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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mumbai 0, Delhi 2

Mumbai's swish set may disdain the ways of Dilli-wallahs all it likes, but there's no denying that the capital's bookshops are in an altogether different league in comparison. As one is in the city on a short trip, one briefly visited Khan Market this afternoon, dropping in to Bahri Sons and Full Circle (The Bookshop unfortunately having to close its Khan Market outlet), and acquired David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit and Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn -- titles that the stores in Mumbai are simply clueless about. Not to mention other titles on display such as the Tocquevillian American Vertigo by Bernard Henri-Levi and the impassioned You Must Set Forth At Dawn, a memoir by Wole Soyinka. (In contrast, the leading chain in Mumbai seems grimly intent on flogging copies of How Opal Mehra Got Her Groove Back, or whatever the blessed thing is called.)

After such musings, one turned to another pleasure available only in Delhi: a portion of squidgy chocolate mousse cake from Big Chill, where this post was composed -- not on a spiffy laptop, alas, but on a crumpled yellow napkin.

Update: There is room for hope, however. One has heard that Chennai's Landmark (earlier written about here) has just opened an 18,000+ sq ft bookstore in Infiniti Mall, Lokhandwala. One trusts that it's going to be worth the visit. Another update: It's actually opening on the 26th. One looks forward.

Muriel Spark, 1918 - 2006

`"I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself." - Dame Muriel Spark, who passed away at 88 in Tuscany earlier this evening.

The Inventor Of Modern Narrative

The incomparable James Wood on the unsurpassable Gustave Flaubert:

"Novelists should thank Gustave Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. He is the originator of the modern novel; indeed, you could say that he is the originator of modern narrative - that the war reporter and the thriller writer owe as much to him as the avant-garde fictionist...

"Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert. And after Flaubert, it sometimes seems, this is all you can find."

Malkani's &*^%$# Londonstani

Gautam Malkani's much-hyped Londonstani is an expletive-laden look at British Asian teenagers and their lives of conspicuous consumption. Zoe Paxton reads it out to a mixed class of teenagers in Hounslow with mixed results:

"The consensus from the teenagers was that these words are 'real' and this is how Hounslow teenagers speak. Some were at pains to point out that they didn’t use such expressions themselves (although their brothers and cousins did), and some said that even those who do talk like this don’t do it all the time (not in front of their mothers, presumably) but that, overall, Malkani had it spot-on."


"...there was also a feeling that it was strange to see the words in print. 'He has got everything right,' one girl said. 'But it’s too exaggerated and you would never, ever, write these words down.' It seems that fixing the dialect in a book — capturing something by its very nature so fluid and elusive — is almost perverse to them. This is hinted at in the novel when Jas, the narrator, explains gang branding thus: 'People are always trying to stick a label on our scene. That’s the problem with havin a fuckin’ scene. First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, fuckin’ Indobrits. These days we try an’ use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis.' "

Friday, April 14, 2006

Writer's Block

One has never had the experience of one's muse packing up and leaving, simply because one is still awaiting her arrival. But this engaging article in the Sydney Morning Herald examines the plight of authors who get stuck, for one reason or another -- including worthies such as Truman Capote, Harper Lee and E.M. Forster. And, yes, Arundhati Roy.

And Now, Martin's Turn

Well, we've had Ian McEwan's Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jay McInerney's The Good Life and are awaiting John Updike's Terrorist. And the next writer on the block attempting to write about 9/11 is none other than one-time enfant terrible Martin Amis, with his House of Meetings, a novella and two short stories, one of which "imagines the final movements of Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker of the 11 September attacks in America." His publisher says: "These themes and settings may look like unfamiliar ground for Martin Amis. But in fact he is returning to his central preoccupation: the nature of masculinity, and the connections between male sexuality and violence." Oh dear.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The 14th Way Of Looking At It

Margaret Drabble doesn't find much to like in Jane Smiley's ode to reading, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel:

"Smiley taught creative writing in Iowa for a decade and a half, and it shows. She claims to believe that novel-writing is essentially a learned and learnable activity, not based on genius or talent. She likes to refer to plots as circles or pyramids, and tells us that almost every novel 'gathers itself at the 62 per cent mark' - but then she rethinks the strategy and advises you that you have to get a climax at about 85 per cent or 90 per cent of your way into your novel...much of her commentary is perfunctory, basic and banal."

Pulitzer Leaks

This week, the the 18-person Pulitzer Board meets in the journalism building at Columbia University to pick the winners of the organization's 14 journalism awards. Secrecy has always surrounded the gathering, and there inevitably have been leaks, too. The three finalists in each category, chosen several weeks ago by the Pulitzer juries, are never officially revealed until the winners are named on Monday, April 17. However, an article in Editor & Publisher now lists all the finalists, claiming that they're "based on leaks from judges and confirmations from editors and reporters." Take a look.

More From Bezmozgis

The Toronto-based David Bezmozgis' remarkable collection of short stories, Natasha, dealt with the predicament of Latvian immigrants in Canada, and won him praise from critics and writers such as James Wood and Jeffrey Eugenides. Here's a recent profile, in which the author shares his admiration for Isaac Babel ("He does more in a sentence than most novelists do in an entire novel") and talks of his new work, a novel that will “take place in a different time and a different place....Put it this way, it will have more Latvia in it.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

At Random

Though Random House India hung out its shingle in June 2005, they seem to have maintained an extremely low profile since then, with not even one title being published here so far. Well, all that's about to change soon, according to this Express report which states that they've "signed Jhumpa Lahiri for an as yet untitled novel and a collection of short stories. Both will be released in India later this year, along with an author tour, while the international editions have been bought by publishing house Knopf." Also on the cards is Abha Dawesar's That Summer in Paris, and general manager Vivek Ahuja "says that the publishing house is thinking of making a foray into vernacular publishing, bringing out books in Hindi and Malayalam as well as other Indian languages."

