Saturday, January 7, 2017

Year in Reading

When it came to reading, this year was slightly better than last few ones. It was still far from years like 2007 (link here) when I did some mind-boggling reading, both in terms of volume and just in terms of how heavy it was. I see that list and I myself get intimidated! What was I doing? That was surely a different me 9 (!) years ago, someone with more time, intellectual energy and most of all with a capacity to keep distractions at bay.

The first reason for the spike in reading was that this year I finally started taking public transport for office commute. While you don't get to read a lot in an hour (one side!) of commute, you still keep track of the reading thread which is very important because otherwise you tend to lose track of the context and subsequently your interest in the book itself. The other reason was that I made a complete switch to Kindle this year. Keeping a Kindle handy is much easier when you are outside of your home and even at home, it is much easier to make a context switch to another if you are temporarily bogged down with any particular book.

I have never been a systematic reader but some patterns do emerge when you make a list. Basically I read a number of 19th century French novels and a lot of detective & crime fiction. I don't know why. I also see that I spent a lot of time reading long essays on the internet. At any point of time you can see about 30-40 tabs opened in my browser each pointing to some articles, essays, book reviews in different American magazines. This year being the election year in the US, there were a lot of long-form essays on politics, culture and society that were published and many of which made a huge impression on me. With so many disasters convulsing the western world one after the other, there seems to have been a renewed attempt to look back at some of the assumptions underlying the intellectual consensus and question or reevaluate their foundations. There is more interesting stuff being published in NYRB, LRB, Jacobin, Dissent etc than one could possibly read. Obviously these readings don't figure in the list below.

OK, so onward with the books:



Emile Zola's L'Assommoir (aka The Drinking Den in Robin Buss' superb English translation for Penguin Classics) was without a doubt the best novel I read this year. For a long time I was sceptical of picking up Zola because I always thought of him as one of those 19th century Naturalists who write big fat novels accumulating facts and details about the society of that time. This kind of realism no longer interests me. I would much rather read a book of history if I want to know just about culture or the history of any period or the place. Then last year I just picked up Zola's Germinal on a whim and was dumbstruck by how vicious, powerful and visionary his writing was. L'Assommoir was actually even better than Germinal. Yes Zola is full of facts & details but the way he selects those details and stacks them up one after the other in such a relentless fashion it gives a vertiginous feeling to read those passages - whether it is about being stuck in a coal mine miles below the earth's surface or the description of sheer physical & moral abjection brought on by alcoholism and poverty. You remember the beginning of Crime and Punishment where we get the hear the confession of Sonya's father? Imagine reading that over and over for hundred of pages! I must say there are a few comical episodes in the novel too but they only make the contrast with the rest of the book even starker. The last hundred or so pages are specially gruesome. I read them almost in a hallucinatory haze and had even had nightmare days after I finished reading it.


Old Man Goriot By Balzac: Another masterpiece of the 19th century French literature. The Penguin Classics edition had a section explaining the various currencies in use at that time and their mutual convertibility alongwith an exx=planation about the cost of living at that time. This itself tells you how important a role money plays in the novel. There is a section in the novel where one of the characters named Vautrin goes on and on in a monologue about social mobility and the place of money in social hierarchy. Reading it you finally understand what Marx meant when he said that money revolutionizes social and familial relations. Not a surpise that Balzac was one of Marx's favourite writers even though Balzac himself was a conservative.

Detective Fiction of Ross Macdonald: This year I read six detective novels in the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald, the pen name of American writer Kenneth Millar. I read one and couldn't stop. I just kept on reading one after another. I read The Chill, The Galton Case, Black Money, The Zebra Striped Hearse, The Goodbye Look & The Doomsters. I specially loved the first two - The Chill & The Galton Case but really they are all very similar in terms of mood, pacing and technique and differ only in the surface plot details. What I specially loved was the way the narrative was structured, reading it it feels as if you are on a long mysterious journey which lots of twists and turns, sudden  jolts and not a few cul-de-sacs and u-turns! These novels are probably the most elegantly plotted novels I have ever read. I always used to discount plot in a novel but my views have changed now after reading these.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: I have not been the greatest fan of Raymond Chandler. The effects of his colourful similes and sparkling dialogue wears off on me after some time. After that it becomes a slog. The Long Goodbye, his final and the longest novel, however finds him in a much sombre and subdued mood and for that reason worked for me much better than The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely, the  two other Chandlers I have read. I love the Robert Atlman movie very much too but the book is very  different not just in plot and setting but also in its mood & style.

Women's Crime Fiction edited by Sarah Weinman: I read three novels from this anthology of women's Crime Fiction which were first published in the 40s and the 50s. All three of them were made into excellent films which are masterpieces of American noir. I specially loved Elisaabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall, the source  of Max Ophuls' Reckless Moment starring Joan Bennett and James Mason, in which a housewife gets entangled in a case of murder and blackmail. I also loved In a lonely place by Dorothy Hughes', a very moody and stylish written story about a man roaming the night life of coastal California who may or may not be a serial murderer of women. This character was played by Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's film of the same name in what is probably his finest performance. The ending in the book (and hence the overall conclusion and emphasis) is quite different though. I didn't love Vera Caspary's Laura as much as these two, specially as compared to the Otto Preminger's film version. Although I did enjoy reading further musings of Waldo Lydecker in his usual vitriolic style in the book, played memorably in the film by Clifton Webb. It turns out that Caspary was not very happy with the way Preminger and his screenwriters had treated her book. I also felt the film focusses more on cinematic and storytelling technique and some of the wider feminist and sociological points she raises in book get short shrift. I still loved the film more.

