The Year Gone By- 2013

2013 is the year when I discovered Mo Yan- who won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature. (Shifu , You’ll do anything for a laughLife and Death are Wearing me out, and Red Sorghum). Red Sorghum, the Nobel winner’s first novel is somewhat a let down compared to the other two later books that were reviewed earlier this year on this blog.

Everything Flows by Vasili Grossman, one of my favourite 20th century authors did not disappoint. It is at least as brilliant, if not more than his longer and more well known Life and Fate, considered to be the War and Peace of the 20th century.

Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a down town used books sale, was a wonderful find. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, giving a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo- Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.

The mediocrity the of the Stalinist gang that overthrew was well represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed- there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.

I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.

The levels to which the administration went to bug the Khrushchevs’ house and movements look both ludicrous and naive-  particularly as the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping were coming out at the time I was reading this book. The Soviets did the same thing – just more clumsily with a primitive technology.

Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell was a failed attempt at re- reading a book that I had enjoyed a lot the first time but did not find it to be the same on a second reading.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an accidental and interesting find, did not hold much interest after a few pages. I would have liked to read it when I was a teenager, and perhaps in Urdu rather in English in which the language is far too ornate. The long and bulky work is considered to be the Indian equivalent of the Thousand Nights.

I read a lot more online this year but reading on a screen is not the easiest mode for the long form- there is too much of a temptation to read shorter articles.

Unfortunately, these don’t make for an annual review of reading, they are easier on the twitter river on the side bar or the face “book”. Yet, I would like to single out these two review essays (both on contemporary Chinese literature) to end this post:

Prison Notebooks and Chinese Whispers- Contemporary Chinese literature through an Indian lens.

[Read posts from past years in this series]

The Year Gone By- 2012

This post should really have been titled The Seven Year Glitch, for the continuous lack of anything worthwhile that this blog had to share for this reading year. But if it isn’t titled that way, it is because just as I was contemplating this year’s “Gone By” post, snowflakes were falling outside my window, and there was a book that was warming me up. Hope was springing.

But first, here is the small list of the books I read, or attempted to read this year:

The Walk by Robert Walser: Though barely 90 short pages long in a pocket sized edition  I haven’t reached the halfway mark yet. The style is familiar, and though it isn’t as tepid as The Robber that I read last year, it is yet to give the same feel The Assistant with its exquisite prose.

The Dream of the Celt by Llosa, Mario Vargas. This book makes it to the maiden review at this blog  in 2012 though I must add that it is because of the blogger’s devotion to Mario Vargas Llosa rather than the quality of the book. Continue reading

The Year Gone By- 2011

There is a sense of deja vu as I write this 7th annual year- end digest. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I decided to put my then primary interest in astronomy and astrophysics on the backburner. A short stay at the Department of Physics at Punjab University combined with a pragmatic look at the job market soon weaned me towards engineering. In those impressionable years, sensitivities towards the life around me turned me to Marxism and literature- as it did for a number of generations of sensitive young men and women in India and other countries. I continued, mysteriously, to pass my engineering exams too, finishing with a degree in 1991.

Since then I have traversed history, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics and literature- anything except astronomy. I cannot but take a long view look at the past 25 years or so spent pursuing fields with with I had no professional relation, as I took up The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene last week. I was invigorated and rejuvenated as my otherwise waning interest in reading seems to have returned. Besides the fact that the book is very well written, explaining recent developments in particle physics and cosmology easily for a layman, I find it interesting the author’s journey proceeded directly opposite to mine. In his teenage years, he read Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, and rejected Camus answer to what he considers to be the most fundamental question- whether to commit suicide or not. Though I read Camus much later, the answer to similar questions in my mind led me away from astronomy. Greene opted for the opposite direction and sought a career in astrophysics.

I am convinced, though, if he had also been subjected to the manner in which I was taught at the department of Physics at the Punjab University, he too would have changed his course of study.

On a different note, my experiment with an e- reader earlier in the year, was short lived, though I will have to return to it at some point or another.

Continue reading

The Year Gone by- 2010

By far the most important book I read this year was Harish Damodaran’s India’s New Capitalists. In a world where there is less and less of what can be called original, Damodaran’s book builds on quite a novel space. He has studied 100 of the largest Indian companies and mapped their owners to caste groups. The result is a confirmation of what anyone in India knows- that caste is a determining factor in almost all spheres of life.

