Saturday, 23 July 2011

Books I Am Reading Now

I am currently reading a total of four books simultaneously—three novels and a non-fiction book. I do not do this very often; once I start reading a book (usually a novel) I read it till the end, and only after that do I pick up another novel.

So why am I reading not one, not two, but four books at the same time? (I don’t mean of course that I hold two-three books in my hand at the same time and attempt to read them; that would be silly)?

Well, firstly, I think I am falling behind a bit with my book reading in the last couple of months. Last year I read in excess of hundred books. While I knew that I wouldn’t be reaching those dizzy heights this year, I would like to read a good number, say 75, this year.

At the start of July, I took a stock—the original plan was to write up about the books I have read so far, this year, but I gave up on that because I couldn’t be bothered—and realised that unless some reparative measures were taken, the chances of my reaching the target of 75 books by the year end were slim to less than slim (and slim had just got up and left); hence the decision to read more than one book at the same time.

Has it worked? Not really. Had I read one book at a time, I would have finished reading four books in a month.  This month so far, since I changed my strategy, of the four books I took up reading, I have finished only one, and there is absolutely no chance that I will finish the remaining three before the month ends. At the most I will finish reading two.  The strategy has regrettably not worked. Which means that unlike the German and France politicians’ approach towards the Greek debt crisis, I shall not do more of the same in future.

The other reason why I started reading four books simultaneously was that I thought I could. I mean no disrespect to the authors of the four books but none of the four books was excessively taxing. They did not make you ponder on the human condition. They were the kind of books you could read in the loo, on the tube, during lunch breaks; the kind of books which you could put aside for a few days and take up again without getting any sense of discontinuity because, not to put too fine a point of it, they were works of essentially unserious nature. You could give them less than full attention and it wouldn’t detract anything from the pleasure you’d derive.

You—at least I— couldn't say that about all the books. I have recently bought V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa.  I shall read it after I finish reading the current four books I am reading. Now Naipaul is an author that demands your full attention; you wouldn’t want to dilute the pleasure of Naipaul by reading another book at the same time. You should read him slowly, going over sections of the book again, savouring the prose.

The first of the four books (and the one I have finished) was D.J. Taylor’s At the Chime of A City Clock

Taylor’s reputation in England rests mainly on his Whitbread award winning biography of George Orwell. He is a regular contributor to the broadsheets and is a respected reviewer. He is also a fairly prolific novelist who has published more than half a dozen novels, the most recent of which is At the Chime of A City Clock.  Taylor has carried out what a friend of mine (who is a boffin and tortures mice to advance the frontiers of human knowledge) calls the salami technique. The salami technique works like this: you carry out a whopping big study and then dine out on it for the next ten years; use it as a basis to publish several studies which differ from each other only marginally. Taylor has used the same technique in a manner of speaking: he has now published three books—two novels and a non-fiction book on the theme of the rise of the nouveau riche in England between the two great wars of the twentieth century. The first was his non-fiction work entitled Bright Young People: the Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940. In a literary programme Taylor remarked that while he was researching for the book he was interested to note that quite a few of the high society women who reached positions of prominence (usually by marrying rich Englishmen) between the two wars were American women of very modest, at times shady, background who crossed the Atlantic and made a success of their lives in England. That gave him, so he said, the germ of a story: he imagined an American woman with a dark secret who travels to England as a vaudeville artist and in due course becomes a rich society woman. Then the ‘secret’ gets on a steamer and begins blackmailing her. The novel was Ask Alice, which I read last year. I found the novel patchy: good in parts but on the whole it did not work for me. Densely written and rich in geographical details it nevertheless lacked drama or suspense; it simply wasn’t riveting enough.

At the Chime of A City Clock finds Taylor in a different, much lighter, mood. Set in the 1930s, the novel tells the story of James Ross, an aspiring writer who works as a salesman to make ends meet and who unwittingly gets embroiled in a plot he does not fully comprehend. The novel is described a s a thriller, but there is hardly any sense of suspense or thrill; however it is not any less entertaining for that. Taylor seems more interested in evoking for the reader the seedy side of London during the Great Depression: the world of cheap pubs, and of chancers who are always up to some or the other tricks (there are characters in the novel who exclaim ‘That’s a mulligatawny!’ and use words like ‘borrasics’ to describe impoverished women of questionable morals); and he does it brilliantly. It is not a novel that you will read through the night because you absolutely have to know what happens in the end; but it is an enjoyable read—the kind of novel based on which Cohen Brothers might make a stylishly droll (perhaps black-and-white) noir film  starring (young) Jeff Bridges.

The second novel, which I am half-way through so far, is the debut novel by the Indian author Sarita Mandanna, entitled Tiger Hills

The novel had created a sort of stir even before it was published when news leaked out that Penguin India reportedly paid seven figure sum to purchase it. The novel is also selected by the Channel 4’s  TV Book Club boasting such celebrity members such as Laila Rouass (who I believe is an actress and, according to WikiPedia, was voted in 2005 as the 69th sexiest woman by FHM and has acted in serials such Footballer’s Wives, so just the sort of panellist you would want on a programme about books), Jo Brand (who, I don’t think would feature in anyone’s list of sexiest women—unless one enjoys riding bouncy castles, but who is a very clever and witty stand up comedienne and I suspect has written a book or two), Mira Syal (who years ago acted in the very funny sitcom Goodness Gracious Me and, like Brand, has written a couple of books), and someone called Dave Spikey whom I had never heard of but who, according to WikiPedia (what would we do without it?), is an actor and comedian and I guess reads books. 

