Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Part III – Short Stories, Pakistanis and Misc.

Short Story Collections

You Are Free: Stories (Riverhead) By Danzy Senna

This book was so relevant to me, similar to the way I felt about Danielle Evans Before You Suffocate Your Own Damn Self, except those stories focused on women slightly younger than me and these focused on women slightly older than me. I don’t find Senna’s writing exactly mellifluous, but I was completely hooked by these stories. Most of them are set in LA or New York and concern women who are becoming mothers or who are dealing with motherhood and partnerhood and professional lives as artists and lovers. Most of the stories deal with race, especially the complications of mixed-race America, but also the horrors of divorce and pre-school and the choices we make. And I don’t use the word “horrors” lightly here. I mean, some of the stories were really borderline terrifying—in a good way. Take the first story in the collection, “Admission”, about a couple in LA whose daughter gets into a fancy preschool. At first it starts out innocuous enough, but then spirals into something like an eerie Twilight Zone episode, which I wasn’t expecting and therefore it is literally is still haunting me, like months after I read it. Another story, “The Care of the Self” is about a woman who leaves her New York life and marries an artist in New Mexico, with whom she has a 10-month old daughter. The story revolves around a visit from her fancy, professional NYC girlfriend and how it brings out her securities and insecurities. There is a description of childbirth in this story that made me break out in a cold sweat. Unlike some of the other short story collections I read this year, I could tell you about each of the stories in this book. I think that says it all.

Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf) By Benjamin Percy

I’ve read the title story in Benjamin Percy’s collection over and over ever since it was selected for the Best American anthology (edited by Ann Patchett) back in 2006. The story concerns a teenage boy living in a small Oregon town where many of the men have been recruited away to the War in Iraq. Percy simply nails the historical moment, and really digs into adolescent maleness with the boy’s experiments with violence. It’s a flawless story and I study it constantly for the sleight of hand. So, I’ve been meaning to read this collection for a long time and thought it was really solid. It has a great sense of place and character: the Northwest comes through picture-perfect and the characters are more comfortable in the wilderness than in their relationships. I was amused and excited—especially since I read these two collections back to back—to find an undercurrent of horror running through the book, similar to Senna’s. I mean, besides Percy’s outright post-apocalyptic  story, “Meltdown”, which reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if the The Road were more of a renegade love story instead of a parenting manual—there were several other stories that hinted at a Twin Peaks-esque “the evil in the woods” storyline. I have to say, I am so inspired by this light weaving of the supernatural amongst short stories, and I think I am being pulled harder and harder to do this. Again, like Senna’s work, pregnancy was one of the spaces of horror (which I guess it has always been in fiction and cinema) but with a miscarriage by bats and a gruesome description (like really) of an ectopic pregnancy in another story—the book really shows Percy’s interest in the dark, which of course, I love. Percy’s novel, The Wilding, is high on my list of books to read.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead) By Maile Meloy

Okay, I need to admit that this year I have suffered something that feels almost dementia-like in it’s strangeness. After spending four years in an MFA program and binding together a thesis with 14 short stories and spending years reading and thinking about this form, I recently have felt like I: 1) Don’t know how to write a short story, 2) Don’t really know what constitutes a short story, 3) maybe don’t even like the form so much (eeeek, who am I?) This feeling has receded some in the past month, but I was really feeling this strongly this summer. So, I was seeking out short story collections to try and answer my question. I had read a sample of Meloy’s book last year, which gave me about half of the opening story “Travis, B.”, about an incredibly lonely ranch hand in Montana, and had been thinking of this character since then. I enjoyed Meloy’s collection, though I felt I was trapped in a meta-space when I was reading the stories of trying desperately to figure out what made each story tick, that I kind of enjoyed the whole experience a bit less than if I hadn’t been so caught up in “What makes a good short story?” I had kind of assumed that all of Meloy’s characters where going to be like the lonely ranch hand in the first story, but she is diverse, inhabiting everything from a down and out factory worker to a rich, old Latin American man–and there is a lot of heartbreaking moments that I savored. Meloy’s work made me remember that one of the things I love about short stories is the documenting of that moment of slippage, or loss. If anyone else is on the short story quest, this is a great book to check out.

