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East or West, India Is the Best? - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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March 12th, 2008


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03:46 pm - East or West, India Is the Best?
Before I get to my review of Midnight's Children, I need to tell a little story about how I managed to finish the book at all when it was clearly mad at me for not finishing it sooner.

I checked out the book in December to read over Christmas vacation, and I didn't do as much reading while traveling as I expected. So I renewed the book, but then I didn't get much reading done in January either. By the time the due date came up, I was only halfway done. I could only renew the book once, however. But when I had picked up the book in December, I hadn't really even needed to put it on hold; all the copies were free, and I could have walked right into the library and checked it out. So my plan was simply to return the book when it was due and then check it out the next day.

Except there was a hold on my copy. And the other three copies in the system were all checked out! WHAT THE HELL, JANUARY? Why was this book suddenly randomly popular?

My co-worker, who had recommended the book to me, had given me a Borders gift card for Christmas. Also, I had a 40% off coupon with $20 purchase. I saw a solution.

First, there was the complicated process of trying to choose what else to buy to get the purchase over $20. My co-worker suggested a book, but I wasn't sure I'd really like it and want to own it. But since I was using her gift card, I wanted to get something that she might approve of, not just something I wanted. Finally, after going through many choices, I settled on The Namesake.

I hit Borders after work, and I went to the Literature section, and I found Rushdie.

THEY DIDN'T HAVE IT.

They had, like, every single other Rushdie book. But not Midnight's Children. Not believing this shit, I went to Lahiri to make sure they actually had The Namesake. And they did, both a movie cover and a regular cover. But that was pointless without the book I actually came for.

I checked the computer, and it said it was "Likely In Store." Well, not bloody likely, from what I could tell! I wondered whether it was on a special shelf for some reason, even though it's old and wouldn't be.

(miniglik has heard this story. At this point, she remarked, "It's angry with you for not reading it when you had the chance!")

(Also at this point, I mysteriously shifted to present tense.)

I go to the Customer Service desk and tell the woman (whose name I later notice is Jennea) what I'm looking for. She searches and sees that although it says "Likely," they're only supposed to have one copy, so it was probably already sold. If it wasn't where it should be, looking for it would be no help. She says she'll have to order it and adds that I'm under no obligation to buy it when it comes in. I tell her I wanted to use the 40% off coupon, and she says she can honor it for me! She reminds me that it needs to be $20, and I tell her I'm buying another book, too, so I go get it. We're going to have to do two separate transactions, but she'll still take the coupon.

First, she orders the book online, which she can actually get shipped directly to me (for free). I give her my address, but then I ask how it will be sent. She says FedEx. I figure FedEx is like UPS and won't be able to get through my gate. So I give her my work address. When she asks if there's a suite number or anything, I tell her to add in "12th Floor" because sometimes UPS has no idea where I am without that. Even though they went months without it fine, suddenly this one time, they couldn't deliver it without the floor. "Well, that's UPS!" she says and then takes it back as she admits her ex-boyfriend worked for UPS, so she likes to trash them. I give her the gift card to pay for the book, which she generously uses the coupon on since it's a dollar more expensive than the other.

Then! She tells me to bring everything to the front, where we get to cut in front of everyone.

"Awesome!" I say.

"Yeah, cutting is great!" she says.

I give her my Borders Rewards card again, and she rings up The Namesake, and I use the gift card. Once she sees the receipt, however, she notices something funny. There's $9.77 left on it. That's when she realizes that the card didn't charge for the other book yet; it will only charge when it shipped.

She asks me if it's okay to pay for this book on another card so that the other shipment won't be rejected. I say that's okay, and she's all, "Heh, of course it's okay, you don't have a choice!" So she voids the transaction. She looks at the other receipt to see how much it was, and I notice that it was actually $9.75. I point out that that will totally go through! She thought it was more than that, but the 40% discount took it down significantly. So I re-buy The Namesake with the gift card. Which will eventually leave two cents on my gift card when the other sale goes through.

(We'll skip over the part where the first time my book ships, it gets lost in the mail or something and they have to ship it again, so I have to wait a damn week for the book to finally forgive me.)

Anyway, I really needed the world to know about Jennea the Helpful Borders Lady. She went above and beyond for me. All that hassle, and she never got frustrated at me!

And then it took me a month and a half to actually finish the book.

