2019, A Year in Books IV (Nikki)


Here now is the last in my “2019, A Year in Books” series. I say “my series” but, of course, I have outsourced this task to friends. Here once again is the premise:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

Here are the first three lists again: Gio, Pete and Mike. The last list is by my friend Nikki, who I’ve also known from my earliest days in the US. In fact, Gio, Mike, Nikki and I were in a seminar on contemporary American fiction in my first term in graduate school. I’m not going to say anything smart alecky about Nikki because I’ve been terrified of her ever since I met her. In fact, let’s just agree her list is best. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books III (Mike)


Here is the third entry in my “2019, A Year in Books” series, a series I have very cleverly outsourced to friends. Here again is what I said about this series when introducing Gio and Pete’s lists last week and the week before last:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

And so to the third list, from my friend Mike, who I’ve known pretty much since my first days in the US in 1993. There’s a story I could tell you about Mike and me and a beef curry, a story which could be read allegorically; but I will leave that for another day. Mike is one of the funniest and most evil people I know. He’s also one of the kindest people I know. Continue reading

2019, A Year In Books II (Pete)


Here is the second entry in the year-end miniseries on books that began last week. A quick reminder of what this is: I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them. If you missed the first one last week, please go and read Giovanna’s excellent list featuring fiction and poetry. Today’s list comes to us from my friend Peter, a dour Englishman, across a page of whose dissertation our beloved friend, teacher, mentor and now tormentor, Jim Kincaid once wrote the terrible sentence, “You write like the Rev. Mr. Collins”. You might think this should disqualify him from making aesthetic judgments but if you’ve read much of this blog you know standards are low here. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books I (Gio)


A while ago I’d said that I’d write more about books on the blog and then, as is my wont with things I promise to do, I didn’t really do it. But now I’ve found the perfect solution: farm that task out to friends who read a lot and like to talk about books a lot. In particular, to four friends from graduate school—people I’ve known since 1993—who are among the most voracious readers I know. I asked them to annotate a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 that they found compelling for some reason and would like to recommend to others. They don’t have to be books published in 2019, I said, and they don’t have to be a list of favourite/best books of the year; and I asked that the list not be dominated by “usual suspects”. Beyond that I’ve left it up to them. First up is a list from my friend Giovanna. Gio grew up following the Italian national football team and so her aesthetic sense is a little suspect but we’ll try not to hold that against this list. Continue reading

Indian (-ish) and the Question of Indian American Identity


It has been almost eight months since the publication of Priya Krishna’s cookbook Indian (-ish) and almost as long since I first threatened to review it (though I did get around to reviewing some of its marketing in the summer). Is there any point in reviewing a cookbook half a year after its release? Frankly, the reason I didn’t get around to reviewing it earlier—after work and family obligations got in the way in May, June and July—is that with each passing month it felt less relevant to do so. However, as the end of the year approached and it began to show up on many lists of the best cookbooks of the year it seemed worth it again to go back and look at it closely. It is, as at least one Indian reviewer has noted, somewhat lightweight in its approach, but a large part of the American food media seems to still be ascribing it a fair bit of importance. I should say before I get started that I am less interested in the book as a cookbook than I am in it as a cultural text. This is not to say that I have nothing to say about any of the recipes or other bits of food information that it contains; I do and will get to some of that below. But I’m more interested in how the book tacitly represents the categories of Indian and Indian American food, and relatedly how it models a particular form of Indian American cultural identity. Okay, let’s get to it. Continue reading

Indian–eeesh!: The Marketing


When I wrote the first of my pieces critiquing Indian-American food writing I noted that I was quite looking forward to Priya Krishna’s then-upcoming cookbook Indian(-ish) which promised to cover ground not so very often trod in the American food media: Indian American food. That was last autumn. Alas, my hopes withered in the winter under the onslaught of Krishna’s rather disastrous extended promotional campaign for the book and did not recover in the spring. Disastrous, I hasten to add, from the point of view of substance and accuracy; from the point of view of marketing per se it seems to have been a great success. The book has received a number of strong reviews in the American press and has been praised and promoted all over food social media. I bought a copy of the book as well. I have to admit that I did so largely in the hope that it might provide the kind of comedy not seen in this genre since the publication of Rani Kingman’s Flavours of MadrasThe content of much of the marketing certainly pointed in that direction. Continue reading