Lucky Girls (HarperCollins) By Nell Freudenberger

I was disturbed intrigued by the excerpt from Freudenberger in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, concerning a young Bangladeshi immigrant, and then I was read about her golden-ness, so I felt like I had to know for myself what the hype was all about. These stories are interesting, they are. I mean, I too find myself writing about young women in India and young women traveling the world. Also, I am always fascinated by the white people I meet who are in these situations, and Lucky Girls tells their story. I remember the story “The Tutor,” about an Indian boy who fails in America, returns to India  and the young white girl he tutors from Best American 2004. I mean, the stories are unexpected, they are original. The collection only has five stories – the last one especially long, but they are very well-written, and I would be amiss if I didn’t encourage you to read them, though I am reticent somehow. So strange, this reticence.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Vintage) By Karen Russell

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like this book, though I loved the title story (even though Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal is the best book on this subject). When sitting down to read the stories straight through, I found that my tolerance for Russell’s meticulous, beautifully-imagined worlds was low. I couldn’t just flit from haunted swamplands to surreal summer camps. But then later, when I would pick it up and read a particular story, I would be absolutely wow-ed all over again by Russell’s imagination, but mostly by her story-writing chops: structure, dialogue, flow. I mean she wrote an amazing story, “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” about being disappointed in your parents and dealing with community, but the actual plot is about Western wagon migration and a family whose Patriarch is a Minotaur! I mean, let’s face it, she’s a genius. Read the damn book.

No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner) By Miranda July

I am really disappointed in myself for not liking this. I love Miranda July. I loved Me and You and Everyone We Know. I mean, come on, the scene with the goldfish and the kid smearing his spunk all over the library stacks and the baby on IM chat poohtalking? I LOVED Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely are Not Going To Talk About. This multimedia/play type of thing went to see where at the end we all had lighters under our chair and had to flick them when she asked questions that were both funny and painful. I even loved the website for this book when it came out that used a refrigherator and chalk. But I got totally stuck in the first story and haven’t moved on. I’ve even tried to skip around and read other stories. I couldn’t relate to the characters. It was too cutesy/hipster …. Sigh, I need guidance. Which story from this book did you love? What am I not getting here?

The Pakistanis

Burnt Shadows (Picador) By Kamila Shamsie

There was tons of talk about Pakistani Writers being the new “it” literary community at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and I developed a total writer crush on Kamila Shamsie, who was hot and brilliant and tomboyish and cool and smart all at once. Burnt Shadows starts with a horrifying and beautiful scene set right before the atomic bomb drops in Nagasaki and then goes all over the place from Delhi before Partition to Karachi to Jihadhi camps in Afghanistan to New York – and she pulls it all off with an interesting mix of characters and powerful surprises. I loved the way this book was understated and melodramatic all at once, and how Shamsie inhabits all these different characters. It was one of those books where I literally would be like, “OH MY GOD!” out loud at the beginning of a surprising chapter where she twists it all around. There is some rushing at the end, but I really appreciated that the perspective is totally not American. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

Homeboy (Shaye Areheart Books) By H.M. Naqvi

So, H. M. Naqvi won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (launched this year) and is totally a bad-ass, but I had no idea how much of a bad-ass he was until I actually read this novel which just rings from the first page. I loved, loved, loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Homeboy reminded me of that book: a Pakistani who comes to America and then falls out post 9.11, top of the world to the bottom, but that was a special, reserved, refined kind of story telling, and this is balls-to-the-wall, N.W.A-quoting, reggae DJ, dandy-ish adventureism that takes on coming-of-age, coming to America, losing one’s father, friendship, duty, Islam, Patriotism, America … I can not tell you how relevant this novel was, how important, and how exciting it was to read a REAL South Asian American novel and I am so sad that I slept on it for so long. This book really, really gives a lot of knowledge for first time novelists. Especially because, Naqvi pulls such an amazing style through this, I mean, sometimes absolutely ridiculous but captures New York and post-911 life and fear and turn-of-the-century partying. I can not tell you how important this book is. Read it. NOW.

