01 April 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations, by Mohsin Hamid

I remember reading an amazing essay about how to write essays (if anyone knows what I'm talking about, PLEASE leave a citation in the comments!!) at some point in high school or college, one that explained but also demonstrated how it was both a very open and a tightly controlled art form, how it had no one particular kind of topic, how it could be serious, or funny, or both, personal or impersonal (I suspect it was written by a Pole, but I could be wrong). My point is: the essay is a noble form. Not all magazine articles are essays. There are many pieces of writing that are quite good as short pieces of writing, but they are not necessarily good essays, and they are perhaps better encountered in a magazine than in a book with other pieces like them. That is, I think, the case with the pieces in this book.

To be clear: I enjoyed reading this book. Hamid's prose is light and pleasant -- not breezy or chatty exactly, but comfortable. The topics covered in the book are reasonably weighty, but the tone is for the most part even and conversational, often with a more personalized, confiding feel. The things he has to say are interesting, and I agreed with pretty much all of them. The problem is -- and it seems awfully demanding to hold this against him -- nothing said here really made me stop and think, or see things in a new way. It all seemed very familiar. Perhaps this is a testament to how clearly and effectively he articulated his ideas, so much so that they instantly seem like things one has already thought! Certainly, it can't be true that I've thought all of those things, because there were plenty of things about Pakistan that I didn't know beforehand (though the political analysis of these new pieces of information essentially validated beliefs I already hold). And yet, for all its musings on culture and identity and dislocation and politics, I think the most memorable piece in the collection is a description of standing next to a woman, a stranger, on a hot day, a very sensual evocation of the intimacy of sweating beside someone. Perhaps it means that Hamid is better at saying things more indirectly, say, in a novel...

In any case, I very much hope that people who haven't thought all these things will read the collection, and come to agree with Hamid and I. And I look forward to reading his fiction.

14 March 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished the novel this morning and am still chewing over it. Certainly a spell-binding, immersive read: in terms of world building, it's an incredible book. The characters wander in a vaguely familiar landscape that is blanketed in a mist of amnesia, groping towards an ill-defined goal, searching for memories, struggling through confused interactions with other people who are equally befuddled. A vague air of menace hangs over everything. It's brilliantly done, and the reading experience is both suspenseful and strangely soothing, and our two main character, Axl and Beatrice, lovingly comfort each other and tread carefully over potential sources of pain or conflict.

As the novel progresses, details of a broader history begin to emerge, and this is where I am lesssure how I feel about the book. Initially, the socio-political commentary that emerges seemed poignant, timely, and interesting. As it developed, however, I found it less compelling, or rather, it didn't seem to go beyond the somewhat obvious in terms of ideas that it developed. But maybe it is me who is not giving the novel its due, ruminating on its peculiar ending and what it means.

Regardless, it is a book worth reading: eerie, engaging, and deeply felt.

11 March 2015


Gosh, it's been more than 2 weeks since I started writing this post. But you should be seeing more posts on here for awhile at least: my plan to force myself to do academic writing involves starting with 15 minutes of writing for this blog. We'll see how it goes.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Selma after I saw it, sorting out what I thought, pondering what it did well and what it could have done better. The film was certainly quite affecting, but I also found myself frustrated by it in some ways: I could not really decide how "good" a movie it really is. In some sense, it is both easy and impossible to make a good movie about this subject, no? The history is so powerful and moving that it is bound to be a good story, and yet, it is so important, particularly now, that it will of course be under heightened scrutiny, and everyone will have some kind of complaint. And I'm not even talking about the historical accuracy question, which I am not well informed enough to comment on.

Selma avoids, I think, the obvious problems of this kind of film. It does not ride on easy sentimentality, and it is not a hagiography. It does not create an oversimplified narrative or an easy, step-by-step story. Indeed, this is, I think, one of the most impressive things about the film (aside from the cinematography, which is unbelievably gorgeous) -- the way that it presents the lead-up to the march as a series of difficult decisions. One is reminded that this was a political event, first and foremost, and that there were strategical questions to be considered. This is the kind of thing that historical narratives really struggle with: how to convey the tangled confusion of all the different options and possibilities that existed at the time, when to us in the future, certain choices can appear obvious or predetermined.*

But this is also the problem with the film; that in striving to faithfully capture the confusion of the time and avoid simplistic storytelling, it ends up being a somewhat chaotic plot. Because it is corraling all the various moving pieces and considerations into one frame, many of the narrative choices seem arbitrary or haphazard. This is particularly clear at the ending, when we briefly zoom in on a handful of faces and get captions telling us what happened to them next. Some of the people have been central characters throughout, others are minor, or even entirely new. Why them, and not any of the other many people in the crowd?

Finally, as mentioned above, the movie is unbelievably beautiful visually** as well; an aspect of the film that we often forget, but that carries as much weight as the plotting and dialogue. This might be the most successful thing about the film, what it does with image. The composition of the frame is so careful and intentional, it's amazing. The attention to detail is just incredible. It could be argued, perhaps, that this is where the sense of "history" comes in: not in the storyline, which, as I've said, is somewhat jumbled and chaotic, but in the imagery, and the way they convey a sense of dynamism, tension, and prolepsis. Were I writing a more formal piece (instead of a thinking-out-loud blog post), this would be the thrust of my argument, that this is what makes the movie required viewing, and fascinating as an active reflection on the representation of the past: the way that it uses image to create the sense of a broader historical art, and actively refuses to do so on a level of plot and dialogue.

* If this is something that interests you, I refer you to an excellent book on the topic, one that really shaped my thinking: Michael Andre Bernstein's Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History.

