Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein

Still to start.

Open, Andre Agassi

Another gift - we'll see how it goes.

Feb. 7

Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano

There is in the book only this: a sense that while walking the streets of Paris it is easier than it should be to forget that in that city were perpetrated crimes so great that they were not just committed against persons, but against all of humanity.

Modiano writes about the disappearance of a girl, and how little we know about her. He speaks also about his own father’s experience as a Jewish person in the time of the second world war. He compares his own experience of having run away from his home to that of a girl who had also run away, years earlier and in a circumstance more impossibly difficult. The way we remember these things is almost divorced from reality - because 

When we walk down roads, we never think about the other things that have happened on those roads. And so we let the horrors of the past fade into a murky grey stain on our thoughts.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie

Rushdie's latest book is terrific for many reasons, but here's my favourite: it is a return to his manic, crazy storytelling that I fell in love with when I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories. There is no subtlety to Rushdie's satire in this book, but it's funnier for it. The entire novel is told, which is to say it is written in the style of a speaking person. In fact, it's written in the style of the kind of Indian speaking person that also characterises Midnight's Children. The first lines of that book contain that same wildness - in which the narrator seems to overwrite and clarify himself with every sentence.

"Oh, spell it out, spell it out," the narrator says in that book's first paragraph, so annoyed with his own inability to be clear that he admonishes himself even as he begins what is one of the most authoritative novels ever written.

I loved this book.

The Sleeper and The Spindle, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

Riddell's art is made all the more disturbing for Gaiman's words. Gaiman's words become all the more weird next to Riddell's art. Here's a fairytale worth reading.


Feb. 7 - Books 5, 6 and 7

Jan. 24

I've read three very different books in the last three weeks. I think part of the reason I enjoy reading weird books is that they give you a window into lives you've no idea about. A good author makes the window a door, a great one makes the door lead into a house.

The Devotion of Suspect X - Higashino Keigo

This is not normally the kind of book you think about when you imagine a mystery novel.  I've never really been able to read whodunnits and catch whatever nuance points to a specific person as the killer. But Higashino's book tells you right off the bat who the killer is, and the rest of the book is about whether or not the police figure it out.

Hitchcock has a fascinating view on suspense. He says that suspense is not about keeping something hidden from the audience, so that they are on the edge of their seat wondering if anything will happen. Suspense is about  telling the audience that something will happen, and letting them deal with the fact that nobody in the scene knows that it's about to happen.

Higashino's novel is a masterful exercise in this sort of suspense - where the reader knows what has happened (though, admittedly, not the details of the happening). Well worth a read.

The House of Blue Mangoes - David Davidar

A great book. Halfway through I found out that my father and his siblings read it while an uncle of mine had cancer. I guess what I'm saying is that I cannot, having known that, really be objective about this. 

What I can tell you is that some of his imagery is stunningly evocative, the subtlety of his treatment of caste only makes it more powerful, and that I cannot help but feel that the subtitle of this book should have been "a book for Mamidipudis".

Aya: Life in Yop City - Marguerite Abouet & Clement Oubrerie

The other two books I read in the last few weeks were about places and people I at least had some familiarity with. Urban Tokyo is not unrepresented in the media I consume (even if some of the mange and anime I read and watch portray a clearly exaggerated version of it), and neither is pre-Independence India.

Abidjan - the largest city of Cote d'Ivoire - is completely unknown to me. 

Which is why I found Aya a really terrific read. It felt as if I was not reading about people with whom I have nothing in common. The behaviours and mannerisms of Aya and her friends reflect the ways that my own friends and I do things. The fact that it's set in the 1980's, in a part of West Africa that I may never visit, almost did not matter. The ways I learnt about Aya's world were less explicit. They made themselves obvious in the maquis that all the characters drank at, or the "hotel of a thousand stars" that serves as the clandestine meeting place for secret lovers.

Really quite a thing. 

(This is a graphic novel, by the way. I can't wait for the second half of this series.)