In other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton) By Daniyal Mueenuddin

This was really the book that tipped the trend scales in favor of the Pakistanis, I think. I’d heard so much about it and Mueenuddin’s own fascinating story of going back to Pakistan and learning to run a farm, that I held off to read it, in case it didn’t live up to the hype. But it did, oh, it did. It is definitely one of the most amazing accounts that I have read about class in South Asia. The connected stories in this book move so fluidly between the working poor to the powerful rich and in-between. There is a story, “Lily” about wanting to change and realizing you can’t, that I think might be my favorite short story of the year. [I wish someone would make it into a film. Sophia Coppola, maybe, but I think she only makes movies about white folks. So if, like me, you thought this collection would only be good at one thing, think again, it is amazing in a bunch of different ways.

On Writing

Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin) By Zadie Smith

What I like best about this collection of essays is it’s range: that it moves easily from a dense essay about modern literature “Two Directions for the Novel” to Smith’s coverage of the 2006 Oscars for Vogue Magazine, though I think the essay I was most interested in was Smith’s coverage of a trip to Liberia. A great book of essays to think about how a novelist can work in other forms.

How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) By James Wood

I’d been reading this great book on Fiction on and off ever since it came out, but this summer while working on fiction and studying for the GREs, I finally finished it and it seemed just so relevant. Wood’s picks apart all the tropes and devices of fiction using the examples in his study and the result, I found, was really helpful in thinking about both reading and writing. A must have for any writer’s library.


Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Part 2 — Plot Lessons

Room (Little, Brown and Company) By Emma Donaghue

I’d been hearing good things about Emma Donoghue’s book for a while and actually tried to get it as an audio book when Robin and I were driving cross-country last October, but since it is told completely through the voice of a five-year-old who has never been outside a small storage shed-like room, the audio book option wasn’t really feasible (an adult actor doing a kid voice for nine hours just won’t cut it when driving across the plains). But, reading this story, which is loosely based on this gruesome real-life incident, was really entertaining and educational. Donoghue really gets the kid’s voice down, but there is this amazing escape scene in the middle of the book that I literally read over and over to learn about pacing, plot and storytelling. I’m kindof bummed that she didn’t win the Orange Prize.

Bunner Sisters (Free e-book) By Edith Wharton

I’ve been working on this one short story for, literally, years, and recently it ballooned from like 4000 words to 20,000 words and I was wondering if it might not be a long short story, or gasp, a novella. After a quick poll on Facebook, I got some good suggestions and, from this brilliant writer, found Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters as a free download that I transferred to my Kindle. I mean, I know a bit about Edith Wharton, Ethan Fromme’s heartbreaking and horrfying end has always stuck in my mind, but this story was especially swift and powerful. Crushing, really—how the sisters’ lives fall apart so quickly and how their earlier lonely widowed days seemed so perfect when looking back at the end. Another great lesson in pacing and significant details.

The Blind Assassin (Anchor Books) By Margaret Atwood

I got all excited about 1Book140 when it was being promoted and thought it would be awesome to read a book in a virtual book club and have assigned reading dates, but then in actuality, I didn’t really feel like engaging so much on Twitter. In fact, the whole experience reminded me of when I first got to a college English class and just wanted everybody to shut up. It was weird, but I did enjoy the crazy puzzle of the book. I was really into Margaret Atwood back in the 80s. In fact, she was the author of some of the first adult books I read like The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, which I remember I had in that kind of pulp paperback form that is small and thick. The Blind Assassin’s strengths are it’s structure—it is a story within a story, plus a story and a mystery unrevealed. It also digs into wartime Canada and pulp science fiction and class and sex (lots of illicit sex) and bad Gothically-evil husbands and an equally evil sister-in-law. The book is daring in many ways, one of which is that the narrator is a crotchety old woman—and it was fun to try and unravel who was who and what was what, though the mystery becomes clear mid-way through the book. There were parts that were a bit slow, but the mystery pulls you a long through it. And it’s such a good feeling, isn’t it, being in the middle of a long, slowly-resolving novel with a mystery at it’s core?

Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi (Pantheon Books) By Geoff Dyer

I wouldn’t say this book was exactly a lesson in plot, but perhaps in structure. The much-hyped book was published in 2009 and I had marked but not read the publicity around it, or anything else by Dyer. But we spent a few days among Varanasi’s famous touts, boats and corpses in the Spring, and I was thinking of setting a short story I was working on there, so I decided I should read this one first. Dyer’s amazingly funny and achingly clever, so this novel ends up being two long short stories, loosely connected, about a writer first sent to Venice to cover the Biennale, during which he (and everyone else) drinks endless glasses of bellinis and then the Jeff of the story, meets an American girl from LA, who he woos, does copious amounts of cocaine with and some vigorous coupling. Meanwhile, the girl is often mentioning Varanasi and how Venice reminds her of it, kind of. In the second part, the same Jeff (or maybe another, in a different universe) ends up in Varanasi on a writing gig, and then decides to stay and “drop out,” though his dropping out involves staying at the Hotel Ganges View, one of the nicest hotels in town. I was in love with the first part of the book: it was hilarious, sending up tourists and pretensious art-types and everything in between. Dyer manages to be extremely sarcastic and then, also, kind of sincere, in his descriptions of both the art and his small, enjoyable fling. More than anything, it rang true and entertaining—and was beautifully descriptive, so at the end, I felt like I had been to the Biennale swilling bellinis and doing cocaine on yachts, and then getting up early to go see tons of art. In the same sense, I was a bit disappointed in the Varanasi section, since Jeff is just a Western tourist who writes about the traffic and diarreah and trying an failing to understand Hindu spirituality. Again, his descriptions of the grotesque, this time, as opposed to the golden beauty of Venice, are arresting, but it didn’t feel as new and fresh as the Venice section. But maybe it is hard to be new about one of the oldest living cities in the world? All in all, this book left me wanting to read everything Dyer has ever written, and nothing by him ever again. I think that means I love him.

Less Than Zero (Vintage) By Bret Easton Ellis

I started reading this when I was at the Sri Ram Ashram with my mom back in February. I don’t know why, but sometimes my reading material needs to be the exact opposite of what I am doing. Shortly after, Ellis wrote this brilliant essay for The Daily Beast about Charlie Sheen and the Hollywood Empire, which is probably one of the most interesting culture pieces I’ve read all year. I’ve seen the movie version of Less Than Zero, of course, but it is actually nothing like the book—way tamer. The book is disjointed and makes L.A. seem vapid and futuristic and incredibly weird, but it is an amazing piece of writing nonetheless. If you’ve only seen the movie, you should definitely read the book. It made me feel the same horrified way as when I saw Kids for the first time, which is that I recognized some small part of my own youth and identity in what Ellis was holding up in this cracked cocaine mirror of a book.

Free Food for Millionaires (Warner Books) By Min Jin Lee

I am such a sucker. Junot Diaz recommended this book on the New Yorker’s Book Bench at the beginning of the summer, so I read it. I remember when it first came out and got all these big reviews, but some of them likened the novel to Chick Lit, and I decided to stay away at the time. In one way, it was really satisfying to read a long novel about Asian American characters that had such a large cast. The book is obviously modeled on 19th century novels, with it’s focus on social mores and breaking tradition, family and money, but I have to say I really didn’t like or relate to any of the characters—especially the tough-as-nails main character Casey Han. There was way too much stuff about fashion, banking and ivy leagues for my taste. Plus, the sex was described in a way that I felt like no one was enjoying it, except one couple, who are totally the villains of the novel, which made me realize that I need the people I read to either enjoy having sex or not have it (a good lesson for my writing, too). An ambitious project, that seems to lose it’s resolve before the end—but maybe just leaving room for a sequel? I’ll say this, if this novel was a television show, I’d probably watch it when it came on Netflix Streaming.


Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Pt. 1 — YA Frenzy

I’ve been utterly neglecting this blog, but mostly in a good way. Since I last blogged, I was able to publish several pieces of writing that began as blog posts: one on these two books, one on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and one on Where I Write (plus, this little piece on Lady Gaga). But I thought I’d get back in the blogging game by writing a bit about some of the books I’ve been reading this year, which was a major impetus for this blog in the first place. (I just can’t get into GoodReads for some reason.) I’ve broken down my reading round-up into several thematic posts, which I’ll put up over the next few days (weeks?). This one is about the several amazing young adult novels I have recently read.

Dream School ( By Blake Nelson

As an avid Sassy reader in my teens, I read Blake Nelson’s novel Girl when it was serialized in the magazine. [As was Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides. So amazing! (Anyone reading the new Jane website btw? Is it still relevant with everything else out there?)] I bought Girl as soon as I could probably at the B. Dalton at the mall when it came out in 1994 when I was 16.

This was before the Internet, so all I knew about Blake Nelson was what was written on the back of the cover. I didn’t even get if he was a boy or a girl, and if he was a boy, how he got exactly what it was like to be a suburban girl trying to be cool. There is a scene when Andrea Marr has sex with Todd Sparrow, the uber-cool grunge rocker that she’s in love with and he holds her hands above her head and she finally gets “sex”—that moment literally stuck with me through all my early sex experiences until I had my own Todd Sparrow moment. Anyway, even though I grew up in Dayton, Ohio where—where, if there was a burgeoning grunge movement, I only occasioned it very briefly at a few downtown coffee shop where I like never went—I really felt Andrea and I remember it as one of the few young adult novels I actually read when I was a young adult.

I spent years waiting a sequel, since Nelson leaves you hanging a bit at the end of the novel when Andrea is getting ready to go to college, but then I went off to college myself and started reading, you know, Foucault and shit. Only in the last three years of so did I think of Girl again and this time when I looked up Blake Nelson, I came upon a treasure trove of YA novels, and then saw the crazy-good Gus Van Sant rendition of Paranoid Park, which was beautiful and abstract and perfect. But only after I read Jessanne Collins’ awesome Millions article about Blake Nelson did I discover there WAS a sequel to Girl, and it was FREE ONLINE!

I feel like it is so hard to write properly about the college experience, which is where Dream School picks up—at Andrea’s exclusive East Coast liberal arts school, which sounded like Wesleyan or Vassar. But Nelson nails the insecurities of being a Freshman and trying to find a niche and not understanding what is going on in classes, but I especially love Andrea’s struggle to become an artist and eventually a writer. I mean, at the same time, Andrea’s self-involvement and white girl-ness is a little grating. Poor Latina Juanita, who lives on her floor, doesn’t belong and eventually leaves to go live in Latino House, which I guess is an accurate description of college life, but a little annoying. But regardless, it was so enjoyable to catch up with Andrea 17 years later.