They Shoot Horses Don't they? by Horace McCoy: I will recommend the 1969 film version by Sydney Pollack featuring Jane Fonda, one of the great American actresses, in what I consider to be her finest role. The French existentialists supposedly love this novel which according to them captures of Sisyphean struggle of human existence. Here's the beautiful opening montage from the film

Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon: This was the first Simenon novel I read and it left me slightly underwhelmed. I had high hopes after reading many essays by John Gray, John Banville et al on his work but the book itsself felt lightweight. I will probably give some of his other books a try sometime.

In the Woods by Tana French: Again an overhyped book! It was entertaining and kept me turning the pages but all the reviews and comments had me expecting much more from it. Also, hated the pretentious tone and the ending.


When the Facts Change by Tony Judt: Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes .This was his last essay collection which was edited by his wife and was published posthumously. These essays, every last one of them, are marvels of erudition, argumentation, ethical commitment and elegant writing. Best of all, in all his essays there is always a kind of structure so that after finishing them you feel as if you have taken an intellectual journey with the author which is always exhilarating to me. Together with his earlier collection Reappraisals, it is probably the finest collection of intellectual essays on history/politics/current affairs that you can lay your hands on. Just sometimes he overdoes the old-left bashing a little bit, specially the French left, which spoiled his magnum-opus Postwar for me but his essays are really in a different league altogether!

Hannah Arendt: A life in dark times by Anne Heller; It was good short introduction to the life and work of Hannah Arendt. Published by Amazon and available in a cheap kindle edition. I read the biography of David Lynch in the same series last year.

The Terror Years by Lawrence Wright: Wright won a well-deserved pulitzer prize of his wok of history-reportage The Looming Tower. This is a followup collection of essays to that volume. Most of these were already used up in the book and some are new but reading his reportage and essays is always a pleasure. A very good specimen of the famed New Yorker style of journalism.

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson: This is considered a classic but it annoyed the hell out of me. There was something or the other in almost every other entry that made me pull my hair - specially the entries on actors. Actually this book is about Actors mainly. There are entries on directors too but they mostly read as if lifted from wikipedia pages. There is really nothing on other subsidiary film making roles like cinematographers, production designers, editors etc. Finally it all comes down to - Who do you prefer more, Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart? If your answer is Cary Grant you will probably like his views on actors more than I did.


Ramcharitmanas/ The Epic of Ram (Murty Library): This was a pretty good attempt at an English translation by Philip Lutgendorf. I enjoyed his introduction and notes too. The best thing about the Murty books is that they are bilingual so you can read the texts in the original too and compare and evaluate the translations on the go. I have also been reading the full edition by Gita Press on and off throughout the year. What can I say about this - it is indeed the mount Everest of Hindi literature.

Kiratarjuniya/Arjuna and the Hunter by Bharavi (Murty Library): I was not as enthused by this translation of Bharavi's seventh century Sanskrit Mahakavya. I felt the translation was too academic and life less. It could also be because of the original text whose beauty seems to consist mainly in ornate linguistic experiments & structures. There are, for example, different kinds of palindromic verses, there are verses just using a single root word and even a single letter! Our contemporary practitioners of experimental avant-garde writing had nothing on Bharavi!

Padmavat by Jayasi (Edited with Notes and Commentary by Vasudev Sharan Agrawal): Another mount Everest of Hindi literature. I will try to blog my thoughts in detail sometime later.

Nacohus by Purushottam Agrawal: It happened many times throughout the year that while watching the evening news and debate shows I suddenly felt that I was transported in some parallel fantastical dimension where normal rules of logic, language and discourse don't apply. Such was the kind of arguments you got to hear from not just the spokespersons of the ruling party in power but also the news anchors. You see the same in much of social media as well, specially the way intellectuals and intellectualism are traduced day after day. Agrawal's novel Nacohus captures this state of our collective being very eloquently. It is also specially remarkable that Agrawal wrote this novel before the JNU crisis & the fracas around the award wapsi movement came to be and in that sense it is eerily prescient to read.


The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: I abandoned it not beecause it was boring - it was a actually a terrifically rollicking read but just that it was too damn long. I read it over a month continuously and was almost done with 600 pages but then realized I was not even halfway through! I will pick it up again this year. I just have to find if there is a chapter summary somewhere on the internet. There are just too many characters and plot details to keep track of in the book.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal: I am a huge fan of Stendhal's The Red and the Black. The way he combines romanticism with a cynical, winking irony makes his voice one of the most compelling in all of the nineteenth century European novel. There are elements of that in this book also though it is bogged down by a discursive, make-it-as-you-go-along plotting. Stendhal reportedly wrote in just 50 days which is quite remarkable but then it also shows in the structure of the book unfortunately. I don't want to suggest there are no redeeming features in the book. There is a brilliant and justifiably famous battle scene in the beginning of the novel and that cynical-romantic voice is present as well. It just required some "editing" & "polishing." I will probably pick up a different translation the next time.

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