Sunday, August 22, 2004

maps for lost lovers

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Aslam has captured the British imagination with this remarkable second novel, Jason writes in Newsweek. The award-winning British-Pakistani writer spent 11 years in cloistered penury, laboring over the story of the so-called honor killing of two unmarried lovers. Aslam, a lapsed Muslim, is a stern critic of the faith. But his focus on the exotic "Oriental" may earn him as many critics among liberal Asians as among fundamentalists.

fascinating books to buy me

Terry Castle has generated a terrific list of "astonishing memoirs by (and about) deeply repellent people" for the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly. I wish there were a Borders or Barnes & Noble around here.

Among the books he recommends are the following.

Liber Amoris: or, The New Pygmalion, by William Hazlitt (1823).
The hilariously squalid (and strangely affecting) record of the great nineteenth-century critic's erotic obsession with his landlady's daughter.

A Disgraceful Affair: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bianca Lamblin, by Bianca Lamblin (1996).
A sapphic J'accuse! directed at Simone de Beauvoir.

<>A Madman's Manifesto, by August Strindberg (1895). Strindberg intended this scabrous roman à clef about his tormented marriage to the actress and feminist Siri von Essen to serve as a suicide note. He got cold feet about killing himself but decided to humiliate her anyway.

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, by Art and Laurie Pepper (1979).
An American genius going down the toilet. Some think Pepper the greatest jazz saxophonist after Charlie Parker.

Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche, by Ben Macintyre (1992).
The intrepid Macintyre took a boat trip into the Paraguayan jungle in 1991 in search of the surviving inhabi-tants of Nueva Germania—an abortive "Aryan" colony founded in the late nineteenth century by the ghastly Elisabeth Nietzsche, racist sister of the philosopher.

Monday, August 16, 2004

more on olympics coverage

The Indian press will go to any length to print a photo of a woman in a bikini (or wet sari, or hot pants, or silver spandex catsuit, or fluorescent pink tube top, or artfully arranged collection of gravity-resistant rose petals). This is a bit of surprisingly market-savvy journalism for which I can express nothing but admiration, of course. But it does lead to the odd cock-up now and then, if I may be permitted a small pun (and Britishism). Witness the various agency photographs selected to accompany our respected newspapers' Olympics coverage. The Brazilian women's swim team (Brazil has a swim team?), the Brazilian beach volleyball team, the controversial Athens beach volleyball cheerleaders (misidentified as the Brazilian beach volleyball team--do I see a theme here?) But then, once in awhile, they get it right. Witness the Asian Age's August 17 photo of a Greek beach volleyballer (women's, of course) digging for a spike. Somebody deserves a medal for that one.

basic incompetence

If there's a better argument that government and media don't go together unless one is lambasting or lampooning the other than Doordarshan's Olympics coverage, I don't know what it is. The state-owned TV channel's coverage has been so bad that I've actually broken out laughing during the broadcasts.

(1) They use an absolutely hilarious fade-in screen for the various sports. For those of you away from India, it has the title of the next event (say, "Women's Gymnastics") written in a font nobody has used since the initial enthusiasm for desktop publishing wore off, surrounded by (I'm deadly serious here) clip art. That's right. Just the stuff they used to sell in little cut-out books for my high school newspaper, so we could put some "graphic element" on the pages when none of our photos turned out.

(2) The studio backdrop is even funnier.

(3) They commit the most amateur technical blunders without apology. For example, during women's gymnastics, the studio people will cut away to women's swimming on camera, but the audio will continue with the gymnastics commentary. This will continue for 15 minutes before anyone notices. Without fail, the channel will opt for an insignificant contest over a significant one, as in when they cut away from a compelling upset of a Polish boxer seeded for the bronze medal to show the last five minutes of a women's basketball game between the USA and New Zealand, in which the USA was 50 points ahead. 50 points! (This might not seem that insurmountable, if you didn't know that New Zealand didn't manage to score 50 points in the whole game.... which means they could play for the duration of a whole game without the USA scoring another point and still not catch up....) But the most infuriating, to the mad boxing fan: DD will stay on boxing through the third and the fourth round of a bout, find out who wins, and then keep us watching for the five minutes it takes to announce the judges for the next match--almost as long as a match lasts. Then, just before the fight begins, they'll cut away to the studio commentary.

(4) Which is the most pathetic of all. Some brain trust has decided that DD needs to educate the viewers in the basics of all the sports -- we know how well this works from USA soccer broadcasts or Mandira Bedi's cricket commentary -- so they force us to listen to the most inane drivel imaginable, first in English and then paraphrased in Hindi, usually separated and punctuated by long, awkward pauses, during which the anchors look at each other in quiet desperation. I rank these guys--the channel seems to have an endless stable of incompetents--well below the play-by-play that the communications class at my provincial high school provided for the school's basketball games on "Chelsea Radio." This is like watching Bob Ross (the white afro guy of The Joy of Painting) do sports.

