2012 Stories : The Reading Flow

This is a delta t post (t is time chunk in life). As in description of a chosen period of life (chosen by self/writer, also specific variables chosen to be talked about, others specifically not delved in) instead of a dt/t post, which is a dip of a random moment in time (the moment at which it is written, a complete check up, so to say of all/some life variables) . The intention of the 2012 Stories bit is to write a few delta t stories. Because come to think of it, everything that I have done in my professional life, it has always been building of a delta t narrative. Why not apply that to a personal narrative once in a while too?

See, I’m an honest story teller. I’ll be out with the hook of this story right away. In a period of 30 consecutive days in this year, starting 20 Oct, I read up ten books. That is it.

That time period has been randomly chosen, as are the figures of 10 and 30 (What? It is not a deca metric system world!). I read a lot of books before that period (yes immediately before too) and have read three more since. There was wilful cheating involved too. I had realised 20 days into the period that I have read 6 books, and I pushed myself to read 4 more in the next 10 (and wilfully chose books with thickness 200-250 pages, not more). Also one of the books is a book of poems that I read in less than half hour. So well why? Because it makes a good delta t narrative. I think.

Two of the books were non-fiction (the second and third) and the rest were fiction. One was a book of poems (the one I was hesitant about including here). The books were chosen randomly (whichever next caught my eye). So what was common in that selection? I read all of them on my 3.7 inch Motorola phone. Yes, take a deep breath. I am not making it a point point. Now is not the time of head-shaking and blah-blah and this or that (there will be time for it later *). This is just the only common variable in the list, I read them all on my phone. Let’s move on.

A small note about me through the month. Dussehra and Diwali fell during that period. I had gone on a ride to Shivanasamudra falls, and onwards to Mysore to see  the festivities at Mysore Dasera (we didn’t, too tired after the ride, we slept through the afternoon and woke up after all the festivities were over). I also went over to Pune for NH7, a five day trip. The point being that reading was not obsessively being pursued over other distractions.

Meanwhile, here’s the list of the books.

  1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
  2. Opium Fiend by Steven Martin.
  3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.
  4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.
  6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
  7. Skios by Michael Frayn.
  8. I could pee on this by Francesco Marciuliano.
  9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
  10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have read parts of other books through this period too, most notably Lord of the Rings, and Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.  They are still on my Currently Reading list.

1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

This was the book that took the longest to finish, six days, and even before that was involved in two false starts, and the one that incensed me the most. Enough for me to write Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way. My reflection on the book,

I feel a bit more kindly towards Narcopolis (very little) after finishing it, in the sense that perhaps I now understand what he was trying to do, also comprehension has dawned as to why the hullaboo off shores about this book. Like the amazing Chinaman last year, which mimics the stages of a cricket test match, even the way in which the writing guides the reader into a certain mind state through the book. One gets it, this is what Jeet Thayil is out to do, this is one long pull off an opium pipe – that is how one gets guided into the book, a prologue of one sentence. A seven page long sentence. And that is the best piece of writing in the book. In that, it sets up everything, your possible reactions, how you should read it (slow, repeated puffs). And that is how the book is constructed. If you took a good, long puff at the prologue, you would be well into the narrative (if you can call it that) before you realize that this isn’t a very good trip after-all. That is why the continued bewilderment of where the narrative is going, continued chapters – pages after pages of disembodied dreams, disconnected from everything, just a vague bloody fog page after page. What the fuck is happening? What am I reading about? Didn’t I just lay down in a khana in Shuklaji Street with an Opium pipe? Why am I reading about this Chinese man? Where the fuck did he come from? And it irritated me. The fact that that is not a random occurence. That the author knows the lay mind’s connection between opium and china. So just like that, that is a major character. Whether you like it or not. You have just taken a puff of opium and you don’t like what is happening to you. You are not supposed to. You don’t like these dreams, and these vague shapes, and this dirtiness, and there’s a whore, and she’s a hijra, and oh fuck the shame, here take a puff, this is so literary and raw.

