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Top 13 books for 2009: First 7

February 10, 2010 3 comments

I usually do a Top 10 books post for the year but last year I managed to read 80 books, many of them were awesome so it’s pretty damn hard condensing them into a Top 10. Never having been a stickler for rules, I’ve decided to allow myself 13 books instead. In no particular order (well actually in order of having read them) here are the first 7:

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger

Adiga came from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2008 with his debut novel, The White Tiger. It was a somewhat controversial choice, many considered the book to be inferior to some of the other shortlisted work, many were sick of what they felt was a strong obsession among the Booker judges with post-colonial (particularly South Indian) works. I can’t say whether the book was a deserving winner as I hadn’t read the rest of the shortlist but it was definitely a great read.

The book is written in a somewhat unconventional style, as a series of letters written by the first-person protagonist Balram Halwai addressed to Wen Jiabao, The Premier of China. In Balram, Adiga has managed to create a well-developed, interesting character that readers can’t help but like. Aussie readers especially will identify with Balram’s underdog status.

“As Balram’s education expands, he grows more corrupt. Yet the reader’s sympathy for the former teaboy never flags. In creating a character who is both witty and psychopathic, Mr Adiga has produced a hero almost as memorable as Pip, proving himself the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation.” – [The Economist]

The book provides more great literary insight into post-colonial India and all its contradictions, in the same satirical vein as Salman Rushdie (but without the magic realism). It’s an easy read and I recommend it to those that like the work of Rushdie, Manto, Shantaram and other popular novels set in the Sub-Continent.

Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated

Another young writer who seemingly came from nowhere, upon publication of his first novel Jonathan Safran Foer was only 24 when the book was published in 2002. The book polarised readers, critics and writers alike, heralded as a work of genius when it was released but later criticised for being gimmicky and pretentious in its use of almost all the modernist literary devices one can think of.

I think some of the praise was overly hyperbolic and seemed to anoint Safran Foer as the second coming of James Joyce, comparisons were also made to Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for the novel’s innovative style of language (which is difficult to follow at first and a little annoying but gets easier towards the end).

I didn’t find the book as uproariously funny as some of the reviews I’ve read, amusing maybe but definitely not to the point of laughing out loud. It was much more of an emotional book for me, a powerful read that sucked me in with every few pages as it jumped between two separate narratives that, of course, came together in the end. It’s a complex book in some ways and a simple one in others. It tackles complex themes with a complex narrative strategy but, in the end, it’s a human book, onethat allows the reader to connect simply to the characters and to experience the emotion that comes along with its tragedy.

In fact, he’s got his sights on higher — much higher — things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the book’s concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship, what it means to be loyal and good and to practice what Jonathan has taught Alex to call ”common decencies.” And I’m not even mentioning a whole host of subthemes, including the confusions and collisions between American and post-Soviet culture. Perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated comic set piece in the book involves the Russians’ appalled response to ”the hero’s” vegetarianism — and a dropped potato. [New York Times]

Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Working the graveyard shift at a mental asylum and being on lots of drugs is apparently a sure-fire recipe for a great book. It was for Ken Kesey anyways, apparently the man ate a whole bunch of peyote before writing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it worked out pretty well for him.

The book is an authentic representation in many ways of the inner workings of a 1950s mental asylum in the US, many of the observations came about as a result of Kesey’s interviews with the inmates at his place of employment (and enhanced by the peyote, I’m sure). The book is clearly an allegory on government, particularly the totalitarian leanings of a society that does not tolerate people who step outside boundaries or think outside the box, or, as the the original 1962 Time review calls it, “a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them.” This is why the book was considered a seminal work of counter-culture and resonated deeply with 1960s and 70s America, a country in cultural upheaval.

Some of the themes I found most interesting are summed up succinctly here by wikipedia;

The novel’s critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censoraspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also critiques the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.

The book appears in Time’s 100 best English language novels from 1923 – 2005, and deservingly so.

Don Watson – American Journeys

I’ve been a fan of Don Watson since his amazing biography of Paul Keating (another man I admire) “Recollections of a Bleeding Heart”. Unlike the Keating biography, American Journeys is not a political book, though politics features at certain points, not something you can avoid when a deeply political man travels in a deeply political country.

