Some Books

All of a sudden, I’ve been consuming books voraciously. This, after a long, dry lull, where I grew impatient with books and gave up on reading quite a few.

Here are some thoughts on the books I’ve been reading.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: What an absolutely lovely book just for the way it is written. The writing is brilliant, superlative; practically every sentence was a beaut. The story was woven intricately and kept me completely engrossed. When I finished it, I had to literally come up for air. I can’t say I grasped its essence wholly; it was like incense that fills the air with its heady perfume and then disappears without a trace. If this is her debut book, how will she ever surpass it?

Blindness by Jose Saramago: What struck me most was the style of writing. The paragraphs just ran on and on. The central idea was novel, and though it held up a mirror to society in a sense, it didn’t enthrall me completely. I guess in a society which is more ordered, it would shock and horrify. But living as we are, with a very thin line between chaos and order, it did not exactly make me shocked or upset. The other thing which it made me wonder about was the effect of translation and how much gets lost or preserved in this process.

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell: I first heard about Mankell when I was reading something about Stieg Larsson whose trilogy had become a sensation. It was something to the effect that Mankell was a far superior writer. This made me curious and I went on a Mankell binge. Suffice it to say, I LOVED the books. Kurt Wallander became a character very dear to me. The Return of the Dancing Master is not a Kurt Wallander book, it introduces a new detective – Stefan Lindman. It opens with him being diagnosed with cancer, and then plunges both him and us into a double murder. By now, being a bit more familiar with the style of writing, I guessed where it was going, but still it was a delight. This is again a translation, and again I wondered at the flavour that was coming through.

The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine Lopez: A delightful light read, perfect for a movie. All the elements are there in the right proportion. The main character Marina is a magnet for the troubled and her house is full of souls who have lost their way. The characters are so well etched and there’s plenty of emotion. I can easily imagine this in an Indian setting.

I think I’ll stop here because there are too many books I want to write about. Perhaps another post. But I must admit that I pinched Matilda from Lil D’s collection one night, and had such a ball reading it! The most interesting tidbits regarding both Roald Dahl and the illustrator Quentin Blake were an education. Nothing to chase away the blues better than the old favourites, no? πŸ™‚

How To Write

Of late, I have been doing the unthinkable. I have been abandoning books half-way if they don’t hold my interest, and even returning them more or less unread to the library. This had been an absolute no-no in my life till now; perhaps I could put it down to an increased awareness of my mortality and the fact that I just don’t have the time or energy to read an uninteresting book to the end.

The Help helped me(!) in rediscovering some of the magic. I got so engrossed in it that I almost ruined the surprise birthday party planned by my friends because I refused to get out of the house, inspite of various blandishments such as tea and treats being dangled before me. Luckily, I finished the book before the party! πŸ™‚

Going to the library was proving to be an exercise in futility for me. None of the books appeared in the least bit interesting. I didn’t want to do heavy-duty classics, I didn’t want fluffy chick-lit or steamy M&Bs (boy! are they steamy now or what?!) or action-packed thrillers or badly written “Indian writing”… I refused to admit that I actually didn’t want to read anything — that would have been blasphemy!

It was in this truculent mood that I chanced upon How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper. I picked it up because the title appeared promising. My instincts were not wrong. Needless to say, I finished this book in one sitting, and at the end of it, I felt this book ought to be put up as an example of how to achieve the perfect balance between literary and commercial, between a book and a movie. For truth be told, the book did read like a screenplay.

The writing is droll and touching at the same time. The writing is careful and artful. The very first paragraph has you reaching for that highlighter:

“the way his eyelids hang sluggishly at half-mast…”
“…torturing myself by tearing memories out of my mind at random like matches from a book, striking them one at a time and drowsily setting myself on fire.”

The characters are well-etched: the laid-back Doug, his aggressive twin Claire, …you get the idea. They appeared pretty real and believable to me.

The comedy is funny enough to have you chuckling. The emotions are true enough to make you nod with understanding. The sex is perfectly natural and not just because it needs to be there. The action makes you think instantly of movies and Hugh Grant, who would be perfect for the role, except it calls for a much younger man.

