Saturday, 18 January 2014

Book of the Month: Great House (Nicole Krauss)

Nicole Krauss announced herself as a writer to watch out for with her second novel, The History of Love. The History of Love was published in 2005 to great critical acclaim and was a world-wide bestseller.  It won Krauss many fans (I count myself as one of them). It was a very clever novel characterized, amongst other things, by its plot-structure. To call the plot of The History of Love puzzling would be an understatement. Trying to solve the riddle of the plot is a rewarding exercise in itself as you read the novel; and Krauss brought all the seemingly disparate strands of the novel very neatly towards its climax. The History of Love was a graceful, fresh novel of great poignancy.

Six years after the success of The History of Love Krauss published Great House in which Krauss attempts another tale of mystery and suspense, but not with the same success as she did in The History of Love.

Like The History of Love, Great House is built around multiple narratives at the centre of which is an old desk.

The novel opens with Nadia who is a moderately successful American writer of Roman a Clefs. Nadia has written most of her novels at a massive desk that was given her years ago by a Chilean poet Daniel Varsky. Varsky’s anme was suggested to Nadia by a common friend who knew that Nadia, recently split from her partner, was looking for furniture. Nadia and Daniel meet only once before Varsky goes back to Chile where, two years later he disappears, assumed to have been tortured and killed by the secret service of the then Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. In the present, more than two decades after Varsky’s disappearance, Nadia is contacted by a young woman who calls herself Leah Varsky. Leah tells Nadia that she is the daughter of Varsky; apparently Varsky had a brief affair with Leah’s mother—who now lives in Israel—before he went back to Chile and disappeared. Leah wants to know whether Nadia still ahs Varsky’s desk with her. Without making any further inquiries about this supposed daughter of Varsky Nadia allows Leah to collect the humongous desk which has been in her apartment for several years; however, afterwards she is assailed by doubts soon after and decides to travel to Israel to make further investigations. Nadia’s narrative is addressed to someone whom she refers to as ‘Your Honour’.

Next the reader is hurtled into a long monologue—bristling with barely concealed fury—of a retired Jewish lawyer named Aaron who has recently become a widower.  Aaron has two sons—Uri and Dovik. His relationship with his younger son, Dovik, is troubled. Dovik has returned from London, where he had lived for several years and was a judge, to Israel to attend his mother’s funeral. He has informed his father—with whom he has, for years, involved in entrenched combat—that he has resigned his position in London and now wishes to live for the foreseeable future with him. The link of Aaron and Dovik to the novel’s plot does not become clear until the end.

The third narrator in the Great House is another widower named Arthur Bender. Bender has been married for decades to a survivor of the Holocaust named Lotte Berg, who, like Nadia, from the first narrative segment, is a writer, albeit of literary short stories. Originally from Nuremberg, Lotte lost her family in the Holocaust and managed to escape the camp just in time to arrive in England.  Lotet and Arthus are childless and Lotte, who was almost 30 when she first met Arthur, rarely talked about her past. The only possession of any significance Lotte has when Arthur first meets her is a huge, slightly menacing desk. The desk travels with Lotte wherever she goes and she too has written her stories at it, until, in 1972, she is visited by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky who announces himself as a fan of her work. Lotte gives the desk as a present to Daniel.  As Arthus Bender’s narrative continues the reader learns that Lotte has died of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the final phase of her illness Lotte has said something that has made Arthus question the foundation of their marriage. Lotte had a son before she met Arthur, whom she gave away for adoption. The son would have been the same age as that of Daniel Varsky who met Lotte in the 1970s. Arthur is obsessed with this son of his wife whom he never met; he wants to find out more about him.

Next ‘I’ in the narrative stream in Izzy or Isabel, an American student studying at Oxford in the 1990s, who meets Yoav and Leah Weisz. The brother and sister have led a peripatetic existence as they are hauled from city to city, across continents by their widower father, George. Yoav and Leah were born and raised in Israel where their father still lives in a family house. Izzy falls in love with Yoav but soon figures out that the siblings have an uneasy, almost oppressive relationship with their father who is in the habit of descending upon them at short notices. George is an Antique dealer. His speciality is tracking down properties confiscated from Jews by the Nazis before and during the Holocaust. George is an Hungarian Jew and, after his family perished in the Holocaust, has made his way to Israel at the end of the Second World War. George’s family home in Budapest used to have a study which had a desk at which his father used to write. It has been George’s life-long mission to create the study of his Budapest home in his Jerusalem home by tracing down all the objects from that study.

