That’s How It’s Done

For the number of non-fiction books and essays I’ve read by V.S. Naipaul, I hadn’t tackled any of his novels.  Having just finished A Bend in the River, I simply have to say that the man, whatever you think about his personal life and actions, knows how to write.  After all the dross conatined in much of what passes for fiction today, it’s clear that standards do remain, and that the bar is set high.  It’s amazing in particular to me how he maintains a balance between his characters’ personal narratives and the outside world.

In many of his essays he writes about immigrant Indians inability to look, to see the world around them.  I’ve traveled to many places, lived among a variety of cultures and people, but I have this gnawing feeling that I don’t know how to look either.  It’s a skill, for sure, and sitting behind a laptop at a cafe isn’t the way to develop a real sense of seeing, let’s be honest.  I’m not sure what it takes…writing down observations? Learning names and details? Having an opinion about the small things around you?

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Book Review: Netherland

If there’s anything that 9/11 offered us, it was opportunity for self-examination. Not that all of us need such a thing, but I’m confident that from Sept 12, 2001 till date, American introspection has grown significantly.  And it’s no surprise that we find a novel written within that post 9/11 introspection.  What’s a little surprising is that it’s written by an Irishman who writes for the New Yorker occasionally.  It has been short-listed for the Booker Prize and Netherland, to be sure, is a viable candidate for the award, but what’s more interesting is figuring out exactly what kind of novel it is.  In fact, its most serious flaw is arguably that you’re not quite sure exactly which story forms the narrative’s heart.  Continue reading →

Ex Libris 2007

As it’s 2008, and now time to begin a new Reading List, it’s also time to choose the best book that I read in 2007. Looking at the list, I don’t feel particularly inspired. The works were all over the place in subject, style, and quality. Many of the books seemed to drift into the realm of memoir. Another trend that continues in modern writing is writing less about universal or grand themes than about individual experience. Writing is becoming so introspective as to border on a form of self-help, it seems to me, rendering a good number of books alien to the reader on a basic level. Because of that, although I loved Aleksander Hemon’s “Nowhere Man” for its voice and honesty about growing up, and Edwidge Danticat’s hard-to-resist sentimentality in “Brother, I’m Dying”, it was the books that combined individuals with history to fully realize the harsh sweep of the world that had the most impact on me. So for non-fiction, Ryszard Kapucinsky’s “Travels with Herodotus” stood out with this amazing thought:
“And yet does not that monumentality [the scale of structures built by tyrants] owe its existence to some conviction that what is negative and weak in man can be vanquished only by beauty, only through the effort and will of his creation? And that the only thing that never changes is beauty itself, and the need for it that dwells within us?”

And in fiction, Orwell’s “Burmese Days” somehow still captures that sad country better than more recent works.

2008 should be a year full of beauty.