Damodaran’s study confirms that it is a handful of castes that form India’s capitalists. More significantly, he points out some of the changes that have taken place in the last 2 decades. In the South and Western India, there has been the rise of newer caste groups while the North and East have not seen a similar change in the nature of the controlling castes. Particularly in the North, the old networks of the marwaris and banias (which historically made up the ‘national bourgeoisie’, with a sprinkling of a few others like the Parsis) continue to hold sway. Very noteworthy is the rise of Brahmins and farming communities like the Kammas. Eight of the ten chapters deal with individual or a group of related castes from different regions in the country.
Continue reading

The Year Gone By: 2009

The count of books I read this year has been abysmally low. I can’t even blame it on increased online reading, though I have to admit that facebook and twitter now occupy much more time and space than blogging did. I am a latecomer particularly to twitter, but summarizing ideas and comments into a 140 character limit is a challenge of sorts and whatever little I have tweeted has been fun.On the reading front, in fiction, Senselessness by Horacio Moya has been a welcome introduction to the Salvadorean writer. It is a novella in the genre of the political novel. The amazing thing about Moya’s treatment is that politics does not enter into the narrative at all and yet it very vividly conveys the nausea of the Guatemalan massacre in the 1980s.

Norwegian writer Per Patterson’s Out Stealing Horses that won many accolades a couple of years back provided a scintillating view of the snow covered country and its life. All stories, as they say, have been written and the only innovation is the manner in which they are told. This is very true about this novel, and I would highly recommend for anyone to read this very humane and humanizing story.
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The Year Gone By: 2008

My reading year came to a grinding halt not on the 31st, but the 28th of December this year as I finished Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the dreaded US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes  that “it was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”. Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, thankfully meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the patriarchy and its subsequent failure.

I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.

Another book that I have thoroughly enjoyed this year has been A Brief History of Neo- liberalism by David Harvey that I happened to read a couple of months before the financial crisis hit Wall Street on 15th September. Continue reading

The Year Gone By: 2007

A somewhat early wrap up of the year’s reading, before this blog goes into a month long winter hibernation.

The most significant book I read this year was undoubtedly Rahul Banerjee’s Recovery of the Lost Tongue, the author’s memoirs of his life and struggles among the Bhil adivasis of central India. Interestingly the link to this book whose complete text is available online was left in the comments of my annual wrap up post last year. Thanks to Rama for the same! (link to my review of the book)

The book is unduly long and written in a long winded manner and it is not the easiest one to read, but the reader is amply rewarded by the author’s acute observations and insights into the processes at work in contemporary India. I would rather read this book than dozens of tomes by Ramachandra Guhas and Shashi Tharoors to understand India as it has evolved in  the last three decades. There is much to disagree with what the author calls an ‘anarchist’ manifesto, but then it is always exciting to disagree with someone who is not only honest but also has an amazing capacity to traverse the dialectic between theory and practice.

The only other work of non- fiction that I read this year was Mike Davies’ Planet of Slums. It would be trite to say that it is a tour-de-force on the massive slum-ization of the planet in the late 20th- early 21st century. It is a phenomenon that particularly impacts the poor in third world and Davies captures it in a small, scholary and immensely readable work merely 228 pages long.

In fiction, How I Became a Nun by the Argentinian writer Cesar Aira was somewhat disappointing compared to his previous works A Day in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare. An allegory based on Alice in Wonderland, I thought it fell flat when tackling the complex issue of the possibilities and limits of a writer’s imagination.

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte, a potboiler set in medieval Spain was a good, easygoing, escapist work that I highly recommend for anyone taking a break from serious literature. There are five or six works in the series that began with this novel and I do have a mind to read some of the later ones next year.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano was undoubtedly the best long novel this year. Roberto Bolano has created waves, albiet posthumously, in the United States and I must confess that I love his writings. See previous posts related to Roberto Bolano.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa, reviewed earlier on this blog was a somewhat disappointing work, given my admiration for Llosa. A wonderful contemporary subject was subjected to some very dark prose and ridiculous coincidences that expect a lot of compromises from the reader.

Books still mid- way include The Hare by Cesar Aira (a brilliant work), The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (plain prose, but interesting all the same, particularly given the fact that it was written in the 1960s), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (based on a novel idea- a man loses his memory of all events but remembers only the books that he has read in his lifetime) and The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge (this is one of those books that I should have read many years back).

This was also the year that I really discovered Tarkovsky, particularly via Andrei Rublev,  and felt that I have finally grasped the director’s language cinematic language though re- watching The Mirror failed to strike a chord once again. Among the more recent ones Pan’s Labyrinth- the fantastical, if nightmarish story of a modern day Alice in the ‘wonderland’ of fascist Spain, is easily one of the best ones.

The Painted Veil was impressive too, and I felt should have been titled Love in the Time of Cholera, though it is not base on Garcia Marquez’s novel by the same name. Incidentally, a movie based on the novel was released last month, I haven’t got around to watch it as yet, but the reviews have not been exactly ecstatic.

Two older movies Moscow does not believe in Tears and Goodbye,  Lenin  were also particularly memorable.

The latter particularly touched a raw nerve for someone who shared the socialist dream of the 20th century, and carries them well into the 21st.