The plotting of Great House is fractured. As the reader goes from one segment of the story, a novella in itself, to the next, a kind of suspense builds up. You are eager to find out how the different strands of the narrative would connect; you want to know whether the different narrators of the story are connected with one another—and with the desk—in a meaningful way. Alas! That never happens. Too many strands are left unexplained. The desk Lotte Berg gives to Daniel Varsky ends up with Nadia, who gives it to Leah Weisz who poses as Daniel’s daughter at the behest of her father who is tracking down a desk belonging to his father. Why does he send his daughter to Nadia to obtain the desk which he ought to know—if he is as good an antique hunter as he goes around telling people—cannot be his. The relationship of Aaron the Israeli lawyer and his son Dovik to the main plot is so superficial—almost incidental— that you wonder whether it was really necessary to devote so many pages to that strand. Daniel Varsky, the Chilean poet, is central to at least two narrative segments—Nadia’s and Arthur Bender’s. His entry into the lives of Arthur and Lotte is so contrived, it lacks credibility. As to why Lotte decides to give Daniel, whom she has never met until then—he is indeed a fan of her stories and has travelled to London to meet her— her huge desk, the only memento of her vanished family, is left unexplained. The trail of her adopted away son—he is not Daniel Varsky and is adopted by a couple in Liverpool—is another loose, unnecessary, and irrelevant strand.

The prose style of Great House is heavy, ponderous, melancholy, and, with the exception of Aaron’s narrative, monotonous. All the narrators—even the scouser who adopted Lotte Berg’s son and has probably not travelled beyond a five-mile radius of Anfield—speak with the same measured tone and make profound observations on the human condition. And they all sound the same, as if they are all on the psychiatrist’s couch. It is as if Krauss is unable to change gear when writing for characters removed for one another by upbringing, continents, and generations. (A novel that comes to my mind is David Mitchell’s superlative Cloud Atlas, which, like Great House, has different narrative voices. To me, it is a sign of Mitchell’s great talent as a writer that he takes on and sheds different prose styles when writing different sections of that novel. ) It is exquisite writing, mind, but even as you read page after page of brilliantly constructed sentences, it does not somehow ring echt; the experience wearies you; and the writing does not touch your heart.

Great House is a novel of ideas. It is a meditation on loss, grief, and the soul crushing burden of memories. But it is an elusive novel. Reading Great House is akin to listening to someone who is ever so slightly out of focus and tells you about almost everything, leaving out the vital pieces of information, which leaves you with a sense of partialness. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Books Read in 2013

2013 has dragged off its sorry ass. It is consigned to the dustbin of the past. Below is the list of books I managed to read in 2013.


  1. Big Breasts and Wide Hips (Mo Yan)
  2. The Chef (Jaspreet Singh)
  3. The Room (Emma Donoghue)
  4. How it all began                (Penelope Lively)
  5. There but for the (Ali Smith)
  6. The Third Reich (Roberto Bolano)
  7. Nemesis (Philip Roth)
  8. Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil)
  9. To Kill a Mocking Bird (Harper Lee)
  10. The World in the Evening (Christopher Isherwood)
  11. Open City (Teju Cole)
  12. Nowhere Man (Aleksander Hemon)
  13. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler)
  14. We had it so Good (Linda Grant)
  15. Capital (John Lanchester)
  16. No One Writes to the Colonel (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  17. A Small Circus (Hans Fallada)
  18. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
  19. Love and other Dangerous Chemicals (Anthony Capella)
  20. The West Pier (Gorse trilogy) (Patrick Hamilton)
  21. Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse (Gorse Trilogy) (Patrick Hamilton)
  22. Unknown Assailant (Gorse Trilogy) (Patrick Hamilton)
  23. Burmese Days (George Orwell)
  24. Lionel Asbo: State of England (Martin Amis)
  25. The Merde Factor (Stephen Clarke)
  26. N-W (Zadie Smith)
  27. Fiesta (The Sun also Rises) (Ernest Hemingway)
  28. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachael Joyce)
  29. Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver)
  30. Porterhouse Blue (Tom Sharpe)
  31. Zoo Time (Howard Jacobson)
  32. HHhH (Laurent Binet)
  33. Scenes from Early Life (Philip Hensher)
  34. Hunger Angel (Herta Muller)
  35. Scenes from Provincial Life (William Cooper)
  36. Trumpet (Jackie Kay)
  37. The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)
  38. The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  39. Harvest (Jim Crace)
  40. Gillespie and I  (Jane Harris)
  41. The Woman in Black (Susan Hill)
  42. Telegraph Avenue (Michael Chabon)