Midnight's Children is essentially about Indian kids with superpowers, except it's really not. It is mostly about one specific man born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the day India became an independent nation. And so his fate and India's become intertwined, with milestones coinciding and political events having very pointed effects on his own life. Also, he has telepathy.

The man is Saleem Sinai, and he is frantically recounting the story of his life because he senses that he is dying (literally "crumbling"). So Saleem is telling his story to us for posterity, but Rushdie throws in a twist: he's also telling the story to his lover, Padma, who is right there watching him write the whole thing (and commenting on it, causing Saleem to comment on her comments in the book itself). It gives the really neat effect of allowing us to see the story unfold as we read; if we stop reading, Saleem stops writing. If there's one thing I like, it's metanarrative!

But there's so much narrative at play in this book; it's so meticulously crafted because Saleem, like me, is a man who sees his life as a story, and at times, it's as if he consciously acts to keep his own life story consistent with what has come before. At the same time, he's chronicling thirty years of Indian history happening in the background, some of which he plays an active role in. And he is so aware of his connection to his country that he's able to twist any event, large or small, into solely being about him. This is perhaps the most solipsistic book I've ever read.

Except it's brilliant. There are elements of magical realism, which allows you to buy that Saleem Sinai is living quite the narratively convenient life. He continually points out recurring themes objects names. Sometimes they'll be in parenthetical asides, and sometimes he will make a big fucking deal about it so that you understand the significance of what's happening. He's a very compelling storyteller, but he's also a tricky one since he engages in a lot of cryptic foreshadowing, highlighting the importance of objects and people yet to play their roles in his life or struggling with himself about telling what is to come.

And the language! Jesus God, the language. I had no idea Salman Rushdie wrote like this. I always had the impression his books were all stuffy and dense, but, no, they're just dense! The language is fucking vibrant, and I kind of hate him for using so many cool linguistic and narrative tricks in one book so that now I would just be ripping him off. At times, the language is a little overwrought and precious, but it's all in the service of the story and its narrator. Even though Rushdie uses waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many semicolons (incorrectly), the words just leap off the page like Michael Chabon's prose (except with a better sense of humor). And he mixes in little Hindi words that he doesn't bother explaining but I totally knew anyway, ha!

What I didn't know, however, was the history of my own damn country. So it was interesting to read about in this way although it's a very biased look; Rushdie is quite critical of a lot of the decisions made.

Oh, there's so much to say, but what more do you want? Don't you want to read it yet? I didn't really know what to expect from the book, and that probably enhanced the experience. The only expectation I would probably have liked to have had dismissed is that, well, it's not a book about Indian kids with superpowers. Some other writer could take the concept of Midnight's Children and turn it into some comic-book action extravaganza, and it would be awesome, but that's not even close to what this book is. The children of midnight have their powers, but it's a very small part of the overall plot, even though it is not insignificant. The book is about Saleem Sinai and Mother India growing up together. But I probably wouldn't have read the book if I'd thought that's what it was about, so...Indian kids with superpowers, yeah.

I loved the book for the language and narrative and story. On the other hand, my co-worker could barely remember the language and narrative and story; what stuck with her were the rich visuals and emotional moments. She had thought, "How would I paint this?" Between the two of us, we loved the entire book!
Current Mood: indescribableindescribable
Current Music: The Shins - Turn On Me

(31 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:ahtrap
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC)

maybe it's time to give another try

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Tried reading The Satanic Verses when I was a kid, because I thought any book that engendered death threats had to be cool. It wasn't, I couldn't deal with the language, it was too high and mighty for me, and I've never attempted Rushdie since.

That was probably half a life ago, maybe it's time to give him another shot.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)

Re: maybe it's time to give another try

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At times, the language is a little overwrought and precious, but it's all in the service of the story and its narrator.

(And you reminded me that I meant to put that in my actual post. *edits*)
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From:beeker121
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:27 pm (UTC)
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I loved Midnight's Children. I was first struck by Rushie's use of language in The Satanic Verses, which honestly I bought to freak out my mother. But I adore the way he mixes magic into his realism, and the words he uses are so carefully and wonderfully chosen. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. Rushdie is dense enough that he takes some concentration and time, but is totally worth it.
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From:electricmonk
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:27 pm (UTC)
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Yesyesyesyesyes on his language. "Vibrant" is the perfect word for it. He got me so excited about little tiny words and turns of phrase.

