Category Archives: Books

Are book-bloggers killing journal reviewers?

Lisa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post has drawn the book-blogosphere into a debate as to whether they are replacing the book-reviewers from journals and magazines. The crux of her piece satirically titled “Will Blogs Save Books?”  is that unprofessional, shabby, opinionated book-blogs are killing the book editors’ jobs as various newspapers are downsizing their book-review sections and laying them off. The piece also implies that this is a blow to literature and the literary culture.

Lissa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post is an expression of professional frustration. The only way

Huffington Post itself is an alternate medium experiment

Huffington Post itself is an 'alternate medium' experiment

 the post is useful is by triggering a debate on an issue that might be of interest to all ‘lovers of literature’ who blog. However, the response to her piece on various blogs has been as disappointing as her piece itself. We bloggers have responded out of sheer anger than logic. There are, however, some exceptions – like this piece at edrants which gives another aspect to the debate, and logically so.

The simple fact is that the purpose served by professional reviews in journals or newspapers and that by book-blogs is different. I may love to read the New York Review of Books and yet want to pick up suggestions from a blog. Moreover, the whole experience of reading a blog and a professional article is different in so many ways that I can not describe them in this post. 

The journals are supposed to carry literary pieces. More than opinion on books, they are an academically researched and reliable overview of a subject, author, or book. On the other hand, blogs carry personalised pieces on what one has read and what thought process such reading might have triggered. An academic piece being opinionated is a hint of bias. On the other hand, a blog without opinion is a man without soul. Reading a blog post about a book or an author you might be interested in at that point in time is like a friend talking to you about something you want to know. How did one come to read a particular book and what his/her family thinks about it would be absurd in a journal but fits perfectly in a blog.

The target audience, purpose, and effect of the two are different and there is no competition here. No one is shifting because of one to the other. Both have there own exclusive readerships, which may overlap. And if there are blogs which have equally literary pieces and are serious about what they do as a professional, then it is just another free and fair competition. If you think its the medium that’s in demand, float a professional blog and post the same well crafted articles here and compete. No points complaining.

Not only does Lisa Warren’s article miss the point altogether but also it is factually and statistically incorrect. It is a blatant figment of her imagination that bloggers mostly link to professional reviews and provide cogent commentary to the same. In my experience of reading literary blogs in the last couple of years, I have rarely found this to be true. It is also understandable why a book publicist is more bothered about this phenomenon than the critics themselves. Because if you can write good pieces, you will find brilliant readership on blogs. However, for a book publicist, the important target audience is the not-so-iclined reader who stumbles upon a review. For that, we are sorry. Be creatvie, think of alternate ways.

And to the frustrated professional outburst of Ms. Warren, my last word – book editors are being laid off because reading habits are dwindling. Majority is no more interested in reading books let alone book-reviews. Book industry as a whole has been facing this problem. It’s not because we bloggers are fooling your readers into shifting their reading habits. Did it ever occur to you that 90% of your readers are these bloggers themselves? Because we are the ones who actually read.

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

Contemplating Blake

For quite sometime now, William Blake’s Poems and Prophecies had been Everyman's Library Editionstaring at me from my bookshelf. Therefore, I finally have started reading it. I have finished the Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Each word of Blake seems to be worth contemplating for ages.

My first introduction to Blake’s words was through Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Colin Wilson in this masterpiece not only described the social problem of ‘the outsider’, but also studied the various solutions lived by certain outsiders. One of the solutions was Blake. Blake happens to be one of those first artists who lived what has today become famous as the ‘spiritual religion’. His poems deal quite often with life’s ultimate questions, but with majestic simplicity. Like all artists, ‘truth’ holds a special position for him and after some arguments, he declares as a primary truth – Energy is eternal delight. Complete dismissal of all dogmatic religious practices, Blake lives in his own world where “Man has no body distinct from his soul“. “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake probably was the first of the Prophets amongst the artists.

