Friday, December 31, 2010

a year in reading, 2010, part one-ish.

In no particular order, here are some of my favourite disquisitions of the year. The political biases in this highly biased list should be unsurprising. So also some of the writers, many of whom have been beloved and admired for some time, and many of whom wrote more than one great piece this year. In the case of Tony Judt, for example, I picked a singularly brilliant interview he gave, instead of one of the many spectacular essays he composed for the NYRB and elsewhere, or the NY Magazine piece that profiled him beautifully.

Things missing from this list include, Kasparov excepted, reviews of single books or films (and if you're thinking of that Zadie Smith essay on The Social Network, let me assure you it is on my list of least favourite essays this year). Profiles of people: otherwise it would be all Obama and Berlusconi and Shashi Tharoor.

Also interviews other than Tony Judt's; listicles other than Common Roman Polanski Defenses Refuted (which drifted back to the top of my consciousness in the wake of the corrupted debate over Julian Assange's rape accusation); writing from publications with which I am or have been formally associated (The Run of Play did not, for example, contract my labour in signatures of blood before accepting my blog posts, nor, as an all-round and upfront gratis Portal of Fun, are they dragging their feet on payments - you know who you are, you weasels). A couple of exceptions to this rule are mentioned at the end of this post.

Also great shorter writing, including several Tumblelogs; great rants; great fanfiction involving one or more characters from the DC Comics Universe; great photography, great YouTube videos, and so on.

Also missing is any writing about Mumbai, which deserves its own post.

If this list overrepresents some publications, it is because I enjoyed and was moved by their contents disproportionately. This in spite of not being able to afford a subscription to LRB yet, which is quite an achievement on their part, in every sense.

Recap: Reads of the Year, 2010

Susie Linfield, Living With The Enemy
On the living limits of reconciliation as a political ideal.

Rahul Bhattacharya, Cricket, Tennis, the Loss of Immersion
As the nature of broadcasts change, so does the narrative of a game.

Amanda Hess, Common Roman Polanski Defenses, Refuted
Washington City Paper
How to talk to people who defend Roman Polanski's crime.

Ross McKibbin, Time to Repent
London Review of Books
Britain's new political settlement, and where the fuck Labour went.

Garry Kasparov, The Chess Master and the Computer
New York Review of Books
Can the computer change the way a very human game is played? Not unless it can change the way a very human game is thought.

Daisy Rockwell as Lapata, The Reluctant Feudalist
Chapati Mystery
Can what is said of Sadat Hasan Manto also be said of Daniyal Mueenuddin? A literary investigation.

Dibussi Tande, Undermining African Intellectual and Artistic Rights; Shakira, Zangalewa and the World Cup Anthem
Scribbles from the Den
A brief history of the double standard of artistic property for African artists.

Alma Guillermoprieto, The Murderers of Mexico
New York Review of Books
War as theatre.

Corey Robin, Garbage and Gravitas
The Nation
The life and legacy of Ayn Rand.

Basharat Peer, Tear Gas Over Batamaloo
The National Interest
What is at play, and what at stake, in Kashmir this year.

Brian Phillips, Pelé as a Comedian
The Run of Play
Perhaps David Foster Wallace's notion of the delight we take in sport as religious experience undermines itself.

Aaron Bady, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy
Why does Assange do what he does?

Amitava Kumar, Birth of a Salesman
In the War on Terror, an FBI informant's doppelganger is the terrorist suspect.

Mohammed Hanif, Pakistan flood victims 'have no concept of terrorism'
BBC Online

They belong to that forgotten part of humanity that has quietly tilled the land for centuries, the small farmers, the peasants, the farmhands, generations of people who are born and work and die on the same small piece of land.

And this time there are 20 million of them.

Kristina Božič in conversation with Tony Judt, The Way Things Are and How They Might Be
London Review of Books
Tony Judt, magnificent on social democracy, Europe, America and much else.

Charlie LeDuff, What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?
Mother Jones

People my mother's age like to tell me about Detroit's good old days of soda fountains and shopping markets and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit and its suburbs were dying 40 years ago. The whole country knew it, and the whole country laughed. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. Forget about it.

Mukul Kesavan, Is Murali the greatest spinner ever?
What Muttiah Muralitharan has meant to cricket, to Sri Lanka, and to sport.

Rafia Zakaria, Muslim Grrrls
A lawyer investigates how Sharia and feminism go hand-in-hand.

Jacqueline Rose, 'J'accuse;' Dreyfus in our times
London Review of Books
Possibly my favourite this year. Justice is an infinite affair.

Some more stuff I liked:

Kamila Shamsie's Pop Idols on a generation of Pakistani pop music in Granta's Pakistan issue;
Umair Muhajir's Reflections on masala cinema and Dabanng at his blog, Qalandar;
Mihir Sharma's Calcutta is the city of second chances after the Park Street fire earlier this year, in The Indian Express;
P Sainath's The Colour of Water on two continuous years of drought in Vidarbha, in India Together;
Nathaniel Popper's A Conscious Pariah on Raul Hillberg and Hannah Arendt, in The Nation;
Nilanjana Roy's Getting Around Your City; A User's Guide for Women, at her blog Akhond of Swat and elsewhere;

and several others.

Finally, to some writers and journalists whom I drop everything to read, every time they write: Samar Halarnkar; Kuzhali Manickavel; Andrew Guest; Alan Jacobs;
Shoma Chaudhury; Chandrahas Choudhury;
Manan Ahmed; Lilia M Schwarcz; Ingrid D Rowland; cheers and thank you all. May your wordcounts ever increase.

Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

a mature response to the end of the year

While I gather up my courage for a 'Year in Reading' post, a Q&A meme in which I was tagged months ago by Aisha. All answers calibrated to reflect reading/re-reading between January-December this year.

