I can recollect the last six years of my life only in semesters. No other measurement makes sense. The last time I did this, I was less obsessed with archiving. Even so, this still remains the only reliable way of dealing with the guilt of not writing about the books I read this semester.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester
I was teaching a paper on linguistics this year and began my semester with this book. Kindle often gives one the impression that the reading is going a lot quicker than it usually does. Even so, the reading was slow – all the note-making definitely helped – as did the time I took to marvel at each history lesson learned. I loved the book because it told me fascinating stories about people who channeled all their energy into pursuits that are barely acknowledged today. The book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The history of how a bunch of men spent 2 decades and more to produce the world’s first dictionary. Samuel Johnson had actually done it long before them, as did many other people who put together one form of a dictionary or the other. The earliest known was a dictionary of the most difficult words. I discovered Samuel Johnson’s passion and wrote this little post to show him some love.
2. Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
I’d read Fun Home last year and still recall the line “If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust” with many giggles. Bechdel is funny, mysterious, and obsessed with writing. Anyone who wants a little kick on their bums to get that push to start writing should read this. There are lovely panels featuring Bechdel at work – hands in her head, thinking, revising, editing, collecting material, typing even as she talks to her mother on the phone. Plus many many flashbacks. If there’s one thing I love about flashbacks, it’s watching them. If there’s one thing I love more – it’s reading them in graphic novels.
There is more Woolf in ‘Are You My Mother?’ than there is in ‘To the Lighthouse’. During my post-grad days, I tried reading To the Lighthouse and gave up because it went over my head. Not that I’ve suddenly become smart. But Bechdel took me to Woolf in a way that even the threat of failing M.A couldn’t. So easily, so kindly, so lovingly.
3. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
I’m convinced that Virginia Woolf wrote a better testimony to Feminism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ than in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In TTL, Woolf warns us about all the Mr. Ramsays in the world. You and I know Mr. Ramsay very well. He is the man, who, when he walks into a room, any room – must have immediate attention. Otherwise he will throw tantrums. He has to know what you are doing, what you are thinking, otherwise he will die. Reading this helped me deal with the Mr. Ramsays in my life.
4. The Murder Room – PD James
Took me several months to finish reading this one but perhaps that was a good thing. I will cherish Tally Clutton and her resolve to live alone. Wrote about this in March.
5. Poonachi – Perumal Murugan
I still worry that I didn’t say yes with my dignity intact when I was asked to be on a panel with Perumal Murugan and Kalyan Raman. My heart shrieked and made a fool of me. I spent most of March being anxious. I worried because I didn’t know Tamil. I worried because English speaking worlds are all alike – they are always brutal to non-English speaking worlds. I worried because, in this equation, I was part of the English speaking world.
The panel was on Murugan’s Poonachi – a book that made me have feelings for goats. A big part of the reading experience was compromised because of the panel. There was a sense of structure but for days I worried that I would just embarrass myself or worse, Murugan would hate me. I haven’t been able to write about the panel yet. When I can, I hope it can convey the pain and the love in my heart for Murugan.
6. The Goat Thief – Perumal Murugan
Devoured the stories slowly. Most stories have women doing fab things. My favorite had an angry housewife kicking the husband away from sitting in her favorite chair. She then carries the chair over to the kitchen with an enviable Jejamma style. Another story had a woman who worries about a persistent smell in the house until eventually one day, she is swallowed by a commode. But the most memorable story in the book is ‘shit’ Apparently, Murugan wanted to release a bunch of stories with the title Shit Stories but the publishers chickened out. Bastards.
‘Shit’ begins with a bunch of upper caste ‘progressive’ boys who go mad because of a stench in their house. Turns out the drainage pipe behind their house is broken so they call someone for help. The man who shows up, Dalit of course, goes down the septic tank and begins to unclog the shit. Murugan describes every step that the man does under the septic tank, while the reader is slowly taking in the boys’ disgust upon seeing this. After a while, like Manjule’s audience, you too begin to pat your cheek softly because Murugan has slapped it that loudly.
7. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love – Lara Vapnyar
You only need to know that there are two old women named Luda and Milena in this book who made me laugh so much, that I cannot wait to be old and funny. I want to grow old with Namsies the way these two do.
Luda and Milena both compete for a man’s affections (boring, overdone, what else is new – ha, yes, but wait for it) They lure him with food even though they detest cooking. Every evening they break their heads over what to cook – all the while thinking sincerely about each other (not the man). In the end, the man dies.
8. Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney
Here’s a book that made me wildly uncomfortable. It showed me the distance between me and how I’d like to write. It showed me what to do with people who are meant to be characters in books that we always tell ourselves, we will write someday – one day. In the book, I found the language for daily anxieties that friendships tend to bring, the pleasures that there are, in going over WhatsApp chats from years ago for no particular reason. How we devote entire afternoons lying on the bed, assessing relationships, friendships – looking for proof that really- they don’t love us. In fact, they never liked us, to begin with.
How phones play seesaw with our feelings. At one end, you have the deafening silence of laughing double blue ticks that have the quality of a burn. At the other end, you have that fleeting message tone which is sometimes a whistle, a bird song, a dot, a bite, an orgasm. Each having the capacity to make your heart euphoric and erase all self-doubt.
Obviously, we love the things that can show us our shame.
9. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I loved Yeong-hye. I loved her miserable husband. I loved her resolve to become vegetarian. I loved her decision to sit in front of the refrigerator one morning and empty it slowly of all its meat. I loved that she made her husband eat tofu for days. I loved her calm. And like her husband, I felt destroyed by it too.
10. Joan Didion
Reading Why I write was reassuring. Even though I am not there yet and perhaps never will be, it’s always gratifying to read a writer’s journey towards writing with a mad passion.
I discovered her madness in this article – How Joan Didion became Joan Didion. It’s a BuzzFeed thing which means it is pretty much buzzblah. But can’t complain: It took me to Didion. I don’t know many people who openly declare that they hate Pauline Kael. Even though I love Pauline Kael. Here is her essay on New York. If you love places, the way they make you feel, how they tend to have more memories than your bodies, then you might like this essay. It’s never really a matter of liking or not liking a city. Didion shows us why.
11. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
Seline, Batuman’s writer-narrator is a freshman student moving into her dorm room at Harvard when we begin. Her roommate buys a refrigerator and tells her she can use it too but she must buy something for the room, like a poster. She suggests a ‘psychedelic’ poster. Seline can’t find one but finds the next option: A black and white picture of Albert Einstein. She is told to hang it above her desk and soon, several people express grave concern about this. Because you know? Opinions. Yawn. He invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. You worship him? Shame.
- Don’t you know he abused his wife? How can you have his poster up on your wall? There are many greater geniuses who aren’t famous at all. Why is that?
After several days of torture, she sighs, and like all good girls, thinks of Nietzsche:
Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality. Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.
That shut everyone up, I assume. But I was rolling on my bed howling with laughter. Weeks later, when I was done, I could only satisfy the Batuman-shaped hole in my life by watching her YouTube interviews. This one is particularly funny. Shez a kyuttie.
12. The Possessed – Elif Batuman
Obvi. What else could I read after having my heart raided by Batuman? I raided her back. Hacked into her New Yorker and LRB pieces.
In The Possessed, you see Batuman’s love for learning new languages. She learned Russian and Uzbek, applied for scholarships through her student life and got to live in Russia and Uzbekistan for two months.
In the essays, she tells us fascinating things she discovers. Take this for instance – In the Uzbek language, there are 100 words for ‘crying’ (!!!) There is a word for crying with a hoo-hoo sound, a word for crying after being dumped, for crying out of hunger, etc. I want to learn Uzbek now, especially since I cry 100 times for 100 things.
13. Approaching Eye Level – Vivian Gornick
If I held onto what Feminism had made me see, I’d soon have myself.
– What Feminism means to me, Gornick.
I pored over essays on living alone, feminism, friendships, walking in the city and stopped for a long time after I read ‘Tribute’ – an obituary of a woman she calls Rhoda Munk. I have never heard of Rhoda Munk but the obituary, like all good obituaries, brings her alive. If you google Rhoda Munk, you will discover that even the internet has amnesia. There is not much that is known about her. Some say that Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym for someone else.
Even so, to write about someone that endearingly after they’ve died is to wish you’d known them well when they were alive. Gornick reminisces about the time she was invited to spend a weekend at Rhonda’s summer cottage. Over three days, the women talked, wrote, took long walks by the sea, had long conversations, cooked, read and took care of Rhonda’s many cats. This is what’s rarely possible even in most great marriages. She had that with Rhonda. A friendship with an older, accomplished woman, a writer, a possible mentor.
After that weekend though, Gornick tastes the bitter truth. She wasn’t special. The ‘honeymoon period’ of their friendship was over, she says. Many many people begin to join them to live in the cottage. Turns out Rhonda had invited everyone she knew. Gornick slips into the background and understands that nobody is ever really going to be enough for Rhonda and that’s what makes her Rhonda. I don’t know Rhonda but I feel like I want to impress her.
14. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
Anne Fadiman introduces Marina Keegan as perhaps the only student to have boldly resisted Fadiman’s writing advice. Keegan was in Fadiman’s First-person writing class at Yale.
She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.
I was intrigued. Keegan was barely 20, and had the energy of a dead woman who’s come back alive to write. She had the guts to tell a published writer ki nehi boss, yeh mera style nehi hai. She wrote and rewrote until she was satisfied, which she never was. She was always convinced that she could write better.
In ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Keegan confesses that she doesn’t want to graduate. She wants to keep learning. She worries that it might stop if she goes out into the real world where one has to work to earn. I wanted to shake her. The woman had already interned at the New Yorker’s fiction department and had received an offer to join them full time after graduation. She was barely 20. I feel like I must keep saying it. Feels like cuts on my wrist. Because what was I doing at 20?
The book is a collection of Keegan’s short-stories and essays. The characters in her stories will walk with you for a long time after you have finished reading. I remember the girl whose boyfriend died. She visits his parents to offer condolences and finds herself in the company of his beautiful ex-girlfriend whom they all love very much. Now she is grieving and jealous. Later, she finds his journal where he has written unflattering things about her.
I remember an old woman who reads to a blind young man twice a week. As soon as she enters his apartment, she takes off all her clothes and begins reading to him – stark naked. At one point her husband dies and she doesn’t go back to the blind man. For someone who wrote astonishingly intimate stories about death and loss, it’s crazy that after 5 days of graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan died in an accident. She was barely 20.