Picks of the Year: Books

It is the last few days of the year, and everyone is busy making the good, bad ugly lists of the almost 365 days gone by. Expanding on a trend I began last year (inspired a little by fellow bloggers), I have decided to use this space to reflect on the best of reading and cinema I came across this year. I think 2007 was a year rich in both – movies particularly so because I experimented with many different genres, more than I had ever done before. Even in reading, I came upon a few new writers, and read more of the ones I had read last year. I even came back to a few writers which had become kind of a stumbling block before, and I am glad I finally read them. I only closely made it to the 50-book milestone, but I am proud to have gone through some arduous books as part of this list. Some of the interesting and notable things that I read this year are:

Jose’ Saramgo – I read three more books from this Portuguese Nobel Laureate: The Cave, Gospel according to Jesus Christ and Blindness. I enjoyed them as much as the Double, the first two more so. While Cave and Blindness were what you would call typical Kafkaesque works, Gospel… was mainly a humanistic and slightly satirical take on Bible. There is nothing realistic about Saramago’s works – they are always placed in a nameless town, with nameless people trapped in a situation which we can only call a negative fantasy – yet there is something of a very raw reality. I loved the sort of doom and helplessness they portray.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie – This was a very complex allegorical work, complicated further by Rushdie’s winding sentences and words hand-picked from a thesaurus. It took me quite a while to wade through this heavy book, but it was an interesting read in the end. I don’t particularly care for magic realism, but I like allegories – and this book had many.

Nadime Gordimer – She was another author I read further after an introduction last year. Though I didn’t like any of Get a Life or The Conservationist as much as The Pickup, the latter was good, with its monologues and all-pervasive emptiness. Get a life, on the other hand, was quite passable.

Naguib Mahfouz – I read this Egyptian (exotic, isn’t it?) Nobel laureate for the first time, in two different avatars. In books like Khufu’s wisdom, Mahfouz has taken over the task of re-telling old Egyptian tales, and frankly, I do not wish to pick up anymore from this genre again (they are outdated tales of morality and wisdom which are great for bed-time reading if you are an insomniac!) However, I simply loved his existential author avatar in Midaq Alley, which is an assortment of the life stories of a few people staying on a modest Cairo street. Purely despondent, very existential.

Zeno’s Conscience, Italo Svevo – Now this was one book I loved. It is a mock autobiography written by a smoke-addict, on the suggestion of his psychiatrist. The writer spins a tale replete with Freudian overtones and laden with ‘guilt’. Remarkably cunning in its humor.

Orhan Pamuk – I read two of his works, actually one and a half, for I have not finished The Black Book yet. I enjoyed the exceptional story telling in My Name is Red, it was another complicated tale, and the mixed narration was a real joy. The more confusion in the story, the better. Both these books are mysteries, and weave the Turkish life in their stories, which seems to be flavored with a lot of coffee houses, gossips and unreturned loves.

Evelyn Waugh – I like his satire for it offers a freshness from the desperate tales that I read otherwise. This year I read the twin books of Decline and Fall & Vile Bodies – both of them a mockery of the elite British society

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky – Now why didn’t I read Dostoevsky before? May be the book’s daunting size has the answer, but it was 1100 pages well spent.

WG Sebald – He is certainly the ‘find’ of the year, the way Saramago was last year. I simply enjoyed curling up to Austerlitz and then was overwhelmed by Rings of Saturn. I am resolved to make one of his foot journeys and then hope that I can write something like that. He is completely different from what I mostly read and describes a melting, disintegrating world, which makes you want to curl up your legs and weep, and at the same time also take off on the lonely road and crash with the breaking world. Funny that I should love such a heartbreaking imagery!

Other noteworthy reads were a couple of autobiographical works – Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende. Also liked Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Book Crossing

I had learned the term Serendipity only about ten days before I came across the concept of Book Crossing. (I of course learned the term because of the silly movie by the same name – not by watching it, but by hearing of it from loads of people who could not stop swooning over its fairytale romance! A couple of years later when I did watch the movie, I felt nauseated with the overdose of sweetness, not to mention stupidity!). The movie aside, it was an interesting word, and sounded even better when combined with books. Imagine sitting in a cafe, sipping coffee and enjoying the music, and on a curious impulse, you look under the table and find a packet wrapped in brown paper. You pick it up, and find it is that rare book you have been thinking of reading for a year! Yes, yes, I realize the over optimism and romanticism hiding behind that ‘dreamy’ thought, but that’s the good thing about dreams. You can make them far more beautiful than reality.