Even though you know the ending, you can’t help but journey with the characters as they stumble along their convoluted lives (unlike Ram-Leela, where you would dearly like to put a bullet through the hero and heroine at their very first meeting and cut the torture short!).

If I ever write a book, I think I’d like to write one like this. Simply because (in my opinion) it exhibits a quality dear to me — balance.

Dreams Do Come True

I must have been about 10 when I read Enid Blyton’s House-At-The-Corner. It remains my absolute favourite to this day.

It was a story of a family going through some ups and downs and emerging stronger. One of the characters was Elizabeth, mostly called Beth, whom I identified with strongly. She was also shy and wore glasses, and most importantly, wrote stories.

Her first heart-breaking rejection becomes a laughing matter, and she begins to write in secret. She gets published secretly also, with the help of her aunt. Ultimately, her secret is revealed, along with the fact that she’s actually been earning money for her writing.

But what I remember most vividly is Elizabeth’s deep disappointment when she sees her first story in print, but without her name in the byline.

I don’t know if this served as a trigger, but somewhere along the line, it became my dream to see my own name printed against a story. That dream became a reality with the help of my sister, who typed out a “middle” and helped me send it out to Deccan Herald. My “middle” was published (we didn’t get the paper that day! :D), and I was ecstatic.

Of course, this journey of writing has been a stop-and-go at best. I haven’t been diligent or disciplined about it, preferring to write whenever I felt like it. Sometimes I felt I wasn’t really using my “talent”, but most of the time, I felt I was just deluding myself about my “talent”.

However, every success brings a happiness of its own. And the latest one (thanks to a good friend) is the first time my name appears in a book all by itself. Not just one, but several books in a series! I received the very first copies just recently.

I had the greatest fun writing the stories that are all about the adventures of a bunch of bugs in a junkyard. I do hope the children who read it derive as much pleasure.

My Name As Author!
My Name As Author!

Flower Land
Flower Land

Rainbow Land
Rainbow Land

Mushroom Land
Mushroom Land

Cake Land
Cake Land

Sensing The Ending

I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, so I picked up his book with some trepidation, for I was just not in the mood for dense reading. However, the book surprised me. It started off lightly enough, and I couldn’t help nodding in agreement to several lines, and laughing out loud at others.

In a sense, I guess I am reading the book at the appropriate time. I am at a stage where I am beginning to get a sense of the end of my life, so to speak. My half-century on this earth may yet be a glimmer on the horizon, but there is a sense of calm predictability that rules right now. To that extent, I can so identify with the narrator Tony, who navigates life with caution and tries his best not to get hurt or hurt anyone. I can completely identify with the realization and that mild sense of disappointment that life is not like literature, that the highs and lows, the changes and growth, the passions and emotions, are all in more pastel shades in real life than the lurid and neon lights that dazzle in novels. I can identify too with the several contemplations on life, on what it means or does not mean, and on memories — oh those memories! — that are as deceptive sometimes as mirages in the desert.

The book resonated with me in so many ways that somehow, I felt let-down and cheated by the ending. It felt contrived, like a deliberate twist inserted just because, and I felt quite disappointed instead of going Wow! That was a pity, considering I loved the novel otherwise.

However, I am quite willing to forgive the ending because the book is such a beauty to read, and has such a way of saying the wisest things in the lightest manner possible. I was sad when it ended. It felt like a friend I made on a journey, a friend who understood, and now we were parting ways.

All in all, it was worth reading and I’m glad I picked it up after all.

Histories

I am currently reading this absolutely fascinating book about Khubilai Khan’s attempts to conquer Japan.

Legend has it that both the times Kubilai Khan attempted this, his grand armada was completely destroyed by an act of divine intervention: the kamikaze. I know very little about Asian history, so everything in the book is an education.

A particular section, excerpts of which I reproduce below, resonated with me.

