“The book had looked done for too; but it was still there.”

27 Mar

Beginning in April 2007, I started keeping a list of all the books I’d read the previous year. My return to school has definitely marked an acceleration over previous years, which thrills me. Without further ado:


1) The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon

2) The Thousand and One Mornings, Colette

3) The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

4) Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, Edmund White

5) Baby Be-Bop, Francesca Lia Bock

6) A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray*

7) Rebel Angels, Libba Bray*

8) The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray

9) My Dark Places, James Ellroy

10) Railsea, Chia Miéville

11) The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

12) Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

13) The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

14) The Magicians, Lev Grossman

15) Leaving India, Minal Hajratwala

16) Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

17) Kartography, Kamila Shamsie

18) The Good Muslim, Anam Tahmima

19) Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

20) The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power, Vivek Bald et. al.

21) The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai

22) The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid

23) The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

24) Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater

25) Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai

26) Crush, Richard Siken

27) My Beautiful Laundrette and the Rainbow Sign, Hanif Kureishi

28) And Laughter Fell From the Sky, Jyotsna Sreenivasan

29) The Magician King, Lev Grossman

30) Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, Gail Caldwell

31) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling*

32) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling*

33) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling*

34) The Charioteer, Mary Renault

35) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

36) When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead

37) Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris

38) Instead of a Letter, Dianna Athill

39) The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl

40) Butch Geography, Stacey Waite

41) Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks*

42) References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, José Rivera

43) Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

44) Far Away, Caryl Churchill

45) The New Testament, Jericho Brown

46) bobrauschenbergamerica, Charles Mee

47) Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress

48) The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

49) The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater*

50) Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace

51) Gurlesque, ed. Laura Glenum and Arielle Greenberg

52) The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

53) Fun Home, Allison Bechdel*


Top Five of the Year, in descending order

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

Crush, Richard Siken

WWII-adjacence in 3/5 of the top five. 2/5 nonfiction. 4/5 American. And a book of poetry! Who am I?!

Past years








Even This Year

31 Dec

I broke the even numbered year curse in 2014. The year had its ups and downs like any 365-day collection. This was the year I called AAA three times in two months. This was the year of the Polar Vortex. This was the year I coated all my belongings in baking soda and painstakingly vacuumed it up to remove the smell of smoke from the apartment downstairs.

Those were little things, the kind of things I can tidily sum up here. There were other things I would have skipped, given the chance. But even those things couldn’t eclipse the writing I did, the friends I spent time with, the summer with my parents, the move to Ohio.

2014 couldn’t have been just another even-numbered year. It was a continuation, sure, but it was also the beginning of something that goes on and on and on.

And 2015 is already great. Dad is in Chennai right now. He Skyped us from the future to let us know it’s going well. Sorry, should have included a spoiler alert. Oh well. Good news. Happy New Year!


27 Dec

I was a terrible math student. I wasn’t the worst of the worst, but I was lazy: easily bored and content to hand in work representative of the least amount of effort required to obtain B after B. I hit the wall early, and it wasn’t because I didn’t understand (at least not at first), but because I wasn’t interested. The points of connection I found in English, history, and biology just weren’t there in math, either because I wasn’t trying hard enough to find them or because they weren’t there to be found.

There has been one exception.

My school was big on the Day of Silence. Probably something like forty of the sixty kids in my class participated. In that atmosphere it was fairly easy to take a stand and take part, but even so some teachers made it easier than others.

My history teacher thought it was a fairly toothless show of solidarity. My English teacher wasn’t talking either. My biology teacher showed a film. My algebra teacher waited until we were all settled.

“I know some of you are choosing to remain silent today. I wanted to take a moment to tell you the story of a famous mathematician, Alan Turing.”

He told the story briefly: mathematical genius, father of computer technology, Bletchley Park tenure, conviction for homosexuality, suicide. He gave a gloss of the aspects of modern life that wouldn’t look the same without Turing.

I sat in my chair, rapt. It may have been late to realize this (it may have been early), but it was the first time in my life that I can remember being aware of subjects intersecting. Math and history. History and politics. Math and politics. Math and history and politics and narrative. Math and history and politics and narrative and all of us sitting in that room and what we were going to do with this knowledge.

Since that day, I’ve read and watched Breaking the Code. I’ve read and loved Cryptonomicon. Today I watched The Imitation Game.

The movie had its faults*, which others have ably described. So did Breaking the Code. What I loved about The Imitation Game today was that it made me think of my high school algebra teacher, who taught my most hated subject, who assigned my most mishandled homework, and who made such an impression on me.

When I read Cryptonomicon and when I watched The Imitation Game, for hours at a time I was interested in math, not just in Alan Turing. In math and its ability to be as life-saving and world-changing as anything else. For someone like me, that’s quite the revelation, one worth having over and over. And for people who don’t know, and are seeking points of intersection and connection and challenge, Alan Turing’s story isn’t a bad place to start.