So, when a friend sent me a mail about Book crossing, I registered at their site. For the uninitiated, the concept behind book crossing is that readers across the world release their favorite books with a book crossing ID (BC-ID), and leave it at some public location – for instance in a park, a café, a hotel, a train or a station. When someone finds that book, (and if they are Book-crossing savvy), they go to the site and register that they have found the book against the book’s BC-ID. So you can track your book as it crosses from one hand to another and at the same time also serendipitously find books left by other BC members. Of course, I was loathe to trust anyone with my books and therefore hoped only to find one left by a more trusting soul. For a few days, I kept logging into the site to check if someone had left a book behind in some part of my city, where I could conveniently go and pick it up. Unfortunately, there are few trusting souls in India, and neither of them had the good fortune to be members of BC and be in Bangalore at the same time! I gave up after a few attempts – after all the most likely fate to be suffered by an unclaimed book in India is that it will find its way into the second hand market or in a waste paper shop.

Recently, I read an interesting an amusing article in NY Times which brought back Book Crossing to my mind. The writer makes several attempts to leave books in conspicuous spots, always hopeful of finding something in return. She finds herself getting cross with Book crossing and struggles to serendipitously find a released copy. It was nice to know that I don’t stand alone in hoping the scales of serendipity to tip in my humble favor.

Book Crossing aside, I have serendipitously found a few books in different places, and they have been good reads. (I hunted for a BC-ID in them but never found it) I found Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose lying on the shelf of a community kitchen, and found Roddy Doyle’s A star called Henry in a Garage takeaway (well, it was like a garage sale where you didn’t have to pay !). In more conventional places like hotels, where a lot of tourists leave their books, I have found and read books like The Accidental (Ali Smith) and PGWoodehouses. (Even some random romances, but I am ashamed of mentioning those J ) It is a delight to stumble upon such books and devour them, especially when you are not carrying enough to read on a journey. My only hope is that people get more generous with their books. But alas, when I checked book crossing this afternoon, I realized that book crossers in Mumbai are no better than Bangalore and there is only one book released in the entire city. On second thoughts, I suppose I should go hunting for that in stead of wasting my time writing this!

Hitchcock & Maurier

At one time I was introduced to Hitchcock with Psycho, and I thought – Huh! What’s the big deal. After that I have not gone back to this movie to really figure out if there was any ‘big deal’ with it. However, since then I have watched numerous Hitchcock movies and have liked them – not particularly for technique or greatness, but simply because they are generally entertaining thrillers.

In the last week I watched two Hicthcock movies based on Daphne Du Maurier’s books – Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963). I enjoyed watching both – the first one particularly more than the other. I had read Rebecca a long time ago, and it stayed with me for some time – as did another Daphne book: The Loving Spirit. Both stories had a haunting presence, their heroines seized by an invisible force, in one case a dead woman, in another a queer wanderlust.

In Rebecca, a young woman marries a rich widower and comes to his estate, which appears to her a kingdom of the dead wife – someone all servants and guests hold in reverence and cannot stop talking about. She is intimidated with the hold that the dead woman continues to have, and attributes her husband’s distance and distraction also to his love for the first wife (Of course, it is a Hitchcock movie, and you would therefore expect that something else lies beneath the apparent exterior).

The movie is a good adaptation of the text, though I think the tension in the book was far stronger than what the movie was successful in conveying. While in the book, the dead wife Rebecca almost appears like another character, always moving through the shadows, she is almost absent in the movie, except in the obsessive dedication of the housekeeper. Judith Anderson as this housekeeper, however, was positively spooky and did an excellent task with her character. The movie won an Oscar, surprisingly Hitchcock’s only one for Best Film

The other movie, The Birds, was quite horrifying. Classified as an apocalyptic, ‘Revenge of the nature’ film, it showed the unification of bird-kind against humans and the havoc they bring about as they attack a town of Bodega Bay and peck people to death. The movie does not explain what causes this sudden unification or revenge, and does not even give a deterministic end, except an escaping family, running away from a vast spread of birds. The thought that birds, which far outnumber the humans could collect their forces against us, is quite scary. Tippi Hedren, after acting as the heroine of this film, “was riddled with nightmares filled with flapping wings“.

The shots in both the movies are eerie, and in both Hitchcock has used long intervals of silences to create a scary effect. If you enjoy a spooky weekend – here’s your chance to indulge!