2016 - Books 2, 3, and 4

Stoner - John Williams

This is a book that is beautiful, desolate, and filled with perhaps two glimmers of hope that only make the rest of it all the more depressing. For the last four days I have felt that my laptop has had a monster in it because of this book; every time I opened it I would see my Kindle app stare out at me, waiting for me to slay it.

 It is so remarkably difficult to read that I struggle to even think about it, to talk about it. On Page 1 of this novel the reader is assured that the subject of the book, William Stoner, led a perfectly unremarkable and indeed mediocre life in which he had almost no effect on anybody. His colleagues at the University of Missouri never held him in any esteem, and neither did his family. This singular act infuses the rest of the book with the knowledge that everything is going to collapse.

And it really does collapse - but I will not tell you how. I can only urge you to read this book. Read it, and marvel at it. I will be busy weeping in a corner of the room.


2016 - Book 1

December 2013

Factotum – Charles Bukowski

I was assured that Factotum would change my life. Yet I think there are two other books on this list that had a far greater impact on me. I cannot for the life of me say why. Factotum is a bombshell of a book. It follows some part of the life of Henry Chinaski, which consists mostly of a series of jobs, women, and bottles of alcohol, occasionally interrupted by some attempts to write.

I think it is more powerful when I think about it than when I actually read it (though when I read it it was pretty stupendous). Henry keeps finding minor moments of something that is not happiness but might better be described as stability, and then keeps fucking it up. At some point you realise that the point of the book is to make you realise the pointlessness of it all, and when you do it makes the rest of the book even more soulcrushing.

Jesus. Just thinking about it makes me want to hide in a hole. Maybe that’s the point?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

This book just hit me like a train. I was in Swaroop’s house, and everyone was sleeping the afternoon away. I wasn’t really looking for something to tread, and had in fact picked up some other crime novel that started badly and only became worse. Then I came across this in his shelf and didn’t put it down until it finished.

What a book.

Diaz writes about Oscar Wao, a second generation immigrant to the United States from the Dominican Republic. But it also tells the story of his mother, his sister, his grandfather. Oscar is overweight and has no friends. He falls in love too easily and is constantly unable to fall out. He’s forever insisting that he is about to beomce the next Tolkien. But it is this pathos that endears you to him. As you read the book you root for Oscar and his every failure only makes you want him to succeed more.

But throughout the book there’re also meditations on the history of the Dominican Republic itself. The narrator, Oscar’s roommate, wonders whether the long shadow of General Trujillo and his fuku, the curse that haunts every family in the Republic, are what have made Oscar into what he is now. And to some extent, it has. Yet there is hope, that a zafa might counter the fuku when it is most needed.

Yet Oscar’s life is, as the cover says, brief and wondrous. Following him through his wondrous life is made all the more heart wrenching for its brevity. When the book ends you’re just left with a sense that Oscar’s life really could have gone nowhere else.

Peppered with references to the Lord of the Rings and the X Men, Oscar Wao’s life is in incredible experience. I loved it from start to finish.

Steelheart – Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson is Sanderson. He writes fun things. In this case he writes about the post apocalyptic world where some people have superpowers and behave like total bastards. They go around killing, maiming, and looting the world and there’s no one to stop them. And Steelheart is the worst of them all.

The book is basically ‘What if Superman was evil?’ Every Epic, as they’re called in the book, has a weakness. But they also have a ton of strengths. Steelheart is superstrong, superfast, can shoot energy beams from his hands, and cannot be hurt. Yet David, the novel’s protagonist, has seen Steelheart bleed. He knows he can be hurt. And if he can be hurt, he can be killed.

It’s pretty good. Standard Sanderson fare.

The Alloy of Law – Brandon Sanderson

Largely, see above. Sanderson does his thing. The fourth in his Mistborn series, it fast forwards a couple hundred years after the end of the last trilogy and sees some increase in technology and society. Basically a cowboy novel set on his world of Scadrial.