*Don’t get me started on the John Cairncross thing. This blog used to be a blog about John Cairncross-era spies. If I start I’ll never stop.


27 Nov

Champaign, Princeton (Cprinceton?), Chicago, and Columbus: new friends who haven’t heard all my stories yet; old ones who are still listening; family I can hang with; the Van Gogh Museum, the Palais Royal, and Montjuïc; Friday Pizza Nights and catchup brunches; Clive and Henry; Subaru (seriously) and AAA (even more seriously); Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Joe-Joes; ZooLights; the Polar Vortex; my sense of humor; David Mitchell and Maggie Stiefvater; the Jackson County dump; Scout’s ham; World Cup soccer; Mabel, seminarians, godparents, coworkers, roommates, parents, and the rest; the space and time to pursue the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. THANK YOU.

Possible Memoir Titles, Drawn From This Week’s Texts (vol. 2)

14 Nov

The Woman Who Wrote Those Books

Gets to tell her story now.


100% nonfiction.

The Letter Game

14 Nov

8738_10151573275642008_2118856348_nI’ll let Wikipedia give you the dry stuff:

A letter game involves the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish their own identity and that of their correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why they and their correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet. Letter games can be a writing exercise or a form of collaborative fiction.

Two years ago today, I returned from work to find a strange e-mail waiting for me. It was ostensibly from my friend Katy, but the salutation (“Your Loving Brother, Clive”) was not especially in keeping with Katy’s personality. The letter was, however, wholly in character, and I read it several times, trying to learn who that character was.

As I read through, I discovered a frustrated middle-manager, a single father in some sort of dystopian future, a person who wants to change, but isn’t quite sure how. So I turned around and invented a slightly younger brother, an intelligence agent with annoying housemates, named Henry. (This is one of those names I keep giving characters. Oops.) Then I wrote back.

I don’t think I have ever created a character so intentionally: almost completely free of plot or even circumstance, and in response to such disparate influences. I had just read Cloud Atlas for the first time, and it had made such an impression on me that accidentally writing Cloud Atlas fanfiction was a very real possibility. I was particularly afraid of Robert Frobisher, thanks to the letter format, so I went out of my way to make Henry as unlike that character as possible. (I doubt anyone but me would spot it, but I suspect revisions have made Henry more like Frobisher, not less.)

The beauty of the letter game is manifold. You must be prepared for the eventuality that your letter-writing partner will at any moment completely undermine your best-laid plans. This forces you to revise even as you write. Even better, the ban on letter g1969400_10152431020492008_6979114783435379000_name-related conversation resulted in an imagined Katy who was constantly hitting refresh, tapping her foot, waiting for my next installment. That pressure went beyond accountability (these days we hold each other accountable; it’s nothing like it was). At the height of the letter game, our turnaround time dipped below twelve hours.

About four months after the first e-mail, we were done, although at that point it felt more as if Henry and Clive were done. I typed the last line and hit send with my heart beating fast. I knew my phone would ring in approximately the time it would take Katy to read Henry’s last letter, and I had so much to say about the past months now that the cork had popped that I couldn’t imagine where I would start.

She called, and we talked for hours, and we haven’t really stopped. We edit and write, edit and write, and talk it all over. We write side stories and backstories and world-build. This is all still happening, and I am happy to report that there’s no end in sight.

Two years ago, if I mentioned this insane, beautiful, impromptu project to anyone, I briefly laid out the premise of the letter game, and then explained how our letter game had eaten my brain. That was true, but these days I’m more likely to say that it changed my life.

When I started the letter game with Katy, years had passed since I’d written anything creative of substance. Somewhere after junior year of college, I ground to a halt and couldn’t get going again. Staring into the post-grad void wasn’t inspiring. Neither was my first, hard year in Chicago. I was considering a radical reevaluation of trivial things like who I was and what I was put on earth to do. Then. Suddenly. There was Clive, in my inbox, and there was I, spewing out word after word, and someone was reading it, and writing back, and keeping me going. I couldn’t let either of us down.


This was going to be much shorter. It was going to be about how accountability is important, and how finding smart, critical readers is important. Finding that one reader who gives you a reason to keep writing is the most important thing of all.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been surrounded by people who gave me books and showed me other lives and read my stuff, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, but I really, really wouldn’t be where I am today without Katy. I mean nothing less than that I can’t be sure I would have started writing again if we hadn’t started writing together. I like to think I would have, but who knows. It certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly, or as easily, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Keep your eyes peeled for Clive and Henry. One day, eventually, we’ll be ready to share the love.10368868_10152780406732008_4958776130015134524_o

Possible Memoir Titles, Drawn From This Week’s Texts (vol. 1)

18 Oct

We Still Hope to Make It

This one may or may not have a sequel.