Non Fiction

  1. Them: Adventures with the Extremists (Jon Ronson)
  2. The Men who Started at the Goats (Jon Ronson)
  3. The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson)
  4. The Last Jews of Kerala (Edna Fernades)
  5. Outside of A Dog (Rick Gekoski)
  6. Boomrang (Michael Lewis)
  7. Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop (Emma Larkin)
  8. The Traveller’s Cookbook (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown)
  9. Life with No Brakes (Nick Spalding)
  10. Tune in Tokiyo: The Gaijin Diaries (Tim Anderson)
  11. Alfred and Emily (Doris Lessing)
  12. The Men who Killed Gandhi (Manohar Malgaonkar)

The first book I read in 2013 was the provocatively titled Big Breasts and Wide Hips, written by the Chinese author Mo Yan. Mo Yan  was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, which triggered an acute attack of colitis in some in the West in whose eyes Mo Yan has sold his soul to the Chinese dictatorship and therefore not worthy of the prize. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a huge novel (one of the four humongous novels I read in 2013). 600 plus pages crammed from top to bottom with words in small font would, I put it to you, severely test the concentration and patience of the most bloody minded readers. I am glad to say that I completed reading the book that has more characters than in East Enders. The novel can be viewed in two ways; no, make it three: it is a chronicle of human misery; it is also a celebration of China’s ancient traditions; and, finally, it is also a case in point of the opacity, the impenetrability of the Chinese society (I am not sure that the author intended it). It is a rollicking read with some bravura characters none of which, regrettably, stayed in my mind (and not only because I found their names confusing).

The novel that surpassed Big Breasts and Wide Hips as regards girth was The Luminaries, the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize. Canadian born New Zeeland author Eleanor Catton became, at twenty-seven, the youngest to win the prize. (I once heard the British novelist, Andrew Miller, who many moons ago, was shortlisted for the Booker for one of his novels, pronounce in a literary programme that he did not think one could write a good novel when one was young, as one had simply not accumulated enough life experience which would add depth to the novel. Miller did not specify his cut off for “young age”; however, given that he published his first novel when he was in his mid-thirties, I should imagine that in Miller’s books writers under the age of thirty, as a rule—or a group—are incapable of producing novels that would make people sit up and exclaim, “Now this novel is worthy of a Booker!”) The Luminaries is a clever novel; too clever at times, although, you’d be relieved to know that, if you are not clever enough to figure out the cleverness of the clever Eleanor Catton, you’d not necessarily miss out anything (which raises the question whether the cleverness isn’t otiose). The Luminaries is a plot-driven novel. At its heart is a mystery, which all but the most obtuse of readers would figure out by page six hundred. The novel, nevertheless, plods on for two hundred more pages which, in my view, add nothing to the plot. The Luminaries is competently written with modicum of wit scattered here and there. As in Big Breasts and Wide Hips, there are some memorable characters. On the whole I liked the novel sufficiently to be wanting to read Catton’s earlier début novel.

The third biggy I read in 2013 was The American writer Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. In the spring of 2013 I heard Michael Chabon in a literary programme where he spoke about his writing career and also read out an excerpt from Telegraph Avenue, which he was promoting. In the programme Chabon came across a very likeable, unassuming, almost self-effacing (without sounding like a fraud) man with a sense of humour. Exactly how I had imagined him to be having read his hilarious Yiddish Policemen’s Union and the Pulitzer-award winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Telegraph Avenue was the last book I read in 2013, and it also took me the longest (two weeks) to finish. Set in the noughties in California, Telegraph Avenue tells the story of two married couples, one black and one Jewish. The husbands are also professional partners as they co-own a second hand shop that specializes in rare vinyl records. After reading Telegraph Avenue I arrived without delay at two conclusions: (a)  Chabon is a genius; and (b) my intellect is simply not up to assimilating Chabon’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Jazz and comic books, or grasping the full meaning of Chabon’s sentences that are longer than the Ganges. There were occasions when I had to read a sentence—with independent and subordinate clauses galore between the noun and the verb, and overzealous use of parenthesis (within a parenthesis at times)— two-three times to make sense of it. For these reasons I found Telegraph Avenue hard work. Entertaining novel, but I don’t think Chabon has quite nailed it this time. I’d rate the other two novels of Chabon I’ve read ahead of Telegraph Avenue.