Every single poem in the collection titled Songs of Experience is a human portrait painted in beautiful words with Blake’s extraordinary insight into human condition. Some lines from the collection as evidence:

(Nurse’s Song): Your spring & your day are wasted in play, / And your winter and night in disguise.

(The Garden of Love): And Priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.

(A Little Girl Lost): Know that in a former time / Love! Sweet Love! Was thought a crime.

I was amazed while reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for itshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/ surprising parallels with Nietzsche’s thought. Energy is eternal delight. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free. Blake’s Energy is Nietzsche’s Pure Will. As Blake says, Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Finally I leave you with a few lines from my favourite poem by Blake called The Fly. Interpretation of these are mysteriously wide and vague – insights into which are welcome:

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die.

A Cat and Mouse Chase (Me and the Holocaust)

Yes, the Nazi genocide has been chasing me. I have no idea why. First, it was the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Then it was Imre Kertsze’s Liquidation. And now, I just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Cat and Mouse. And as if that was not enough, I ended up watching The Pianist today.

It is not that I want to stay away from the holocaust history – the fact is that I am as far from it as can be. I live in a country where there are not many Jews, none of my acquaintance have anyone who has anyone having faced that trauma. It is also not that i was never aware of (in general terms) what Hitler had done to the Jews. However, for some reason I kept myself away (consciously) from any literature or movie that describes the Jewish execution. It leaves me shaken to the core.

But the cat catches the mouse, sooner or later; only this time I was the mouse. First the books, then the dilemma

The Book Thief is mostly a humane story written with amazing simplicity and originality (imagine Death as the narrator). There is only one Jew character sheltered and loved by a stranger German family. I consider that family as the definition of ‘humanity’. However, you need to read it to understand why I say that. Book Thief is the only book by Zusak that I have read, and if it is representative of his brand of literature, I am simply in awe.

Cat and Mouse turned out to be my introduction to Gunter Grass. I had his Crabwalk lying with me for a long time, but I ended up buying and reading this one straight away. These are the kind of coincidences that make me feel that I have been the mouse in this strange game. I found Grass’s style endearing and personal. For some reason, in all the time that I had been anticipating his literature, I had assumed he will be dry, serious, and effective. Effective and powerful he is, but without the baggage. Through a strange teen-friendship, Grass has plotted the regular life of the youth in Hitler’s Germany during the war – without any bias, without any excess. I am definitely picking up the Tin Drum soon.

Imre Kertsze is different. I think he is in the category of Kafka and Beckett, only with lesser use of metaphors. I hear Liquidation is not one of his best books, but that was the one I stumbled upon, read and loved. He has attempted to characterize ‘holocaust survivor mentality’ as a whole and has tried to negate it. Being a survivor himself, I guess he was aware that it was necessary for the Jews to move on. However, I find myself incompetent to judge whether it is desirable, if at all possible.

And then came the Pianist. All the literature I had read, had never described the Hitler brand of torture. I also know that the three books I have mentioned do not intend in any way to achieve that. However, the Pianist does. I just cannot watch it! I have stopped my DVD thrice by now, and I do not know whether I will end up watching it completely. My head is occupied with a single question – WHY?

Why does holocaust trouble me? I do not live in Europe, not in the US, not even in a country where a single individual might have been directly affected. No Jews live around me. Then, why? Why so much so that I conciously avoid literature and movies related to it? I do not have answers. Probalities, yes. But no answers.

There are another set of Whys, deeper and more troublesome kind. Why did Hitler do it? I can understand a politician in a democracy trying genocide for votes, but why a dictator? It is not even that he gained power through the holocaust, he started it all at his peak – WHY? And why did he not order a shoot-at-sight? Why the methodical execution? Why the gas chambers when one absurd bullet could have done the job? Why? Why?