Coming back to the novel, it is, at almost 600 pages, a behemoth. It tells the story of love triangle involving, as love triangles do, a woman and two men. The novel is set at the turn of the twentieth century when India was under the British colonial rule and is set in the Southern Indian region called Coorg which, we are invited to believe in the first few pages of the novel, is Scotland in India (although such information as is provided on the dietary habits of the native fails to mention whether fried Mars bar formed  a constituent of their diet—perhaps Mars bar was not invented then—nor does the author provide statistics on the incidence of alcoholic liver disease in the region). The novel reads like a Bollywood pot-boiler, full of big emotions and the subtlety of a Centurian tank. On the plus side Mandanna  (whose photograph suggests that she ought to be taken as a serious candidate for the top 100 sexiest women in the world—perhaps she already features in the list for all I know) writes with such self-assurance that it is difficult to believe that it is her debut novel.

                                   (Doesn't she have a winning smile?)

That, regrettably, is not enough. Despite several moments of high octane drama (in the 350 pages I have read so far) there is a curious lack of excitement; there is simply no tingle. You read the twists and turns in the life of Devi (the novel’s heroine) with a sense of disconnection. Wonderfully written, but not absorbing enough for me. The novel does provide some historical context to the story such as the Afghan Wars of the British and I thought about checking whether the chronology was correct, but decided not to do it, partly because I reckoned the author (in receipt of a seven figure sum, allegedly) must have done the research, but mainly because I couldn't be bothered.

The third novel I am reading currently is another debut novel, Paul Torday’s impossibly titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The novel was published a few years ago and was a success. I didn’t buy it at that time because I remember being slightly put off by the title. I bought it for a couple of quid from an Oxfam shop last month (the old biddy at the till, in-between pushing her dentures in and out of her mouth, which seemed to occupy her fully, told me that I had made a great choice). This is the book I am enjoying the most.  It is a whimsical novel that brims with gentle humour, and successfully combines the political satire (of the looking-glass world of Blairite politics) with the Pooterish comedy of the novel’s protagonist Dr. Alfred Jones. The novel couldn’t be more different from Tiger Hills: unlike the heroine of Tiger Hills, Devi, whose emotions refuse to follow any curve other than a hyperbole, Dr. Jones, the protagonist of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is an emotional flatliner, yet I found him to be a far more absorbing character and would be very glad if, by the end of the novel, he jettisons his wife (who seems like a mean bitch) and wanders into sunset with the delectable Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. 

Paul Torday was almost sixty when he wrote Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. After a life-time of running an engineering firm which repaired ships' engines, Torday sat down to write after the company became the subject of a hostile take-over: he had a lot of time on his hand and he couldn’t play golf, which, I guess, is as good a reason as any to start writing. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a very enjoyable read; and the publication of two subsequent novels by the author suggests that the late blooming of Torday’s auctorial talent will continue to provide pleasure to the readers. I am going to scour the Oxfam shops and second-hand book shops to get hold of Torday’s next novel, The Irresitable Inheritance of Wilberforce, which is about a man who drinks himself to death. Not a jolly topic, I daresay; but I would be interested to find out how Torday treats it.

The last book I am currently reading is a part-memoir-part-travelogue. It is called The Mango Orchard by Robin Bayley. 

I borrowed it from the library where  it was recommended as a ‘good summer read’.  First published in 2009, The Mango Orchard tells the ‘extraordinary’ journey Bayley undertook in the 1990s, in Latin America, when he learned (from his grandmother) that his great-grandfather, Arturo, lived in Mexico for many years before he returned to England in somewhat hurry. The book so far is mildly absorbing. Bayley has a simple, disarming way of telling a story (a true story in this case) which touches your heart.  I have read only the first third of the book but I think I know where this is going: I wouldn’t at all be surprised to learn that Bayley will be surprised to learn that great-grandfather Arturo had put himself about in Mexico and, as a result, he has a Mexican family. 

Bayley, as mentioned earlier, made the journey in the 1990s and made copious notes. He thought that he would be able to write a book, based on the notes, in a few months. He underestimated his dyslexia and his ability (despite the handicap) to write voluminously. Over the next several years, in various locations in Mexico, Spain, and the UK, Bayley wrote over 3 million words, and damaged three computers and nerve endings in his fingers. The heavily edited version of the book was eventually sent to the agent (his grandmother, who was 103 at the time, read the manuscript  twice, although, regrettably, she did not live to see the book getting published) and was eventually published in 2009. The paperback edition I am reading informs that Bayley now works as a full-time writer. One wishes him the very best of luck and  hopes he will have a steady supply of computers and regular follow up with a neurologist.

So these are the four books I am currently reading. I should finish them in the next couple of weeks. 

Then I shall settle down to read The Masque of Africa.