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Saturday, February 11, 2006


It's sad that even a mere airport bookstore overseas has more to offer than the stores in one's own city. (A cursory stroll though Changi's Times Link bookshop revealed E.L. Doctorow's The March, Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and William Vollman's Europe Central.)

It's sad that in the urge to conserve foreign exchange, one picked up only one of the above. (The Yiyun Li.)

It's sad that instead of heading to the electronics or liquor duty-frees like any self-respecting bloke, the first thing that one did was to look for a bookshop.

And it's sad that thereafter, one wanted to blog about it from the airport itself.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Break Of Sorts

As one is going to be away for the next three weeks, with only intermittent access to the Net, posting is likely to be erratic or even cease altogether for periods of time. As the Governor of California once said, "I'll be back".

A Daughter's Point of View

First reports of Janna Malamud Smith's memoir (earlier mentioned here) are trickling in. In Forward, Mark Oppenheimer writes of discovering that Bernard Malamud "had a long-term affair with one of his students at Bennington College. He was also a rather distant father, and he could be sadly indifferent to his wife's feelings. He wasn't a monster, just a small-time dabbler in loutishness."

Fortunately, "Smith has forgiven Dad. Her memoir of their relationship quotes at length from her father's letters to friends (and to his mistress), and that willingness to allow her father to speak for himself is, like the book itself, an act of generosity. Smith doesn't seem in the business of judging; her father died in 1986, and she is past the pain and the regret. Her book is an act of reflection, often analysis. It's the story of a girl coming of age on college campuses, the daughter of a sad man whose fame only slowly catches up with his talent."

He quotes a poignant recollection from the book. The daughter writes: "He willed himself on. As a little girl in Oregon, I'd hear him shaving in the bathroom, on the bad days cursing quietly to himself, on the good ones announcing to all within range, firmly, audibly, 'Someday I'm going to win.' "

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Metamorphosis Decaf

A report in today's Times of India indicates that Crossword bookstore will soon be opening a coffee shop to be called "the Kafka Cafe".

One morning, Franz Kafka awoke from troubled dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a trendy cafe. He lay on his cappucino-coloured back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into sections. Waiters, pitifully small compared with the size of the rest of him, scurried about helplessly as he looked down at them.

Franz then turned to look out the window at the crowds gathering outside. People carrying copies of The Da Vinci Code could be spotted, which made him feel quite sad. "How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense", he thought, but that was something he was unable to do.

He slid back into his former position. "Getting up early all the time", he thought, "it makes you stupid. You've got to get enough sleep. I'm a writer, not a cafe in a bookshop. And besides, even if I was to be a cafe, it would be one with labyrinthine corridors where what you ordered isn't always what you received and the waiters sneered at you behind your back causing you to wonder if you were dressed the wrong way, or if you had committed some crime such as adding too much milk to your espresso. Not this open, sunny place next to a bookshop that calls itself a ‘lifestyle booktore’ "

He was still hurriedly thinking all this through, unable to decide to get out of the bed, when there was a cautious knock at the door near his head. "Franz", somebody called - it was his mother - "it's quarter to seven. Didn't you want to go somewhere?" Franz wanted to answer but all he could muster up was the rumble of the cappucino machine and the clink of spoons on teacups as well as the chatter of excited schoolgirls pawing the latest novel by Robert James Waller.

He tried to get the top part of his body out of the bed first, carefully turning his head to the side. This he managed quite easily, and despite the cries of executives trying to save their laptops from toppling off the table, the bulk of his body eventually followed slowly in the direction of the head.

When Franz was already sticking half way out of the bed it occurred to him how simple everything would be if somebody came to help him. He called out faintly but this was quite lost in the hubbub of sales assistants asking people if they could help them and the ringing of cash registers as yet more consumers ordered hazelnut-flavour cappucinos. "Mother! Father!" he cried out. "I'm a cafe!"

"Oh, God!" called his mother, who was already in tears. “Did you hear the way Franz spoke just now?" His sister added, "And what's that aroma? Smells like someone has dropped jugfuls of latte in there!" "The nincompoop!" growled his father.

Franz slowly pushed his way over to the door and then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock . As the door opened he heard his mother go "Oh!" Then his father gave him a hefty shove from behind which released him from where he was held and sent him flying, deep into his room. The door was slammed shut; then, finally, all was quiet.

It was not until it was getting dark that evening that Franz awoke from his deep and coma-like sleep. The cafe was full; the bookshop to which it was attached had just hosted a book launch and the place was overflowing with journalists trying to stuff sandwiches into their bags, fans patting their autographed copies adoringly and some hangers-on who had realised that this was a good way to stay out of the sun

He looked down upon himself to find some familiar figures in the throng. “Mother? Father? Sister? Is that you?” he said weakly. It was them, he now realized, sitting at a corner table upon which was a chocolate dessert that the three of them were greedily consuming. His father, he noticed, was surreptitiously filling his pockets with sachets of Equal from a small silver bowl.