Although Watson attempts to encapsulate America in this book, he fails, and since it was a Herculean task to begin with, perhaps it’s not one we should expect. What makes the book enjoyable is Watson’s quality as a writer. Crisp, elegant prose, witty observations, de Tocqueville and Twain quotes weaved in and out seamlessly along with current affairs. His chosen mode of travel, the dilapidated and forgotten Amtrak train system, is certainly unorthodox but makes for a very different perspective on the country:

Train travel gives Watson’s narrative a reflective pace, as he takes in the nuances of the landscapes and towns he eases in and out of – while digesting Amtrak’s woeful food. “When you’ve eaten it,” he observes of a microwaved bagel with cream cheese, “you have to sit quite still for an hour, like a cormorant after swallowing a salmon and let the thing dissolve inside you.” [SMH]

Watson is probably my favourite Australian writer and this book, as a travelogue and a cultural/political journal of observations is certainly worth a read.

Alain de Botton – The Art of Travel

If I had to choose which book of 2009 was my favourite, it would be between this one and Sartre (will be covered in the next post). This wasn’t my first time reading de Botton, I had read Consolations of Philosophy and Essays in Love and thoroughly enjoyed both. De Botton has a knack for making me relate swiftly and easily to his ruminations, like my version of Oprah but drawing more on the philosophers of the ages and less on corporate product promotion. The two earlier books were also fantastic in this way, Consolations was amazing at exploring the little troubles of life and Essays in Love was wonderful distillation of modern day relationships and how they really work.

Art of Travel though is, for me at least, his tour de force. I enjoy travel a great deal (hey who doesn’t these days) and do a fair bit of it but the beauty of this book lies not in his discussions of travel itself, but what travel reveals about individuals and their psyche. His chapter on Flaubert that talked about the French writer’s distaste for his native bourgeoise and his longing for the exoticism of the Orient resonated strongly with me. While my personal views on the East are, I hope, less Orientalist and condescending than old Gustave, my distaste for the Aussie bourgeoise (ah Cashed Up Bogans) is very similar.

One of the best things about de Botton’s writing is that he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. He writes on topics that have been written about for centuries by many before him but adapts them to today, to modernity. Well read and well researched, his useful asides about various pieces of art and borrowings from such writers as the aforementioned Flaubert, TS Elliot, Ruskin, Baudelaire and Nietzche give his books the backbone of history, written in language that is simple enough to understand but beautiful enough to enjoy. This is why he’s such a trendy writer among us Generation Yers. Many have called Michael Moore the “Chomsky for children”, perhaps De Botton is Hegel for hipsters… or Nietzche for n00bs. Plenty more alltierative analogies on famous philosophers are possible.

The Art of Travel seems to have a simple enough theme. What we seek by travelling may in fact be something we lack at home. De Botton is not the first to point this out, and he quotes many famous travellers who have discovered the pitfalls of seeking refuge, like Baudelaire, “Anywhere! Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!” All too often the traveller who escapes desperately may find himself equally bored in an exotic location, something de Botton discovered on a painfully ill- advised trip to Barbados. He is not a writer who revels in the opportunity to impart a romanticised sense of the tropics, being far more successful when he evokes the misery of a cheap hotel room in Madrid, the view from an airport car park or the fluorescent glare of a motorway service station. [guardian]

De Botton can be found on twitter (@alaindebotton) and on his website.

Fyodor Dostoevsky – White Nights

The disclaimer here is that I read this novella in Russian and I’m not entirely sure how Dostoevsky’s wonderful prose translates into English because I’ve never read him translated. Nevertheless, I’ve seen White Nights around as part of Penguin edition short story collections by Dostoevsky and I thoroughly recommend you hunt it down and read it if you haven’t already.

The protagonist, like many of Dostoevsky’s is a loner and a social outcast of sorts. A dreamer who wanders the streets of St. Petersburg romanticising the city and its inhabitants, his loneliness consuming him day by day. The story is a short and simple one, a boy-meets-girl tale with startling emotional depth, it’s almost a fantastical representation of anyone who has ever dreamt about falling in love with a beautiful stranger. The nameless narrator falls for a girl called Nastenka, a girl he describes as ordinary, but one who happens to be distressed and pursued by an assailant while he passes her on one of his many walks. The story follows the brief friendship-cum-unrequited-love until its end. Sad, beautifully written and insightful from Dostoevsky as usual – all bundled together as an anlogy on the day-night cycle:

“My nights came to an end with a morning. The weather was dreadful. It was pouring, and the rain kept beating dismally against my windowpanes.”

As an aside, interestingly, despite this not being one of Dostoevsky’s well-known works, it’s been adapted for film eight times (including Russian, Italian, Hindi, French, Tamil and American versions, more information on the wiki).

