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.

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At McDonald’s August 14, 2008 or What Happens When You Read Naipaul

(written on the back of my appointments schedule)

That became the tread of my days.  Some days up and then suddenly a fantastic low, a mood that hollowed me out; where I sank into an approximation of gloom burdened with a nagging guilt at my unease.  It felt wrong to be ungrateful, and this was the worst part of those down days.  One day I envisioned what a graph of my life looked like and saw a sine wave, like a radio frequency with sharp oscillations of static noise.  Was that really what life was meant to be?  It seemed illogical really — here I was with every opportunity (including the opportunity to be left alone if I so chose) and daily I struggled still.  There were few useful comparisons and even less sympathy for my condition.  My family couldn’t understand my lack of conviction, to them it seemed I was creating problems where none had existed.  This was because they lacked the capacity for self-reflection.

There were many who had moved on of course. Often I noticed that these types quickly became possessed by a missing zeal which is ever present in American society — to “do good” or “give a voice to the voiceless.”  The ferocity with which they began to champion causes of all sorts astounded and unnerved me.  Sometimes I found myself engaged in a debate about a topic for which I cared little or not at all.  Often I sounded ridiculous, as anyone might who was arguing a point about which he didn’t truly have a a feeling one way or another.  Before I became too disturbed by my losing record as a debater, though, I began noticing a commonality in the people I argued with.  They all showed signs of — and some eventually became — a strain of nihilism in their discourse.  Behind the passion and conviction lay the real sense that there was no answer, that things, all things, would in the end fall short, achieve little, and bring ruination.  The world had become (frequently “because of the West”, whatever that meant) hopelessly corrupted and broken.  Even if they won their argument with me, they lost.  The game had been pre-cooked.  It was beautiful how their notions contained a rejection of fate and repudiation of any natural balance to the universe.

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?