Excerpt begins from Chapter 4 : Mr. Lee’s Lessons in Living

[Lee dreams] Then he heard drums, jungle drums, and he thought of witch doctors and the image of the great junk faded to violet mist. He heard the sound of surf and he heard someone speaking or cursing in Hindi. Your mother’s cunt, the voice said. Or the voice was saying someone’s name, Marky Chu.”

Excerpt ends.

I understand why to the lay and uninitiated foreign reviewer, the below would seem to be the case. (this sentence is the first thing that google flashes at you if you punch in Narcopolis)

“Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.”

Subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. Gulp! Definitely going to be a couple of sessions called that in the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

These are dirty, ugly characters with nothing to flesh them out from each other. Random chapters start with a different “I”, protagonists move from page to page before you can say uh, hello and one doesn’t feel any different in inhabiting a different character from one page to another. One doesn’t really care either. Oh the motherfucker is dreaming again. And yes, he/she/it is high, and the dreams must mean something.

A character in the book gets one another addicted to a new maal called Chemical. It is garad (dusted heroin, brown) that the local dealers mix with rat poison. The strychnine in it is what gives you the real kick. It’s the shit, in that the first sampler just dies, boom.

For the lack of a better word imagery, that is what this book feels like to me. Very artificial. Very Chemical. Not organic. Not felt. But constructed. That is the feeling I get. Of pretense. Of slimy pretense. For aggrandizing and self profiting. It is a carefully constructed book, however it doesn’t take out my initial and continuing distaste with the writing. It is carefully constructed for a reason, to appeal to a certain populist wildness. While one might rightfully argue that fiction has a right to be well, Chemical and they would be right.

I still do not feel empathetic towards the writing, nothing for the characters, not even disgust, just nothing. Immediately after finishing the book this morning (I had a little tenderness in me for the book by then, well constructed that it was), I returned back to the beginning and read the prologue again and skimmed through most of the first half of the book again, now that I knew how the plot went by the end. Still, nothing. Just a bad trip. And Jeet Thayil knows it is a bad trip, and he wants it to be a bad trip because aren’t dirty bad trips set in Bombay literary? Oh my, here, take another puff.

But the primary reason I am pissed about Narcopolis is that it takes the name of Bombay in vain.  More here.

2. Opium Fiend : A 21st century slave to a 19th century addiction by Steven Martin.

I picked this book up as a counter-point to being disgusted with the writing in Narcopolis. At about 430 pages, this was the thickest of the list. With its disaffected narrative, this was also the most brilliant to have been put to words, an awe pervaded towards the author by the end. This was an absolute pleasure to read, the best reading experience amongst this list of ten, even perhaps amongst the top few in the year (and I have read a lot this year). Here is an excerpt from the book, the first chapter that I reproduced on my blog. My reaction to the book:

MIND FUCKED! This is an amazing book, the obsessive and meticulous and honest and intelligent memoirs of a SANE guy. The opium is an ever present backdrop, but this is essentially the author’s story felt and what a bloody story! The writing is masterful and very, very engaging, in that he explains his pleasures, his fascinations, and he builds them up, like he felt them, like he experienced them, down to some specific texture his fingers experienced, it is an enchanting experience reading this book. I very highly recommend it.

This is a FANTASTIC book! I wish if and when I write my own memoirs, I could use a tone as disaffected, engaging and unhurried as the author in here. This is an amazing racy read even without opium fascination. If you are, however, interested in opium, the paraphernalia and the customs and the whole hog, there isn’t a more detailed book written on the subject (so says the author after diligent research.I believe him.)

3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

I had a personal experience in my life, quite recently, inspired by this book (I plan to write another 2012 Story on that, shall link it here after that is done – here it is). While undergoing that experience, and it was pretty painful, all I could think of were words from this book, quite surprising for that moment in time. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Here is what I wrote immediately after finishing the book.