I have decided that I am done with running from this Cat of the holocaust. I want to read good literature, fiction or non-fiction which gives me a some idea of the those times; and I need suggestions from you. In this Cat and Mouse game, the mouse surrenders. Why? I have too many others to answer.

The Myth of Absurdity – In Defence of Albert Camus

At the risk of sounding repetitive and hero-worshiping, this post is in response to the discussion on Camus and his primary work The Myth of Sisyphus (used as “The Myth” from here on) in my previous post. It serves two purposes – firstly, a self-centric purpose of making me understand better what I have already come to believe of Camus’s theory and secondly, if possible, to explain Camus in a positive light. For, it has been my experience that this understanding can let one see life in a very different way. And in my experience – in a very real and positive way.

‘Absurd’ is a theme running through most of the thinkers who have been branded as ‘existentialists’. Now, it is well known that the tag of an existentialist has been a bit controversial and many thinker in their lifetime had not liked it, as I had touched upon in a previous post. The one man who was most comfortable with the tag and made the use of this term with great passion was Sartre. However, it does not sound sensible to therefore exclude any thinker from the categorization if he differs in certain methods and conclusions from Sartre. In any case, these are matters of definition and as Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name, would smell as sweet.

What we are essentially concerned here with is Camus’s thoughts. What Kierkegaard may have considered absurd is definitely different from what Camus defines it as in The Myth. Camus, though briefly, discusses Kierkegaard and rejects his leap of faith. I say he rejects ‘leap’ and not ‘faith’ in itself. Faith is a collateral damage, rejected purely because it makes one leap. In the absolute, whether Camus successfully rejects Kierkegaard’s leap or not is a question that can only be mooted. But it is clear from the very beginning that the path with Camus treads has rejected all leaps, whether it be faith or ‘the absolute reason’. The very purpose of The Myth is to inquire whether man can cross the path that is ‘life’ without any leap whatsoever. I say he answers in the positive – emphatically and convincingly. Before analyzing the various leaps that thinkers have chosen time and again, Camus writes:

Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention.

It has been argued that the ‘presumption’ by Camus that this world is random and without order is his “leap of faith”. It has been argued that it is not an empirical truth. I say it is, if we go by our experiences. However, if we go by experimental proof, there is none. By nature, it cannot be experimented upon. Do I deny the possibility that the world might have a meaning? No. Like a missing chapter from a very logical text can make it nonsensical, this world might be so. However, empirically, i.e. whatever I know of my experiences, I do not require a leap to conclude that the world lacks any unifying principles and at best is random.

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” This passage has been quoted to suggest that Camus considers passion as opposed to reality. This is what he writes just before the quoted passage – “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much trough his passions as through his torture.” Therefore, Camus suggests on the contrary that passion is worth any torture – even the possibility of an after-life underworld, hell, or whatever – passion is worth it. There is no suggestion that passion is opposed to reality. On the contrary, a sum total of Camus’s theory has made me conclude that passion is the only value available to man. Even Sartre’s Nausea has confirmed this for me. There is no guilt in the philosophy of either of them, maintaining it is not an option.

There is objection to the ‘dropping of God’ on the assertion that the idea is so deep rooted that in any analysis, we can not ‘just drop it’. I agree but differ that Camus has ‘just dropped it’. He has mostly chosen to stay away from the debate. In the analysis in The Myth he drops it for the simple reason that The Myth is an inquiry based entirely on experiences and possibilities of life within the limits of those experiences; and in that light there is no choice but to drop it. I understand Camus’s position on God as this – I have not experienced it. I do not deny the possibility. In all probability, my choices in this lifetime will not depend on which way the answer goes. Therefore, I chose to live life without seeking to answer that question in black or white.

