The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

So, 2015 is over. This was the year my blogging ground to a halt, my habits became even more sedentary, my achievements negligible, and my travels were to Orlando, for heaven's sake. Another year like that and I might as well throw in a nearby towel and take up life on some bend in a river, pondering the existence of fish.

To be honest, this year is not off on the thumpingest of starts. My washing machine conked out and the delivery guys of a new one couldn't install it. My patience with incompetence is also thinning. I've been lugging heaps of apparel to a laundrette and obtaining a renewed appreciation for subcontinental people who breaks stones with clothes. At the same time, various neighbours and municipal councillors have been casting beady eyes on a bit of renovation we're planning. I have half a mind to invite some illegals to occupy the jungly garden at the back and encourage them to throw nightly parties just to keep the neighbours bright and interested.


The reading was down on the previous three years. I managed 118 books. In this I'm way behind that powerhouse, M. Orthofer, doyen of the Complete Review, who polishes off probably three hundred books a year and manages to review ⅔ of them.

Some books were brilliant and others were absolute dogs. This is no news.

But here are some stats to start off:

Fiction - 80%
Women authors - 30%
Translations - 43%
Countries (non-English) - 14
Languages other than English - 25

My first Basque translation, I think, and my first book by an Eritrean author. And my first Dogri and Rajasthani translations.


For a quick roundup of recommended titles, I start with non-fiction.

Catherine Merridale, Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History: a riveting account of the Moscow Kremlin, from its earliest to latest incarnations, and the worrisomely brutal types that lived in it, destroyed it, refashioned it, and bent it to their own interpretations of history.

Caleb Scharf, The Copernicus Complex: The Quest for Our Cosmic (In)Significance: what an incredible repositioning of the human experience bang into the centre of the Universe! One of the biggest advances of science has been the demotion of humanity and the Earth from their egocentric position in the cosmos and the realisation that in almost every respect and at every scale of the Universe, we are negligible and not special. But Scharf reveals the latest thinking in cosmology and quantum physics that shows this 'Copernican' principle needs to be modified in the light of all sorts of special events that should have taken place for the Universe to be as it is, for the solar system to have developed, and for our remarkable appearance at a particular juncture in time when we can actually learn something of the Universe. Superb.

Mariusz Szczygieł, Gottland : Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia: Indians would no doubt fondly recall Bata, that ever-present purveyor of shoes. The story of his ruthless rise to power is well told in this Polish author's superb collection of essays (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) on lesser-known aspects of Czechoslovakia's Communist and capitalist avatars. As a fellow Iron Curtain survivor, his insights into the paranoia and delusions of the Czechs are sympathetic, accurate and mordant.

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets: a wonderful, detailed and erudite study of what water means for a planet, how it gets there, what happens to it, how it escapes it, and - the atmosphere! plate tectonics! evolution! life! extraterrestrial worlds! It's all mind-blowing and absolutely superb.

I should mention Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, which was a best-seller in India, if less covered in the mainstream press in the UK: although it purports to be a non-Eurocentric perspective of world history, to me it did seem more like a study of the effects of the rest of the world on Europe than a proper history of that rest of the world. I'm not putting it very well, but ultimately it disappointed me for its lack of coverage of enormous swathes of the planet - Africa and Latin America were almost completely ignored, and Oceania and China were given rather short shrift. There was much talk of trade links but very little of scientific and cultural cross-pollination. I suspect a properly non-Eurocentric world history can be fashioned from this one, using its superb bibliography, which by itself is worth the price of the book.


Now a bit of fiction.

When I read bildungsromans like Stefanie de Velasco's Tiger Milk, it occurs to me I completely missed out during my teen years. No sneaking out of the house at odd hours, no wild parties, no unprotected sex with people with mid-life crises, no adulterated liquors, no drugs, no creativity. Damn. I was a nerd, so that might explain much of the relative joylessness, but the young girls in this German novel (translated by Tim Mohr) are bright and sensitive and yet get into such heaps of self-inflicted tribulations, I'm glad (in retrospect) I grew up completely boring.

Alena Graedon has fashioned a very scary near future in The Word Exchange where people's addictions to their smart devices and information retrieval via instant Google searches can be co-opted for profit by private enterprises. Already there's research showing people think they're smarter than they are because they can look up facts on the internet, and simultaneously there's a devaluation of people and cultures that are not present on the web (note the widespread consequences of gender and cultural biases in Wikipedia). Graedon's dystopia is only slightly incredible but it's frightening - grab it for some sleepless nights of worry.

The Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir's Arabic novel African Titanics (translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby) is the story of desperate emigrants trying every way to get to Europe. Topical, of course, but adumbrated by the stories they tell each other, this book lends another perspective to the horrors of their crossing.

(I'm in awe of Charis Bredin, who I think is still a student and yet she has a couple of translations published already. In awe and deeply envious.)

I was so taken up by Esmahan Aykol's Baksheesh, (translated by Ruth Whitehouse), one of her series of crime novels featuring Kati Hirschel, a feisty Istanbullu detective-book-shop owner, that I went and created a Wikipedia article for the author.

What is the use of those obscene Emiratis and Saudis and Qataris who do nothing of any artistic or scientific consequence with their immense wealth, in comparison to the indigent Egyptians and Maghrebis and Syrians? Take the writer Ali Al-Muqri's Hurma (translated T. M. Aplin) - what an insight into the lives of Yemeni women and their desperate attempts to take ownership of themselves in a claustrophobically patriarchal and hypocritical society.

I should also mention Jacob and Dulce, a bitingly satirical dissection of Indo-Portuguese life in Goa in those pre-Independence days by Gip (nom-de-plume of Francisco João da Costa; translated by Alvaro Noronha da Costa), one of the very few really readable translations from the Sahitya Akademi.

And finally the sharply observed short stories of Ahmed Essop, South-African writer of Indian origin, Hajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-walker are well worth the read.


Have a superb 2016, folks.


JK said...

Thank your sir for posting the list of books. Some of them look interesting and I have added it to my list. Did you see my 2015 list?

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