Aldous Huxley – Island

If Huxley’s more famous work Brave New World was his vision of a dystopian future then Island is his utopia. The last book he ever had published (in 1962), Island is the culmination of Huxley’s mostly liberal humanist philosophies with a deep Eastern influence, primarily Buddhist. In that sense, Huxley was part of the 50s and 60s literary movement of authors looking to Eastern philosophies for inspiration (including Hermann Hesse, the Beats and Robert M. Pirsig).

The book is not subtle, Huxley pretty much hits you over the head sledgehammer-style with his observations and criticisms. Unlike other utopian literature, the book is not wistful, it’s more an extension of Brave New World in that sense, a cynical lampooning of our society’s many problems, partly thanks to the cynical our-world narrator Will Farnaby.

One of Huxley’s main criticisms of the West (as this is largely what the book is essentially critical of, the West and the work it’s done via colonialism and neo-colonialism in creating copies of itself in non-Western cultures) is the over industrialisation, the breakneck development and the seeming lack of regard for the quality and purpose of life itself. The fictional island of Pala where the novel is set is an example of restrained development, and Huxley contrasts this with with the inferior and ‘insane’ neighbouring island of Rendang, which is ineviatbly going to attack Pala with its sophisticated weaponry and steal its natural resources. This war for natural resources is characterised as insane by Farnaby while he praises the restraint of the Palinese.

Huxley’s disdain for Western society often spills over into sharp but decidedly unrestrained prose, here’s an example of the acerbic attacks you can expect in this book:

“And always, everywhere, there would be the yelling or quietly authoritative hypnotists; and in the train of the ruling suggestion givers, always everywhere, the tribes of buffoons and hucksters, the professional liars, the purveyors of entertaining irrelevances. Conditioned from the cradle, unceasingly distracted, mesmerized systematically, their uniformed victims would go on obediently marching and countermarching, go on, always and everywhere, killing and dying with the perfect docility of trained poodles. And yet in spite of the entirely justified refusal to take yes for an answer, the fact remained and would remain always, remain everywhere — the fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion”

“History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma.”

For a utopian work, Island is not a novel that will leave you feeling happy, light and fluffy when you finish it. It will make you feel bitter and jaded about the world, but it is a valuable meditation on where our civilisation is and where it’s headed, and the 48 years that have passed since its publication have only served to make those views more pertinent.

Kickstart with Steppenwolf

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Time to kick-start this baby again after having shifted over to my dedicated Politics (with a middle eastern focus) blog at Zeitgeist Politics (check it out if you haven’t already).

To be fair, I’ve been doing considerable amounts of interesting stuff lately including the Don’t Ban The Can Festival on Saturday, street art spotting, interesting book reading, gigs, movies, new cafes, shopping, etc. There’s also been lots of cool stuff on the net lately that I’ve discovered. Bah I need an outlet for these things, especially since my license was suspended starting from Sunday last (thank you Victoria Police) so I’ll be… having more free time on my hands to blog I suppose.

So yeah:

Upon reading Steppenwolf (note the delectable popular penguins copy I have… sigh), a multitude of thoughts came to mind. Am I the Steppenwolf? I certainly share Harry Haller’s disdain for bourgeios society (though not to the same degree, i still enjoy many of the things he loathes and mix with the bourgeois on a regular basis) and have a tendency to get depressed at the pointlessness of it all (though no suicidal tendencies, thank God)… I have that lone wolf thing in me and I also have the intellectual superiority complex going on a lot of the time. So what of it?

It appears the book was met initially with disdain for its liberal attitude to random sex and recreational drug use, and then later embraced as part of the ‘free love and drugs’ movement of the 60s. It is also seen as a damning indictment of the bourgeois, though I don’t really personally see how. In fact, it does little condemning of the bourgeois and seems to be a broader condemnation of intellectuals and the Western ego-centric point of view, far more steeped in Eastern philosophy and far more lamenting the Steppenwolf’s (and there are many among us) inability to derive pleasure from life, always concerned with inevitable things like war, death and self:

Of course, there will be another war. One doesn’t need to read the papers to know that. And of course one can be sad about it, but it isn’t any use. It’s just the same as when a man is sad to think that one day, in spite of his utmost efforts to prevent it, he will inevitably die. The war against death, dear Harry, is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows, is the war against war. But it is always hopeless and quixotic too.

