Saturday, January 26, 2008

Three new novels, and some older ones

I don't usually put up my reviews for Mint up on this site, but by a strange coincidence in the last three weeks I've happened to review three first novels (one dating back to 1954) by women writers (if that means anything at all): Kamala Markandaya's Nectar In A Sieve, Shahbano Bilgrami's Without Dreams, and Anjum Hasan's Lunatic In My Head.

One of these I liked very much, another I enjoyed moderately, and the third not at all, so these pieces can be read as a kind of review-trilogy making a set of linked arguments about fiction, and about how difficult it is to produce a genuinely good work of art or create even one memorable character.

And elsewhere, I'm happy to see that Alaa Al Aswany's marvellous novel The Yacoubian Building, which was one of the three novels on my books of the year for 2007, has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (this link leads to a passionately argued essay by Boyd Tonkin which you should read). I still curse myself sometimes for having garbled the sense of the opening line of an otherwise satisfactory short piece on The Yacoubian Building I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph, which points to one of the advantages of a blog, which is that you can smooth out infelicitous thoughts and phrases. The only other novel I read and wrote about among this list of novels in translation was Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring The World, which I thought a modestly charming work with little or no enduring worth.

And some essays I've been reading recently:

Geoff Dyer's meditation on artistic influence in an essay on Rodin and Rilke ("In real life our chances of meeting people are limited and contingent. In the realm of art and literature those constraints are removed; everyone is potentially in dialogue with everyone else irrespective of chronology and geography")

James Wood's meditation on fictional characters "A Life of Their Own", which is perhaps an extract from his new book How Fiction Works. This passage is to my mind a little below Wood's usual standard - he is the greatest, and subtlest, close reader of fiction I have ever read (indeed every review-essay he writes could be called "How Fiction Works") - but necessary reading nonetheless.

the literary critic Geoffrey Hartman's long lecture "A Life of Learning" ("A life of learning has little moral weight unless it communicates the life in learning")

and James Surowiecki's essay on Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism in the new issue of Bookforum.

Lastly, I greatly enjoyed - indeed, felt energised by - the dash and brio of James Wolcott's prose in "How Bush Stacks Up", a survey of books about the Bush presidency ("It’s difficult to think of any modern inhabitant of the Oval Office who has contemplated his own mortality aloud more often than Bush, or drawn more consolation from its graveyard perspective").

And some of my other long reviews of recently published Indian novels: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third, Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof, Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker, and Amitava Kumar's Home Products.

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