Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If you haven’t known trepidation (a disquieting fear, not the terror found in a book like The Shining) while reading, then you might want to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while only halfway through it, but I am reading it so slowly that I’m not sure I’ll even finish anytime soon.

I’m not even sure it’s a novel. It is, rather, a meditation on inner and outer decay, on decline, loss, memory, and the gradual effacement of even the most extraordinary of things. I half expect the book itself to vanish or crumble between my fingers while I’m reading. Certainly it reminds me of a book I read earlier this year — Teju Cole’s Open City. Published a decade earlier, Austerlitz (so far) greets us in Belgium as Cole’s novel does, and also in Wales and in London. The settings are intensely and intimately described, yet the novel also seems to take place within Sebald’s memory. There’s a term I’m reminded of: “umwelt” — a German word often translated as “a self-centered world”. Weirdly, I began a short story titled “Umwelt”, also set in London, which has dragged on and on…

And it’s the passages about the inner workings of our selves that seem most familiar. Here, at length, is Austerlitz describing the process of writing and reading:

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed….However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.

As always, things seem connected. Between readings I’ve been listening repeatedly to the first track on what I think what may end up being one of 2011’s more under-appreciated break-up records. The same disquiet stirs.

Go ahead and be my world, and everything will be ok. Just hide there in plain sight, too big to see.

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A Student of Pakistan

Some years ago, when I was at university, I enrolled in a small class on South Asian history. The class was in fact tiny for such a large subject — only five students — and was the first stand-alone course on the history of the subcontinent ever taught at my school. That awkward and surprising fact aside (the year was 1989, the Berlin Wall would fall and declarations of the end of history would soon abound) the other odd nugget was that the course was taught jointly.  Two professors, B— and J—, one focusing on the history of India and the other on the creation of the nation called Pakistan. Even stranger, I learned that the pair of professors were connected. They shared a home and lascivious rumor had it that they were lovers. Continue reading

Ex Libris 2009

books  A good year for book reading was 2009, but more importantly I discovered again the beauty and power of the short story.  It was partly a function of time — short stories are often perfectly packaged for those bits of travel or in-between spaces of my life. 

A number of “Best of” lists include Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection, and although I enjoyed his work and working with him, there’s a piece of me that thinks that this collection has captured imaginations in part because Pakistan is so much in the news.

The environment too was in the news frequently, and William Cronon, opened my eyes not to the impact of the changes man has wrought but to the connectivity of history, geography, and the ecology.  A classic that’s just as relevant today.

I remain disturbed by much of Nam Le’s collection since reading it.  I wasn’t moved by the actual writing so much as left with a sense of the anger and earnestness contained within his stories.  There were very few tidy endings, and even when he drifted close to cliché, the suffering of his characters (outward and inward) was more than enough to leave an impression that I can’t quite shake.

So the best this year have to be some of the individual works themselves: A River Runs Through It (Collected Stories of Norman MacLean), Seiche (Granta 108), The Lightless Room (Granta 108), Lily (In Other Rooms), and Cartagena (The Boat).

MBS #1

The connection of intertwined history, whether you accept it or not, does exist.  And so, it was oddly unsurprising that in my first month in London I was idling up the Marylebone High Street and recognized an Indian face.  Or rather, his white hair.  My encounters with Amitav Ghosh in person began in Kolkata, and have been brief and accidental.  First, it was outside the Bengal Club as we were waiting for our respective cars.  Then it was at a small party given for him by a friend of a friend, and then on the street in central London.  He was in town because his novel Sea of Poppies had been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.  It didn’t win.  This year, Hilary Mantel took home the 50,000 quid for Wolf Hall, a historical novel based on Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII.  I haven’t read her book, nor Ghosh’s latest (lingering distaste from The Hungry Tide), but I’m interested that such a novel won this year, and on what basis.

Chairman of judges James Naughtie said: “Our decision was based on the sheer bigness of the book. The boldness of its narrative, its scene setting.

Jabberwock has a nice review here.

War Dances

Sherman Alexie’s recent story in the New Yorker is worth a read.  His writing always manages to contain a sense of rage — at life, at being an Indian, at history, at white people, at other Indians —  often using deeply developed sarcasm and humor.  He’s not afraid, however, to let his fear show through.  Fear of the knowledge that life is often about the struggle to hold one’s rage at bay.

Short Stories Worth Reading

A River Runs Through ItIf you don’t go back far enough you tend to think your ideas are somehow original.  I have to remind people, for instance, that history is longer than the past eight years of the Bush Administration, and that there was a time before September 11, 2001 when people did f***ed up things to the world. Continue reading

Ex Libris 2008

Ok, I’m a little behind in wrapping up last year, including picking the best book I read in 2008.  Let’s just say there have been more important things going on.

Like last year with George Orwell, it was great reading for the first time a book that I could have (should have) read earlier in life.  Naipaul is destined to be a sort of grounding for me, and that lesson in itself was a good one to learn.  I have Patrick French’s biography in the stack of books to read, but more likely I’ll finally get to A House for Mr. Biswas or In a Free State. And I can certainly sense a growing need to learn about and live in Sri Lanka, thanks in large part to Michael Ondaatje’s body of work and the poetic family memories he shares in Running in the Family.

But no, for 2008 it really was a choice between two books: Netherland and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Two very different novels with very distinct writing styles.  As mentioned in the respective reviews, voice mattered a great deal in both these works, and if you want a taste of today’s Dominican mash-up flavor (hurry, it will need updating every year, I’m sure), you need to read Junot Diaz.

But if you want a book that is both chock full of gorgeous prose and which asks you to think about life, which forces you to feel the meaning of the words in the middle of the night, then you can’t go wrong with Joseph O’Neill’s masterpiece.  The folks at Salon.com come close to calling it a perfect book during a 45-minute discussion.  You decide.