The Pattern of Paper Monsters (Back Bay Books) By Emma Rathbone

I read about this novel on The Millions (okay, I’m a little obsessed with this site) and was fascinated, since I think there aren’t enough books about young people facing incarceration. When I would work with young people who were locked up and would hear their stories of being on the run, falling in love, dealing with intense violence and parenthood and losing loved ones, I was always telling them that they should be novelists. So, I was really interested to see how this book would read. The book follows Jacob Higgins, an 17-year-old kid from Virginia, through several months of his incarceration in a juvenile detention center. I mean, since he’s a white kid in a juvenile facility surrounded by what seems like all white people, it was a little bizarre, since that hasn’t been my experience. Plus, some of the other details about interactions with girls and being able to leave the facility to have dinner with a mentor seemed outlandish after actually seeing how American juvenile institutions are run. But, otherwise, Jake’s experiences were pretty close to most of the young people I’ve met who are incarcerated: he’s poor, from an abusive family and he committed a violent crime. The novel is supposed to be a journal Jake’s writing, and Emma Rathbone really gets the zoned out, angry, bored thing down perfectly and also manages to bring about a realistic redemption. I read an interview with Rathbone where she talks about how she heard Jake’s voice in her head and I am impressed by how she was unafraid to write so far out of her own experience. [Even though I am putting this book under the YA category here, it actually isn’t a YA book, and I don’t really understand the distinctions.] I’d be really interested to hear what others folks with experience of working with young people think of this book.

Recovery Road (Scholastic Press) By Blake Nelson

After I read Dream School, I was reading all these blog posts from Blake Nelson being on the road with Sister Spit – um, HOW AWESOME! (Can Sister Spit please come to India?) And just hanging out on his blog, when I read about Recovery Road, and I had just read Pattern of Paper Monsters, which was similar in that it was about young people navigating institutional spaces and having to rebuild their lives, so I just went ahead and bought it and again, fell into the world of this awesome girl narrator. This time her name is Maddie and she’s a 16-year-old who’s in rehab, and is actually way less annoying than Andrea Marr from Girl. We don’t hear much about Maddie’s crazy days except that she was totally embarrassed by the way she behaved and how she would fight people, but there is an amazing love story which turns and turns – I love how this book really rides the story out through relapses and how the character has to witness a lot of horrible things as she moves forward. Blake Nelson is just incredibly readable and I want to read everything he has written.

Sister Mischief (Candlewick) By Laura Goode

I’m just going to mention this book quickly here, because I want to write a longer review of it somewhere, but in terms of YA or regular adult reading, one of those really inspiring books that tackles race, diversity, sexuality, etc. and tells the story of a high school girl hip hop group in suburban Minneapolis. I’ve felt like my own characters when I write about childhood or adolescence are betrayed or betrayers, and Laura’s book reminded me that your high school girl friends can be total heroes. I like want to buy this book for so many people I know. (Full disclosure: Laura is a really good friend of mine.)

Long Division ( By Kiese Laymon

I’m also just going to mention this book, because I want to write more about it and interview Kiese Laymon, who I went to college with, and is now a professor at Vassar. Another on-line book, which I actually downloaded and read on my Kindle. For all the awesomeness of Blake Nelson, it was SO satisfying to read a novel with two young black protagonists who are time-traveling, falling in love, engaging with the realities of the Civil Rights movement and using the most awesomest Southern slang ever invented. Why you gotta be so green light lately, City? I was literally cheering when I started this book and that’s why I want to write more about it. But again, a great resource because it’s free and something I really, really think young people – especially young people of color – would respond to.


Rabindranath Wrap-Up

Just in time for the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, I moved all the way across the country from Kolkata–Tagore’s home–to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This fits perfectly with my fractured relationship to the great writer.

During my five months in Kolkata, I had several conversations about Tagore’s oppressive grip on the literary heritage and imagination of Bengalis. My bookshelves are littered with translated Tagore volumes that endless aunts and cousins have gifted to me over the years, but I’ve never quite fallen into a Tagore poem (or story, or novel) and had it capture my heart and soul. Tagore has always represented my plight as a second-generation Bengali American. I feel shut out of truly understanding Tagore’s magic because of the elevated Bengali he uses in his poetry, because the translations of Tagore into English are sneered upon by any self-respecting Bengali, and because I lack the intense cultural memory of the 2000-plus Rabindra Sangeet songs that are such markers for most Bengalis.

