Archive

Book notes

Just finished “The Way Things Were,” by Aatish Taseer. It’s the story of an upper-class Indian living in New York who gets word his father, a scholar of Sanskrit and minor raja, has just died. He must bring his father’s ashes back to India, where he finds himself grappling with his, his family’s, and his country’s intertwined histories.

If that strikes you as thin gruel for a narrative, you’re right. The book is grievously afflicted by Litfic Fear of Plot. It’s more an extended collection of interlocking character sketches than anything. The last 200 pages or so dribble out, and the end contains no real resolution, redemption or climax.

Despite this, I enjoyed much of TWTW. The writing is gorgeous. Taseer can craft a great sentence, and is skilled at deploying little moments of insight. The central theme of the novel is “What does mean to be Indian?” and while there’s no answer (that would smack far too much of plot), there’s a lot of interesting discussion along the way. Taseer talks at length of the connections between languages, literature and life, a subject I love to see.

TWTW might be tough for those without a background of Indian history since the early 1970s. If you’ve never heard of the Emergency, the 1982 Blue Star troubles, or the early 90s reforms & the Ayodhya demolition, much of the book will read as gibberish. Taseer’s practice of throwing untranslated Hindi into his dialogue probably won’t help. But if you have an interest in Indian culture, where it’s been and where it’s going, the book has many valuable insights.

“Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,” by Alice Echols

Very good bio of Janis, well conveys the transition between the folk/beatnik early Sixties and the rock/hippie High Sixties (a transition that Janis herself experienced). Things that stick with me are:

-the idea of the “Saturday Night Swindle,” which Janis heard from her father: “…about how you hear over and over that if you work real hard, you’ll go out Saturday night and have a really good time. And everybody lives for that good time, but it never really happens.”

-that Mnasidika, one of the first hip businesses in Haight-Ashbury, was originally intended as a store for lesbians. Due to lack of lesbians in the neighborhood, it switched focus to hippies.

-From Linda Gravenites, one of the best one-sentence summaries of the Haight I’ve ever heard: “Up until then [1967], people came because they were full to overflowing and were sharing their fullness. After that, it was the empties who came, wanting to be filled.”

The story of Janis herself is very sad, a cautionary tale of wanting fame and getting it. The main testimony to Echols’s abilities as a biographer is that you want to reach into the page and give Janis a hug, to comfort her. But it’s far too late for that.