Hesse’s use of duality and multiple aspects of personality and consciousness were fascinating, as well as what could be called an early dose of magic realism, surrealism and dream sequences. It’s a book concerned with the psyche, the human condition and the myriad possibilities that yet remain unexplored to most of us. Certainly worth reading.

Vikas Swarup – bad writer and rather ignorant, it seems.

April 3, 2009 8 comments

-WARNING SPOILERS BELOW-

Ahhh Vikas Vikas. What will we do with you? Why did you try to pack in as much crap as possible into one little narrative? Now I’m aware that the format you have chosen for your book, the random questions from a gameshow coinciding with events from the kid’s life in no particular order, allows you lots of “creativity” but why does your “creativity” have to have such lame and even ignorant results?

How did you manage, by page 168 (not even halfway) to incorporate film star pedophiles, Australian diplomats-cum-spies and even a Haitian voodoo practitioner (who apparently also is really good at sex, yay!) into an already eventful few chapters? I think just the regular poverty/crime/mafia/domestic violence/killing/slum-dwelling would have been more than enough to keep people entertained, dont you? I mean I would’ve thought that ridiculously philosophical 10 year olds with amazing vocabularies was enough implausibility

And on the topic of Haitian voodoo, get an education man! All I needed to do was look at wikipedia to know that all that black magic and voodoo dolls crap is bogus! It’s a myth! A MYTH! And it makes about as much sense as an Australian spy (honestly WHY would the Aussies want to spy on India, cricketing tips?)

I can clearly see why Danny decided to ditch like 75% of the book:

Mr. Swarup allows himself the occasional grimace in talking about the numerous changes in the script. But, ever the diplomat, he says the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, and the director, Danny Boyle, stayed “faithful to the central narrative structure.” [NYTimes]

The occasional grimace? Faithful to the central narrative structure? Dude, the man (and his scriptwriters) turned a lousy book into a decent film! You should be pleased with how many copies of an otherwise dreadful novel you’ve been able to sell!

The novelist Salman Rushdie savaged the novel as “a corny potboiler” and “the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.” [NYT]

Say what you want about Salman but the man has a point, I’d say “corny potboiler” is actually rather mild in comparison to what the book deserves. Vikas, in turn, never skipping a beat replied thusly:

Mr. Swarup was certainly stung by the criticisms, but said he understood the strong reactions.

“Indians are sensitive to the way their country is represented, but the film was not a documentary on slum life,” said Mr. Swarup. “Slums provide the backdrop to the story of the courage and determination of this boy who beats the odds.”

Oh dearie, he was stung. Vikas mate, I don’t think it’s the slums that are the issue… I think it’s more… you know… the Haitian voodoo maybe? Wtf?

More ranting about the book here if you missed my earlier post. Looking forward to more good times as I approach the halfway mark, lol.

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Reading Vikas Swarup’s Q&A/Slumdog Millionaire

March 30, 2009 2 comments

The more I read the more it hurts (and not in the good way), it’s one of those books. Let’s start with Vikas’ protagonist, Mr. Ram Mohammad Thomas. Firstly, wtf. I mean I know Swarup was probably trying to indiciate religious unity in his name, trying to make him the representative of all Bombay (what about the Parsis, Jains, Sikhs?) and whatnot but… really? Apart from his name, Swarup has chosen him to be his first person protagonist, a rather bad choice considering some of the language used in the book. For example:

I reflect on how good it is to have simple, uncomplicated ambitions, like shaking a film star’s hand.

This thought occurs to Ram during the first 1000Rs. chapter where he is supposedly a small boy living in a Bombay slum. The idea that a small boy, regardless of where he lives, can have meta-cognition of this level and be able to personally reflect to this degree suggests that he could be the next Tibetan Lama. I mean what kid of like 10 years old would be able to ‘reflect’ on ‘uncomplicated ambitions’. I don’t think so. And this is just *one* example where Swarup’s first person protagonist seems to have maturity and age (and vocabulary) far beyond his years.

Suddenly Salim looks up. ‘Do you think I could speak to her? Maybe I could persuade her to come back to Armaan. Tell her that it was a mistake. Tell her how sad and contrite he is.’

Speaking of vocabulary, Ram’s childhood friend Salim also appears to be blessed with an advanced lexicon. Even assuming that Swarup’s characters would speak in Hindi and Swarup would be pseudo-translating to fictional English, ‘contrite’? Lol. Who uses that word in general conversation, let alone a bloody kid?