A Reason to Visit Chicago

Pick a reason, any reason.

But It’s a Terrible Flow

A white girl from East Central Illinois dreams of becoming a rapper. Those dreams are dashed.

We Declined the Kaiser

Hope, empowerment, and politeness in war-torn Europe.

“Goody,” said Wystan

21 Aug

It was sad, sad as dying, to leave these loved ones behind. But neither Wystan nor Christopher wanted to admit that this was in any sense a death or that they were the objects of a wake. As the boat train pulled out of the station and they need wave no longer, Christopher felt a quick upsurge of relief. He and Wystan exchanged grins, schoolboy grins which took them back to the earliest days of their friendship. “Well,” said Christopher, “we’re off again.” “Goody,” said Wystan.

Christopher and His Kind, Christopher Isherwood

As I decorate my apartment and run errands and generally find my feet in this new place, I find myself thinking of what got me here. I owe a lot to the Cambridge Spies. I owe a lot to the Christopher Isherwood Binge of 2013. I owe a lot to my parents, and  India, and Tanya, and Katy, and the other storytellers I surround myself with. Here’s to the next three years at The Ohio State University, and here’s to the new face of I Hadn’t Realized.



This is a Bit of a Surprise

28 Aug

This is humor at its most successful, because amidst all the insanity there is a grain of accuracy.

Another installment: “Hello, this is the Secret Service.”

And: “I must say I like this folder!”

“Peter Guillam, you may not be aware of this…”

2 Jan

…but I am possessed of an extremely forgiving nature. I positively seethe with goodwill.” –Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy miniseries

In both John Le Carré’s novel and the 1979 miniseries adaptation, the tense heart of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is Peter Guillam’s attempt to extract a file from the Circus (Le Carré’s name for MI6) reading room. Just as he begins to sigh in relief, he is intercepted and taken to a meeting with the big four of the Circus, one of whom is certainly a Russian mole. He is gently interrogated on a different matter and let go, quite rattled. All of a sudden his paranoia seems more justified than ever before.

Peter Guillam is having a nervous breakdown in slow motion. He’s back from a disastrous job in North Africa where all of his agents were killed. He thinks his girlfriend (one of a “network of girlfriends who were not, as the jargon has it, inter-conscious”) may be, to borrow a phrase from the Moscow Rules, “under opposition control,” or maybe even sent by his own side to keep tabs on him, or at the very least she’s sleeping with her flute teacher. Peter Guillam is also facing a crisis of faith. There is a very real possibility that the man whom he most looked up to is a traitor. He has been asked by another person he respects, George Smiley, to turn his eye inward and information-gather at work. He gets more and more nervous. There is a very real danger that he’ll snap.

In the miniseries, Peter Guillam is played by Michael Jayston.

Jayston gives us an excellently understated Guillam who nonetheless seems on the verge of homicide. Prep school accent and sleepy eyes notwithstanding, when Ricki Tarr, another “scalphunter” of teetering emotional stability, makes a lunge for George Smiley, Guillam hits him. Later, he shoves Toby Esterhase unnecessarily into a wall. When the mole is unveiled, Guillam comes close to killing him.

There is not enough time in the five-hour miniseries to follow Guillam home and meet Camilla, so the domestic paranoia is absent from his otherwise spot-on and fascinating character. In Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 cinematic adaptation of the novel, recently released in the United States, we do get a glimpse inside Guillam’s flat and find that it contains not a female flautist of questionable loyalty, but a male lover who probably doesn’t deserve to be abruptly dumped. He is dumped, however, by a Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch with a lot going on behind the eyes) every bit as paranoid as his predecessors. 

I understand that adapting a labyrinthine novel into a two-hour film is an undertaking, but I couldn’t help coming out of Tinker, Tailor and remembering how I felt years ago when I went to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I was a casual Harry Potter fan, and Azkaban remains my favorite of the movie adaptations, but I was, nonetheless, disappointed. With a lot of back-story cut, it was difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the book and the characters’ motivations were not always clear. Alfredson and his screenwriters do a better job of assembling a standalone film, but I find it difficult to imagine attempting a viewing without some kind of foreknowledge. Some cuts make sense. Consolidating Sam Collins and Jerry Westerby was a masterstroke. Condensing reams of character dynamics into drunken eye contact and offhand comments at an office Christmas party was an inspired move. Eliminating Roddy Martindale was fine. Casting an empty chair as Karla was perhaps the best decision of all.

