Of books and reading in 2017

Is it too early to call it a year? There are more than 3 weeks still to go, over 5% of the year still left. But how much do I expect to achieve in that period that I haven’t in the preceding 94%?

Compared to previous years where I was logging books in the mid 40s at least, this year has been underwhelming. Am staring at 31 at the moment. I expect to take it to 33 or 34. Not entirely unexpected as before the year started, I set myself a target of 30 books for the year.

I knew I was going into the year with a fair degree of book fatigue. And it showed in more ways than just the number of books. It hasn’t just been the time that has been available to read, but also the speed at which am reading, and the amount of time am able to spend on a book in one sitting. I have been easier to distract, been finding other things to do than read. The commute has also been not too friendly on reading. Compared to more than an hour of reading or audio books, the metro offers around 30 minutes of reading per day. But that does not explain it completely. I took the metro for more than half of last year and managed 20+ books during that time.

Continue reading “Of books and reading in 2017”

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Speaking of books

As always, waiting for Anush to put up his list before I work through mine. But like last year, some cud chewing on the books I read.

I managed 45 last year. As against 47 in 2015. In terms of number of pages read, I was some 2000 pages short of 2015. That’s almost 6 decent length books short! How did that happen? I can only point fingers at the months of June and July. It was a pretty torrid time at home, and reading wasn’t on top of my list those months. It is a considerable achievement that I actually managed 45 when I look back.

And I also felt a lot more friction from some books. I went into Philip Ball’s Life’s Matrix: A biography of water, expecting a typical well-written non-fiction book. It was only non-fiction with a lot of chemistry thrown in. I worked my way through it for the most part. James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science” was somewhat similar, but he somehow salvages it. I just could not get in too deep into it.

But in terms of Non-Fiction, the number kept increasing and I managed a decent 15 of them, exactly a third of all the books read! Of course, they weren’t all “science”, but included a biography, memoirs, people’s real life stories about mental health issues, and some travel writing too. But still, it wasn’t someone weaving stories.

I really wish I had discovered more new authors though. It was the same beat as the previous years more or less. I wasn’t too impressed. Yes, I discovered Jorge Borges, but reading him isn’t easy. It takes a hell of a lot of concentration! There were the usuals – Murakami, Barnes, McCall-Smith, and a Terry Pratchett. I read Paul Kalanithi, the book. The tragedy of it being the only one he would ever write.

I missed Kawabata, and did not find any other works of Mishima. But I did discover Anjum Hasan. Sadly, only Cosmopolitans is left and it hasn’t reviewed as well. I finished the trilogies I started in 2014. The Alexander trilogy of Mary Renault, and the Gormenghast trilogy of Mervyn Peake were done and dusted.

When I look back, it wasn’t as great a year for reading, as 2015 was. I loved 2015 in terms of the books I read. So many of them have stayed with me – Kawabata, Ondaatje, Gordimer, Dalrymple, Gawande, Mishima, Munro, and oh, Salinger! Each one something to immerse myself in. It was a great year for reading!

I guess am being a bit uncharitable on myself. This was the year I went exploring. Whitaker’s work on psychiatric medicines was very enlightening. Burkeman’s book on “happiness” was extremely timely. Borges was hard work, but necessary. So many other works talk of his works, or refer to that. Siddhartha Mukherjee and Josy Joseph were among the best reads this year. Glad Mukherjee was writing again! Amitav Ghosh’s Derangement was an excellent and necessary take on the biggest crisis we are facing.

Yes, it wasn’t as enjoyable as 2015, but it was a good set nonetheless. Would I be gifting any books from this lot? Not too likely. They aren’t things people would really enjoy.

I do want to find more books that I’ll enjoy and remember. I want something like “H is for Hawk”, like “Em and the big hoom”, like “Levels of the game”, like “The Devourers”. Books that leave you with a tinge of regret, that you’re now done with them, and won’t read them for the first time ever again.

I want that feeling for 2017.

Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe

At the very beginning, in a 3 page preface, KP Poornachandra Tejaswi starts with a methodical takedown of the Navya school of literature. Among the reasons, the main ones are that it has become stale, dominated by academicians and professors with no scope for others to enter, and that it has failed to address the life of the common man living in villages. With that, he starts off marking a separate territory that he calls ‘protest literature’ along the lines of Ram Manohar Lohia.

The ones I’ve read by him tend to be light, even while addressing critical environmental issues. I expected satire, dark humour. There is very little of that.