“Among the thugs” is both a very fun and a very funny book, surprising since the premise is football(fan) violence, which quickly moves on to crowd behavior. Buford is a witty writer and his pace is frantic and electric. He spends quite a bit of time expounding his theme and thoughts but without ever sounding preachy or “learned”.

Bill Buford spent about five years (gonzo) researching crowds, their motivations and reasons for sudden spontaneous, meaningless violence and vandalism. By the end of it, he is sickened by the subject as well as the time he wasted (his words) on it. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable book to read. He mentions that all previous literature on crowds is from the perspective of the victims, of a moment delta t in time when “something happened” because of the crowd. What has always been missing is the perspective from inside the crowd, of how it got together, how the adrenaline builds up, the myths about crowd “leadership” (A leader doesn’t make a crowd, a crowd makes a leader). The way Buford writes about the process of a crowd building up to the point where “it will go off” is breathless(and he does it repeatedly, again and again, at different events, different crowds).

I would highly recommend this book if you are looking for something “different” to read. It has certainly aided my understanding of crowd behavior, and in quite an entertaining turn of prose.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

This was perhaps not a random pick up. I had an eye on the movie that was about to release, and I wanted to read this before I saw the movie. I had started this twice before, but had got lost in the initial meetings and Mamaji and so on. This time however (flow maybe?), I finished it off in one breath (figuratively, dear reader, figuratively). Needless to say, I loved the read, and yes, I felt that the book was better than the movie, more entertaining even (though the movie was visually beautiful). It did not make me believe in God by the end, and I still haven’t got that bit (the improbability of survival attributed to existence of god, perhaps?), but I loved the young Pi Patel bits in the book. My immediate reaction to the book was a succinct

Waah Waah!

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.

This was one of the most delightfully weird books I have read this year, completely unexpected, and one with an enlightened sense of humor. You could call it black humor, hell.. you could call this book a lot of things, and yet I don’t think it would do justice to this reading experience. Here is what I tried saying.

This is a beautifully weird book! Leningrad is under seige in war torn europe. There is no food in the city, nothing, since September! People melt the gum from book spines and sell/eat for the proteins. In that bleak setting, our protagonists are out searching for a dozen eggs.It would be sad if I used tired cliches to describe this wildly original book, so let me think of a movie that comes close to this mood. The first one that I was reminded of was “Life is beautiful”, but “City of Thieves” is not half as cheesy. Ah, Zombieland! Yes, that would describe the dominant mood and milieu perfectly. This is a buddy book, a journey book, a war book, a coming of age book, weird and beautiful at the same time.
It would make an evocative graphic novel. You (the “I” in the book) are a puny, seventeen year old virgin boy in war sieged St. Pietersburg. Hunger, propaganda and patriotism abound all around, when you meet a suave charmer called Kolva, and get on to a mission to get a dozen eggs for a wedding cake. The city hasn’t seen eggs (or chicken or any other food for that matter) in a long, long time and it is a fool’s errand.

I have never read anything like this. I would heartily recommend it. It’s quite a light read despite the subject.

6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

I didn’t like this much, though I really wanted to (moment in time, right book at the right time?). Alas. This is what I felt when I was done reading it.

This one’s a A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, and not a good one at that (the movie’s better).

The book runs you through nine short stories and nine women (none of who I would ever want to be dating, seriously). In fact, the apathy towards the characters extends to such a level that I felt good every-time one of the girls would take his ass, or vice-versa for that matter, they deserve this shit, you think. The book does showcase the Dominican way of life, in a distracted sort of way, but literary merit? In something that is fun and games and assholery and dear diary? I could choke on some of the reviews written here for this book.

A strictly okay read, on the face interesting only because breakups are the subject.

7. Skios by Michael Frayn.

Read in the moment. Very Wodehousian (stripped down). My reaction after reading the book.

