Ali, Allen and Chabon: July Reads (Rains)

Monsoon is here, in India, and as always this is an yearly ritual of exposing the infrastructural inadequacies and governmental failures in their squalid detail. Flood alerts ring, bridges succumb, commute becomes a morbid water sport, and roads — nay, there aren’t any by that name.

Wise brains heavily recommend staying indoors.

And yours truly being wiser than most, except for the ones willfully scrolling this post, stays home, yes —and sits back with a book or two.

Mr. William Faulkner bored me into submission, or maybe I wasn’t trying hard, for I shelved his The Sound and the Fury in disdain —again. So, as a warm-up before tackling my long haul of to-be-reads, I reread the slender hardbound volume of Julian Barnes’s Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending. Profound and plaintive, I was awed by it this time. So taken by it was I that I reviewed it exhaustively here.

Without Feathers, a Woody Allen short-story anthology, proved deadpan. Plot-less plays to bland gags to unimpressive shorts, this crass paperback disappointed me big time, more so after having last year read his great, gift-worthy book Side Effects. It’s sad when a genius flounders. But then, all you need is a rerun of Annie Hall to love him again.

Now, this is something that has done the rounds in literary circles but still remains relatively unknown to readers, and I know not why. Maybe because of its weird-sounding title, lack of marketing, unheard-of writer, or that most popular reason — translation. Anyway, here’s my recommendation:

Ghachar Ghochar is written by Vivek Shanbhag, a prominent short-story writer in Kannada, and translated into the English by Srinath Perur. Largely narrated in flashback about the transformations of a bourgeois family as it scales the societal and financial ladders, this book — an easy one-evening read— is Malgudi-simple on the surface, and yet touches upon deeper issues that plague the psyche of the urban upper middle-class. The translation, though peppered with south Indian argot, is ably done, making it a smooth, worthwhile read. I add: the strength lies in the story and it drives you to an ending as appalling and chilling as any. This is as must-read as they come.

(The words may not jump off the pages but the clever illustration on the dust jacket — black ants crawling around a tea-stained saucer — sure does.)

The King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, David Remnick’s biography of the “The Greatest”, is a quintessential read — boxing fan or not. Categorizing it as a sports book would be inappropriate and demeaning of its wider attributes. Very much like Ali himself was so much more than boxing. Keeping the Ali-Liston fights as the central hub, Remnick, tooled with rich sources and fluid writing, spokes a definitive profile of Mohammad Ali. It pays him the due genuflections, without being decorous, making for an insightful, unique read. The book follows Ali’s birth till his exile during the Vietnam War, thus covering the most important period of Ali ‘s life. This is a well-researched, authoritative narrative of Ali , the charming, religious man outside the ring, as much as it’s a fair tribute to his boxing brilliance; a sparkling fresh read that’s without the well-versed and much-celebrated Rumbles and Manilas to clutter it.

The narrative spreads out to elucidate the influence of the deadly, still-powerful mobs, the Muslim movement — led by it’s chief leaders Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammad, the racial plight that beleaguered America, the politics of the era that was so closely knitted with boxing — and in way sheds light on the tumultuous era that changed the sport itself. Remnick also brings the boxing writers like Johnny Cannon, Norman Mailer, A.J. Liebling to life with concise, relevant sketches. The final chapter is a heartfelt tribute to boxing. The fateful, sorry life of boxers post retirement — broken in body and mind — is lamented upon, thus questioning the prudence of this brutal sport.

If only for the final, tear-jerking epilogue alone, this Ali biography elevates from a gorgeous read into a true masterpiece.

Wonder Boys I was truly looking forward to. The novel’s academic setting and its associated quirks, the glowing reviews and must-read insistence from friends had me anticipating something way better than a wayward, limp story, one I stopped caring for halfway through. What kept me at it was the judiciously inventive language. The prose brims with originality and trundles unhindered, intent on vivid, extensive detailing that’s a pleasure reading— but it’s just that. Immensely quotable lines frequent this novel, but these appear to be incoherent with the flailing narrative. Set over a damp weekend in the life of a hopeless teacher-writer, the plot is unappealing and stake-less, the characters mawkish — hardly anyone seems in their right minds — leaving an overall effect of giddy weariness.

Wonder Boys may have seemed like a really long weekend, but Michael Chabon sure has style and pedigree, and I already plan to read his acclaimed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

The rain pelts unabated as I type, recent news of a fallen bridge pops up on the digital page, relief operations are at work, cables and hoardings lie asunder on streets.

These rainy afternoons, then, all we can do is stay safe, pray and, well, read.

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