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Abachurina Post Office, the first story, starts off about Bobanna who’s a ‘temporary’ post master for a temporary post office. He doesn’t maintain much discretion with the mail, conducting open sit-togethers to write and read letters for the illiterate. Other posts are put in a kind of bulletin board where anyone can take a look and pass on the message to the intended. Things turn bad when he sneaks off a post card with a nude picture meant for his boss and he just can’t resist doing the wrong thing, read perverted thing, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Things turn really bad when a letter to someone about his daughter makes it to the ‘bulletin board’ and becomes the talk of the town. There’s so much to see here – Bobanna’s desperation, his mother-in-law’s control, the gradual breakdown of his family. This is almost RKN territory, but a lot darker, about how these innocent small town/village guys aren’t that innocent after all. Continue reading “Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe”

A conveyor belt of books

I signed up, yet again, for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The goal is to get to 40 books this year. The goal is set by you, so you can set 100 if you want. 40 is a good number that I set because I know I can get past it. And I’ll also be able to do some decent reading. A 500 pager that takes 3 weeks won’t daunt me as much as if I had set the goal to, say, 60.

As we enter the second half of the year, I noticed that I had gotten to 21, in a canter. I took more than 3 weeks reading ‘The Cunning Man’, working my way back to time reading a book after bouts of illness all across the house. But I buttressed that with smaller books like a short story collection by Kalki and finishing off the last few pages of A.K. Ramanujan’s “Folktalkes from India”. The number is the goal.

I sit down and try to remember what all I read, and it isn’t easy. Books seem to come one after the other, making their marks while being read, but getting finished, and then you move on to the next one. It feels like a conveyor belt. But that is one risk that you do run when you read quite a bit, no? Some will stick longer, some not so much even if you really enjoyed reading them.

Continue reading “A conveyor belt of books”

When Breath Becomes Air

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I had been avoiding reviews of this book, as they tend to go all hyperbolic. And it can do bad things to expectations. They probably had already when I picked this up.

Paul Kalanithi was a literature major, he was then a neurosurgeon, and then he contracted lung cancer and died in 2 years and wrote a book in the meanwhile. It felt almost miraculous, all these things coming together. And I use the word miraculous in a crass way. I refused to believe. I still expected a book about the grandioseness of life, meaning, a lot of philosophy, deep insights on mortality. I expected to be swept away by the sheer enlightenment and perspective it would give me. Continue reading “When Breath Becomes Air”

List from 2015

Anush’s list is now out. Have written enough on another post. Am not going to come up with a to-read list at the end this time. Most of the time I fill it up with those waiting to be read without really a plan. And when did I ever look like a guy with a plan?

Without much further ado, here’s the list. As always, linked ones point to my review. Continue reading “List from 2015”

Before the books list

Am still waiting for Anush to put up his list. It’s only tradition. This is mostly some cud chewing on reading and books before the list.

I managed 47 books the last year. A pretty reasonable number. Around the end of November I reached 40 books for the year and blogged about it. Going by past history I had predicted 46. I did one better and ended up with 47. In fact the last one was finished on Dec 31st.

The strange part is the number of pages. 2014 saw me reading 14711, while I finished 2015  with 14700, 11 pages short. Pretty freakish when I realised that. And no, I did not count the number of pages, Goodreads does it for you in the “Stats” link. And yes, pages aren’t an accurate number as the kind of print varies. Neither is time an accurate marker as some books can be run through, while some will just hold you in one place, and make you work your way through. If you have any doubts read Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction“. It’s a short book and the second half which is “Seymour: An Introduction” is only 70 pages. Now work your way through it, and you’ll come out feeling like you’ve done 300. And he doesn’t give you paragraphs to rest either. But the point remains, statistics aren’t accurate. I quoted statistics because the numbers seemed interesting, and that’s about all there is to it.

Continue reading “Before the books list”

Ghost World

It’s funny how serendipity works. I remember watching a Hindi movie song and going “Whoa! How come I’ve never heard of this before!” It’s a pretty catchy number with, surprisingly, no big actors in it. There was just this one name that caught my attention: “Ted Lyons and his cubs” emblazoned on the big drum set. A few google searches showed that they routinely performed in some dance songs in the 60s, and they were a reasonably regular fixture in some movies of that decade as the band actually playing in the movie. Somewhat like this:

The song in question was this catchy number, with a weirdly catchy dance. The singer is Mohammed Rafi, who does a pretty superb job with his vocals. (But when has he not, until the 80s that is)

One more search on this song, took me to the movie: Ghost World (2001). This song featured on the OST, and the movie opens to this song. I wonder how they stumbled upon this song in the pre-Youtube era. But it’s a pretty cool start to the movie.

The movie itself is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes of the same name and from the same year. Like Watchmen this is also a collection of comics that came out serially over a period of time, and then someone decided to put them all together and make a graphic novel of it.