Japanese society was revolutionized by these developments. Instead of loyalty to a lord or a clan, samurai and the citizenry at large were encouraged to shift their support to the idea of the nation, as symbolized by the emperor, who was portrayed as the living embodiment of the gods. The emperor’s advisors, … chose to reintroduce and reinforce key elements of the “past” to support their main themes…

In this vein, the story of the Mongol invasions and the powerful myth of the kamikaze were dusted off and polished up for a new generation, who were taught to believe in the legend and the ideals behind it. The story of the invasions was not common knowledge in 1868, or even as late as 1890. It was at this time that Takezaki Suenaga’s scrolls “reappeared.” …

…Suddenly the scrolls were reproduced and published everywhere….The story they held, of the heroism and bravery of Takezake Suenaga, was retold as an exaggerated legend underscored by the divine intervention that saved Japan from an overwhelming foe…

All over the world, we grapple with history, trying to make sense of our place in the world and in the grander scheme of things. How much is truth and how much is conjecture, concoction, or sheer fantasy — these are hard questions to answer, and the answers are even more difficult to swallow. Every culture, every race, every people has had to deal with this. How do we reconcile faith, belief, and rationality? Where do we draw the line?

When we studied history in school, it was presented as absolute statements about the past. There was no sense that much of what we knew was still dynamic, still changing with the studies being done and artifacts being unearthed. We chewed up dates and events and spat them out in utter boredom. (To be fair, Asoka and Akbar did plant trees and build rest-houses. πŸ˜€ )

But how fascinating it would be if history was presented as the shifting sands that it truly is, how pasts can be obscured or unveiled, how partial facts can either make or mar the entire jigsaw puzzle, and how histories can be adroitly manipulated.

Indeed, the journey of discovering the histories is as engrossing as the histories themselves.

(Interestingly, the edition I have has the tagline “History’s Greatest Naval Disaster”, whereas the Amazon version has the tagline “In Search of a Legendary Armada”.)

Marginal Disruptions

Like any avid book lover, when I began earning, a good portion of my salary went to buying books. I loved the clean smell of new books, the pristine pages opening up just for me, and the crisp words sizzling up the pages. I was a new-book snob; I wasn’t too romantic about second-hand books with their dog-eared pages and dulled print. I entered into a relationship with every book I bought, and I liked the idea that I was the one and only owner who would read and handle them.

All that changed a couple of years ago. I began to feel guilty about the number of trees I must have indirectly hacked down for my pleasure. I decided to whittle down my library to as few books as I could. I donated books to a nearby library, and people who had borrowed from me could keep the books I had lent. I still haven’t quite gotten down to the ideal size, but I have made a great deal of progress.

The other thing I did was to sign up at a library so that I could have my reading quota done guilt-free. I got over my reservations about handling the books, which were by and large clean and not too used. I was doing fine, really. Until I borrowed this book.

The very first page was ominous. The first line of the text read: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Just above that, clearly hand-printed in ink was a question

Why would you want to burn?

At the bottom of the page, the person continued

Who is he?

I winced at this; it was like a knife plunging through the text. It was just a sign of things to come.

Every page had questions, reactions, statements:

Who was it?
Is she really crazy?
gross
They put someone else’s blood in her?
eww it’s salty
ooh that’s mean
I thought sports were gone haha
Billiards? What’s that
NO!
Where are they?
What the hell?
How could the T.V. talk?
Who are these men?
What’s going on?
She’s tripping
getting on my nerves
noooh!
Who are these men?
I wouldn’t do that
Your’re not in LOVE!

On the last page, at the very end, there was just one word:

    confused!

Honestly, I could barely read the book. It was like trying to see a movie while an annoying neighbour piped up with comments all the time. I couldn’t glare at the person or shush him/her. But I was rather amused too. Sometimes, I felt like getting into an argument with him/her. Sometimes, I felt like explaining. Sometimes, I just rolled my eyes — duh! you didn’t get this?

It was an interesting experience, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I like my reading experience to be an intimate one, a one-on-one with the story. The notes in the margin interrupted that for me, and much as it might make for a fantastic story (so many possibilities to weave), I prefer my books clean any day.

How I Didn’t Get My Daughter to Read

Both DH and I are avid readers. I read mostly fiction, though I’m slowly gravitating towards non-fiction. DH prefers non-fiction, and reads practically anything, including the side of the cereal box at the breakfast table.

So, it was only natural that we both were interested in getting Lil D to read too. Right from the start, I did everything that is normally recommended. I surrounded her with brightly coloured, attractive books, I read to her as much as I could, signed her up at a kid-friendly library and took her as frequently as possible…you get the picture.