Skios is a farce (right then); a good, old-fashioned potatoes-&-meat kind of dependable old world humor, nothing too exotic (despite this being on a greek island), just mistaken identities, people tripping over this and that, co-incidences, and ex-girlfriends and current crushes meeting, and midnight rendezvous going crazy, two greek taxi drivers (brothers!!) going back and forth, very Wodehousian and everything coming all together in a giant climax.

This is a very easy read, keeps you sniggering and interested through the book and piles on loads of genteel humor, something rare to find these days.

I had not heard of Michael Frayn before Skios (I am gloriously uninformed), but I am definitely looking to read more books/plays by him.

8. I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

This is the only one I am guilty about putting here, a sort of making up the numbers. Ideally, Nine Parts of Desire would have been here instead of this, but I haven’t still finished it. My “review”.

Can’t believe I read this all the way (in twenty minutes). The disbelief is not upon reading this quickly, but upon finding me reading

1. A “Cat” book.
2. A “Poems” book.

Ah well.

9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

I wrote a lot after reading this book (twice too, the first time my internet connection ate up the unsaved words), and I was pissed at the book too, part of the reason was certainly being that I expected it to be a breezy, quick read (Stream of consciousness, hello?), and it took every bit of my self resolve to plod through it after a point. Here, just read what I wrote,

I am not the intended target reader of the book, and I speak this not as an Indian, though this monologue is indeed given to an American (and hence to a dumb cliche employed who doesn’t understand cultural diversity). I say that with respect to the story that the author has unloaded on to the reader. The narrator is an author surrogate, down to the Princeton education, the management consultancy job, etc. etc. I would wager to suggest that most of the experiences come from the author’s autobiographical bouquet.

The author frequently tries to shock the reader with simplicities – Look I have a beard, but I can speak flawless English and I am polite, Look I am a Pakistani fundamentalist but I have fucked an American, Look I am a produce of Princeton and million dollar salaries but I am anti-american in my heart – I smiled when the twin towers went down. I can understand why Americans would have a hard-on about this, but this doesn’t work if you are not a Westerner, or if you have been a little been-there or done that (or if you yourself have a beard).

Despite the illusion of it’s thin-ness, it took me about four times longer (than expected) to finish this book. It wouldn’t ever engage long enough, and it’s ranting at times sounded dated and childish. The book is a polemic against American policies in/against Pakistan sandwiched within a thinly veiled “love story”. I put that under quotes because it is a fucked up love story. I can see who it has been aimed at. The guy is smartest in his batch at Princeton (he is hungry for success, you see), but is basically a virgin, and hence his unsure non-threatening ways are seen as gentlemanly by the american girl. The girl is in love with a dead ex-lover and won’t forget him. Every time they meet, she is like Oh Chris (the dead guy), and I am like Chris ki maa ki choot. I have met people with both the above afflictions and both types have been unbearable as company. To have these as main characters in your book only suggests a personal connection, otherwise I cannot imagine voluntarily spending time with such chutiya characters (but nevertheless exotic to western readers).

The protagonist would suck Uncle Sam’s cock as long as it takes to reach the million dollar salary and then feel guilt and angst and self hatred at working the job. This is an oft repeated motif across generations of NRI (or P) kids, everyone feels they are selling their soul for financial gain while not considering personal goals and that is so painful and boo hoo hoo. Oh so brave of you to quit it all.

I am sick of reading this shit and I am sick of the gusto with which the same is lapped up every time. Everyone needs something for their Saturday night (tear) drinking sessions while bitching about their corporate chains and how they are wasting their lives.

I was quite pissed by the end of this book, especially with passages that perpetuate the myth of a victimized and innocent Pakistan instead of providing an insider perspective. The insider perspective is limited to what food is available in Lahore, or how Jasmines smell nice here.