Honestly, it was well done and all, but I preferred Red Country.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

If Oscar Wao hit me like a train, this was a tsunami. I saw it coming and could not get out of the way. And when I was swept up in it, I wasn’t sure I wanted it to let me go.

A Tale for the Time Being is a double novel, sort of. A novelist called Ruth finds a diary belonging to a girl called Yasutani Nao. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but the book follows both Ruth and Nao as one writes the diary and the other reads it. Though actually you know that the diary has been written long before it ever found its way into Ruth’s hands, while reading the book you fall into thinking that they’re both happening at the same time. And that’s part of the reason the book is so stunning. The way it handles time is superfragilistic. Nao and Ruth are living in the same time, and yet they’re not.

There’s a lot of mind bending stuff in the book. Nao starts the diary trying to write the story of her old Jiko, her great-grandmother, and she’s one of the best characters in the book. She changed my life, a little. There’s a great deal of Buddhist Zen philosophy, a smattering of quantum physics, and a whole lot of tears.

This got shortlisted for the Booker. Guys, it should have won.

2013, so far, but only a little bit. And some of 2012

I have been terrible about writing about what I’m reading. I have read a not inconsiderable amount of books in the last year, and I haven’t kept track of what I’ve read, nor have I written down what I’ve thought of them.

But I feel like I should at least make the attempt. Here are some books I read over the last year. This is not an exhaustive list. I have read more than four books in the last year. Really, I have.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

You know those kind of books that grab you and don’t let go? This is one of them. I tried explaining what The Night Circus recently to someone, and I found that I couldn’t quite manage it. It is, for one thing, about a circus, and how it grows and makes people love it and follow it around the world. It is about the nature of love, too, and how people love each other and don’t quite manage to choose whom to love in love with. It is about magic, and the way that people think about magic, and whether or not it’s important that people think about magic at all.

The Night Circus is a story of many parts that are woven together with exquisite care. Every moment in it has with it a sense of something unreal. I loved it, and you will, too.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Sometimes you keep running into books, you know? I used to run into The Magicians a whole lot. Wherever I went, this book would be sitting there, and I’d thumb through the first couple of pages before thinking ‘Maybe another day.’

Well, that day finally came, and it was the oddest day. The hero is called Quentin Coldwater. It’s the sort of name you only ever see in fantasy novels. When was the last time you met someone with as interesting a name as Quentin Coldwater? He goes to a school of magic called Brakebills, and has all sorts of adventures. You might think it’s exactly the sort of think I’d love.

I didn’t. I really, really didn’t. I mean, it gripped me as only fantasy stories do, but I put it down and then I thought ‘This book meant nothing to me.’ I felt nothing for Mr Coldwater, was not in the least bit concerned with his wellbeing. It’s this sort of book that leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

It is a bit shit.

Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

Oof. Here’s a book that affected me. Tigana is a little typical of Kay, in that it’s set in a fictionalised version of a real world place, in this case Italy. There are two moons, and broad themes of love and honour and that sort of thing. It’s also another of these books that I’ve kept running into.

Unlike The Magicians, though, this one is great.

Tigana is set in a country that looks like Italy. The Peninsula of the Palm has been conquered separately by two tyrant sorcerers, each of whom wants the entire peninsula for his own. In doing so they crush the locals beneath their boots as they try to defeat the other.

At its core, Tigana is a book about identity. It is about what happens when a nation is conquered by an outside force that forces it to give up what is most essential to it. It is about the existential question of what really binds a nation.

But it is also about the fundamental humanity of even those who seem like villains, and the way that everyone changes in ways that they don’t expect. Tigana is a book that makes you sympathise with characters that you know you should hate. It is about revenge and the way it always affects those who pursue it.

Tigana is not without its flaws. Some parts of it are truly extraneous and a little odd. But its virtues are so good, so good, that I find it difficult to care about the bits I didn’t quite like.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by David Galbraith

See, the most important thing about this book is an unfortunate thing. David Galbraith is secretly J K Rowling. And it’s not really a secret, because she told someone who told someone who ended up telling the press.