I mean Swarup obviously has a decent understanding of Indian society, even its lower echelons, and Bombay (as evidenced by his recounting of how things in a police cell work, his characters’ preoccupation with the female film stars’ breasts and male film stars action sequences, cat calls at cinemas, etc.)… well good enough for me anyway, but his dialogue and prose is so spectacularly terrible that it makes me cringe. Rohinto Mistry this man is not.

And finally, the main plot point in the first 1000Rs. chapter, the idea that a film idol would don a false beard and come to a cinema screening his film to molest a pre-pubescent slum dweller (who by coincidence, idolises him) is so ridiculous that it makes me giggle (and pedophilia is not funny).  Now I see why Danny only ‘loosely’ based the film on this novel.

So far so bad, Vikas Swarup. I’m sure you’re an impeccable diplomat. But you suck at writing.

Virginia Woolf – To The Lighthouse

January 22, 2009 Leave a comment

To the Lighthouse was first published in 1927 and is one of Virginia Woolf’s best known works and is set on two days ten years apart. The plot centers around the Ramsay family’s anticipation of and reflection upon a visit to a lighthouse and the connected familial tensions. Woolf is famous for her style of writing known as stream-of-consciousness, her books usually dont have a plot one can follow and are focused entirely on the thoughts, perceptions, emotions and random flights taken by the minds of the characters. This book is a good example of that but should not be taken lightly as something banal, it is actually a complex narrative full of interweaving themes, the prose is lyrical and beautiful in parts and the novel is laden with a deep emotional heaviness.

First impression or rather first thing to impress me is Woolf’s ability to be so impeccably aware of the flow of thoughts, emotions, perceptions and all the other opaque workings of our subconscious at any given time. This gives her the ability to follow her characters’ fictitious and often complicated trains of thought and all of the powerful feelings that come along with them at any point in time inspired only by them seeing various mundane objects such as kitchen tables or fleeting glances of other people

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often found herself -struggling against terrific ods to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see’, and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her. And it was then too, in that chill and windy way, as she began to paint, that there forced themselves upon her other things, her own inadequacy, her insignificance, keeping house for her father off the Brompton Road, and had much ado to control her impulse to fling herslef (thank Heaven she had always resisted so far) at Mrs Ramsay’s knee and say to her – but what could one say to her? ‘I’m in love with this all’, waving her hand at the hedge, at the hosue, at the children? It was absurd, it was impossible.

In this passage we see Woolf perfectly encapsulate in all of its gory detail the struggles of an artist about to embark on a translation of artistic vision to crude canvas, all of the mind’s wanderings and emotional upheavals that this causes. There is an amazing ability to grasp such deep emotion.

How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?

Here Woolf addresses the uncertainty of forming perceptions of people and how those perceptions are often impermanent and often-changing. She also addresses the hypocricy of forming judgments, formulating them into words, sentences, adjectives and all of the imperfections of language that go along with doing that.

And the above two excerpts are just that, two excerpts. There are many more riches in the novel itself and it is a very interesting read. Apparently when writing it Woolf spent time just sitting and figuring out how her mind and emotions work. It must have been a difficult experience, sometimes we may discover things about ourselves and the way we think/feel that we never knew and are hard to confront. Respect is due.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Last Tycoon

January 13, 2009 2 comments

Fitzgerald’s unfinished masterpiece that was published posthumously is considered to be one of his finest works. Firstly, the novel succeeds at what Fitzgerald does best, employing pop culture references and various other techniques to give the reader a great feeling for the time & place. In this case the time & place is 1930s Hollywood though Fitzgerald uses it as a greater allegory for the American Dream. The last tycoon in the novel’s title refers to Monroe Stahr, a flawed hero and, at first glass, the epitomy of American success. The flaws, however, become more glaring as the narrative proceeds and begin to be seen as a greater critique of society itself.

Stahr wields huge power within his circle and, it would seem, he could have anything and anyone he desires… but love eludes him as does happiness, his job is taking its toll on his health and slowly killing him, his new house is not completed, seemingly due to apathy, and lacks a roof… The lack of roof is one of the many symbols in the book used to describe the fake emptiness of the society and, overall leads up to an ending that sums up the damning indictment the book is on the Hollywood establishment and American society of the time.

What I like about Fitzgerald is his aforementioned grip on the times, the Zeitgeist if you will, and his ability to use many references and allegories to make the narrative feel “real” and placed. In that sense, one can see how his writing influenced Murakami. Although the writing is unemotional and cold at times, the plot is still quite compelling. Check it out.

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