1. Favourite childhood book?

Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery.

2. What are you reading right now?

Freedarko's The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War.

3. Bad book habit?

Refusing to revere books like a good Hindu, the cornerstone of childhood Dussehra observances and longstanding family fights about reading while otherwise occupied (in eating, or lying in bed, or grating coconut, for example; I was on the losing side of all these quarrels). Respecting books as wealth is one thing, but respecting them as wisdom is quite another.

4. Do you have an e-reader?

I will next year, if I can decide between impoverishment via Kindle, or impoverishment via subscriptions to expensive American magazines.

5. Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, although it rarely works out that way.

6. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

This year, particularly so, thanks to Book Munch. I read much more seriously.

7. Least favorite book you read this year (so far)?

Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hill.

8. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

In non-fiction, probably Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables (my Mint story on the book) and Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy. Mumbai Fables is an intriguing look at Bombay as a palimpsest of narratives; Demick's book is a reconstruction of social life in the city of Chongjin, North Korea, based on the testimonies of refugees.

My favourite fiction this year was not a new release but Khalid Hasan's gigantic book of Manto translations, Bitter Fruit. A great opportunity to rediscover many things.

9. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?


10. What is your reading comfort zone?


11. Can you read on the bus?


12. Favorite place to read?

The train.

13. What is your policy on book lending?

Be generous; have a good memory.

14. Do you ever dog-ear books?

Yes, this is useful practice when reviewing.

15. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

No; I usually read on the move.

16. Not even with text books?

That's what five-subject notebooks are for.

17. What is your favorite language to read in?


18. What makes you love a book?


19. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Delight. Ref. introducing Brian to The Count of Monte Cristo.

20. Favorite genre?


21. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Not a genre; graphic literature.

22. Favorite biography?

This year, it was Ram Guha's mostly-out-of-print biog of Verrier Elwin, Savaging the Civilised - a very fond and readable, but rigorous look at a key figure in independent India. I believe Guha is putting out a new edition soon, with an introduction that triangulates Elwin's studies with the political-economic crisis in tribal districts in Central India, which is exciting. The old one can still be found in a collection of Guha's early work called The Ramachandra Guha Omnibus, if anyone wants to read it.

23. Have you ever read a self-help book?


24. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Weirdly, I'd say Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah. The book clearly complicates the romantic notion of risking life and limb to get a story. It also complicates the relationship between narrative and reportage. But at a time when the only major alternative to the embedded journalist seems to be the foreign gonzo/undercover figure, Saviano manages to forward the question of how to write about being victimised, and being complicit, in a war in your own home. I don't think I've read a more high-stakes book this year.

In fiction, as always, Penelope Fitzgerald remains an idol.

25. Favorite reading snack?


26. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Not exactly hype; I was disappointed to discover that I just wasn't into Roberto Bolano. I feel like everyone else is reading The Quibbler and I'm stuck with The Daily Prophet.

7. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Not often with US/UK critics about American/British books, a little more often with desi critics about desi ones.

28. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

More cavalier as a blogger than as a newspaper reviewer. Same goes for glowers, though.

29. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

I don't know, I like translations quite a lot. Probably Italian for the newspapers.

30. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I don't think I've ever read an intimidating book in my life.

31. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Very high degree of trepidation on being confronted with Mark Twain's Autobiography.

32. Favorite Poet?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as translated by Agha Shahid Ali.

33. Favorite fictional character?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

34. Favorite fictional villain?

I have a very good answer. It is Dmitri Belikov, the nice-guy-turned-bloodthirsty-vampire in Richelle Mead's glorious/atrocious Vampire Academy series. I just know you can change him, Rose!

35. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Oh no, I did not have a vacation this year. Usually big fat ones.

36. The longest I’ve gone without reading

I've finished reading maybe four books this month, which is the year's low point.

37. Name a book that you could/would not finish?

I've been stuck on page 3 of Eshkol Nevo's Homesick for maybe six months now, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with this unexceptionable book.

38. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?


39. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

n/a for this year.

40. Most disappointing film adaptation?

also n/a. I didn't even see the new Harry Potter film.

41. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

Not even going there.

42. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

I skip to the end, but not otherwise.

43. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?


44. Do you like to keep your books organized?

I also like my football team to win all the time.

45. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

Do you give a chair away once you've sat in it?

46. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?


47. Name a book that made you angry

Oh god, Raffles. Also the early parts of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography which essentially describe what a gigantic creep James Mill was and it's all you can do to stop yourself from flailing through space-time to give poor lamb JS a hug.

48. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

The Leopard. Marvellous, moving, possibly timeless dead white male literature.

49. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. I mean, seriously? And in a lesser way, Naomi Novik's Tongues of Serpents, the newest in a series I've otherwise really liked.

50. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

Jane Austen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

the year in marriage proposals

“Good-bye,” said Eve. “Thank you for being so hospitable and lavish. I’ll try and find some cushions and muslin and stuff to brighten up this place.”

“Your presence does that adequately,” said Psmith, accompanying her to the door. “By the way, returning to the subject we were discussing last night, I forgot to mention, when asking you to marry me, that I can do card-tricks.”


“And also a passable imitation of a cat calling to her young. Has this no weight with you? Think! These things come in very handy in the long winter evenings.”

“But I shan’t be there when you are imitating cats in the long winter evenings.”

“I think you are wrong. As I visualize my little home, I can see you there very clearly, sitting before the fire. Your maid has put you into something loose. The light of the flickering flames reflects itself in your lovely eyes. You are pleasantly tired after an afternoon’s shopping, but not so tired as to be unable to select a card - any card – from the pack which I offer…”

-- from Leave It To Psmith, PG Wodehouse.