Thursday, 6 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Non-fiction)

In the non-fiction category I read quite a few interesting memoirs in 2010. Two of which were Becoming British: the making of Mr. Hai’s daughter by Yasmin Hai (who is a television presenter of Pakistani descent) and A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English by Shappi Khorasandi (who is a stand-up comedienne of Iranian descent). Every society, as the writer Will Self once said, needs ‘the other’ who is demonised. I’d say that ‘the other’ also helps the majority community to define itself. At a time when the former British Prime-minister Toni Blair has identified militant Islam as the biggest threat to our society, I was interested to read the experiences of Khorasandi and Hai, who both come from migrant Muslim families. These are warm, affecting recollections of growing up in the London of 1970s and 1980s, and if there is one lesson you can take away it is that it is foolish to paint the fastest growing religion in the world with a broad brush.

Other winsome memoirs I read were Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Laura Shane Cunningham’s Sleeping Arrangements. Bryson is very popular in the UK because of his travelogues. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid has all the hallmarks of a Bill Bryson book: a benign, humourous view of life cloaked in witty prose. Laura Shaine Cunningham is not a household name in the UK; however, judging from her utterly delightful memoir of having been brought up by two eccentric uncles in the 1950s’ America, she ought to be.

Marrying Anita is an unusual account of an American woman of immigrant Indian stock to fine love in modern India. Anita Jain, who has a degree in journalism from Harvard shifted to New Delhi a few years ago with the mission of finding a life-partner. What follows is a witty, at times hilarious, at times thought-provoking, unprejudiced, and always entertaining account of what happened during Jain’s one year stay in New Delhi. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir.

Another hugely entertaining and absorbing memoir was Bringing Nothing to the Party, Paul Carr’s memoir, in which he tells about his (ultimately unsuccessful) account of becoming a web millionaire in a year. Carr is a very witty writer and the memoir also allows the readers a peek into the world of geeky, twenty-something millionaires.

Piers Morgan’s Misadventure of a Big-Mouth Brit is the kind of book you read in the loo when your brain goes into theta and anus does the thinking. Very amusing, though. Morgan knows how to belt out clever, sparkling sentences.

Diana Athill’s After A Funeral, by contrast, is relentlessly grim. I guess, when you set out to tell the story of an alcoholic gambler who spent his whole life torturing himself and those who tried to help him, before he decided to remove himself from the gene-pool, it is difficult to be cheery. In wondrous prose Athill presents a character study of a man who could have been—probably was—a genius, and, with candidness that is characteristic of her other memoirs, lays bare all aspects of her relationship with the man she refers throughout the memoir as ‘Didi’ (the only bit, perhaps crucial, about which Athill is less than candid is the identity of the person). I read ‘After A Funeral’ in December. It is the kind of book that imparts great wisdom about the human condition, but it definitely does not make a festive reading.

A memoir that is less than candid is Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae. The great Spark, it seems, set out to settle old scores when she decided to write her side of the story. Marked by Spark’s sardonic wit, the memoir is very readable—especially the first part where she describes her childhood in Edinburgh—but it reveals more about the things Spark chooses to remain silent about.

The Tongue Set Free is the first volume of the celebrated memoirs of Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel prize for Literature in the 1980s. I had read ‘Auto da Fe’, the only full length novel Canetti wrote, last year, and had enjoyed it tremendously. ‘Tongue Set Free’ is the account of Canetti’s childhood spent in three countries. It is an astonishing book, astonishing for the intense and close relationship Canetti had with his mother. I plan to read the other two volumes of Canetti’s autobiography in the coming year.

Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria, in the family of Saphardic Jews, in the first decade of the twentieth century. His childhood could not have been more different from that of Kapka Cassabova, who was born in the same country, but in the seventh decade of the twentieth century, by which time Bulgaria had become one of the satellite countries of the Soviet Union. Cassabova’s account of growing up in a Communist Bulgaria is different from Canetti’s—but still very readable—not just because she seems to have very few happy memories, but also because Canetti’s recall of his childhood is not censored by his adult self (always a more difficult thing to do, I think) whereas Cassabova’s memories strike you as having been filtered through the colander of her adult self. That said A Street Without A Name gives you an interesting first-hand account of how it was in the Communist, Eastern Bloc countries.

Barbara Demich’s Nothing to Envy, which I have reviewed on this blog gives a sobering account of what passes for life in one of the two countries in the world that have seen no reason to jettison centrally controlled economy.

China, these days, is Communist only to the extent that the Party dictatorship controls the power. In every other sense the country has left the philosophy of Mao Tes-tung, the father of Communist China, whose poster looks down on people in the Tiananmen Square far behind. One wonders what Mao would have made of China in the twenty-first century. The Chinese-Canadian journalist Jane Wong’s account of her trip to China to atone for past sins when she believed in all the lies Mao fed to the world (Chinese Whispers) has been reviewed on the blog

Communism these days exists only in North Korea, Cuba and in the heads of the members of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Said Sayrafiezadeh’s bitter-sweet memoir (When Skatebords Will be Free) —more bitter than sweet, although he is remarkably rancour-free—of growing up in a dysfunctional family, where the only thing common between his parents was that a socialist revolution was going to take over America any time, brings a tear to your eyes even as you smile. Eminently readable.

Geoff Dyer is a Jack-of-all-Trades. He is a novelist, an essayist, a critic, a reviewer, and a writer who, according to the introductions to many of his books, specialises in writing genre defying works. Last year I read one of his genre defying works and quite liked it. This year I read a novel (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi) which was dreadful, and another, non-fiction, genre defying work—Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s account of his attempts to write a book on D.H. Lawrence of whom he claims to be an admirer. It is an interesting book. It is more than interesting; it is a double bluff. On the face of it, it is a book about how Dyer never got round to writing a book about Lawrence, yet you are faced with the fact that he has written a book. The book is littered with Dyer’s comical self-observations and laments about his indecisiveness, lassitude procrastinations, and being a premier-league idler, none of which is supposed to hide the fact that in fact he is a very clever dude who has many intelligent things to say about Lawrence.

Julian Barnes is a favourite writer. I did not read any novels by him this year, but read Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’s meditation on death, which I have reviewed on the blog. Barnes take on what it means to be approaching death is thought provoking and amusing which, despite the morbid subject matter, brings a smile to your face.

Two books, of different genres, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading were The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh’s fascinating account of the family of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the tragic trajectories the lives of many of his siblings took; and  The Suspicions of M Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s utterly absorbing recreation of a Victorian murder, which is on par with the best of Agatha Christie murder mysteries.