Friday, August 13, 2004

good news from the atlantic

The Atlantic Monthly has finally managed to answer its Internet problems, and is now offering full online access to the magazine to subscribers, as well as digital-only subscriptions. After entering the Internet game early on, offering full access very soon after the Internet boom began and even bringing up substantial online-only content, the Atlantic discovered that online readers were hurting subscriptions.

For those of us in Asia, this was terrible news. Though subscribing to the magazine is very cheap, shipping overseas can double or triple that cost. The only dim-witted thing they've done, in my opinion, is they seem to have eliminated all "free" articles. These were excellent teasers for the magazine, and had the potential to attract subscribers (print or online). Now, I can only foresee people like myself taking advantage of the new offer. (As indicator of where the Atlantic comes in this field, the New York Review of Books and New Republic have been offering full access to subscribers for many months, while Harper's and the New Yorker provide limited content for free, mostly from their rich archives).

forgettable books

This morning I awoke to find the library littered with books. Shailaja had gone on a midnight purge fest that was long in the making. Our bookshelves were full, and we don't have room for any more shelves, so it was get rid of some books or stop buying more.

Here's what we're getting rid of -- for the benefit of the "On My Shelf" stream...

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - too similar to Richard Russo's book, whatever it was called, without being as funny
Trotter-Nama by Allan Sealy - Dunno
Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible - tried her recipe for Garam Masala and it tasted like ground cardamom seeds... If I want paan, or something equally vile, I'll go to the paan shop
Half a Life by VS Naipaul - I used to love VS until I moved to India and found out about his new love of fascism. Oh for another House for Mr. Biswas
Journalism Since September 11 - No, it doesn't have any of the crucial tidbits, such as, add Osama to every South Asia headline to ensure publication, as in, "Looking for Osama in Kathmandu" or "No Love for Osama in Colombo."
Selected Fiction by O.V. Vijayan
Memories of Madness - an anthology about Partition
Myths & Legends of India - already in the On My Shelf file... We never read it
Empire by Niall Ferguson - ditto. I challenge anyone to say honestly he waded through this entire book before weighing in with a review. Same challenge to anyone who claims to have read it who is not a professional book reviewer.
The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe - Not bad. Funny stuff about English boarding schools as I recall, but no William Boyd
The Last Jet Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi - Think I might put this one back on the shelf. Been meaning to read it.
The Narmada Damned - I'm sympathetic
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - I dunno... Maybe I just can't stomach all that adulation. And the guy's named after Gogol, for god sake! As a friend wrote, Isn't that pretentious and precious at the same time?
1996 Expatriate Guide to Beijing - The amusement about the pace of change has warn off
Cities of India - Filling up space, and little more
River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester - How can such an interesting writer come up with such a boring book? Stumped.
The Sari Shop - More desi fiction... Can't stomach the stuff if I'm not getting paid to read it.
Mandala of Sherlock Holmes - Confession: I never got into the original, so why would I read the homage?
Kashmir, the Untold Story by Humra Qureishi - I think the title overstates the case
Socrates: Poisoned Again After Centuries - Was Rajneesh aka Osho like Socrates? This would be an interesting book if it presented convincing evidence that Osho was offed by the CIA or something, but it mostly presents the case that he was like Socrates in being dull and impenetrable or simply tautological.
The CIA's Secret War in Tibet - Did I say a book about the CIA would be interesting?
Contemporary India by Satish Deshpande - Again, the kind of book I get paid to read
Breaking the Big Story - Shailaja has vowed never to teach journalism again apparently
If You Are Afraid of Heights by Raj Kumar Jha - the best thing about this guy is his hair
Delhi: City Improbable - Neat little collection, but not worth saving
Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan - I went to great lengths to pick up this book in the US after reading a review that was, frankly, a load of shite. Apparently, the author's innovative use of different colored inks blinded the reviewer to his numbing boredom.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves - A book about commas. Soon everyone will recognize this fact, won't they?
Timeline by Michael Crichton - Ashamed to have liked this one, especially after seeing the movie, after which I know that nobody will believe me about the book. Gotta expunge this one from the record.
Mr. Naipaul's Round Trip & Other Essays - Suspect title. Have I mentioned my plans for a blog devoted entirely to unconvential reviews - e.g. based on book jacket, the movie based on the book, the people you observe reading the book, etc. This is a brilliant scheme, I can say with complete modesty.
The Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama'at - I couldn't even finish the title
Competing Nationalisms in South India - zzzzzzzzzzz
