Wednesday, 31 December 2008

My review of 2008

I have been doing these annual reviews for the last 7 or 8 years on other forums, so here first is a list of books that I have read, followed by a look at other cultural activities, during the past year, in chronological order.

1. "Digging to America" by Anne Tyler - 2006 - ISBN 97800 994 99398 - about two Californian couples, one with an Iranian emigre father, both of whom adopt children imported from Korea and how members of their extended family networks interact with each other - the narrative contains acute social observations which should resonate with all migrants to the new world.

2. "The Elephanta Suite" by Paul Theroux - 2007 - ISBN 978-0-241-14366-7 - this, by a favourite author of mine, was one of the two books I took on our trip to India and Nepal - gosh, it seems so long ago now and yet it was only some 11 months ago: every bit of it resonated with what I know and feel about India - the descriptions of the minutiae of Mumbai life, set in precisely the parts that I love most, (the Taj Hotel, now alas damaged, Marine Drive, Kolaba, the Fort area generally) and of the hazards that an expatriate has to navigate (here a single white female who is pursued by a sex hungry Indian man(iac) with disastrous consequences for both), are all beautifully and graphically captured - it provided the perfect literary backdrop to our holiday.

3. "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan - 2008 - ISBN 97800 995 12790 - this was high up in the best seller lists as 2007 turned into 2008; its period setting (1962) brought back sharp memories of my own time, which happened to coincide with the coming to age and the first full sexual experience of the principal characters, in a pre-liberation 1960s Britain (the Beatles came out in 1963).

4. "Promise Me" by Harlan Coben - 2006 - ISBN 13-978-0-7528-7821-8 - a thriller, and a time-filler.

5. "Falling Angels" by Tracy Chevalier - 2001 - ISBN 0 00 710826 5 - another extraordinary historical novel by the author of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" which was made into a fantastic movie - this one is set in England around the end of the Victorian era, and is sharply evocative of the social mores of the middle-classes particularly as regards death rituals and cemeteries, with an insight into the other running theme, that of the suffragette movement then just getting into full swing.

6. "The Book of Dave - A Revelation of the Recent Past and Distant Future" by Will Self - 2006 - ISBN 978-0-141-01454-8 - an imaginative projection of the future based on the present state of Britain - a huge rant by one of our current enfant terribles.

7. "A Thousand Splendid Sons" by Khaled Hosseini - 2007 - ISBN 978 0 7475 8297 3 - by the author of `The Kite Runner`, another agonising and powerful look at his native Afghani society - this time concerning its treatment of women - made painful reading.

8. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid - 2007 - ISBN 978-0-141-02954-2 - the title says it all - a novel about the making of an Islamic terrorist from an insider`s perspective; it made quite an impact as I read the book during our trip to N America in the summer.

9. "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason - 2002 - ISBN 0 330 49269 1 - this was the other book that I read on that trip - set far away in the Burma of the 19th century just as it was being explored and taken control of by the British - the story of the piano tuner who almost went native at a time when that went against the grain of the empire builders made sense, but with sadness.

10 "The World Is What It Is - The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul" by Patrick French - 2008 - ISBN 978-0-330-43350-1 - by far the best and most absorbing book that I read in 2008 - a powerful portrait, with warts and all, of one of the greatest contemporary figures of English literature. I briefly touched on some aspects of the book in my posting on the Africana/Orientalia forum of August 30th (Msg # 29428). As I wrote then "(i)t bares Naipaul`s character and personality with no holds barred; it shows him as he has always appeared to be and perceived by everyone who has come into contact with him - as an arrogant, self-centred, difficult (to say the least), vulnerable, pathetic, sexually inadequate and even racist, and certainly a cruel individual - a deeply flawed being - but of course a brilliant writer .... and we have ... discussed him and his books on and off right from the early days of Namaskar". Quite a lot of his life`s story was known generally anyway; the book provides authentic evidence and analysis of the frailities, yes, but also the genius of the man.

11. "The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rusdie - 2008 - ISBN 9780224061636 - his latest book, a creative work of fiction based on historical material liberally extemporized and embellished in his unique allegorical style, linking Mogul India with the Florentine culture of the 15th and 16th centuries across the Central Asian kingdoms of the period; with his usual linguistic twists and trickery and obscure allusions, the book makes far from easy reading but one plods on by the force of the narrative - but expect to be deflated at the end.

12. "Chicago" by Alaa Al Aswany - 2007 - ISBN 978-00-728518-1 - by the author of "The Yacoubian Building" which was made into a film - originally written in Arabic - about the complicated histories and lives of Egyptian emigre` students and professors at the University of Illinois and how they interact with their American colleagues and with both Egyptian and US officialdom. In literary terms, it is difficult to tell whether it is the English translation or the original script that is lacking in intellectual depth, but the author himself came across as a humane person of mature judgment when he appeared at a London literary event.

13. "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - On the Tracks of The Great Railway Bazaar" by Paul Theroux - 2008 - ISBN 978-0-241-14253-0 - another fascinating travelogue by a master of this genre - in this he retraces his trail-blazing journey across Asia of 33 years before when he wrote `The Great Railway Bazaar`, with some deviations because of the geo-political changes that have taken place since. There is never a dull moment in this vast 485 page account, and his reflections on his encounters and experiences in parts of India, South East Asia and China in particular made familiar reading.

