Wednesday, August 04, 2010

gentleman's sextet

Some men's writing I read over the last couple of months, notes on.

#71 The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

One-line summary: The newspaper industry is failing, even in Rome.

A highly polished string of stories about various individuals working for an eccentric American newspaper based out of Rome. Well-told, without much range in emotional tenor and structure. So studiously twentieth-century in its tone that the title seems unbearably twee in retrospect; maybe The Hacks would have worked better.

#72 Patna Roughcut, Siddharth Chowdhury

One-line summary: A chip on the shoulder made manifest in pen and ink.

A small, evocative novel about growing up smart in Patna. Characters universally recognised in the personal histories of most urban Indians of a certain generation come to life in tender, elegiac portraits, and a self-conscious, sometimes sardonic voice does not mask the furious affection for, and alienation from the home city, experienced most keenly when you have returned to it.

#73 Freedom for Sale, John Kampfner

One-line summary: Less provocative than it says on the tin.

Kampfner travels to eight countries to analyse the failure of the democratic experiment, particularly with regards to the trade-off between free speech, capitalism and governance. His central argument - all over the world, ostensibly democratic or democratising nations are colluding in the destruction of their own public freedoms for the sake of private freedoms - is a sound one; especially resonant in the context of debates wherein the fur flew thick and furious in India after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai (a situation to which Kampfner devotes a chapter). However, his reportage leaves much to be desired, rather obvious to me in the case of countries like the UAE, or China, which also come under his scrutiny for reasons not fully explained.

#74 Following Fish, Samanth Subramanian

One-line summary: Fish are better than you.

A charming collection of essays about Subramanian's delightful travels down and up the length of the Indian coastline, from Kolkata to Mumbai, reporting on the cultures and cuisines of the pescatarian communities that are some of India's oldest as well as its most dynamic. An easy wit and an enthusiasm for Indian seafood make most essays in this collection shine, although one often gets the sense that the author tries to leave his narratives as unclouded as possible by not delving too deep into the politics of class and environmentalism that his stories circle around again and again.

#75 A Country Doctor's Notebook, Mikhail Bulgakov, trans. Michael Glenny

One-line summary: Fictionalised Bulgakov recounts stories of his medical residency in a rural Russian hamlet; remains sexy while doing so.

Mikhail, Mikhail, Mikhail. If you wrote Anna Karenina I would not have put it off to read until after I am retired. This is classic comfort reading of a certain sort: mordant, organised around self-doubt and an almost elemental dread of nature, shot through with early 20th century European manpain and enlightement (manlightenment?), but the muted Bulgakovness is ever a joy. Be mine, Mikhail Bulgakov. Be mine.

#76 Amulet, Roberto Bolano, trans. Chris Andrews

One-line summary: The mother of Mexican poetry recounts the pain and madness of a magical-realist Mexico City.

I don't like magical realism and this slim book did not change my views. To be fair, I have read no Bolano before this, and picked it for the basest of reasons - I wanted to carry an extra book on a flight and this was slimmer than The Savage Detectives and 2666. I realised in retrospect that the central character of this book is connected to 2666, and perhaps I would have approached it with more humility had I known as much. As it is, I'm willing to praise Bolano's poetic vision and his fantastic ability to write set pieces, while feeling totally unmoved by the book on the whole.

1 comment:

  1. I have only read 'Following Fish', off these six, but that is enough. you summarized the book very neatly. you have got a new fan of your reviews. (till I read the other stuff)