A perspective on Sebald

I stumbled upon a book by Mark McCulloh on Understanding Sebald in Google books. The book contains Sebald’s biographic details, his writing style and chapters singularly dedicated to each of his four novels which have been published in English (I am quite proud of being the prospective owner of all four of them, now that I have ordered Emigrants and Vertigo from Landmark online!).
In the initial chapter on Sebald’s Literary Monism, McCulloh discusses Sebald’s fascination with the past – something which no reader of Sebald can ignore. He puts it as:

…Everywhere in Sebald’s work, beginning with his poetry, that the author recalls the past, recovers the past, and seeks to depict how the present fades imperceptibly into the past. His narrators and many of his characters are convinced that the dead are with us still, a part of who we are, and he is intent on telling their often obscured or suppressed tales…

Actually, Sebald’s narration of the obscured tales is what endeared his works to me most. His narration,too, is special in its own sphere, moving through the world noiselessly, observing a world which knows nothing of his presence. In McCulloh’s words,

His own narrative, as German readers have pointed out again and again, is archaic, that of a specter.

This may be a nice introduction for people intending to read Sebald, or others like me who are eager to delve deeper.

A journey through shadows: Rings of Saturn

There are only two real hobbies that I have – reading and traveling (Yes, I am still only slipping into cinema and have a long way to go). In a way really they are quite connected because they are both about seeing the world. Of course with books, you can see more worlds than the one that lies before your eyes, because they can transcend the borders of time, and you have to spend far less on the journey 🙂

So what delight it can be, if the two of my favorite things come together in a travelogue, which delves deeper than a trip account and transports one into a totally different world. That too a world which lives not in the present but is only a decaying ghost of of an eventful, rich past.

Rings of Saturn by Sebald is an account of the narrator’s foot journey through East Anglia, covering the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. Whether Sebald actually undertook this journey or if the book is a completely fiction is something I have not managed to find out. The narration, however carries the conviction of memoirs and as you walk through the pages, you feel that not only Sebald, but you yourself also made that journey. Page through page, you can hear the ‘rumble of thunder’, smell the acrid fumes and sometimes even feel the shuddering chill as the textual clouds cover the textual sky. In so many ways, Sebald has managed to paint on a canvas through words and make his picture come alive.

As I said earlier, the journey transcends the borders of time, and it seems that in stead of being unidimensional, time had in stead become a hall with many doors, and you could move through these times at will, or at least at the author’s will. The hall, however, is only a ghost of what lies beyond these doors. And Sebald heartbreakingly devours this ghost, through words and images, before entering through one of those doors in a flourishing time. He then makes us meet a lot of illustrious characters who live or lived in East Anglia – the learned and the eccentric, the dedicated and the talented. We see him uncovering the life of Conrad, pondering over the anatomical works of Browne or imagining himself to be a shadow of Michael Hamburger.

Many times, the book seemed to me, more than a travel account to be an account of destruction wrought over by time, almost as if time makes everything worse, and we are merely living in a fraction of the world that was. This thought is no better underlined than in these words:

…time has run it course and that life is no more than the fading reflection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains.

At such times, the reading became very disconcerting and disturbing and I found myself wading depressively through my memories and weighing these words, of course never finding the answer, or even knowing if it exists.


I think a lot has been said in general about the animal instinct of man – his capability of rapid degeneration in face of calamity and the tipsy and highly vulnerable nature of order and organization, that merely hangs on weak threads of faith and fear. Therefore, Saramago’s re-emphasis on the same instincts and his question-mark on humanity and civility appeared to me like flogging of an already weak and slightly horrifying horse. It did not help that Saramago applied himself to careful detailing of this degeneration and continued to re-draw those details in every scene. As a result, it became quite difficult for me as a reader to wade through the muck of a sub-zero level hygiene and rampant putrefaction, and reach the literary brilliance at the core.

The work, no doubt, in that signature style of Saramago that I have come to love, is insightful and very expressive. Here too, like The Double and The Cave, he takes us to a nameless country, has us meet the nameless people who are identified only by their first appearance in the novel – the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the old man with the black eye patch, the first blind man, etc. He then holds our hands and delves deep into these characters, forcing us through the web of complex thoughts and emotions that goes on in those minds. Sometimes, the reader is fascinated by this web – but sometimes, you just don’t like to see what rot lies there – something that is specifically true of Blindness.

Blindness is a story of a whole city (perhaps country) gone blind, for no explicable reason. The initial people to go blind are put in an asylum by the Government, and the book focuses on the tribulations of these people, and their view (only figuratively) of this blind world. In this group is a woman, who for some reason retains her sight. It is perhaps through her eyes that we see the moral, civil and human degradation of the world in the face of this calamity.