Okay, now you read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and I'll read </i>Midnight's Children.</i>
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From:electricmonk
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
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Hey, let's pretend I know how to do italics tags.
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From:kouredios
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:35 pm (UTC)
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I'm a huge, huge Rushdie fan, so I loved reading this post. I've taught Satanic Verses several times now, and I'd love to hear what you think of that one. I've also written on The Ground Beneath her Feet, and should probably dig that piece up and post it sometime soon.

I've never noticed incorrect semicolons in Rushdie, so now you've got me all wondering. Do you have an example, perchance? :)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:49 pm (UTC)
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HOMG, I could flip to a random page and find one:

Okay, that one's too long. Let's try again.

Nobody at Methwold's Estate ever saw him again; but I, who never saw him once, find him impossible to forget.
He does this shit all over the place, using semicolons to separate two independent clauses already joined by a conjunction. I saw an even worse example just a few minutes ago.
No, of course not; but I did.
It drove me nuts! SO MANY SEMICOLONS! Sometimes he'll have single words separated by semicolons for no good reason. COMMAS ARE OKAY, MR. RUSHDIE.

I'm certainly interested in reading more Rushdie, but not right now.
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From:kouredios
Date:March 13th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC)
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Hmm. That second one definitely sounds iffy to me, but not the first. I was just googling semicolon rules, and got a bevy of opinions. A few say using semicolons with conjunctions is okay (like here). Seems like it might be more a stylistic choice than an incorrect one. :)

The particularly complex sentences he sets up seem to call for semicolons more than most people's would.
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From:jenepel
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
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This is crazy. I JUST checked this book out today after work. I hadn't heard too much about it, but it sounded good. Now I'm even more excited to read it!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
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Ha ha!! That's great! What inspired you to check it out today? How funny that I finished it last night and you're starting it today. I hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think.
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From:jenepel
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:57 pm (UTC)
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They had a display of Booker prize winning novels and I just happened to pick it out of all of them. I've never read any Rushdie but kinda thought I should have - plus it sounded good - so there you go!

On the subject of things you have recommended, I downloaded The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi. I'm about half-way through and am totally loving it! I may have to lift the anime ban caused by my year in Japan.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 12:01 am (UTC)
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They had a display of Booker prize winning novels and I just happened to pick it out of all of them. I've never read any Rushdie but kinda thought I should have - plus it sounded good - so there you go!
How serendipitous!

On the subject of things you have recommended, I downloaded The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi. I'm about half-way through and am totally loving it!
Yay!!!

I may have to lift the anime ban caused by my year in Japan.
So you're starting your foray into anime at the same time I'm ending mine? That sounds about right.
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From:rachelmanija
Date:March 13th, 2008 01:04 am (UTC)
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You're ending your foray into anime? Why???
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 04:08 am (UTC)
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Oh, not ending FOREVER. Just that the next show I'm marathoning on my own is Deadwood (followed by The Wire). I still have so many non-anime shows to watch! I'll be watching Lain and Trigun with Emily, too.
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From:shpyum
Date:March 14th, 2008 01:06 pm (UTC)
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I want to work in a grown up library! Maybe I would read things that weren't Juvy fantasy. . . .
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From:sneaker328
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry to say that I've tried reading Midnight's Children at least 13 different times (each time making it just a bit further) and I still haven't even gotten to anything involving magical children. I know that if I ever finish it I'll probably say "What a great book!" (as I did with LoTR, the first part of which also took forever to get through and then I zoomed through the rest) but his style doesn't work for me, at least not yet.

"That night it was hot- no, not hot, because heat is a thing that we cannot- "Padma, shut the fuck up, you fat whore"- that we cannot understand. Except understanding itself isn't even something we can understand..."

OMG just get to the fucking point!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 12th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
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I still haven't even gotten to anything involving magical children.
Ha, well, yeah, it takes 140 PAGES FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER TO GET HIMSELF BORN.

I know that if I ever finish it I'll probably say "What a great book!" (as I did with LoTR, the first part of which also took forever to get through and then I zoomed through the rest)
Oh, I had to sludge through LOTR. Give me Rushdie over Tolkien any day.

"That night it was hot- no, not hot, because heat is a thing that we cannot- "Padma, shut the fuck up, you fat whore"- that we cannot understand. Except understanding itself isn't even something we can understand..."
Ha ha ha ha.

