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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:


[User Picture]
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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