The Beauty Game - Has potential. India's Naomi Wolf.... Wait, India's Naomi Wolf?
Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis - I've given up trying to discover if Kingsley was ever funny before or after Lucky Jim. Maybe he was, but the wasn'ts are too dispiriting.
The Liar by Stephen Fry - An actor who writes novels. Even if this part-timer's book is moderately good, which I'm told it is (no Ethan Hawke, here), that would be tooooo depressing.
All Those Philip Pullman Books - Good, fun reads. OK, I said it, the number one enemy of Harry Potter. I, an adult, have recently read a kid's book.
Flavours of Delhi by Charmaine O'Brien - (1) Delhi's flavours are pretty disappointing (2) This book should be called "Guide to Delhi's Five-Star Hotels and their In-House Restaurants (3) How does one get one of these Lonely Planet Publishing contracts to write a useless book?
Elsewhere - An anthology of Indian travel writing. Interesting idea. But Indian editors should wield a fiercer pen.
Yaraana - Yaaaawwwn... Ahhh
China of the Lam - Guy walks from Hong Kong to Harbin, sleeps in rain, talks to peasants.
Translating Caste - Good counterpoint to the endless procession of books about how tough it was to go to boarding school in the UK with brown skin, then take up daddy's failing business when you really wanted to be a writer, or about how tough it was to leave the verdant fragrance of Kerala-Goa-Mangalore behind for the cuthroat world of US academe.... Which was that one, The Blue Scent of Transient Emotions? The Perplexing Fragrance of the Brown Sahib? I can't recall. Here, though, you get a story where the characters watch the assholes of a herd of buffalo so they can sing out "Mine" when one of the beasts lays a turd. Black gold.
Translating Desire - See above.
Children of Light by Robert Stone - One of the Intrepid Traveler's lesser works, but worth a read. After trying to convince a lot of people to read Outerbridge Reach and getting lukewarm responses, I'm beginning to think I'm the only self-consciously macho, tightass, emotionally impaired intellectual guy out there these days. What the hell is going on?
Zen Poetry - I never read anything with Zen in the title.
Hindoo Holiday by J.R. Ackerley - A classic, written between the lines, about a Raja and a British public school toff bonding over the availability of young brown boys. Great embarrassing bits about falling in love with servants.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses - I'm putting this one back on the shelf. It's a silly little chapbook, but come on, I can't remember all those gods. I'm used to one, or three, or whatever.
One Last Look by Susanna Moore - I reviewed this book for Asia Times, but they never printed my brilliant thoughts. I realize after seeing In the Cut that my hype for Moore as the author of that novel probably did me no great service.
The Long Recessional - A biography of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour. Good stuff. Gilmour has decided to make himself known as a biographer of lesser subjects, I guess, with Kipling, Curzon, et al. One can only wonder why.
Manual of Zen Buddhism - See above
Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature - Dunno
Voice of the Turtle - What is this obsession with reptiles, and who is The Turtle?
The Rachel Papers - What? What? How can we be selling this to the idiots at Saket Community Center? This has to go to a good home. I cannot stress this enough. Shailaja will receive stern words, believe me. We're holding onto Are You Experienced because it's funny and we're selling Martin Amis' best book? (Yes, I'll go that far)....
The Gin Drinkers by Sagarika Ghose - Shailaja says its good, but based on the tone in her voice I've decided to take her word. I can't be bothered.
White Mughals by William Dalrymple - Everybody loves Willie, but this one is too heavy to lift, let alone read
Children of Kali by Kevin Rushby - Veerappan, Thugs, Dacoits....
Somanatha by Romila Thapur - I'm tempted to slog through this because of the hate Thapur inspires from the far right, but then I read a few pages....
Flappers 2 Rappers - a book about 20th century slang, given away by the Corner Bookshop
Babur-Nama: Memoirs of Akbar - We have another copy, lighter and less unwieldy than this one
The Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen - Credits plucky Brits for the rediscovery of Buddhism - I say old boy, have you noticed the wogs over the hill are worshiping a right chubby little bloke without an elephant's trunk?
Monsoon Diary by Shoba Narayan - Review book. Shailaja found it a saccharine memoir, laced with apologies for India's pernicious caste system, as in "It's just our way of life." Yuck.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Indian Government Reverses Practice of Controlling Donations to Universities

India's new education minister, Arjun Singh, has scrapped a controversial order that routed donations to public universities through a special government agency, writes Shailaja in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

the free market

Keeping your markets unfettered by pesky social concerns is not the only way to organize an economy, writes Lawrence Mishell in the American Prospect. And, surprise surprise, it may not even be the best approach. Over the past four decades, "Major European countries [with] policies that are far different from ours: a strong social insurance system, government provision of health care, higher taxes, and far less inequality...have seen faster productivity growth -- the gain in economic efficiency -- than the United States." Meanwhile, what has happened stateside?