Hans Fallada was a long forgotten German novelist of the 1920 and 1930s who was “discovered” by the English speaking world, in 2009, when the translation of one of his novels, entitled Alone in Berlin, became a world-wide success. Predictably, translations of Fallada’s other novels appeared. A Small Circus is one of these novels, also Fallada’s début novel. Inspired by Fallada’s experience as a journalist for a provincial newspaper in a small German town towards the end of the Weimar Republic, A Small Circus depicts, with great élan and with liberal doses of black humour, the socio-economic problems of the times made worse by petty machinations of self-serving politicians, which, in the fullness of time, would pave the way for the rise of Hitler. A Small Circus has a huge cast of characters (a list is given at the beginning of the novel of all the “dramatic personae”, which is very handy), none of which, when this sprawling, almost-six-hundred-pages novel comes to its end, comes out well. I have not read Alone in Berlin, but I am very keen to read it, having been very impressed with A Small Circus.

Indian writer Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was one of the best novels I read in 2013. Set in Mumbai (when Indians had no problem calling it Bombay) over a span of three decades (from 1970s to 1990s) Narcopolis, which apparently is highly autobiographical (as many first novels tend to be), tells the interconnected stories of people whose lives are enslaved and ruined by opiate addiction. Narcopolis does not have a conventional, coherent story line; it is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, what the reader gets are life-stories of the characters living in a red light district of Bombay, which go to and fro in time. Thayil’s prose has hypnotic readability and the characters are affecting.

I read Emma Donoghue’s Room with scepticism (which I possess in abundance) I reserve for novels which are based on harrowing true stories that have attracted a lot of lurid publicity and which become favourites of (usually women’s) book groups. I read Room because it was one of the novels chosen by the (men only) book group of which I am a member. Donoghue has taken the harrowing story of the Austrian woman, Elisabeth Fritzl (kept captive in a basement for 24 years by her biological father who repeatedly raped her and father a number of children), as a starting point, and produced a remarkable novel that seems like a psychological study of a young child who has seen and known nothing except the room in which he was born. Written for the most part from the point of view of a bright, precocious yet credulous five year old, Room is a compelling read.

Some more novels which I read (one re-read) because they were chosen by the book group were In Cold Blood, Burmese Days and To Kill A Mocking Bird. Burmese Days is George Orwell’s début novel. In it he creates a microcosm of the British Empire in its distant part, and creates a picture of the Empire and the sahibs which is unedifying to say the least. Apparently Orwell did not think much of this novel and, in later life, described it as “lifeless”. Orwell was too harsh on himself. Burmese Days is perhaps uneven, less than hundred percent satisfying, but, still, a very engaging novel, which also shows glimpses of the socio-political ideas Orwell was to develop in years to come. In Cold Blood is Truman Capote’s masterpiece. This was the novel he was born to write. This non-fiction novel (a term, I believe, first coined by Capote) tells the story of the brutal murder of a Kansas farmer and his family by two drifters. Capote gives the impression that he has taken great efforts to get the facts of the case right, an effect greatly enhanced by the reportage style of prose.  In Cold Blood is regarded as a landmark novel, and with good reason.  To Kill A Mocking Bird is another landmark novel, the only novel written by Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee (a character in the novel is heavily based on Capote whom Lee knew as a child). To Kill A Mocking Bird is a novel of two parts. It is a straightforward tale of state-sanctioned appalling miscarriage of justice in the Depression era Alabama. It is also a coming of age story in a small town in Alabama in the Great Depression, which is also very well done.

John Lanchester’s Capital is a novel I enjoyed a lot. It tells the interwoven stories of a cross section of Londoners living on the imaginary Pepys Road in twenty-first century London. Capital is a state-of-the-nation kind of novel. It is multi-layered, humane, wise, acutely observed and, despite being all of this, funny. Everything I look for in a novel.