And its unfortunate because The Cuckoo’s Calling is really rather good. It’s gripping from the get-go, and takes you for a rather enjoyable ride through a murder that appeals to the most basic parts of us.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a murder mystery in which a famous supermodel named Lula Landry apparently jumps off the balcony of her flat and dies. The police decide it is a suicide, but Landry’s brother suspects it was murder instead. So he hires private detective Cormoran Strike (what a name, right?) to find the truth for him.

Actually the book is fairly formulaic. Strike just methodically talks to every person connected with the case. There are no chase scenes, only one murder reconstruction scene, and almost no elements that distract you from Strike’s need to solve the case.
But Galbraith (or Rowling, if you’d prefer) is extremely good at making those conversations engrossing. It was only two-thirds of the way through the book that I realised at all that Strike had just been having conversations. IT seems so natural that you don’t really question it.

Strike is also an interesting character. He’s a little standard (broke PI who has one last chance) but is saved by some clever writing and an interesting history. His secretary Robin is equally interesting, though she fills the same Watsonesque persona we’ve seen in every murder sytery since SHerlock Holmes.

The Name of the Wind

‘It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die.’

 Sometimes you write about something knowing fully well that is has been written about more times than you can count, better than you will ever be able to, and in a manner more creative than even your dreams.

This is one of those times.

You already know the story of The Name of the Wind. This is the first, most important thing about it. You know it, because it has been told to you throughout your life. You know, for example, the story of how a boy meets a girl and falls in love. You know the way that a hero saves a town from being burned down by dragons. You know how a young man, down on his luck, finds the murderer before he can kill his next victim. You know this, and you know more than this. But this story tells you again, and makes you wonder if you ever really knew those stories.

But I will try my best to not tell you anything concrete about the story at all. Though you know it, though it is inscribed in you from childhood, to tell you the story would be a sin.

Which leaves me stuck with the unique problem of telling you about a story without, in fact, telling you about the story. But how to do that? It is as Gaiman said: ‘One describes the tale best by telling the tale.’

So let me tell you not about the tale, but the writing of the tale. Rothfuss has a chilling ability, as evinced by that deadly line above, to evoke emotions in you. Imagine a line like that, ‘the patient cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die’.  

He has a striking, stupefying ability to make you feel. He writes poems and leaves them hidden in his books like acorns in the winter ground. When you find them, they are old oak trees, and their roots flow through the entire story.

How odd to watch a mortal kindle
Then to dwindle day by day.
Knowing their bright souls are tinder
And the wind will have its way.
Would I could my own fire lend.
What does your flickering portend?

Oh but he writes achingly (aching is a good word for it. It tugs at you, and leaves you with a faint sensation that something somewhere hurts, but in a good way that betrays that sometimes sadness is uplifting).

He writes of love:

‘We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.’

Of the road:

‘No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.’

And of music:

‘Music is there for when words fail us.’

He writes of these things because he knows them as well as you and I know them, and he can write about them better than anyone else I know. Let me be very serious: Patrick Rothfuss inspires more in me than almost any other writer I have read. His ability with words is matched, perhaps, by ten others alive today. And so, I cannot take from you that first encounter with him, when he weaves a story like the most patient master weaver: with painstaking care and deeply complex craft and insurmountable amounts of love.

So I hope to cheat, and not actually tell you the tale, and instead talk of how he writes. I hope to leave for you breadcrumbs that form a trail of words. And the trail will lead you there, to The Name of the Wind.

What is the point of telling you about it this in this manner? The point is that if you have not read this book, then maybe you will now read it. Maybe you will read it, and in that case I hope you enjoy it (no, I know you will enjoy it). And if (when) you do enjoy it, I really hope you tell me, because man, this book is great.

It deserves to be read, and loved, and shouted about from the mountaintops.

Here it is, my mountaintop.