The randomness of the world is painful and torturous has never been Camus’s conclusion. He asserts that it is human nature to unceasingly desire a unifying principle and order in his setting. That is unavailable. This interaction of the two contradictions is painful only in the absence of its consciousness. “The random nature of the world and universe as best we can describe it or measure it also gives it its perceived smoothness, like the strands of sand that fall in a random nature and appear smooth in our hands”, by the very consciousness of the absurd. Man is in constant wonderment of life, in the consciousness of the absurd and in his passion for life itself. The one contradiction that threatened to change that wonderment into futility, Camus solves it by the seemingly paradoxical theory of the absurd.

The 9 Country Author Cruise

For the second time now, I have decided to join a reading challenge. After signing up for the Russian trip, I have decided to go on a world tour – 9 countrie to be precise. The Orbis Terrarum (whole world) challenge being hosted by B&b Ex-Libris is a truly irresistible one. No one can give you as much variety and quality at the same time. I need to pick 9 books from authors of 9 different countries (the best part being I can change the same anytime). Here is my pick currently:

  1. The Prague Orgy Philip Roth (US)
  2. Cat and Mouse Gunter Grass (Poland)
  3. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami (Japan)
  4. Ignorance Milan Kundera (Czechkoslovakia)
  5. The White Tiger Aravind Adiga (India)
  6. Plague Albert Camus (Algeria)
  7. The Case of Exploding Mangoes Mohammad Hanif (Pakistan)
  8. Under the Net Iris Murdoch (Ireland)
  9. The Life and Times of Michael K J.M. Coetzee (South Africa)

Using the flexibility provided by this challenge, I have edited the list. A word for the book that helped me compile this list – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and the Booker Longlist 2008 (UPDATE). It is a fascinating collectors piece for any book-lover, whether you agree with the compilation or not.

Dostoevsky’s Masterpieces

I am called a psychologist; it’s not true. I am only a realist in the highest sense – I depict all the depths of the human soul.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Around a couple of months back, I finished the two masterpieces by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment and TheFyodor Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. My first interaction with Mr. Dostoevsky was through the ‘sick and spiteful man’ from the underground. Later, I read a couple of his short stories and I knew that this was an author beyond the defines and limits of literature. A master philosopher, a story teller by instinct and a critic of human condition and social relations by accident – Dostoevsky is an important, unique and essential figure in human history.

I had both of Mr. Dostoevsky’s masterpieces on my unread pile for quite sometime. In the meanwhile, I discovered and read The Outsiderby Colin Wilson. Before I could finish and put down this extraordinay book by Wilson, I ws already itching to visit Raskalnikov and Ivan respectively.

I am not going to attempt a review or critique of these two works; in my opinion they deserve to be read and re-read and that’s all. Dostoevsky’s insight into human psyche, particularly into those of the troubled ones, is unprecedented and accurate. Rasalkalnikov’s total failure to live with his crime never makes him doubt the theoretical validity of the ‘idea’ that made him committ that crime. Ivan’s act of returning the ticket causes insanity, but never once does he contemplate religion as an escape route. These are not instances of ‘heroism’ or glorification of atheism. It is sheer intellectual honesty. Dostoevsky knows that a man who has limitless access to logic can never committ himself to an illogical conclusion even if it is a matter of life and death. I doubt if Dostoevsky meant this as a compliment – he meant this more as a psychological and social problem of such men to which he never found an answer, neither has anyone else.
There is more to these two books than can ever be visited in a blog post. With the vitality of Brothers.. and asthetics of Crime.., between these two books, Mr. Dostoevsky has probably travelled the ‘whole nine yards’ of literature.

