I’m pondering the two extra half-used rolls of paper perched on the back of the toilet seat when I hear snuffling in the next stall.

“Shit!” a woman exclaims.

The toilet automatically flushes as I zip my pants and rebuckle my belt. For a moment, I reflexively fear mortifying my already-perturbed colleague. But she’s muttering again, and then her severe pointy black heels are tapping, furious and staccato.

Amused, I wash my hands; she emerges from the stall with something in her hands. I’m heading for the hand towels, which hang over the waste basket, but she cuts me off to thrust something deep within the recesses of balled and worried white papers.

I smile my crooked, haphazard smile. “Is everything OK?” She seems like she could use someone being nice to her.

My question hangs in the air for a few tenuous moments; I wipe my hands and discard my towel, then improvise a shrug and head for the door.

“Wait,” she stops me. I turn, heartened. She’s about my age, late twenties, and I think I recognize her as the executive assistant to one of the higher-ups. Her face is quaint, shaped like a little heart, and her liquidy brown eyes are kind.

“I don’t need your fucking pity,” she spits. “So I’m pregnant. So what? Don’t fucking judge me.”

“I … I’m not judging you,” I stuttered. The flecks of black and gold of the bathroom tiles were mesmerizing. “Have you thought about … you know, getting it taken care of?”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Who the fuck are you, Planned Parenthood?” she railed. She splashed water on her face and neck, then quietly dabbed herself dry. “Just … don’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No, no, I won’t … I never would.” She huffed out the door as I tried to respond. I smoothed my hair and returned to my desk; later, I saw her at the elevators, and instead of acknowledging me, she emphatically inserted her earbuds and made a show of fiddling with her iPod as if I weren’t there.

Just stocked up at the library; also digging into Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth for my book group. But read an intriguing review in the Times, and so my list grows to include Mad, Bad and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi.

The reviewer, Kathryn Harrison, writes:

One of the consistently fascinating and disturbing aspects of [the book] is Lisa Appignanesi’s assiduous tracking of the modishness of what might be mistaken for a sui generis discipline. Of course, as anyone who has visited a psychiatric hospital — or ridden the subway — can attest, crazy is what we call people who refuse to conform to accepted norms of behavior. And the definition of nonconformity must change in step with styles of conforming. …

As Appignanesi observes, “Patients could well find themselves the victims of a doctor’s prejudice about what kind of behavior constituted sanity: this could all too easily work against women who didn’t conform to the time’s norms of sexual behavior or living habits.” That diagnoses conceived by male doctors would be subject to men’s changeable views of women — romantic, patronizing, idealistic, misogynistic: the choices are limited only by the imagination — comes as no surprise; it’s the meticulous and exhaustive account of these theories offered in “Mad, Bad and Sad” that is sobering.

“It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)

My favorite passage from the American Book Review’s list of the 100 best last lines from novels.

Yup, New York’s guv was caught on a federal wiretap soliciting a prostitute. Prospect of me getting any work done this afternoon? About as good as Spitzer getting off scott-free. Everybody’s talking about it, and I don’t have much to add to the discussion, so, without further ado, books about prostitution for your scholarly edification:

An excerpt from the latter …

Passing now to the fourth of this vice we find prostitution in a most repulsive form, the women themselves diseased and dirty the houses redolent of bad rum.

Poor-quality booze! Say it isn’t so!

A piece by Salman Rushdie, “The Shelter of the World,” ran in last week’s New Yorker, and while I didn’t find the story (a tale of Emperor Akbar and maybe-real, maybe-imaginary wife Jodha) as gripping as I have some of his work, one passage jumped out at me:

“The court was also full of foreigners, pomaded exotics, weather-beaten merchants, narrow-faced priests from the West, boasting in ugly, undesirable tongues about the majesty of their lands, their gods, their kings. When the Emperor showed her the pictures of their mountains and valleys they’d brought with them, she thought of the Himalayas and of Kashmir and laughed at the foreigners’ paltry approximations of natural beauty, their vaals and aalps, half-words to describe half-things. Their kings were savages, and they had nailed their god to a tree. What did she want with people as ridiculous as that?

They came in search of—what, exactly? Nothing of use. If they had possessed any wisdom, the inutility of their journeying would have been obvious to them. Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and spirited you away into fairlylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Not sure whether it’s happenstance or by calculation, but Rushdie’s not the only person who’s got something to say about the erstwhile emperor. Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood flick billed as “a sixteenth-century love story about a marriage of alliance that gave birth to true love between a great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa,” debuted on February 15 and has been in the news ever since, not least because its historical accuracy has been called into question. The Times gave it a fairly good review, but people in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Sonepat, and Ambala will have to wait for pirated VCDs of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Cecil B. DeMille-esque grasp of cinematic grandeur.