14. "The White Tiger" by Aarvinda Adiga - 2008 - ISBN 978 1 84554 720 4 - the winner of this year`s Man Booker Prize - I found it a disappointing read - something of a deja vu of the previous Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai`s `An Inheritance of Loss` (ref. my review of 2007). I thought the narrative of the principal character - the driver who rose from humble origins to be a tycoon on the run through a vicissitudinal progression of chance, chicanery and chutzpah - not to ring true as a literary device, though the author`s sideways look at the contemporary culture of corruption, and privilege, in top Indian political and business circles was quite credible. I had deliberately refrained from reading a critique of the book by Sanjay Subrahmanyan in the London Review of Books of 6 November until after I had finished the book, and now having done so I can say that his review confirms many of my own misgivings about the work.

15. "Blood River - A Journey to Africa`s Broken Heart" - by Tim Butcher - 2007 - ISBN 9780099494287 - this is a most gripping account of an award-winning British journalist`s retracing of HM Stanley`s epic expedition across the Congo, north west from Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika and then west and along the upper Congo River down to its mouth on the Atlantic Coast. After being posted to Africa by the Daily Telegraph in 2000, Butcher became obsessed with the idea of repeating Stanley`s feat and so he set out in 2004, much against everyone`s advice because of the obvious dangers, with a backpack and a steely determination. He travelled using mostly motorbikes and canoes, and was helped along the way by a variety of people, from UN staff, charity workers, church missionaries and other expatriates and a large number of locals. The Congo that he was traversing had, in the 130 years since Stanley, been colonised and developed, but then after independence in 1960 it has regressed and become all but a failed state. I was on tenterhooks as I read chapter after chapter of his adventures, near misses, and exhausting trek through some of the most inhospitable, hostile, menacing, and impenetrable jungle countryside, full of obstacles and pitfalls, both natural and human. Just as Paul Theroux in his (`Ghost Train`) book had observed, so he, Butcher, too could have been wiped off the face of the earth at any stage of his lonely passage through the wilderness of an alien terra firma and nobody would have known about it for weeks and months. Butcher also gives a considered and balanced insight into the history of the region - the discovery, development and descent into anarchy and lawlessness of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), and while he has nothing but admiration for the ordinary people who have to struggle against unimaginable odds for just basic survival, his overall prognosis for the country nevertheless remains a bit pessimistic.

As always, there were other books that were begun but remain unfinished or lie within easy reach for reference and dipping in and out. Also, as this year morphs into the next, I am already into my third Theroux book, "Blinding LIght", set in South America, but it is certain to be overtaken by Barack Obama`s "Dreams From My Father" which my wife has just handed down to me and which I will now start tomorrow, 1 January.

I also professionally reviewed some books, two of which (Oonk`s `Global Indian Diasporas` and `A South Asian History of Britain` by Fisher/Lahiri/Thandi) form the basis for an indepth article entitled `Indiaspora` in the latest issue of the IANL Journal. As it happens, I laid claim to the term `Indiaspora` on the Namaskar/Africana List in June 2000 and thought it aptly described the theme of my review article.

Let me now turn to films. The year began with "No Country for Old Men". As a fan of Coen Brothers, I was not going to miss this, even on a bitterly cold evening. Included among the other films that I saw during the year were "Lust, Caution" (by another of my favourite movie directors, Ang Lee); "Love in the Time of Cholera"(based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez`s famous novel); "Edge of Love" (the biopic of Dylan Thomas); "There Will Be Blood"(based on a novel by Upton Sinclair whose works formed some of my early reading as a teenager); "The Other Boleyn Girl"(about Henry VIII`s failed wife); "Frozen River" (set in the Canadian/US border region); and the two Indian films, "Firaaq" and "Raichand Pakistani" which I reviewed on the A/O forum separately in October.

As for the theatre, "August, Osage County", the Chicago based Steppenwolf company`s production at the National Theatre, still running, was really superb - an all-American family drama in the best tradition of Arthur Miller, Eugene O`Neill, Tennesse Williams and David Mamet. In music, I really enjoyed a Royal Festival Hall concert that included Stravinski`s `Rites of Spring` which is always stimulating.

On the intellectual front, again as usual, I attended a whole series of talks, meetings, book launches, conferences etc at various venues in Central London. The year began with a special meeting at the House of Commons on the "Kenya Crisis", arising from the failed election and its bloody aftermath. Then, as the year unfolded, other events featured appearances by and discussion with a whole lot of people and on a variety of topics - included among these were Jon Snow (on Iran, `Apocalypse Now`), Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (`Politics of the Veil`), Dr Hans Blix (`Time for a Revival of Disarmament`), various Indian and Pakistani leading figures at the Telhelka Indo-Pakistan Conference, Samantha Power, Lord Malloch Brown and David Hare (`The Humanitarian Impulse`), Julian Barnes (`Nothing to be Frightened of`), Robert Fisk and Christina Lamb on the Afghanistan imbroglio, Ngugi wa Thiongo on his latest book, Salman Rushdie (`The Enchantress of Florence`), The Booker of Booker Literary Panel at the South Bank, Alaa Al Awani (`Emigre Identity in Post 9/11 America` and `Chicago`), Lords Desai and Rober Skidelsky on `The Age of Austerity and Keynes`, Giles Kepel on `Terrorism and Martyrdom` and Lord Mandelson on `Building Britain`s Future Prosperity`. The complete list is longer and, quite frankly, I am astonished. This was another very full year indeed.

And what of foreign travel? We did a trip to India and Nepal in January / February, and then to Canada and the US in May / June, during when I attended the GSA Conference in Toronto at which I presented a paper on the nationality factor in the migration of Asians from India to East Africa and from there to the West. Then in late September I made a wonderful trip to Kenya. I posted accounts of all these at the time on the A/O forum.

So why this exercise? As I have always said, it provides an opportunity to take stock of my activities and interests, and of how I have spent my time, during this my fifth year of retirement. I think I have not done too badly. What the next year will bring remains to be seen.

My best wishes to all for a Happy and Peaceful New Year!

Surrey England