Back to Peter Guillam. I would have loved to have seen Cumberbatch handle the character as he appears in the novel. Re-imagining the character as gay (in an era when homosexuality was only relatively recently decriminalized) certainly underlines how Guillam’s personal life has become compromised by his occupation, even though the film very much presents it the other way around. This re-imagining also places Guillam more firmly in line with Smiley and Haydon and Prideaux and Tarr, men who have been–or have the potential to be–undone by their sexual or romantic ties. In that respect, Guillam’s new characterization is very much in keeping with the tone of the novel, if not the letter of it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but regret the decision for a number of reasons.

Tinker, Tailor already paints a complicated (and, I would argue, nuanced) picture of a range of sexualities. From Connie Sachs’ male-directed flirtatiousness and eventual female partner, to Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux’s ambiguously sexual (and unambiguously romantic) past, from Haydon’s affair with Smiley’s wife Ann and the subsequent imbalance within the Smiley marriage, to Ricki Tarr’s suddenly challenged woman-in-every-port philosophy. I worry that Guillam’s black and white I-must-hide-my-homosexuality-or-risk-blackmail storyline undercuts other, less easily defined sexualities and plot threads by turning the light down on them, the tragedy of the Haydon-Prideaux relationship in particular, but also the unrelenting way Smiley’s colleagues dredge up his wife.

At times, this character simplification flirted with assimilationism. Most glaring was the last conversation between Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and Bill Roach (William Haddock), a lonely little prep school boy who sees Jim as a cool and mysterious father-figure. Roach, according to Jim, is a natural watcher; “us loners always are.” Once Jim points out these observational skills, Roach takes them up with great pride, only to be crushed when Jim, who has just returned from his last glimpse of Haydon, rounds on him: “I don’t want you hanging around here. Keep away from me from now on. Go and join the others. Just bloody join in. Go and play, damn you.”

Novel Bill Roach gradually eases Jim out of his disappointment. Miniseries Bill Roach stumbles over the pronunciation of “shew” and Jim is there to help him. Film Bill Roach gets a verbal slap and the revocation of his special loner status. Being a watcher will only get you so far; at some point you will require friends.

That is the contradiction at the heart not only of Alfredson’s film but Le Carré’s novel as well: relationships, friendly or otherwise, are a liability. You can only rely on yourself. Keep your eyes open and watch. Gather the clues. On the other hand: it’s impossible to do anything alone. Surround yourselves with people you trust. With the right people on your side, you can face the unthinkable.

Friends can save you, or they can ruin you. All you can do it roll the dice and pray.

At the film’s conclusion, Peter Guillam is seen grinning at the newly reinstated, and, indeed, promoted, George Smiley as they pass each other. Professionally speaking, Guillam is in a good place. It is presumed that his personal life, too, has potential under the new regime. At the end of the novel, Peter Guillam is struggling to understand the betrayal that has shaken the Circus. His slow-motion nervous breakdown will continue well into The Honorable Schoolboy and lead him to accept a cushier, less complicated job in France in Smiley’s People, where he also appears happily and unsuspiciously married to a French woman named Marie Claire. This eventual culmination to Guillam’s arc would seem almost disappointingly conventional, but for the fact that in taking his French job he is very much settling for something less. For Guillam, the Circus, even in its renaissance, will always be After the Fall.

Last-minute riflery notwithstanding, the film comes to a soundly, and oddly, optimistic end. For such a complex plot, it ends very neatly. A movie with this much brown and grey and these many arctic pauses and chilly interactions should be able to end with more at stake. With characters boiled down to easily checked boxes, however, it might make sense that, ultimately, the film suffers the same fate of simplification.

Like Percy Alleline I am possessed of a forgiving nature. I enjoyed the film, and perhaps it was because of this that I felt disappointed when it fell short of greatness. Nonetheless, it did many things right. The unmasking of the mole was underplayed, underlining my favorite thing about Le Carré’s story: everyone, on some level, already knew, but didn’t want to admit it. Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr was mesmerizing. Hardy played a character who, however pivotal, had never quite gotten my full attention and took that attention by force. The screenwriters gave Control (John Hurt) some great put-downs, perhaps explaining a bit why Alleline et. al. felt so little remorse at his ousting. Connie Sachs got some great new lines (“I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously under-fucked,” and “That was a good time, George,” to which Smiley replies, “It was the war, Connie”). “Jerusalem” was played for a split second in an echoing staircase. Colin Firth grinned his way through many a scene, but always with an edge. Mark Strong credibly killed an owl. Svetlana Khodchenkova was a (finally!) level-headed Irina.

Tinker, Tailor is full of fragile men with lethal occupations. Perhaps my favorite innovation in the Alfredson film is a piece of graffiti that appears twice towards the conclusion: “The Future is Female.” Suddenly, I was gripped with desire to see an all-female version of this story, or something like it. Without the locker-room, insular, old-boys world, where would the mole burrow? I’m sure it could be done. Now those would be changes worth trying.