Don’t believe it then, what’s the good of believing against your will? Besides, proofs are of no help to beleiving, especially material proofs. Thomas beleived not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to beleive, before he saw…And if you come to that, does proving there’s a devil prove that there’s God?
Devil to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov

Ruthless Roth

For quite sometime now, I have been reading Classics and philosophers. Intermittently though, I have read some literary fiction too. However, given the fact that reading a book for me means investing quite sometime and that choosing to read a particular book is also a choice made not to read a lot other, I have been very careful about what book I am investing my time in. My interests are not limited by genre, but I am definitely more inclined towards fiction; literary fiction, to be precise.
I have devised a method to discover good books about which I have never heard. Whenever I feel like reading a random book, which is at least once every couple of months, I visit a bookstore and scan all fiction by Vintage Books on the racks. It may sound a wierd strategy but has worked brilliantly for me. I have discovered a number of interesting fiction work following this weird method. One of the most recent being the world of Philip Roth.
Following this very method, I picked up Roth’s The Ghost Writer. I am amazed at the ease with which he could grip his reader – no rhetorics, no mystery, just good and simple story telling – in his own style. You should read the book, if not for the sheer pleasure of it, then to see how Roth has cunningly incorporated Anne Frank as a character. There are many more reasons to read it – go figure!

The effect of Ghost Writer was such that I picked up the next in series, Zuckerman Unbound, immediately. I liked the former better, but this was not bad. Specially sequences relating to the death of protagonist’s father were masterpieces.

Since then, I have read another one of his – The Dying Animal. You could almost dismiss this as soft porn but for Roth’s magic. Roth is ruthless while playing with human sexuality and infidel relations.

Thanks to Vintage, I discovered this amazing and distinct voice i literature. I already have two unread Roth titles in my pile (Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater) and am sure many more are coming soon.

Discovering Coetzee

To me, Coetzee was always the author who won the booker prize twice. Despite the intentions to read him, I never happened to pick anything by him. Then suddenly while browsing in a bookstore last week, I stumbled upon two of his titles which I could not resist buying. One was The Master of Petersburg and the other was Youth.

I work full time and am a really slow reader. Despite all the limitations, I finished both the books in 4 days straight (a personal best for me). I know (from whatever I have found on different literary blogs etc.) that these two are not considered to be amongst the best of Coetzee. However, for me, they shall remain the books that I discovered the genius of Coetzee from.Coezee at Work

I do not intend to outline the plot of either, therefore no spoiler warnings.

The Master of Petersburg has Dostoevsky as the protagonist. As if that was not enough, Coetzee has delved into deep and tricky themes such as a father-son relationship, death of a young son, marriage, relationships, sex, politics, revolution, communism, et all. Whether you like the plot or not, and I believe you will like it, this book deserves your time for the sheer pleasure of literary courage. I am in awe of Coetzee to have attempted and masterfully executed a fiction based on Dostoevsky with such difficult themes. After finishing Crime and Punishment and The BrothersKaramazov, I was a little disappointed that the world of Dostoevsky was over for me. With this book, I felt like I was visiting the dressing room area of that world.

Youth on the other hand will remain special forever for the connection that I could make with it. The theme is – a young guy, an artist by inclination but not by profession or training and his venture into the world. It is not possible for me to describe here, but anyone who has thought of himself as an ‘artist’ waiting for the right moment but-continuing-with-the-shit-for-the-time-being in his youth will be surprised to see how much of him Coetzee has been able to portray in the book. It is an honest, scary, but true description of how we let things happen to us despite best intentions; about the insane circle of reality that makes us let our desired life stay away from us. Coetzee beautifully portrays how an artist by inclination not pursuing art is not an artist-in-the-waiting; he is dead.

There is not much that is required to be said about Coetzee here, people have said enough. I only confirm that in my experience in these two books – he is better than his name.

Russian Reading Challenge 2008

I have loved Russian literature, at least of whatever little I Crime and Punishmenthave read. Reading Challenges generally limit your choices and therefore I skip them in general. However this one was irresistible and offered no excuses to let go. So, here I am. Since I have the liberty to change the titles, I shall list out the ones that I have always wanted to read in the recent past and probably will now, thanks to the this challenge. Here’s the list:

1. Fathers and Sons – Ivan Tugenev
2. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
3. Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky
4. Confessions – Leo Tolstoy
5. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

6. The Kiss – Anton Chekov