“What are you doing?” he cried. They looked up at him. “What do you think we’re doing?” his father sneered and then, turning to his mother, “See – I told you he was stupid.” “Hush,” said his sister. “Franz, dear, please try and understand. Your turning into a café is quite the best thing that’s happened to the family. We can come here whenever we like, it’s close by and it’s free! A welcome change from roaming around in those bleak Prague squares with no money in our pockets.” “Give him some stationery,” whispered his mother. His sister held out some diaries, along with some floral-patterned letter paper. “We bought these for you,” she said, “from the stationery department. It's well-stocked.” “Yes,” sniggered his father, “Scribble, scribble, scribble all day long – how’s that going to fill our stomachs, eh?” “Don’t worry, Franz,” his mother said, “We’ll give your letters to Max and Felice and tell them you had to leave town. Go to sleep now.”

“But – but – ” said Franz, but it was no use. They had turned away. His sister simpered and caught the eye of a leather-clad youth who entered the café with a copy of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance; his mother asked the waiter for some more crostinis; and his father picked up the remaining sachets from the bowl, tore them open and added them to his coffee.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

To Be Popular Or Not To Be?

"...given the inertia that characterizes nearly everyone’s aesthetic preferences, those writers who seek to provoke their readers often have to be on the defensive end in the debate. The most brilliant, ornate, and convoluted book might stretch its readers’ minds, but it’s probably not going to sell many copies...Keeping things comprehensible might be better for sales, but there’s often a more profound pleasure in unlocking a difficult novel—if you can find a way to approach its difficulties."

That's Gautam Hans, a Columbia College senior, asking questions about the worth of novels, using Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen as examples.

On a related note, lecturer, bookstore owner and actor Thor Ka Hoong says in The Malaysia Star: "Writing is knowing. I think this thought, the knowledge/wisdom that is derived from the process of creation, applies to all creative arts. I’m reminded of the artist Franc Kline who noted: 'Well, look, if I paint what you know, then that will simply bore you, the repetition from me to you. If I paint what I know, it will be boring to myself. Therefore, I paint what I don’t know.' "

Cartoons On Both Sides

"The Jyllands Posten cartoons, while purporting to be some kind of gesture supporting the notion of free speech, are shot through with...racism... Not the kind of intense racism that leads to lynchings, but the soft kind, the kind that lots of middle-class people express to one another at dinner parties when they think nobody from an ethnic minority is there to hear...But 'butchering' someone for drawing a cartoon? Or claiming that 9/11 or 7/7 are appropriate responses, as other protestors did? That's both appalling and appallingly stupid....No one should be getting on their high horse about religious offense unless they're also prepared to be equally vehement about Muslim anti-semitism."

- Hari Kunzru's thoughts on the offensive representations of the Prophet.

Update: Meanwhile, in an article on the same subject which uses words such as "socio-economic-political elites" and "delegitimise", Sandhya Jain asserts: "Interestingly, Salman Rushdie received a staggering advance to demonize Ayatollah Khomeini for deposing the darling of American oil companies."


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Leaving Macondo

At the Hay festival in Cartagena, Maya Jaggi finds that a younger breed of Latin American novelists are moving out of the long shadow of Marquez's magic realism -- from the "narco-realism" of Jorge Franco to the Gothic fantasies of Francisco Goldman to Laura Restrapo's attempts to capture "women's reality".

Meanwhile, Franco's Paradise Travel is reviewed in the Christian Science Monitor: "...for readers who want to dip into the dark urban currents emerging in Latin literature as well as to enjoy a survival tale (and the love story here is a survival tale as well), this tight and skillfully plotted novel would be the book."

Read Me, Read My Family

Families, they say, have been providing inspiration to fiction writers almost from the birth of the novel itself. And, according to Somini Sengupta in The New York Times, Vikram Seth is no exception.

Critiquing Updike

"...he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair."

- From one of the essays in David Forster Wallace's Consider The Lobster that discusses the art of John Updike. (Courtesy this review.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

A Native Of Calcutta

"Through my journeys I have imbibed the identity of the traveler and outsider and come to understand the scope, depth and vastness of the Indian Diaspora. At the same time, I am a native of India's cultural center - Calcutta - the country's cultural and artistic capitol, which has given me the sense of being part of a long and rich literary heritage."

Amitav Ghosh was recently a guest of Tel Aviv University's writers-in-residence program hosting international authors. Here he is in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

Just Larkin'

John Banville pays homage to a man who was intolerant, racist, misogynist -- and a great poet.