The Times of India offers a fairly good precis of recent controversies related to Bollywood releases; the Hindustan Times also chimes in with analysis of the phenomenon.

Mass hysteria, the making of a mountain out of a molehill? Or a microcosm of a deep sense of unrest about (historical and contemporary) identity in India? I can’t say that I have any answers, or even insight. But Bollywood — and artistic expression, disciplined studies or street-level outpourings — does, however, seem like an important vehicle for understanding the subcontinent; I certainly find it, and the way people in the middle class interact with it, more enlightening than figures from the World Bank about the economy’s growth.

Additional links:
Bollywood literacy for the 1990s and today, a Berkeley course coordinated by Leena Kamat and Katherine Good
Hindi cinema: making meaning of a popular culture
Desi critics
Queering Bollywood
Bollywood as India’s cultural ambassador
Bollywood for the skeptical
Upperstall: a better view of Indian cinema
Bollywood fashion police
BollySpace 2.0
Beth loves Bollywood

Escape
but
remember;
embrace
life’s
ambiguities.

(Inspired by Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.)

She knew as soon as she found the yellow legal pad etched with his erratic hand that it wasn’t something she should share. But, lacking the abiding sense of self-preservation that develops only around the age of 13 or so, she settled in the garage, sifting through the boxes her father was filling—boxes he would carry off in his silver Camry to a place unknown, a place she didn’t really want to know, either.

(more…)

On my former blog, I wrote about Art Garfunkel’s awesome reading list, which chronicles the books he’s read since 1968. Nick Paumgarten’s written a lovely piece in The New Yorker about Garfunkel’s literary habits; it’s a nice juxtaposition to Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books,” an essay that examines reading habits in America and the possible repercussions of our increasingly digital lives.

It’s mere happenstance that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I am reading Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name, the fictional narrative of a slave in the eighteenth century. But it’s no surprise that I’m captivated by the absorbing story of Aminata Diallo, which Hill chronicles with a deft sensitivity I didn’t entirely expect from a middle-aged man.

The Times’ glowing review focuses on the power of language to undermine great social ills. But rather than being overtly political, the text strikes me as a testament to the importance of independent voices echoing in the night:

If I live long enough to finish this story, it will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.

Much has been written on the place of witness and testimony in creating a case for change; what is so compelling about this book (and others like it) is that it asks for nothing directly, but rather allows the narrator’s voice to ring clear as a sounding bell, audible long after the the gong is initially struck.

A side note: Anyone have suggestions for similar narratives about non-African slaves? I’m particularly interested in reading something similar about the experience of indentured servants from India in the Caribbean. Looking into reading The Counting House (David Dabydeen), Maharani’s Misery (Verene A. Shepherd), The Last English Plantation (Jan Lo Shinebourne), or Bechu (Clem Seecharan). Tips or insight?

 

Just finished reading Foreign Babes in Beijing, a nice little memoir of Rachel DeWoskin’s time as an unlikely actress in the Chinese entertainment industry in the 1990s.

I’ve been batting around the idea of writing some creative nonfiction about my time in India (tentatively entitled Outsourcing Myself), but I’ve been having a hard time structuring my thoughts, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t really processed the whole experience. Writing used to be my way of getting through these things, but instead of chapters surging forth from my keyboard, I find only snippets of conversations, pungent tastes on the tip of my tongue, half-formed Hinglish crowded out by the everyday concerns of paying the rent, feeding myself, and trying not to get lost in New York’s seething mass of humanity.

If I do ever get past this writer’s block, I’ll be in good company. Here are some of my favorite books by foreigners trying to parse the subcontinent:

And, a bonus link to Kamat’s Potpourri, which has a compendium of links to historical accounts of foreigners in India (such as Chinese traveler Fa-Hien’s account of Buddhism from the fourth and fifth centuries AD).

 

 The International Herald Tribune offers a guide to New York’s libraries in “A Bookworm’s Holiday.” Unsurprisingly, the Rego Park branch of the Queens Library (which, by the way, is the No. 1 library system in the U.S. by circulation) was not highlighted; I go there every weekend, and though I appreciate the teeming hordes of library patrons, it can be quite annoying to fight with the unwashed masses (once, a woman even forcibly pushed me while I was browsing the CDs and loudly accused me — wrongly, I might add — of flatulating with abandon).

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Just happened upon an iiiiiinteresting new Web site that is experimenting with helping people get access to reprints of public domain books (those out of copyright that have been scanned, for example, and put on Google Books).

It’s not completely free — if you want a reprint, you purchase it through Lulu — but prices are reasonable, and where else are you going to find a copy of Early Woodcut Initials, freshly bound, for $16.99?