The movie was supposedly a failure, barely recovering its budget, but has gone on to become a cult classic over time. The themes are pretty dark, about growing up in a typical soulless American Suburb with its featureless strip malls, being a teenager, pissed off with the world and how “phony” everything looks and feels. Yes, it does bring to mind “The Catcher in the Rye” a lot. While the latter dealt with a gifted “prodigy” growing up, and being able to see ahead of his times, this is more about a couple of normal teenage girls at the age of 18, struggling to fit in and figure out their plans for life, while trying to steer clear of what everyone seems to be doing easily on autopilot.

For a movie dealing with somewhat serious, and at most times dark, issues, it is a laugh riot at quite a few places. The acting is top-notch. Thora Birch as Enid and Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca are just pitch-perfect(this is a few years before Scarlett became the big star she is now). And then there is Steve Buscemi, as a lonely record collector whom Enid befriends. The part I did not get is to do with Enid’s dressing sense. It’s supposed to be about mocking different music genres like ‘punk rock’ but went OTH for me.

Of course, after all this, I had to pick up the book and it was promptly ordered on Amazon, after checking Blossom’s and finding that they were out of stock.

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The movie stays more or less close to the book with some variations. But it feels organic as Daniel Clowes did the writing for both. While the movie dealt a lot more with Enid, almost cutting down Rebecca to a supporting role, and pushed in Seymour (Buscemi’s character), the book stays with Enid and Rebecca, and their friendship. Their being out of High School and having to find their way out, their insecurities, jealousies and support, all at the same time. Enid is the more intelligent and gifted one, and a geek, while Rebecca is the prettier one, but trying hard to get out of Enid’s shadow, while Enid feels the other way around about Rebecca’s looks. The sheer pressure of being poised between adolescence and adulthood, between growing up and being grown ups, clinging on to safety nets while wanting to fly out at the same time. To be oneself, but still feeling jealous of peers, detesting and wanting what they have. So much of it is relatable!

The book is where you get a stronger “Catcher in the Rye” vibe and it isn’t meant to be as funny as the movie. There is a greenish tinge to the artwork, and not even a pleasant green, more of a putrid greenish-yellow one. Maybe the idea was to bring out the decay? But I guess it would need more readings to get to know better. Most graphic novels reveal themselves over multiple readings usually.

Either way, it was a good combo of book and movie for a week, and all discovered through one Hindi song from 1965. Well, whaddaya know!

For the love of used books

The thing I love most about Blossom’s is the ability to find used books. Usually this is necessary in some cases where the book would have gone out of print for a long while. Sometimes it also helps when the “new” copies are crazy expensive. (Anything above ₹400 falls into that category)

Some of the really good books that I’ve found, which belong to the difficult to find category include:

  1. T. S. Satyan’s ‘Alive and Clicking’.
  2. Kawabata’s ‘Thousand Cranes’ and ‘Snow Country’. His ‘Sound of the mountain’ I picked up in the library.
  3. Julian Barnes’ ‘The history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters’.
  4. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. But these days I do find some new ones of the first book, not of the last two.
  5. Mary Renault’s Alexandar Trilogy.

One of the most fascinating things about these books is finding an inscription with a date and place. As a gift for someone or sometimes the first owner just marking the book with a date and his/her own name.

The best is of course finding the author’s words and hand on a book once:

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Continue reading “For the love of used books”

Divisadero

All my life I loved travelling at night, with a companion, each of us discussing and sharing the known and familiar behaviour of the other. It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion. Only the rereading counts, Nabokov said. So the strange form of that belfry, turning onto itself again and again, felt familiar to me. For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.

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Am still trying to understand how I end up “reviewing” Ondaatje’s works. For most parts I don’t even know what he’s talking about (I had to look up villanelle!), the plot is generally not there, and you don’t know what the heck he’s going towards. In most cases, he isn’t going anywhere, just showing you parts of something at different points, not even linearly, and asking “Do you see? Do you? Do you?”, and noting with a sigh and a shake of his head that you don’t, shuffles back to the backroom to get you more to see, hoping that this would do. While repeating this charade, there comes a time when he smiles apologetically – there is this appointment that he has to keep, and would you be kind enough to excuse him? There’s no option but to move on, taking everything you saw and hoping to put it all together later. And it happens over time, sometimes guided by the clues, sometimes by life and your own experiences. But it will!

That’s always, for me, the beauty of Ondaatje’s art, to not reveal much now, but to have things unravel slowly in your mind. What you get, mostly, are glimpses into your own childhood and sometimes your adulthood, piecing them together, to see how the dots connected from that point to what you’re now and to which dot it will lead to, and how it made sense that these dots had to be connected. There is no other way for you to go from this dot to this and then this, and not get to that other one there!