OMG just get to the fucking point!
Hee. Well, I have an affinity for narrators, even though Saleem did get on my nerves sometimes.
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From:latropita
Date:March 13th, 2008 12:08 am (UTC)
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Oh, Midnight's Children. Despite Rushdie's raging misogynism you can't deny his skill with the language.

The only expectation I would probably have liked to have had dismissed is that, well, it's not a book about Indian kids with superpowers.
Haha. Not quite!

I always have gift cards to Borders, and I feel like the staff there tends to be pretty sweet overall. I don't think I've had any terrible experiences there, except for awkward high school classmate ones.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC)
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Yeah, I've had really good experiences with Borders personnel overall. It's a shame everything's cheaper online.
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From:rachelmanija
Date:March 13th, 2008 01:03 am (UTC)
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I've been meaning to read this for years. Though I'm kind of sad that it isn't really about Indian kids with superpowers.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 04:11 am (UTC)
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You and me both! I wanted them to team up and save India or something. But alas, that is not the way the story goes. It's still a good yarn, though.

(And, hey! You were born in India, right? You were there for some of the events depicted in the book!)
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From:rachelmanija
Date:March 13th, 2008 04:18 am (UTC)
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No, born in the US, but I moved there when I was seven. (Look, me at age seven.) When does the book end? I was around for Indira Gandhi's assassination-- my family was on vacation at a hill station and we had to flee for our lives. Except, not in a dramatic way, we just left early.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 04:24 am (UTC)
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Aw, little Rachel!

The book ends in 1978 (Saleem is writing the story before he turns thirty-one). So you just missed him by a couple years!
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From:punzerel
Date:March 13th, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
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Mmmm, magical realism, I love it so. And I've been meaning to read this for ages, so now it will just definitely have to go on the list of books to read when I have time to read fiction again.
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From:hecubot
Date:March 13th, 2008 02:56 am (UTC)
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It's interesting reading your response to Rushdie's language. In part because at my college language was ALL and story and character and all the other stuff of novels was subordinate to language. Which is a bias I still hold and it shows in my own writing.

I'll be very curious to see you reading Haruki Murakami. (If you have already, please point me at it.)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 04:20 am (UTC)
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In part because at my college language was ALL and story and character and all the other stuff of novels was subordinate to language.
Except for me, my response to Rushdie's language is inextricably tied to story and character because it's not just the particular phrases he uses but the way he weaves in recurring story elements and repeats descriptions to call back to previous things and...it all goes together. With Chabon, it was the prose, period. But in this book, like I said, the language is in service of the story because it's coming out of the mouth of Saleem.

I'll be very curious to see you reading Haruki Murakami.
I've never heard of him. Is that the The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle guy? *Wikipedias* It is!! That book did sound interesting.
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From:sjester
Date:March 13th, 2008 07:55 am (UTC)
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The words "Haruku Murakami" caught my eye. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was really good. And very disturbing in parts. But generally good, and I second the recommendation.

I once got Rushdie to sign my lab notebook. I don't think he was very happy about that but did it anyway. Hey, I was a po' college student without any of my copies of his books at hand.
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From:twenty8penguin
Date:March 13th, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)
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I put off reading Midnight's Children precisely because I thought it would be "all stuffy and dense". Then I was taking Betty Joseph's Third World Lit class at Rice, and she assigned it, so I was forced into reading it...

And yes, there are passages that catch your breath with their beauty, their cleverness, or their language.

I did think that Rushdee got a little pretentious and too-hyper aware of what he was doing at times, but so what? What he did was brilliant enough that he -should- be arrogant about it.

My favorite book from that class, however, was "Purple Hibiscus". It's a quick, but powerful read. You should check it out.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 13th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
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I did think that Rushdee got a little pretentious and too-hyper aware of what he was doing at times
Oh, abso-fucking-lutely.

What he did was brilliant enough that he -should- be arrogant about it.
Woohoo!
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From:shpyum
Date:March 14th, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC)
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I haven't read any Rushdie, apparently now I'm going to have to. Damn it, Sunil.

I'm actually posting to say I thought Summerland was really funny. And will read anyone whose language is likened to Michael Chabon's.
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From:twenty8penguin
Date:March 14th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
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Pretty much all the classes I took (aside from those crazy math classes) were what I like to call "The Literature of Disenfranchised People".

Aside from kiddie lit, it's probably my favorite genre.

When you're done with Midnight's Children, read "White Teeth". Zadie Smith is the shit.

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