The literary value of the book is high, and you can dig a dry irony in many places. For instance the book begins with the scene of a traffic light:

The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light
appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who
were waiting began to cross the road…

These few words describe the dependence of this world on visual signals, and thus even before he begins on the calamity, Saramago tells us how much havoc is he going to create in this ‘automated’ world by taking away the sight.
Since I just posted the link to the review of Coetzee’s work, I can’t help noticing the stark contrast between these two authors. While Coetzee draws heavily on the existing world as a backdrop for his works, Saramago stands on the opposite end and makes a new and strange world in his novels – carrying only a few elements of human nature from the real world.

Review of Diary of a Bad year

New York Sun has published a good review of Coetzee’s latest work: Diary of a Bad Year. I have been wanting to pick up this book, but the two reasons that keep me from doing that are: 1) the backlog that already adorns my shelf (Argh!) and 2) the fact that the book is still only available in a hard cover and I am waiting for a paper back edition. (Yes, as they say no sense is stronger than economic sense!)
As for the review, I really liked what Marco Roth says about Coetzee’s writing:

He has never really written baggy novels or created self-standing worlds. Early works — “The Vietnam Project” (1974), “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980), “Foe” (1986) — required readers who could check off their own internal references to the Pentagon Papers, structural anthropology, Kafka, C.P. Cavafy, and Robinson Crusoe, and who also knew something of life in apartheid South Africa

And, this statement about Elizabeth Costello (so unbelievably true..)

“Elizabeth Costello” (2003), a novel that can only be called a novel in the sense that Plato’s dialogues are plays.

Looking forward to getting to this book in the near future. I am getting a feeling that I am always running after this pile which keeps growing higher and higher!

Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside)

Generally speaking the movies based on real life can get a little arduous. So when I picked up this Spanish movie based on the life of a ship mechanic, I expected a little bit of sentimentality, some show of real heroism and a bit of boredom. But generalizations are in general risky and one can never learn enough that they should be avoided.

The story, contrary to what most briefs about the movie will have you believe, isn’t the story of Ramon Sampedro’s life at all. It is a story of his death, which begins when he is 20 and meets a diving accident and ends 28 years later. During these 28 years, Ramon lives his quadriplegic life, but refuses to accept this existence choosing in stead to die. He fights a legal battle for euthanasia, but the law continues to rule against it. Eventually, he manages to convince enough people to assist him in his death and takes a cyanide injection, thus completing the cycle that had begun 28 years ago.

The movie, however does not focus on the legal drama at all, as you might expect from the plot outline. In stead it focuses on the personal life of this bed-ridden guy who denies even the use of a wheel-chair, perhaps because he does not want to reach a compromise with his condition. It focuses on the family ties and the bond between two people battling with a degenerate disease, on Ramon’s love for sea and his dreams about flying out to it. But most importantly it is about personal dignity and a man’s vehement denial to be forced to accept what is handed out to him , because he has no other choice. So even though his family and people around him continue to love him and care for him, he continues to resent his dependence on them. At some time, specially when you see the sad faces of his family members, Ramon’s decision to die seems thankless and a little cruel. But it is rational to abhor dependence and be at the mercy of this love, specially for a sailor who loved his freedom and traveled around the world at a young age of twenty. And it is unfair to expect everyone to accept a severe setback and make amends with it.

Javier Bardem’s performance in the movie as Ramon was extraordinarily brilliant. He surely deserved an Oscar for expressing his bitterness, love, mockery and determination merely through his eyes. The movie is also very well scripted and directed, and it steers clear of making any moral judgement on whether euthanasia should be supported or legalized, which is remarkable as anyone making a movie on such a moral question is often tempted to take sides and at least tip the scales to one side. What Alejandro Amenábar has done is simply portray the life and the thoughts sensitively. It may be the emotional tear-jerking drama, it is surely well worth the time.

The bicycle thieves & Neorealism

Continuing my experiments with Italian movies, I watched De Sica’s masterpiece Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) sometime back. The film was highly ordinary and non-special, and it was in this non-specialty that its charm lies. It is a story of desperation and poor luck, the kind that can (and does) fall on most people in their everyday lives. And that is the reason why the movie in particular and De Sica in general are tagged as the champions of Neorealism – a wave which dominated the post World War II Italian cinema and dealt exclusively with real people and their un-special lives.

Bicycle Thieves (I use the plural used by UK film distributors, because I think that is more correct in the light of the story, which actually was about two thieves rather than one) is a movie about a common man Ricci, who lives in the post world war Italy, and waits in queues to get a job. He finally finds one, on the condition that he has a bicycle. He pawns linen to get an old cycle that he had pawned earlier, and for a few minutes in the movie, we see happiness and hope on the face of this small family as they clean and polish the cycle which was to them, their route to happiness and comfort. However, as a viewer we know the name of the movie and are therefore not convinced by this show of happiness.

