Reading 2016 (February)

Rather somber reading for February: I must find some laugh-out-loud reading this coming month…

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G.Vassanji (2003).  vikramVikram Lall comes of age in pre-independence 1950s Kenya,  the grandson of an Indian railroad worker trying to find an identity and life between the Kenyans and the British. It’s a story of childhood, fear (Mau Mau), politicians and corruption as Vic becomes a fixer and exile. It’s well-written and I believe this is a better novel than Dust (but then again there’s a lot to be said for the “die-hard” in-your-face approach of Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi both made to measure action movie scripts too). But killing off the first-person narrator? I remember being told off for doing that at school. A poor ending but Helon Habila’s review  captures the novel well.

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (2006). Another great novel. It’s a sobering commentary on inherit_lossturn-of-the-century experience of people in two continents – more often than not one of humiliation – from the unseen workers in Manhattan to a lost village under the Himalayas. The novel is centred on the lives of a small household circle, but it focuses on dispossession, abasement, the loss of opportunity, dignity and justice (the font of fundamentalism and terrorism) from which monopoly finance capitalism offers limited futures.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011) & In the Heart of the Amazon Forest (Penguin Great Journeys No.11, 2007, abridged version of The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Walter Harry Bates, published in 1863). Reviewed here for Forest Novels.

danielThe Book of Daniel, E.L.Doctorow (1971). I really should have read this novel ages ago, somehow Doctorow slipped off the radar. This unsentimental novel is narrated by the scarred son of communist sympathiser-activist parents (based upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,who were tried and then electrocuted in 1953 at the height of cold war hysteria for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians) and it evokes the communist scares of the late-40s and early-50s with the US of the late-60s (it was written during some of the bitterest anti-war and pro-civil rights debates in the US).

A fragment from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” prefaces the novel, and is perhaps, the key to its morality.

I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.

Thgilead1ere are many of the  “conquer’d and slain” in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). Just a phenomenal novel. For once the publicity blurb on the covers is right. I’m going to have to re-read this one very soon. Best read of the year so far.


Reading 2016 (January)



What I read in 2012

I have noticed that I haven’t been reading much fiction these days. I keep adding novels to my Amazon wish list, and find myself returning to (older) le Carré and Kipling’s Stalky & Co…. But I did re-read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, sadly as relevant as ever, and I was mesmerised with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Michael Sandel’s Justice: What is the right thing to do? and Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save prompted a lot of thought. I realise that I have been giving less than I used to – I am keeping up with Give Well blogsite. I bought Chade-Meng Tan’s  Look Inside Yourself to try something different. The language and style grate on this Brit – best not to read the cover or forewords … and try to let the assertion that “happiness is the default state of mind” wash over – but there are many useful pointers and guidance that I have found useful. I caught up with Alex Ross’ Listen to This having enjoyed The Rest Is Noise. And I am now enjoying trying out Messiaen, Morton Feldman, Jonathan Harvey, Elliot Carter, and most recently Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sibelius has been a long-time favourite).

Otherwise it’s been economics.  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman left me a bit cold – the style is ponderous, a good editor would have halved the length. That homo economicus, homo sapiens, homo faber are straw men was not even an issue for Eric Hobsbawm: I was re-reading The Age of Capital when he died in November. That repeated crises are endemic to capitalism is also a theme of Nouriel Roubini’s excellent Crisis Economics. I enjoyed reading Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, including their fence-sitting, which Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Island could not be accused of. But I have learnt most from The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism by David Harvey, and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.

Fellow travellers

Not having visited the tropics has not been seen as a drawback for a number of writers who have written ‘rainforest’ novels. Jenny Diski who wrote “Rainforest” (1987) – which is a fine novel – happily admits that for her research she visited London’s Kew Gardens.

Earlier, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s action-adventure stories found inspiration in nineteenth century travelogues and the popular interest given to scientific discoveries, including Darwin’s Origin of Species. Similarly, their stories also caught the imagination of the public. Verne´s “Le Radeau” [The Giant Raft] (1881) is set in the Peruvian Amazon, and Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), a forerunner of Jurassic Park, is loosely located in the northern Amazonian region.

But other ‘outsiders’ have had a varying degree of success in their evocation of tropical forests. Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust” (1934) which includes a ludicrous detour to the Amazon to resolve the protagonists’ marital problems is one of his best-forgotten novels. If Waugh’s Tony and Brenda Last’s moral compass is wonky, the eponymous hero of Brian Hennigan´s comedy “Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure” (2006) is happily unencumbered by any moral dilemmas. The Thai jungle provides a backdrop to this frankly preposterous but very amusing tale of an utterly self-centred salesman, lured in a hotel bar and kidnapped by an eco-terrorist group (the self-styled People’s Earth Friendly Liberation Group) having mistaken him for his namesake from the IMF. Continue reading “Fellow travellers”

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano’s best-known works are “Las venas abiertas de América Latina” [The Open Veins of Latin America] (1971) and “Memoria del fuego” [Memory of Fire] (1982-1986). Neither are necessarily works of fiction and only a few references are made to forests. Nonetheless, he is a giant amongst Latin American writers and political commentators.

As the author himself recognises it is hard to classify his work. He writes in The Open Veins of Latin America: “I know that I can be accused of sacrilege in writing about political economy in the style of a novel about loves or pirates. But I confess I get a pain reading valuable works by certain sociologists, political experts, economists, and historians who write in code”. Likewise: “Memory of Fire is not an anthology…I don’t know if it is a novel or essay or epic poem or testament or chronicle or…Deciding robs me of no sleep. I do not believe in the frontiers that, according to literature’s custom officers, separate the forms.”

His message is, however, unambiguous: “… underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we in Latin America are poor because the ground we tread is rich, and that places privileged by nature have been cursed by history”. His essays show how the continent’s natural resources, including its forests, have been exploited since the 15th century – five centuries of pillage. Continue reading “Eduardo Galeano”