Climate change is the leitmotif of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. Its heroine is the impressively named Dellarobia Turnbow. The novel seems to have written primarily to disseminate the message of climate change that is obviously close to the heart of its author. The message (overdone at times) comes wrapped in an absorbing story-line and supported by Kingsolver’s sumptuous prose and mordant wit. Flight Behaviour is a pleasure to read.

A surprise for me in 2013 was Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I. I had not heard of this writer or this novel. I came across it in the local library and decided to try it because the story-line seemed interesting. I am glad I read it. Set in the 19th century Scotland, Gillespie and I is a gripping tale of manipulation, obsession and deception.  Very well written and suffused with dry humour Gillespie and I is a compelling read. I have now decided to get Jane Harris’s earlier, first, novel and read it.

The enigmatically titled HHhH, is an excellent English translation of the original French novel written by Laurent Binet. This novel can also come under the title of non-fiction novel. It tells the story of the assassination of Reynard Heydrich in German occupied Prague during the Second World War. Written in short, untitled, chapters, many barely longer than the length of a paragraph, HHhH reads like a thriller it is meant to be.

In Scenes from an Early Life, the British novelist Philip Hensher moves away from the themes and geographies of his last two novels (Northern Clemency and King of Badgers) to a very different theme and geography. The scene is East Pakistan, which stands on the verge of a civil war with its more dominant partner, West Pakistan, and, with help of the giant India that separates the West and East wing of Pakistan, would achieve its independence and come to be known as Bangla Desh. The story is told by a grown man, now living in England, who looks back upon his childhood in Bangla Desh during those tumultuous years. The experiences of the man (based heavily, as acknowledged by Hensher at the end of the novel, on the real life experiences of his partner) sound very authentic. That said Scenes from An Early Life, which reads like a memoir, seems to lose its focus a bit, as if Hensher is undecided whether to focus on the family drama or the political upheavals. Hensher is a favourite writer of mine, and I have read many of his books. Scenes from An Early Life is not a bad novel at all, but, when you finish it, you are left with the nagging feeling that something is amiss.

A lot is amiss in N-W, Zadie Smith’s fourth novel. This is another state-of-the-nation novel (like Capital) that depicts life in twenty-first century London. The plot, such as it is, is vapour-thin. There is no settled feel to the novel, partly, I suspect, because Smith attempts different prose styles and forms in different sections of the novel  (the stream-of-consciousness style of the opening section is especially irritating). I have read all of Smith’s earlier novels and liked all of them (even The Autograph Man, which is apparently her least successful novel). N-W, I am sad to say, just didn’t work for me.  

Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England was panned by the critics when it was published. Like most of Amis’s novels, this is not a plot-driven novel. It has flashes of Amis’s linguistic brilliance and grotesque comedy that you expect from Amis. My problem was Lionel Asbo, despite Amis’s manful efforts to make him a kind of low-level Dr. Evil character—sinister, yes, but also cartoonish, complete with his comic accent and pronunciation—was just not that interesting. He is neither menacing enough, nor particularly funny; he was just dull.

Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time imagines, in a very Jacobsonian (i.e. over-the-top) way, the scenario of the end of the literary novel as we have known it. As with almost every other novel of his, Jacobson treats the plot with the contempt it deserves (therein perhaps lies the cue of the apocalyptic scenario of the demise of the literary novel imagines in the novel). The novel can be seen as a bitter (though very funny at times) diatribe against the modern world's reluctance to treat the literary fiction with respect. It goes without saying that the novel is also preoccupied with two other perennial preoccupations of its author: sex that pushes the boundaries of social moratorium (the protagonist of the novel harbours a desperate desire to sleep with his mother-in-law) and the Jew thing.

Philip Roth's Nemesis (which may turn out to be his last published novel) is set in the 1940s in the Jewish quarter of Newark, and tells the story of a polio epidemic which wreaks havoc in the middle-class Jewish lives. The novel has a nostalgic, elegiac feel to it, and the milieu of the 1940s Newark is tenderly described; but the novel is missing a dimension. While you feel sorry for the Jewish families that are losing their children to polio, the novel (strangely for a Roth novel) has an enervating feel to it. 