Previous years’ wrap up posts:
The Year Gone By: 2006
The Year Gone By: 2005

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The Year Gone By: 2006

Picture of the year: A Halloween Buddha (see note at end of the post)
The most significant book that one read this year was undoubtedly One China, Many Paths. It brings out the tumultuous changes happening in China and generally ignored by popular media that is too focussed on the neo- liberal paradise that China apparently is. The book not only indicates the reversal to capitalism (and a most horrendous one at that) that is being accomplished under the Chinese Communist Party but also that this neo- liberal euphoria rests on a rather slippery base.

The diversity of contributors, and that of their ideas, makes me feel that some very important developments in the realm of ideas is likely to come from China, it is mind boggling to see the sources that the Chinese who are in their thirties and forties are able to draw from, including, but not limited to the Marxist tradition.

The other book on China was Andre Malraux’s classic La Condition Humaine, written after the failed 1927 communist uprising in Shangai. In a metaphorical way, this could well be about the China of the 1990s.

Andrey Platonov’s grim allegory in The Foundation Pit confirms the universality of the work- the grotesque picture that he paints is based on the forced collectivization under Stalin in the 1920s, but the conclusions seems to be as relevant today when something similar is being attempted by the onslaught of neo- liberalism.

In the novel the character Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”, something that is continuously sought to be acheived not by a propagandistic state but by the increasingly proliferating “entertainment” industry.

The most pleasant experience in the year was my discovery of three writers from Argentina: the well known Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages) whom I read for the first time, Tomás Eloy Martínez (all three novels published till date in English- The Peron Novel, Santa Evita and The Tango Singer, the last one published earlier this year), and Cesar Aira (his An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, 2006).

Roberto Bolano’s Distant Stars and to a lesser extent his collection of short stories published earlier this year, Last Evenings on Earth, did not surprise with his ability to weave the political tapestry of Chile in the aftermath of the coup in 1973.

In Indian fiction, Asomiya writer Indira Goswami’s Under the Shadow of Kamakhya reaffirmed for me her stature as a major Indian writer.

Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapathy’s Six acres and Half, considered to be the first modern Oriya novel. In a series of short, funny, delectable chapters he paints the social structure in Orissa in the 19th century.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines showcases Ghosh’s talent for writing and for creating some memorable characters, but on the basic idea- the inadequacy of the nation state in defining identity- it was disappointing, the treatment remains for most part at an emotional level.

PV Narasimha Rao’s 6 December 1992 gave the then Prime minister’s views on the run up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and much else, without shedding any new light though.

One ends this long year,on a cloudy, rainy evening with some books still unfinished: Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain, Andre Malraux’s Anti- memoirs and Salvoj Zizek’s The Parallax View.

Each, in it’s own manner, was not completed by the deadline that I set for them.

Words, it seems, refuse to follow calendars.

Related Post: The Year Gone By: 2005

Bibliophil Link for the list of books that I read this year.

About the Image: A Halloween Buddha. I found it interesting that someone should use Buddha for Halloween. Does it still remain Halloween?

The Year Gone By: 2005

I would end this year on a somewhat personal note.I started blogging seriously only this year, though I had setup the site way back in 2003. Added a few books to my reading list and the most memorable reads of the year were Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen and Casanova in Bolzano by the Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai.

Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow seemed promising based on my earlier reading of the novel Soul and also the excellent translator’s note, but did not exactly register anything more than the style.

Hopscotch was a mixed experience- it disappointed somewhat, though incisive in places. Casanova in Bolzano is a dress- rehearsal for the author’s truly flawless work Embers.

The year had started with Axomiya writer Indira Goswami’s novellete Pages Stained with Blood and I will end the last day of the year reading Andre Malrux’s La Condition Humaine (the title badly translated as Man’s Fate in English).

On the political front, one has seen the Left rebound in South America- unfortunately few desis and desi bloggers have paid much attention to political developments in that continent that, in the words of Carlos Fuentes has finally found its identity. At the same time, the Hindutva brigade does not find itself in the pink of health. Conservative hardliners in the US may yet not be on the defensive as yet, but certainly they are not on on the offensive anylonger. After giving Iraq a theocratic constitution, they are now set, practically speaking, to put pro- Iran hardliners in position after the elections.

This is called tying oneself in knots.

The good thing about blogging is that one doesn’t have to necessarily re- cap it all. The software does it all for you. Much of what one read and thought over the year is all there…organized by date and time. Blogging also helped to “meet” a lot of people and interact with their ideas, specially with those who are younger and brimming with ideas, and are less cynical.

One has found familiar faces in indecipherable IP addresses !

The coming year augurs well, the list of books that are lined up for reading is long, friends that now include those that one has never met face to face- urge and inspire. One hopes that the stamina not only sustains but expands.

And of course, I almost forgot to mention, I switched over from my favourite Australian Shiraz and Argentinian red wines to French wine- something that the Master- a certain gentleman by the name of Assadullah Khan Ghalib- loved and craved. No couplets have come forth as yet though. Maybe it takes time for the wine to take effect… maybe in the coming year…

Inshaallah !