Sure enough, on the very first day of the much regarded job, a thief comes along and steals away Ricca’s cycle. Ricca along with his son Bruno and a few friends, struggles to find the cycle in bicycle markets, looking for each part as they expect the cycle to have been taken apart by the thief. This scene is particularly vivid and marks the desperation and finally the frustration of the father and the son. Defeated after this search and another hopeless pursuit, they both go to a pizzeria and spend the little money that they have on a sumptuous meal, the mental frame aptly described by Ricca’s words: What the hell! In this scene we also see the strengthening bond between the father and the son, and again for a moment there appears a shade of happiness.

Later, Ricca accidentally spots the thief and follows him – however the pursuit again proves futile as the thief is backed by a supportive neighborhood who are willing to give him a false alibi. Now truly broken and desperate, Ricca attempts to steal a bicycle himself to keep his job, but is caught and disgraced in front of his son. The end thus succinctly puts him at par with the thief, who also would have been driven to theft by his social conditions.

In the neorealistic style, De Sica has used non-professional actors in the movie, and has shot the entire movie on the streets of Rome, without the extensive use of sets and editing. Having grown up on Bollywood movies, I think that the reality offers a pleasant freshness despite the evident despair. There is nothing theatrical about the family’s tragedy – no overbearing landlords nor warlords. You can easily think : That could have been me – and through most of the movie, I did end up remembering my own despair at having my passport stolen on a crowded metro station of Paris, and my hopeless search for it.

Having said that, I am sure I would still continue to enjoy the more theatrical movies as much, because it is as important to sometimes escape reality as it is to sometimes face it.

MMM: Manic Monday Morning

Yes, its the morning of that horrible day of the week that-should-not-be-named, and of course the blues are on in full swing. I remember them creeping in on the previous evening. Here I was, laughing one moment at the incessant banter of Jab we met’s Kareena Kapoor, and then, in the next moment was tinted with blue as I got reminded of the coming morning. Nothing like a Monday morning to mar the last shreds of the happy weekend.

So here we are in that dreaded day, and I have decided to make the day even worse by waking up early. After all my sinning on the weekend, I feel guilty enough to punish myself a bit and push myself to take an early morning walk. Such guilt pangs hit me every weekend, especially when that delightful Ducth Truffle is going down my throat and when the waiter is clearing away the remnants of a happy meal. At such moments I can really appreciate the true meaning of Gibran’s words when he says:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

Except that in this case, things turn on their heads and the well of laughters leads up to the tears 😦
As I step out for that walk, I am pleasantly surprised by the cool in the air. Bombay must be getting a touch of the winters. For once I am prepared to like this city, but I don’t suppose the city is yet ready to see me as the friend. For, only two rounds later its back with its signature warmth and by the time I am ready to go back in, the heat is on!

I go back up, looking forward to the day’s gossip on Bombay Times, with one or two horrifying items from the Mumbai Mirror. Unfortunately the newspaper boy displays a superlative efficiency and decides to skip the locked house. It is miraculous that a fellow who always miscalculates a simple bill and in 8 months has not understood that I need a different paper than the one he is giving me, is smart enough to realize that if my door is locked, it means that I have already read the weather report and therefore will not need the newspaper for the day!

Not knowing what to do with the extra time on my hand, I switch on the TV. Since this is one device I use very rarely, more so for watching news, I have to spend considerable time finding a ‘good’ news channel. After a long hunt, I find none and settle down with the lesser yellow ones. Most of these channels, like the newspaper boy, think that news is all about weather and I see temperatures everywhere – either in tickers, or on the fancy maps of the country. I seethe when I look at the 14-15 degrees in Delhi and Jaipur and cry over my lost days spent in these places (Yes Monday makes you more melodramatic! and emotional).

Finally, sometime later I give up on news and switch to music. The blue of my mood is deepening all this while as the time to go to office approaches and Channel V sympathizes with me completely by playing more blues. I would suggest that they rename the program from Goodmorning V to V love Himesh, so at least I know what to expect.

Finally, I approached the moment of truth, and on my way met too many people running towards their truths. Somehow on Mondays Mumbai people get increasingly eager to reach office and it is heartening to see the overwhelming crowd on the road, clearly expressing their delight over the impending reunion with their offices by honking incessantly. Don’t we all just love our work?!