  • The top 1 percent of families earned 9.3 percent of all income in 1980. By 2000, this income share had increased to 19.6 percent. Correspondingly, the income share of the bottom 90 percent declined from 66 percent to 53.9 percent. There were small gains (1.9 percentage points) in the income shares of the remaining group, the 90th to 99th percentiles.
  • From 1980 to 2000, the incomes of the upper 1 percent increased 179 percent, while those of the bottom 90 percent increased by 8 percent.
  • In 1970, the ratio of top executive earnings to that of the average worker was 38.6 to 1. This ratio increased to 101.1 by 1980, to 222 by 1990, and to 1046 in 1999.
Something to think about.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

the little things continued

The things people ask of their servants crack me up. It's especially bad at the gym, where everybody has a sweeper, driver, trainer and personal valet on loan. Example: The boss comes in every day with a gym bag and a briefcase. After his shower, he carries the gymbag out to his car, and gets one of the menials to carry the briefcase a few paces behind him. What is he carrying in his left hand? His keys. The other day I noticed that one of the reasons the gym has such a large staff is that the patrons are incapable of dressing themselves or taking care of their own belongings or picking up a glass of water. Taking off his lifting gloves, the typical gym user says, "Sushil, put these in the side pocket of my bag," and heads off to the shower. When he's finished, Sushil wordlessly hands him his clothes. Does he have somebody to do this kind of thing for him at home, or is he going the extra mile because it's an unusual pleasure? Other people will even go out of their way to find a servant to, say, fill them a glass of water, when it is actually closer and faster to walk to the water tank. Stunning. It reminds me of something my mother used to say: "What? Are your legs broken?"

All that aside, I'm getting into it now, myself. One of the kids who works there has sort of adopted me, and now he stands by while I dress to hang up my shirt, hand me my shoes, dart upstairs to retrieve my forgotten jumprope, etc. It's let him do it or wrestle over the privilege. My unavoidable valet.

Monday, August 02, 2004

put down that book

Another thing that distresses me is the fear that I may not be able to read all the books in the world. Of course I know that's impossible, but until I was 28 or so I kept the fantasy going by not looking into it too closely. Then, about the time I was slogging through The Magic Mountain, I decided to come up with a ballpark estimate. OK, I'm an obsessive reader, and a fast one, I'll admit. I read an average of a book a week. (Note: at this level of consumption, the idea that reading is somehow of greater merit than watching TV starts to unravel). That's 52 books a year. That's 50 more years if I live to 83, which means just 2500-odd more books if I never slow down. The first time I did this simple calculation, I was stunned. 2500!? I immediately chucked Thomas Mann, I can tell you that, and vowed not to continue reading anything that couldn't convince me that it needed to be read--either because I was enjoying it or because I believed, like bad-tasting medicine, it was doing me some good. No longer would I finish books because I felt guilty about quitting on them.

By that criteria, the two books that most justified themselves to me over the past year were The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh and A Coffin for Dmitrios by Eric Ambler. Neither are particularly high-brow endeavors--I haven't been able to read literature for about a year and a half now, because of some constitutional weakness. But both of these novels deliver the goods. Consider this passage from The Choirboys, a grim, very lewd, black comedy about the lives of policemen that was inspired by Joseph Heller's Catch 22--and to my mind outdoes Heller's classic, with a sounder, more sincere voice and greater commitment to the bleakest of world views.

"Lieutenant Treadwell, after his hair started falling out in tufts, earned his way back into Commander Moss' good graces by authoring that portion of the Los Angeles Police Deparment manual which reads:
SIDEBURNS: Sideburns shall not extend below the bottom of the outer ear opening (the top of the earlobe) and shall end in a clean-shaven horizontal line. The flare (terminal portion of the sideburn) shall not exceed the width of the main portion of the sideburn by more than one-fourth of the unflared width.
MOUSTACHES: A short and neatly trimmed moustache of natural color may be worn. Moustaches shall not extend below the vermillion border of the upper lip or the corners of the mouth and may not extend to the side more than one-quarter inch beyond the corners of the mouth.
It took Lieutenant Treadwell thirteen weeks to compose the regulations. He was toasted and congratulated at a staff meeting. He beamed proudly. The regulations were perfect. No one could understand them."

one more thing you didn't see

Yes, one of the big disappointments of my life in India is HBO. For some reason, they don't think it's necessary or profitable to show boxing in India, and boxing has no body of interested partners, like the corporate associations that make up the NBA or NFL or MLB, to take the responsibility of promoting the sport. Maybe that's why it's slowly fading away. So I didn't get to see the sad end, or the latest development in the sad end, of Mike Tyson this past Friday. I didn't expect it to be very exciting, but I still have feelings for old Iron Mike. Every generation has its heavyweight champ, and he was ours. The saddest thing about it, though, was that Reuters called it "one of the biggest upsets in the history of boxing." That lent a Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show feel to the thing, which might have been more dignified, as Tyson has always been in defeat, if not always in victory. Anybody who didn't see this coming shouldn't be writing about the sport.