Sample for example this passage (and there are many like this through the book) which in essence state that all Pakistani problems are either due to America or India. What I find amazing is that never for a moment, not for a sentence, not for a whiff of thought is the idea ever presented that Pakistani society/government could also have some role to play in this fucked up charade. And this is the educated view!

“A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage. This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.”

No, I do not believe you can opt to stay out of conflict while living in a conflict zone. That is wishful and stupid thinking. You are implicated even if you do nothing; especially if you do nothing as a society.

I am quite the Mohsin Hamid fan, judging from my reaction to his first book Moth Smoke, but this one sorely lacks the poetry of his first effort, and instead chooses to play upon the hackneyed insecurities of the average western reader. Judging by the general reaction to the book, he has succeeded, and that’s a shame.

10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have not written a review of this book yet. This moody, quirky massage of a book was the one that soaked into me. It stayed with me, like a thick atmosphere around me while I was reading it, and I kept talking about it to people, long detailed descriptions that just fucked me up in their laid back style. I haven’t felt like that since The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I have been meaning to see the movie for years now, and I have always put it off for some reason or the other. I downloaded it the night after finishing the book. But still haven’t seen it, because I know it wouldn’t/cannot be as good as the book. These words in your head build up such a sick atmosphere that any amount of visualization would totally kill. I know it.




There it is then. The ten books in a month story. Now a few footnotes on equipment, technique, flow and this and that.

Equipment and Technique:

My phone, the one on which these shenanigans have been done, is the 3.7 inch screener Motorola Defy. This is no doubt the device that stays with me the most, almost always, is with me just before I fall asleep, I can read on it when the lights are off (critical score). More importantly, I am not scared of breaking it, or am never too careful with it in the loo/shower.

The tension free Defy.

The tension free Defy.

A Kindle was one of the first purchases I made earlier this year. That purchase, along with discovering Goodreads the website created a spurt in my accumulation/reading. Also, I have been in Bangalore and have access to Blossoms, perhaps the best second hand bookstore in India. So as far as obsession is concerned, it was well stoked and humoured throughout. Sometimes (lot of times), I would buy the paper version of the book, load it up on my kindle and on my phone, and would just move from one to another on whim and want (though I would tend to stick to one version after I was into the book). I have done this for a lot of books this year, and I have not noticed any preference for any particular device. Reading in one form tends to encourage further reading in the same. This is especially true because for me, I think, reading on the phone becomes an everyday seamless thing instead of discrete items as in the case of books.

There have been a few books which would have been impossible to read but on the Kindle. The % of book read feature is a very comforting, essential even for trudging through a few “classics” this year.

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

Numbers, Ratios and Flow.

I have read a lot of books this year. Not only more books this year than any other year, but it feels more than all the books I have ever read (I am exaggerating for effect), certainly some of the most important books I have ever read (a lot of those that had been getting pushed endlessly plus the discovery of David Simon). At the wee end of the year, it feels I hadn’t been reading before at all. As a comparison from a previous year – 2005-2006 in this case because I remember the numbers from that year, my first year of earning a salary. I had bought 72 books in  that first year of having my own money. I read 4 in that time.

Goodreads has this self imposed Reading Challenge feature that you can set for yourself. At the start of the year, I had set it at a highly ambitious (for me) 25 for the year. As of today, my count for the year is 37, with me confident of polishing off another 5-6 before the year ends.

This was not something I came out to achieve, reading hasn’t been a target activity for me, nor have I obsessed over it for long. There have been entire months where I haven’t touched a book. I think there are two things responsible for this – the reading flow (the more I read, the more I want to read), and the almost unlimited and immediate ability to get any book in the world at the moment you desire it, online. The latter still feels magical and beats every other advantage of a “real book” for me. But the point is not to diss any particular form over another. The point is that reading has been a pleasure this year, almost as if I have discovered it for the first time.

One thought on “2012 Stories : The Reading Flow

  1. Pingback: 2013 Stories : Jailhouse Project – Rediscovering Music | Gonzo

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