In the summer of 2013, while on a holiday, I read Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), considered to be Ernest Hemingway’s first major novel, which left me underwhelmed. This was the second Hemingway novel I have read and I don’t (yet) count myself as a Hemingway fan. The other novel I read on that holiday, for no other reason other than that it was lying about in the apartment I was renting, was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by someone called Rachael Joyce. The book, which was described as a Sunday Times best seller, was about as interesting as David Cameron’s speeches in the Commons. In other words waste of time.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer award winning American writer of Indian descent. The Lowland is her second full length novel (which was short-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize). It took me a while to get into this novel, which tells the tangled story of two brothers and their wife (yes; they share a wife between them, though not, I should clarify, at the same time); but it slowly grew on me. A subtle commentary on the unfulfilled lives people lead.

Ali Smith is a British novelist who is considered to be overabundant in the talent department. I read a Smith’s most recent novel—the first of Smith's novels I read—the incompletely titled There but for the, in 2013. The novel, as its title suggests, is anarchic in its intention. (It starts with a bizarre prologue I struggled to make head or tail of and its relation (symbolic or otherwise) to the main story, and decided, in the end, not to bother.) Smith throws a conundrum at the readers: how does one deal with a guest who literally overstays his welcome. The novel comprises several stories—some more riveting than others—that have only a superficial connection with one another.

Alexander Hemon is an American novelist of Bosnian origin who (like Ali Smith) oozes talent, according to many. I had read a novel of his in the past (The Lazarus Project) which I’d thought was entertaining, if slightly flawed. I read in 2013 Nowhere Man, which might be Hemon’s début novel. Hemon has an unusual gift for the language (perhaps it relates to English not being his first language; like Nabokov Hemon did not learn English until adulthood, until he arrived in America); and has a whimsical way of describing things and employing metaphors, which, for the best part, is amusing.  Nowhere Man is an accomplished example of resourceful writing. My only concern is that the novel is overstrained. A series of anecdotes from the life of the novel’s protagonist, however amusing and thought provoking, is not enough to make a coherent whole.

Trumpet is the only novel to date (if I am not mistaken) of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in the late 1990s, I have had this novel with me for years, having bought it for a quid in a second-hand book-fair; but I had not read it, until it was chosen by the book group. One of the bookgroup members spoke in such glowing terms of the novel I was afraid the table at which we were sitting would combust. I thought, initially, that the story—that of a Jazz musician, a woman who leads her entire life as a man, even marries a woman and adopts a son (who never suspects that his father was a woman until the father dies)—stretched the limits of credulity. Until I discovered that the novel is in fact based on the true story of a jazz musician of minor repute, in America in the 1930s and 1940s, who went on to have a series of relationships with other women (who described themselves as heterosexuals) and even adopted sons who “discovered” that their father was a woman only after his/her death, even though they had been living for several years prior to the musician's death in a cramped caravan! Kay makes no attempt to postulate theories as to why the protagonist of her novel would have wished to lead her life as a man; no psychological insights are offered. What Kay is chiefly interested in is exploring human relationships, and she does so triumphantly. This is a beautifully written novel which unexpectedly touches your heart.

Three of my favourite novelists sadly passed away in 2013: Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, Tom Sharpe and Doris Lessing. I did not manage to read any novel of Jhabwala this year, but re-read Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue and, as on the occasion I had read it several years ago, enjoyed it thoroughly. (The novel was chosen by my bookgroup and I was disappointed to note that it was not rated very highly by most members.)  I read Lessing’s last published work Alfred and Emily. The book is part fiction and part memoir. Alfred and Emily were Lessing’s parents. In the first section of the book Lessing imagines her parents’ lives as they would have been if the First World War hadn’t happened. (Lessing believed that her parents’ lives were irredeemably scarred by the Great War). The second section, which is a memoir, describes the lives they led in Southern Rhodesia where Lessing grew up. Lessing was 89 when she wrote this book. I did not think that the fictional part of the book worked all that well (it also ends rather abruptly), but the second section, the memoir, was very fascinating and, at times, moving.

Now to non-fiction.

The best non-fiction book I read in 2013 was Manohar Malgaonkar’s The Men who Killed Gandhi. The book which tells the conspiracy behind the assassination of Mahtama Gandhi, is unputdownable. I have reviewed it earlier on this blog.

