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.

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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”

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”

Books and choices

After noting the rate at which I was finishing books the past few years, I decided to set myself a challenge on GR. I kept it at a modest 40 for this year. 40 would be easier, and the main idea was not to set a goal that I had to huff and puff to reach in the end – that would mean tilting more towards smaller books to get to the quota. I know, that’s not the actual point of such goal setting, but am kind of wired differently. Targets and schedules are meant to be reached well in advance.

Somewhere around the middle of the year I figured I’d be reaching 44-45 this year, not ending at the whopper 51 as last year. For starters, the cab does not offer the same luxury for reading as BMTC Volvos. I do compensate with Audiobooks, but I manage around 30 pages per day with it. In the equivalent Volvo-time, that would be around 50 pages. And I also end up with a headache at home, so I don’t read much on getting back home either.

Doing 5 audiobooks over 5 months, and the rest of them proper reads, I finished 40 yesterday.(Yay!) Given that there’s only some 40 days left, I think am looking at around 45-46 this year. Which sounds pretty good! Last year at this stage I was at 44, and ended up with 51.

It has been an interesting set of books this year, and I somehow ended up missing out on a lot of old favourites. RKN, McCall-Smith and Pratchett were given a miss. There’s still some time left, and I’ve put them on the unread list (real books sitting on my shelf giving me that look). The McCall-Smith is done, just the RKN and Pratchett to do.

This year there’s been a lot of reading of short stories. Munro, Gordimer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, KP Tejaswi. They help in a way that you can stretch your reading for a while, doing one story once in a while. But it doesn’t work like that with me. I tried that with Gordimer, stretching the book over 3 months for 31 stories. I finished the last 5 over a few days. The reading was also pretty bursty. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it, and let things go the way they are meant to be.

Either way, it’s a bit of a relief that the ‘challenge’ is done. I can now go about the business of reading as I want to do it.

***

Some people get everything wrong. How can I explain? I mean, there are those who can have everything against them – three strikes, twenty strikes, for that matter – and they turn out fine. Make mistakes early on – dirty their pants in grade two, for instance – and then live out their lives in a town like ours where nothing is forgotten (any town, that is, any town is a place like that) and they manage, they prove themselves hearty and jovial, claiming and meaning that they would not for the world want to live in any place but this.

With other people, it’s different. They don’t move away but you wish they had. For their own sake, you could say. Whatever hole they started digging for themselves when they were young – not by any means as obvious as the dirty pants either – they keep right on at it, digging away, even exaggerating if there is a chance that it might not be noticed.

Things have changed, of course.There are counsellors at the ready. Kindness and understanding. Life is harder for some, we’re told. Not their fault, even if the blows are purely imaginary. Felt just as keenly by the recipient, or the non-recipient, as the case may be.

This was Alice Munro in ‘Pride’. And the rest of the story goes on about two people who go about making bad choices all along. Every time you think “okay dude, take this and run, here’s your ‘happily every after’!” they go the other way. Right till the end.

The other day, on Twitter someone was asking: “If you could go back and do your life differently, would you?”

Now would I? Yes, why not? It’s always tempting to go back and wish for different things, or wish to be face to face with the same choices and wish to choose differently. We all have our paths that were not taken. Those greener pastures that were shunned. If not, it’s just that you’re content, not that you think you’ve chosen correctly all your life.

To wish so, is also not a sense of a deeply unhappy life. We all have our ideas of ideal lifes, and there is always the fantasy that if we’d chosen that path at that time, we’d be there.

The thing I fear most is what if given the same choices again, we realise that we’re still making the same choices as before – in fact, forced to make the same choices. What if we realise that nothing was ever in our hands and we were just playing the hand we were dealt, all along? It’s like Groundhog Day, except that he doesn’t get to choose what to do, and is on an endless repeat of the same day everyday, trying to get out, but not able to find the way out as time is on a relentless march each day.

What if you think you’ve fucked up big time, and just can’t stop fucking it up? And given a choice to go back, realise you still can’t help it. Or what if that’s exactly what you want, what makes you happy, to constantly fuck up your life? It’s a bit like Ka, having to constantly chase happiness, and right when it is at hand, to turn away and run in the opposite direction. Just because you think being Happy is wrong and vulgar.