Where There's A Will, There's A Play

In an observation that's sure to strike a chord with all of us here, James Shapiro says that he hated William Shakespeare during his teenage years: "What pleasure I might have found in his work was killed off by my teachers. Dissecting his lines in English class seemed as pointless an exercise as cutting up a frog in the biology lab. Though I studied hard, his plays felt alien, their language impenetrable."

This attitude changed, however, when he began watching the plays on stage: "Over time, I saw scores of productions. In those days, with a little diligence, one could hunt down a ground-breaking production of almost any one of Shakespeare's plays."

Which is why he's particularly enthused about rhe Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival, that will stage the entire canon over the next 12 months. Commenting on the lesser-known plays, Shapiro makes the interesting point that "what gets lost is Shakespeare's restlessness, his unusual development as a writer, his daring refusal to stick to what had brought him success. His less successful experiments have as much to tell us about the nature of his accomplishment as his masterpieces do: the RSC festival should make clearer how Shakespeare could have found his way to Hamlet only through Titus Andronicus, while the seeds of Pericles and The Tempest were sown early on in The Comedy of Errors."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How Many Words Are There In English?

Approximately 988,968, says Paul Payack, President, Global Language Monitor.

Don't you believe it, says Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Another Hatchet Job

Judging a round of the Morning News Tournament of Books 2006, critic Dale Peck swings his hatchet again:

"In an essay in Hatchet Jobs, I referred to fiction as the engine of capitalism. After reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Ali Smith’s The Accidental, I think I was being generous, at least as regards novels being written now. The truth is, contemporary fiction’s nothing more than an enabler of certain bourgeois illusions. At least McEwan seems to understand this; Smith doesn’t even pretend to a dialectic...But speaking more generally—hell, you’re all just waiting for the pull quote anyway—books like these make me want to join al Qaeda. It’s not so much the books themselves that make me wish our way of life would come to an end sooner rather than later, but, rather, the fact that seemingly intelligent and educated people find reasons to praise them."

Coetzee's Concern

The Nobel laureate spoke in Adelaide recently about his views on university writing programs:

"Should we be worried that the graduating students are equipped to write novels and stories and plays for today's literary market but not well informed about the history of these forms or about what has been achieved in the forms in the past?...If I asked the corresponding question in the realms of science and technology, a reasonable answer would probably be, no, it is nothing to be worried about, that someone could get a degree in astronomy without knowing about Ptolemy or a degree in engineering without knowing about Archimedes."

(Link via Bookninja.)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Deconstructing Michiko

Heroine or harridan? Opinion has always been divided when it comes to the influential New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani. The fact that she's somewhat of a recluse hasn't helped matters -- see, for example, the slightly mean-spirited (though hilarious) parody, "I Am Michiko Kakutani". Now that Ms Kakutani has entered her 25th year as a reviewer, Ben Yagoda (author of the New Yorker history About Town and the more recent The Sound on the Page) gives us his take:

"It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait. Furthermore, in my observation, she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time."


"...Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic. Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaint—the job is called critic, after all—but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling."

Franzen's Discomfort

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was one of the most talked about books of 2001. And his Oprah moment only made the hype noisier. But at a recent reading to students of Hunter College from his forthcoming memoir, The Discomfort Zone, the author proved to be well, insecure and awkward:

"Franzen sheepishly undercut his work with self-disparaging comments for over an hour, telling the gathered students and faculty, 'If this doesn’t go well I’ll never read it again,' and saying that he is worried because in his new book 'all the best parts are towards the end.' "

"The Best Minds Of My Generation"

Sven Birkerts, Luc Sante and others remember Ginsberg's Howl half a century later.

A Pleasant Evening

The other day, one decided to drop into Danai, the bookshop at Khar, for a brief visit. Though inhabited by attendants who converse in very loud voices about their friends, their evenings out and their lunches, one still visits the place because every now and then you can chance upon interesting titles not available elsewhere in Mumbai.

After a few minutes, during which one picked up Paul Johnson's Creators and Tarquin Hall's Salaam Brick Lane, there was a power cut, which plunged the store into darkness. The gentleman next to me whipped out a pocket flashlight and continued to examine the shelves. (One salutes you, Sir.) Elsewhere, however, there was much to-ing and fro-ing as the attendants realised that the emergency lights weren't working, that they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces and that the power wasn't returning anytime soon. After much debate and ado, one of them bravely produced a candle, lit it, and then gazed around uncertainly as though wondering whether books were combustible material.

One went up to an attendant who was busy wringing his hands and enquired whether billing would still be possible. "Yes!" he bellowed. "Er, and will your credit card machine still work?" one meekly continued. "Yes!" he shouted. Ears ringing, one proceeded to the cashier's counter to discover that in the murk, the cashier had misplaced his bill book and was adamant about not allowing me to pay until he located it. After several more minutes, one produced a credit card, only to be firmly told that they wouldn't be accepting cards because of the power failure. At this point, muttering curses, one stepped out of the shop, sidestepping a mound of rubble that the good officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had thought it wise to place on the pavement.

Just another evening in Mumbai, India's commercial capital.