I read Emma Larkin’s (an American journalist based in Thailand, I think) Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop after I read Burmese Days. Orwell had based his novel on his own experience of living in Burma (Orwell’s mother’s side of the family, French, had made fortune in Burma in the nineteenth century and, by the time Orwell was posted in Burma in the 1920s, had lived in Burma for two generations). Larkin decided to travel to the actual  places where Orwell had lived, and on which, most of the fictional places in the novel were based. In her journeys she met a number of Burmese intellectuals and professionals. Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop is predictable in many ways (not least with regard to the sad conclusions Larkin reaches about the Myanmar, as Burma is known these days), but it kept my interest till the end.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a left-of-the-centre British journalist (of Asian / Indian origin) who contributes regularly to some of the broadsheets and is rather good at fulminating about some or the other injustice in the society. (When it comes to social injustice, Alibhai-Brown is blessed with an acutely sensitive radar  that has the efficiency of the sniffer dogs at Heathrow programmed to detect hard drugs which may or may not have been brought into the UK hidden inside the rectum of a ‘mule'.) My customary response to Alibhai-Brown’s articles is of irritation; and I am further irritated that I am irritated because I find myself in agreement with what she writes most of the time. (I think it is the air of self-righteousness that I find off-putting). The Traveller’s Cookbook, Alibhai-Brown’s memoir, was a pleasant surprise. It was funny, engaging, and—except for the last bit when she whips herself into a frenzy and ranted about Margaret Thatcher (not without reason)—chilled out , a state of being one does not usually associate with Alibhai-Brown.

Rick—Richard Abraham—Gekoski –is an American born writer, broadcaster, rare book dealer and a former member of the English department at Warwick University (according to the entry on him in WkiPedia). Outside of A Dog is Gekoski’s bibliomeoir (don’t ask me what a bibliomemoir is), inspired by a quote of Groucho Marx ((“Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend, inside of it’s too dark too read”). Gekoski—you are left in no doubt whatsoever about this—is a voracious reader who, throughout his life, has devoured books with the gluttony of a silkworm. In Outside of A Dog Gekoski has chosen—out of the thousands of books he has read—twenty-five works for his critical appraisal. The critical essays ooze erudition, knowledge and culture like blood seeping out of a saturated bandage. These essays are juxtaposed with episodes from Gekoski’s life. I found Outside of A Dog a mixed bag, primarily because I just do not have the intellectual wherewithal to fully understand—and therefore appreciate—professor Gekoski’s critical appraisals. But I enjoyed reading the personal anecdotes which are permeated with gentle humour.

Jon Ronson is a British journalist whose talent seems to lie in getting himself ingratiated with people who are a hairbreadth away from getting diagnosed with some clinical mental condition, and writing hugely entertaining accounts of the time he has spent in their company. I read a collection of Ronson’s non-fiction work (Them: Adventures with Extremists; The Men who Stared at the Goats; and The Psychopath Test) in 2013 (they were available for a ridiculously low price on Kindle) and marvelled at the people who seem to lead their entire lives at the edges of sanity.

Another e-book I bought (at ridiculously low price) was Tune in Toyo: The Gajin Diaries, an account of a year spent in Tokyo by an American named Tim Anderson. Anderson went to Tokyo to teach English to the Japanese. If you are looking for deep insights into the Japanese culture, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a good laugh or something light to read on holiday (or in loo) this is the book for you.

Below is a list of ten novels I enjoyed reading the most, in 2013.

  1. Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil)
  2. Room (Emma Donoghue)
  3. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
  4. To Kill A Mocking Bird (Harper Lee)
  5. Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver)
  6. Porterhouse Blue (Tom Sharpe)
  7. Gilespie and I (Jane Harris)
  8. Capital (John Lanchester)
  9. HHhH (Laurent Binet)
  10. Trumpet (Jackie Kay) & The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri)

Since I did not read many non-fiction books in 2013, I will list my top five.

  1. The Men who Killed Gandhi (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  2. The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson)
  3. Finding George Orwell in A Burmese Tea Shop (Emma Larkin)
  4. The Traveller’s Cookbook (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown)
  5. Them: Adventures with the Extremists (Jon Ronson)

My resolution for 2014? For a long time I have been troubled by the suspicion that I have wasted the prime of my life reading novels of little to no consequence. It is a weakness in my character. Every year, like a reformed alcoholic, I promise myself that I will abstain from books-of-no-consequence; but every time I spot a Stephen Clarke novel I can’t stop myself from buying it, even though I know that the novel will be full of puerile, shallow humour which would not add anything meaningful to the development of my personality (which so needs developing). In 2014 I am going to read at least ten twentieth century novels of consequence. Life is too short to read inconsequential novels. Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, here I come, riding Gravity’s Rainbow