Rising up inside him was that sensation he had always felt as a child and as a young man at moments of extraordinary happiness: the prospect of future misery and hopelessness. In a panic, he tried to bring this happy moment to a close. This, he hoped, would lessen the impact of the unhappiness he knew would follow. The surest way to calm himself, he thought, would be simply to accept the inevitable: that the love he felt for İpek –the source of his anxiety –would be his undoing; that any intimacy he might enjoy with her would undo him, as salt dissolves ice; that he didn’t deserve this happiness but rather the disgrace and denigration that would result. He braced himself.

-Orhan Pamuk, “Snow”

Oh well, I don’t know where I stand. I don’t know where my forks and turns were, and on facing them again if I’d choose a different path. I do believe that your choices weren’t objective “eeny-meeny-moos” and they were a result of what you were at that time, just as those choices define what you are now. Your choices were as much a product of your past, as your future is a product of your choices. Pretty much, you never really had a choice.

 

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:

IMG_2301

Continue reading “For the love of used books”

Of books and reviews

Goodreads, I can safely assert, is a blog-killer. I get a lot of review-writing done there and writing book reviews used to be a filler for me to drop by and update things here. And they drive the most views too. Especially when you write about stuff that doesn’t get reviewed by a million readers. 

Coming to book reviews, have found that the more I read reviews, my opinion of the book somehow gets tempered by the reviews. Of course the reviews have to be well-written for that to happen.

Sometimes I wonder which part of it is really true, if any of it is actually absolute. That there is a particular opinion of a book that is indeed true and I need to aspire to achieve that level of satisfaction. Of course when it comes to books, movies etc that is total BS and you go by what you like. But the more I think, the more it sounds like Quality in ZAMM. Let’s not go there.

To start at one extreme there was the ‘Immortals of Meluha’ which made me laugh at the wrong places thanks to the extremely lame writing and the very lazy plot. But it’s one of those things that you can sense would work and rake in the money. It seems to tell you about ‘mythology’ whereas all he had was an India-Pak enmity presented with a Bush-Afghan philosophy lazily covered to make some feel intelligent. Almost a Dan Brown, but not exactly there. But then when I present that opinion to someone about to read it, I have to check myself as I feel I shouldn’t be biasing them about that book before they even start.

But the book that truly challenged me was ‘The Book Thief’. Presenting the story of a pre-teen girl growing up in Germany with foster parents during the war while the tide turns slowly against the country, it even had Death as a narrator. Starting off really well, it gradually settles into familiar territory checking all the boxes to make a ‘good’ novel that you can safely say will be a “New York Times best seller #1”. And for the most part it keeps you engrossed in the characters. But then, coming back to the issue, I read some reviews on goodreads and it made me sit back and think.

There was the girl, her best friend, another kid who’s sketched to be adored. The foster father who’d put Atticus Finch to shame and the ever swearing foster mother, who, no points for guessing, actually has a heart of gold. What works is the writing style, which is kind of staccato, but works. And then there’s a tear jerker ending which you know he’s setting you up for. When you load a book with the usual, predictable ‘Aww’ moments, you can smell the big tear-jerker moment coming from far off! But to his credit, he second-guesses you and tells you the ending almost at the start. It’s not a spoiler, he provides most of them on his own.

With most books, however, there are always reviews that give 1 or 2 stars. Like Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ there’s the reviewer who has to offer “What a whiny little punk!”. And if you look at Quora there’s the question for “Which is the most overrated book ever?” who’s answers include almost every book on the planet. Goes to show that nothing ever works for all!

The trouble, however, is that it’s hard to stay objective when you get a review and someone’s opinion. “Am I buying into a book that is overrated?” “Should I see through an apparent lack of plot and depth in characters?”, how do you deal with it? I guess the simplest solution is to just look at the average rating 3 or 4 over all the reviews and go for those which are good. But then ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ garners close to 4 which is more than Ghosh’s “Shadow Lines”.

It’s hard reconciling to those ratings because it might be a 5 for someone who’s staple diet is Chetan Bhagat, and much lower for someone who reads Ghosh for instance. I guess a better rating would be, what did people who read books similar to what you read, think? But then, that poses its own set of problems, as you not only have to come up with readers who have the same set of books as you, but also their rating has to match within a particular band with yours.

Oh well, that’s why there are friends and cousins who read and descriptions on the backside. No book ever prints brickbats received. Maybe they should?