My connection to Tagore has everything to do with my sense of Bengali-ness though. There is something that melts inside of me when, in the midst of a conversation, an elder looks off into the middle distance and starts reciting some Tagore poem in that deep, dirge-like poetry recitation voice that was in vogue in the 1940s. And though I don’t really know Rabindra Sangeet, I spent my childhood weekends learning the graceful, emotional folk dance that accompanies the music from my mother, who recently brought me to tears when she did an impromptu performance at a gathering of ladies in her hometown. The women sang and clapped and my mother, her own performer’s radiant smile wavering on her face, glided and swerved her way into a timeless moment. When I was 16, I starred as the butch Chitrangada in Tagore’s famous drama about a warrior-princess who is raised as a boy since her father did not have any sons, but then yearns for beauty and female grace when she meets Arjuna one day. It was the pinnacle of my performing arts career and I remember the rush fondly. And just before leaving Kolkata, I was mooning over Kolkata’s Tagore fetish at the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station, which is decorated by drawings and scribbled notes from Tagore’s notebooks. I rushed to copy down this fragment before the train rushed in: “The butterfly does not count years/ but moments / and therefore has enough time.”

This past week, I talked about Tagore to some 50 young people at a three-day summer camp for youth served by Manav Sadhna. I talked about Tagore’s genius, but then also told the classic Tagore ghost-story “The Hungry Stones,” which was inspired by Tagore’s four-month stint in Ahmedabad when he was 17 and staying in a old Mughal mansion not far from where our apartment is. In order to make the activity interactive and connect it to a tabla and nature lesson that Robin was doing — we assigned certain tabla bols for different elements in the story, like the train, the river, ghost footsteps and the wind. After a long day of activities and dinner, some of the younger kids fell asleep

during the story — which had to be translated from English to Gujarati — but what’s better than a ghost story right before bed at summer camp? It was especially scary at the climax of the story when all the elements rise to a crescendo.

I thought I’d do a little wrap-up of the best writing I’ve seen around the web celebrating, debunking and discussing Tagore:

• Here’s a great piece in The Guardian by Ian Jack really giving a sense of Tagore’s rise and fall in favor in the West, and a wry look into the Bengali attitude about him.

“More than anything, what Tagore stood for was a synthesis of east and west. He admired the European intellect and felt betrayed when Britain’s conduct in India let down the ideal.”

• A more personal identification from Salil Tripathi at LiveMint:

“Tagore was at home in the world. He believed in its beauty and aesthetic. And he enhanced my life, through his presence on my bookshelves in the homes I have lived in over the years. His ideas gave shape to many of my thoughts, impulses, responses and emotions. It was a Tagore poem, Ananta Prem (Unending Love) that I read out when I got married; it was to that poem that I turned nearly two decades later, at my wife’s funeral, and read aloud again, for Tagore sang “the songs of every poet past and forever”.”

• A piece by the always-hilarious Sandip Roy at the recently-launched First Post about why he just can’t get it up for Tagore.

“The Bengali diaspora has ruined Tagore. I think there should be a  moratorium on Rabindrasangeet sessions at Banga Sammelans in San Jose and Atlantic City. It’s Bengali culture by intravenous drip for the second generation.” Ouch.

• And here’s a link to “The Hungry Stones” and other stories by Tagore.

“As I sat down again, thinking it to be an illusion, I heard many footfalls, as if a large number of persons were rushing down the steps. A strange thrill of delight, slightly tinged with fear, passed through my frame, and though there was not a figure before my eyes, methought I saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta in that summer evening. Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or in the palace, to break the silence, but I distinctly heard the maidens’ gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a hundred cascades, as they ran past me, in quick playful pursuit of each other, towards the river, without noticing me at all. As they were invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them. The river was perfectly calm, but I felt that its still, shallow, and clear waters were stirred suddenly by the splash of many an arm jingling with bracelets, that the girls laughed and dashed and spattered water at one another, that the feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in showers of pearl.”