South Asian Writers, An Occasional Series: Amitav Ghosh


Here is my long-threatened post on books. I’ve written various versions of it over the last few months, junking each one. What I’d originally planned was a long post on contemporary South Asian fiction—taking in its history and development, surveying the scene in various languages, commenting on national and global market forces and international acclaim for a handful of writers, and ending with some recommendations of books by lesser-known writers. But each time I’d start to write it, it would begin to balloon in my head into something more suited for academic readers and I’d balk at basically bringing my work life into the blog (which is where I come to do do things I don’t do at work). And so, I’ve decided to instead break that proposed survey into an occasional series of posts highlighting (books by) South Asian authors and authors of South Asian origin that I think deserve more attention than they get.

This does not mean that I will be writing (only) about relatively obscure or hard-to-find authors—though there will be some of that. In fact, the author I am beginning with is someone who is reasonably well-known outside India and each of whose books for the last couple of decades have been published by major American houses: Amitav Ghosh.  Continue reading

“A World Where Everything was Foreign?”: Stories by Fouad Laroui

Fouad Laroui
The stories in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, the first English translation (by Emma Ramadan from the French) of the work of the Moroccan writer Fouad Laroui, are not united by setting: they take place in Casablanca, in Brussels, in Paris, in Utrecht. Nor are they united by form: in “Dislocation”, a repetitive, cumulative structure takes the reader into the mind of a man on the verge of psychic collapse; “What’s Not Said in Brussels” presents the same event from the point of view of two characters; “Fifteen Minutes as Philosophers” takes the form of a play; “The Night Before” recounts a nightmare; only the title story, perhaps, closely resembles what most people expect a short story to look like. What unites them is a comic sensibility. They don’t easily yield meaning or answers to the questions they pose but each makes you want to keep reading, both for the intellectual play and for the sheer verve of the storytelling.  Continue reading

Earl Lovelace: Two Novels

The Dragon Can't Dance
Early in the year I’d threatened that in 2016 I would be further testing the patience of my core whisky readership—who are already suffering through a steady diet of recipes and restaurant reviews—with posts on literature. Here now is the first one, on the Trinidadian writer, Earl Lovelace, which will seek to convince you to purchase and read his novels, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979) and Salt (1996).

Odds are that if you’re not from the Caribbean, or do not teach or study fiction by writers from the Caribbean, you will not be familiar with Earl Lovelace. And given the fame of writers such as V.S Naipaul (also originally from Trinidad—though it’s hard to say where he’s from now) or Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat or, more recently, Marlon James, Lovelace’s lack of name recognition may seem to tell its own story. After all, in the era of globally available literature, and with the logic of the free market seemingly internalized everywhere, it is easy to believe that availability and name-recognition are linked to “quality”. Surely if a writer from the Caribbean and her books were worth reading they would be nominated for the Booker Prize or receive mass market publishing contracts and “rise” to the top of our consciousness.  Continue reading

On Preparing to Re-Read To Kill a Mockingbird

tkam
The first and last time I read To Kill a Mockingbird was in 1983 in Darjeeling. Well, I read it many times that year but I haven’t read it since. I was in class 8 at St. Paul’s, a once-great boys’ boarding school set up in the 19th century by the English as “the Eton of India”—a claim that must have rung hollow long before I got there (these days the school remains in firm decline and no one bothers to recycle the claim). Our English teacher, the formidable Mr. Bhatnagar, had single-handedly decided to make us read books that probably very few Indian thirteen year olds were reading in school. Tragical, Comical Historical, Pastoral, a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare was one; To Sir, With Love was another, and very thrilling in its account of unruly student behaviour of a type we couldn’t even dream of perpetrating (I remember we were all very confused by the scene featuring a burnt sanitary napkin). But the one that made the greatest impression on most of us on whom books made any kind of impression was To Kill a MockingbirdContinue reading