Sunday, July 10, 2011

What am I reading?

It has been a while since I posted about the makeup of my current bookshelf.  It hasn't been for lack of reading.  For all its consuming madness, my newly acquired India darshan lifestyle has at least two redeeming features - I eat great regional cuisine every week; and I have a lot of time to read.

So the reading has continued on at brisk pace.  As I have written before (see A Terrible Place to Browse), I am yet to find a satisfying browsing experience in India.  Crazily, some of the airport bookstores are the best experiences I have had.  The WH Smith in T-3 at Delhi and the Odyssey in Hyderabad (I think it is Hyd ... ) are among the best of the lot.  But for most part, all my book buying has migrated to flipkart.  Great collection, superb service, no hassles.  No browsing pleasure, sadly.

Anyway, as I was saying, the reading has been going along just fine.

It has been a year dominated by non-fiction for me so far.  Since I reviewed The Finkler Question in late April, I have read just over half a dozen books.  Here is a quick summary.

Let me start with the two books of fiction -

Super Sad True Love Story was one of the most highly acclaimed books of last year.  [Brick and Rope Best Books of 2010]

There is a certain kind of book that only Americans can appreciate.  Updike and Roth and Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace are authors considered 'greats' by Americans, but too parochial by most of the rest of the English speaking world (though Wallace is probably more universal than the rest).  Gary Shteyngart seems headed for a similar destiny.  Super Sad True Love Story is a striking book.  Part science fiction, part love story, part social commentary on the social trends of the day, it is a book that lingers in your mind long after you are done with it.  It imagines a 'very near future' when the Chinese rule the world; America is largely a third world country, made up of the ridiculously rich and maddeningly poor; where people share every minute detail of their lives reflexively on new social media; the young have stopped 'verballing' with each other, because it is so old, preferring instead to type semi-literately into Globalteens accounts with messages like 'What's up twat? Missing your 'tard?  Wanna dump a little sugar on me?  JBF.  Sometimes life is suck.'  The book is so shocking that it is difficult to ignore it.  Some of the social commentary stings with ferocious comedy.  As satires go, Super Sad True Love Story is a very good one, if that kind of thing is for you.

Here is Where We Meet, by John Berger is another highly acclaimed book.  Berger is the authors' author, perfect with technique, subtle yet moving.  If someone you are trying to impress asks you which authors you like, John Berger is a name that should safely do the trick.  The Elegant Variation recommends This is Where We Meet in their permanent recommendations, which is high praise indeed, far as I am concerned.  This is a collection of short stories set in Portugal, or an imaginary country that is a lot like it.  Lisboa, the first (and best) story in the collection is about someone - whom you are invited to assume is the author himself - meets his long dead mother.  The interplay of the living and the dead discovers Lisbon (Lisboa) anew.  There are great moments in the story, but honestly, Berger is too subtle for me.  I can't with a straight face offer his name as one of my favorite authors.  I wonder whether people will be impressed if I just said J.K.Rowling?

On the non-fiction side, let me start with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  When I had compiled the Top 10 best books of 2010 list last year, I had put this one on top of the non-fiction list.  Every source of book info that I respect had this book at or near the top of their list.  And the verdict?  It is well worth it.  Henrietta Lacks was a woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer.  Her doctor in Johns Hopkins hospital took samples of her cancerous cells without her permission.  As it happened, these cells turned out to be remarkably prolific, each cell creating new copies of itself once every 24 hours.  As the genetic research industry started taking off, someone developed an industrial process for freezing, thawing, feeding and shipping these cells to labs all across the world.  Soon, there were trillions of HeLa cells floating around all across the globe.  They drove research that created hundreds of new drugs.  The HeLa cells continue to live on, even today.  The people who created the HeLa industry became fabulously rich.  Meanwhile, the grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks are struggling to get through life without enough money to afford adequate health insurance.  Henrietta Lacks was black.  Her doctor was white.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is this story.  And it is amazing.

Half Empty, by David Rakoff is a book about negative thinking.  We live in a world where that phrase has likely already put you off the book.  Negativity and pessimism have a pretty bad rep in our times.  Rakoff has an extremely witty take on why that is all wrong.  Back in my college days, I had a little book that listed a thousand little variants of Murphy's Law ('If it can go wrong, it will').  In those days of youthful rebellion, I would guffaw at gems such as 'Smile - tomorrow will be worse'.  Now of course, on the other side of a few grey hair, I find myself past such 'silliness'.  But I couldn't pass when the cover of this book promised the following - "Rakoff examines the realities of our sunny gosh everyone-can-be-a-star contemporary culture and finds that, pretty much as a universal rule, the best is not yet to come, adversity will triumph, justice will not be served, and your dreams won't come true."  Admit it, that is a pretty good sell.  The essays are hilarious - I particularly liked the one where Rakoff takes off on the multi-award-winning musical Rent.  Thrown randomly through the essays are Bush-bashing notes, which are a bit of a distraction - though to be fair, Rakoff is a gay, Jewish, media professional - that is three good reasons to hate republicans without even trying.

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark was also published last year. I have thoroughly enjoyed some books about English language and usage in the past (think Eats, Shoots and Leaves), so the very title of this book was inviting.  The book itself, unfortunately, was a bit of a let down.  It reads somewhat like a series of mini lectures about the language - the teacher is clearly very good and very interesting, but the format doesn't work for me.  Oh and by the way, the book is more for writers than necessarily for readers.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan:  I read In Defense of Food a year and a bit back, and fell in love with Michael Pollan.  So I have always been meaning to read his original great book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  Finally got around to it this last month, and ... how do I say this ... it is the greatest book on food you will probably ever read.  There isn't a way for me to do justice to this truly great book in a short paragraph, so I am not going to try.  But I will guarantee you this - once you read the book, you will change something about what (and how) you eat.

I read Super Freakonomics, finally.  I like micro-economic popular books a lot.  Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist, Tipping Point ... I have enjoyed all of them.  But somehow Super Freakonomics felt like a bit too cutesy.  I had no intention of buying the book.  As fate would have it though, a friend gifted the book to me.  A hardcover, illustrated edition no less.  So I had to read it after avoiding it all these months.  I have to say, it wasn't half bad.  Some of the ideas were extremely interesting.  The global warming bit right at the end was my favorite part of the book.  If you liked Freakonomics, and it has been long enough since you read it and fatigue isn't going to take over, read this one.  But if you are looking for some cool, new, insightful economic paradigm, move on.

So this has been my little journey in books these past couple of months.  I am back with another non-fiction book now, V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain.  I am only 50 pages into the book, but let me tell you this - you are going to hear a lot more about neuroscience on Brick and Rope in the months to come.  Ramachandran is a genius.

I hope the tide on fiction turns, because I am really keen to read some exciting and fresh fiction.  The palate is all cleansed.  Quite unlike my prediction at the end of 2010, I haven't really been taken by anything in the fiction world this year ... but of course half the year stretches ahead of us ... there is time ...

So what about you then?  What have you been reading lately?


  1. Loved your reviews....The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is on my 2011 list :).

    I loved your earlier posts on what you would miss about US and your assessment about those things a year a lot of hope to someone like me who is considering moving back to India at some point :).

  2. Hey, wrt reading fiction, have you read 'Folded Earth' by Anuradha Roy ? Lovely book, especially if you love the mountains. Evokes small town life and the changes wrought by development very well.

  3. Very impressive and informative post. Thanks for the share.

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