** Teju Cole has a wonderful piece on the cinematography, situating it within a history of representations of black skin in photography.

07 March 2015

A Distant Father, by Antonio Skarmeta

This winsome little book is full of surprises. The charming tale of a schoolteacher and translator frustrated by small-time woes and family tragedies; many element seems familiar (two enchanting sisters, a young man yearning to visit a prostitute, a renegade father) but Skarmeta wields them in unexpected ways. The result is a strangely soulful story: sad yet joyful, dreamy yet practical. A very pleasant read.

16 February 2015

Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis

At the center of this collection -- and by far the longest piece in it -- is a story called The Cows. It is a collection of notes that some observer has written about the creatures in a field. It is dry, largely mundane account. Nothing really happens. The descriptions are not especially vivid; the cows do not evoke philosophical contemplation, nor do they seem to have any symbolic meaning. The account goes on for an astonishing, absurd amount of time. Long enough that you pause at least three times to think, I can't believe this is still going. And yet, it is completely riveting.

Davis has a real gift for this kind of thing; these strange, acerbic little fragments that seem so rich with meaning yet so utterly, amazingly flat. The voice has an almost unpleasant detachment, at times seeming bemused and contemptuous, at others, lonely and eager for contact, though unsure how to initiate it. There is a definite kinship to an author she has a clear proclivity for, Flaubert, though their voices are distinct: this collection contains a series of what she calls 'stories from Flaubert' that brilliantly inhabit his worldview, yet stand apart from the other pieces, even if it is difficult to say exactly how.

The queer fragments and Flaubertian tales are the high points of this collection. Somewhat weaker is are texts bearing the subheading of "a dream." Perhaps because I am currently also making my way through The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz, which seems to be a far more successful rendition of a similar idea, I did not find them particularly compelling. But it is when Davis writes about a character that seems, unfortunately, to be rather autobiographical, that I find her completely unbearable. I had this problem with an earlier novel of hers, and it nearly put me off her altogether. There is a middle-aged, neurotic, socially awkward writer and translator who occasionally crops up in her stories and whom I find totally unsympathetic and ungodly self-absorbed. Fortunately, she makes very few appearances in this collection.

Overall, an enjoyable read, one that certainly benefits from a slow, lengthy process of periodically dipping into it. But I think some of the other collections, such as Samuel Johnson is Indignant, are better.

10 February 2015

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

I might just not be a Graham Greene fan. I recall having similar feelings after reading The Quiet American, though I've largely forgotten that book: that while I appreciate his prose, it does not seem to engage me emotionally. The vaguely convoluted, hazy plot combined with a fervent, even anguished sort of emotion serves to alienate me from the characters. I watch them with a sort of detached pity: they seem very unhappy. Perhaps they are not very good people, but maybe nobody really is. Or maybe they actually are quite good, and their apparent sins are not so bad. In Greene's world(s), it's very hard to tell.

This novel tells the story of a priest in Mexico who is on the run from a government that is committed to executing the clergy. He is very unhappy, not only because he is on the run, but also because he is a bad priest. Consumed with both guilt and fear, he almost wants to get caught, just so to end his torment. The Lieutenant who pursues him is also deeply unhappy, because he sees how much the people are suffering, and also because he is taking hostages from among them and executing them in an effort to capture the priest. The people, obviously, are the worst off of all, yet they have an almost bovine stoicism punctuated by occasional flares of annoyance or rage which do nothing to stifle their benevolence and ability to behave with utter selflessness. Or is it stupid superstition; the narrator can't seem to decide.

The attempt to prose the moral depths of Catholicism is not uninteresting, but the idea mostly seemed to be that it is all very murky. The plot had occasional moments of breathless suspense, but also seemed oddly interminable, until, boom, it was over. The denouement had a certain mechanistic quality, as though the pieces were obediently slotting into place.

Like I said: I might just not be a Graham Greene fan.

09 February 2015

Reading the World

This article both inspires, interests, and frustrates me. It certainly reminds me how much I've neglected this blog, for instance. As I've been trying to figure out my job/life situation, I had intended to try doing more writing here as a way of, well, trying out other kinds of writing. But I haven't devoted much time to that, in large part because I continue to (try to) work on academic research. And aside from a handful of translations and a few free reviews for other websites, I haven't done much in the way of actively trying to pursue other kinds of writing.

I have been grousing about the growing popularity of books about books; where people set themselves some kind of arbitrary reading list and then chronicle the process of completing it. This is partly because I am more interested in reading the books themselves, rather than some random person's impressions of them. What makes their thoughts so interesting, eh? It doesn't help that their reading lists are often fairly random or insipid. But of course, what I am probably more frustrated by is that they're doing it (and getting paid to do it) and I'm not.

The thing is, Ann Morgan's project -- reading one books from every country -- really appeals to me. It's not just that it's a more interesting variant of the books-on-books theme: it actually seems like a worthwhile and thought-provoking exercise in its own right. What is more, her blog, A Year of Reading the World, is well-written, and uses the discussions of particular texts and springboards into all kinds of fascinating questions, suggesting that her thoughts might be very interesting indeed. Her book, she explains, is not a pithy summary or review of each book, but an exploration of how the book changed her way of thinking. To quote: "I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest." This is a description that actually makes me want to read the book. And it's also the kind of thing I would love to think and write about. It scratches at all my contemplations of what kind of writing I really want to do in life, not to mention what kind of writing I'm actually good at. To top it off, the article I link to above discusses the kinds of community that Morgan found while working on the project, and the opportunities that came her way because of it, and it all just makes me very, very jealous.

Harrumph. I wonder if someone would at least pay me to review the book...