Lil D, to my dismay, did not take to books at all. She seemed to like books with pretty pictures, but that was it. The extent of her reading was to flip through at great speed, and then hand it over to me, expecting a pat on the back. I watched with envy as kids her age read books that I had been reading at her age, and longed to share the experience with her.

It struck me that perhaps she didn’t like stories that much, so I bought her some “how-things-work” kind of books, hoping that might strike a chord. No such luck, though there did seem to be an initial spark. Both DH and I mentioned in passing to her how books helped, not just with information, but for entertainment that wasn’t dependent on anyone else. But nothing seemed to work. Lil D’s aversion to reading remained. I thought giving away some of her books might spark some interest, but she seemed all too glad to dispose of the pile that I had bought so lovingly! It made me feel I was doing something wrong, that I was inadequate as a parent somehow. After all, wasn’t reading supposed to be good for a kid?

Finally, one fine day, I gave myself a good talking-to. What did it matter if she didn’t like reading? I didn’t love her any less because of that. So why was it becoming such a big deal? She was a different kind of person, someone who loved touching and feeling whatever she was working with. So perhaps books were really not her cup of tea. She would definitely get her quota of information and entertainment through some other channels. She loved art, so her imagination could receive a work-out there, not necessarily through books alone. I decided then and there to back off. I would no longer pass subtle hints about books any more. I would not point out interesting books to her. I would not ask her what she had read. I would not burden her with my expectations. I would just let it be.

There was no dramatic difference once I made that decision. My acceptance just made things easier, and I suspect that though I had earlier never overtly pressured her into reading, she had been able to somehow sense my expectations. To me, it was clear that I loved her whether she read or not, so it was immaterial.

About six or seven months later, there was a wave of interest in Geronimo Stilton books amongst her friends. Lil D too jumped on the bandwagon. Knowing this to be one of those phases, I bought a few books for her which she raced through in no time. I knew that was only due to peer pressure, but I was happy for that. I stuck to my no-interference policy strictly.

Though Lil D sometimes showed spurts of interest in reading, I never caught her actually sitting down and reading at home. She was always a flurry of activity, rushing here and there like a mini-tornado. Sometimes, she thoughtfully brought home books from the school library for me to read! All in all, there was no reason to suspect that anything had changed.

The first real sign came when I had gone shopping with my sister recently — a little less than a couple of years after I took the decision of non-interference. Lil D had wanted some Thea Stilton books, and I had bought them for her. As my sister and I began our shopping, Lil D surprised me completely. She sat on a little stool for more than an hour and a half, engrossed in her books! I was quite impressed and told her so, to which she just grinned.

But what took the cake was her recent report card. The evaluations were all in line with what I knew about my little girl, but when I read one statement, you could have knocked me down with a feather! It said she was a voracious reader! I could not believe my eyes! When I asked Lil D if it was true, she nodded. Of course it was true, she had read so many books from the school library.

Now I notice that she does read a lot more than before. I catch her reading the newspaper sometimes, the back of the cereal box sometimes. Though she loves listening to music before she sleeps, sometimes she picks up a book instead. She takes a book along when she goes, so that she can read if she gets bored.

I still exercise my policy of non-interference, but it makes me so glad that I did the right thing; I gave her the space to make her own choice. It’s just a bonus that she’s begun enjoying reading; after all, I’d love her even if she didn’t.

The Time and The Times

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is truly like no other book I’ve ever read. I am in no way equipped or even daring enough to do any kind of review of it, except to marvel at the author’s ingenuity, skill, and sheer mastery of language.

The book feels like life itself — erratic, unpredictable, lush in detail, with loose ends that desperately need tying up. You get a sense of the inescapable blink-and-it’s-gone time passing, and of course, growing old in the process, despite fighting it consciously or unconsciously.

I will not dwell on the story; in fact, it’s a landscape that you can zoom into and zoom out of at will. The style is whimsical and edgy: chapters and characters are narrated in first person, second person, or third person, even Powerpoint slides and texting. The characters are so lucidly drawn — they rise, grow and morph before your eyes.

