Tuesday, April 20, 2010

the april shit-list

The first few books I read this month were largely disheartening, and I can't bring myself to write much about any of them [apart from Danielle Steele, obviously] so I'm making post-its, rather than notes, about them.

#32 Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto

English-language popular history is something with which the subcontinent could always do, particularly stuff not explicitly written to please MBAs and religious fundies, so I looked forward to this book since the minute I heard about it. Again, it seems false advertising got the better of me, since it is not so much a history as a hagiography of the author's grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto [not exactly the world's nicest prime minister] and her father Murtaza. A book like this has every right to exist, and even to be conditionally applauded for daring to frame an exceptional harangue against Pakistani president and the author's uncle-by-marriage, Asif Ali Zardari -- even if that harangue carries unpleasant overtones of classist entitlement. There it ends. It is rather obviously a very personal piece of writing, because of which I will be amazed if people without a deeply personal interest in the fortunes of the Bhutto family [as opposed to Karachi, or Sindh, or Pakistan, or indeed the subcontinent] have found anything to like very strongly about it.

#33 Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

Some melancholy writer-type befriends a salt-of-the-earth jack-of-all-trades, moves with him to Crete, gets him to work the mines on his land while he sits about and contemplates existence, and learns valuable lessons about life, love and the world from this working-class hero. Tiresome, dated, classist, sexist Rabelais-fail that even manages to make modern Greece [MODERN GREECE!] boring. No saving grace whatsoever. I'm about to read The Last Temptation soon and it had better make up for this hideously boring nonsense times ten.

#34 Raffles, E. W. Hornung

Here is George Orwell's essay on Raffles. This is the classic book of stories about an ace cricketer and burglar, on whom many of the beloved British dandy-adventurers of the 1900s are based, including James Bond and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The book is dedicated to the author's brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, and I read somewhere that Raffles, to the late Victorian reading public, formed a sort of elegant doppelganger to that eminent thief-catcher Sherlock Holmes. It even has worshipful bromance in the form of Raffles' sidekick, Bunny. How you can make such exciting material and context so bloody rubbish is a question that plagued me through the first story. I assumed it would get better. Then on the first page of the second story I came across a shockingly anti-Semitic caricature as well as the casual use of the word 'Kaffir' within paragraphs of each other! So not only did it not get better, IT GOT WORSE! Never ever EVER read this book even if someone pays you to do it. It will rot you.

#35 Loving, Danielle Steele

Okay, I lied about this being a shit-list. This is actually a brilliant instance of its genre and has probably set cosmic standards of excellence that leaves all other books of its ilk crouching in the shadow of its magnificence. It has surpassed anything I have ever read by Danielle Steele, including the one where the farm girl has an illegitimate baby with the Congressman, or the one with clones, or the one with the Japanese-American girl who has to go to an internment camp during World War II. It has handsome rakish love interests. It has a beautiful and fragile young girl for a heroine, who has gorgeous clothes and an interesting past, instead of a personality. It has this heroine marry her way out of financial trouble, like, FOUR TIMES. It has exceptionally cruel villains. It has everything! Why would you not love it?

And I have to say this for Danielle Steele, she is really not afraid to let things get downright messy, emotionally and otherwise, in her books. If it's something another writer would feel awkward or shy about putting in her book, Danielle Steele will write it out in letters of flame on the page and having writ, move on airily to the next Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree. It's really great. If you're reading a section and thinking gosh, now this old guy has the hots for his dead friend's daughter whose guardian he purportedly is, that's really sort of improper, then on the next page Steele will have her heroine think, 'It was almost like incest...but!' [exclamation mark mine]. If she wants a medical crisis in the middle of the book she puts in an evil obstetrician who ties the heroine down to the bed in the middle of labour. If you think at some point of time in the book that a divorce would be the wrongest thing to happen to the heroine - she's divorced within three pages. If you think, 'OMG, girl, do not sleep with that sleazebag,' she has slept with the sleazebag before you can say 'sex.' No matter what you may think of this book or yourself after you have closed it [and put it in the drawer that contains your school slam books and old threatening letters from banks], while it is going on it is for the win. For the bloody win. It even has a green card marriage.

#36 Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers & The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe

Okay, guys, I love reading snark about clueless American hipsters as much as the next person, and I know that Tom Wolfe is capable of being a bewitching writer [something all the other writers - apart from Danielle Motherfucking Steele - on this post could learn]. But this is a sad, corrosive pair of essays. Radical Chic starts off as an absolutely acidic indictment of upper-class, white New York society's private reasons for fundraising for the Black Panthers, but can't really sustain this critique, and ends up rambling on about poor Lenny Bernstein and his other upper-class white New Yorker friends in a way that has absolutely no purpose but to make the reader feel better about themselves. And the second essay, Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers about minority groups in San Francisco scamming white authorities by playing on social guilt, is just unreadable. Wolfe is good at mimicking the voices of his peers, but not those different from him.

The Painted Word is his comment on New York's pretentious art world in the Seventies. I'm generally a fan of the deflation of artistic ideals, since I can never be 19 again, and Wolfe is good at tracing how ideas themselves are captives of the market. But his is the style of the rhetorician, and the rhetorician, particularly the rhetorician who is also a satirist, cannot be a historian. I laughed through it, but in the end I wasn't sure why I did, since I don't know anything about Jackson Pollock, anyway.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
The Age of Innocence
The House of Mirth
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Human Voices


  1. Wow. WOW. Clearly I need to read that Danielle Steele book pronto - how downright filmi!

  2. Oh, Beth, do you ever. It even has a bit where the heroine, a budding playwright, writes a play called Bird of Paradise .... about a girl like herself! I mean!

  3. Danielle Steele was always a formula writer for me. But yes, a very passionate English teacher got me to read her and I devoured the entire lot. I treat her like plague now. Good memories though!
    I can see by your review, she hasn't changed much.