of steroids, doesn’t cater to popular perceptions of the "defining" people and events in the author’s life - and is nevertheless unputdownable all the way. The reverence in Dylan’s voice when he speaks of people like Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and even Harry Belafonte is an eye-opener for anyone who can’t reconcile the image of the great wordsmith with the wide-eyed, unsure boy who came to Greenwich Village in 1961 with a long list of his own idols.

[Phew, this has turned out to be cathartic. I keep complaining that I don’t get to do as much reading as I’d like to, but looking back now at this list (and I’m sure I’ve left out quite a lot) it doesn’t seem all that bad. And I even managed to watch 3-4 of my DVDs...]


  1. In my eagerness to be done with the Canon, I find the only book I've read on that list is Corridor, and that too only because it's part of the college curriculum, seriously. Heady experience, reading it. Cloud Atlas sounds insanely exciting as do The Line of Beauty, My Life as a Fake and Jonathan Strange.

  2. Love that bit - 'inverse snobbery often grows out of laziness'.Heh heh. You've certainly got something there. But did you really think Corridor was that great? Worth remembering certainly, but for what reasons?

  3. and oh yes, huh?
    was thinking of sending you the sequel to read, but now i wont :D

  4. 'snobbery often grows out of laziness'
    - guilty as charged. nice kick on my fat ass...