The language is an absolute delight, and I kept marvelling at every turn of phrase, so unique, so newly minted, so refreshing! I am so tempted to put down entire passages here that entranced me with their atmospheric vividness, but I’ll content myself with just a few smaller samples:

“Behind the desk was nothing but view — the whole city flung out in front of us the way street vendors fling out their towels packed with cheap, glittery watches and belts. That’s how New York looked: like a gorgeous, easy thing to have, even for me.”

“In the dusk, a chorus line of palm trees vamped against a Bellini sky.”

“It was teeming with families, kids punting the ubiquitous soccer balls, exchanging salvos of earsplitting Italian. But there was another presence, too, in the fading light: the aimless, unclean, vaguely threatening youths who trolled this city where unemployment was at 33 percent, members of a disenfranchised generation who slunk around the decrepit palazzi where their fifteenth-century forebears had lived in splendor, who shot dope on the steps of churches in whose crypts those same forebears now lay, their diminutive coffins stacked like cordwood.”

“Whatever the reason, a swell of approval palpable as rain lifted from the center of the crowd and rolled out toward its edges, where it crashed against buildings and water wall and rolled back at Scotty with redoubled force, lifting him off his stool, onto his feet (the roadies quickly adjusting the microphones), exploding the quavering husk Scotty had appeared to be just moments before and unleashing something strong, charismatic, and fierce. Anyone who was there that day will tell you the concert really started when Scotty stood up.”

Phew!

Though I’m a lover of simpler, linear narratives and straight stories, this book really floored me. Just loved it for giving me such a lovely window to a whole new world of writing.

Innocence

It was quite by accident that both the books I borrowed from the library this time had something in common: Innocence. The first book was The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and the second was The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

The books are at once similar and very different.

Both tell the tale of a man’s love and longing for a woman they cannot, or rather, must not have; they speak of respectability, hierarchies, and societies on the clashing cusp of change; they paint the prevalent society with all the love of miniaturist’s brush. Yet, so different they are: one man witholding, the other giving in; one man preserving perfection in his memories, the other seeking material objects to seal his memories in; one living a veneer with self-control, the other abandoning all pretences. Both do not live in the real world, but in a world of their own making. Both do not really possess the woman they adore, they are possessed instead by their own love for the woman.

Both books are very engrossing reads, though I did get a little weary of the wealth of details that Orhan Pamuk plunges into. Society everywhere has its own set of complicated rules by which games are to be played, and that is precisely what makes both these books so utterly fascinating. One recognizes the underlying passions and overt pretences that remain the same across cultures, varying only in the shades that they come in. True innocence is indeed a rare commodity.

Day and Night

I read two very different books recently.

Noon by Aatish Taseer simmers like mid-day.

Marked by disconnect, the very form the book takes makes one feel incomplete, groping for answers like the author. The story of Rehan Tabassum, a boy with an Indian mother and a Pakistani father, is not a complete story. It offers slices of his life, both in first and third person, and there is plenty to read between the lines. In every part, there is a cosy intimacy, yet a disturbing distance, an intense involvement, yet a peculiar detachment. It makes for very interesting reading. In an interview, Aatish Taseer talks about the disruption, the rupture, the eerie, inexplicable sense of life mimicking the story, of the story born from real life, of life being too much sometimes to bear. In many ways, Noon brings to my mind a scene of peak afternoon in a town, where everyone has retired obstensibly to avoid the heat, yet the heat shimmers and intrudes and upsets, till one can only lie under a fan and hope for the coolness of the evening.

In contrast, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, unfolds like a dream.

Everything is hazy, magical, illusion. A circus — Le Cirque des RΓͺves — that arrives without warning and opens only at night; a mysterious game or competition that hurtles its young participants towards certain death (or does it?); black and white and grey, with just a touch of red. You are drifting in a world where everything is not quite what it appears to be. The characters float in and out of the tents of your imagination, and you watch, entranced by this enchanting performance. The writing brings alive that elusive quality all dreams have, of sharp reflections and crisp lines that dissolve into ripples with the touch of a finger. You wish you could actually meander through the wonders. You know it will end, you hope love will triumph, but what you really want is this mesmerizing circus to go on and on.

Both books linger on, long after the last page has been turned. As different as day and night.