2013 is drawing to an end – and this year’s reading tally is 60 books (as against 32 in 2012). There were some book centric highlights during the year. Mid-way through the year, I took the membership of the British Council Library. A good library membership is great for a compulsive reader like me – this year one third of the 60 books I read were from BCL. Of course, there is a certain Commonwealth bias to their collection and it is a pity that we do not have access to a public library system. The membership ensured that I could have a selection of books at hand without crowding my already crowded book shelves at home.
The other special feature of the year was that I started to buy e-books – my earlier reading on e-device was from some .mobi files that I had got from a friend. This year both Flipkart and Amazon made it easier (and cheaper than the printed version) for us to download the books of our choice. And although still not my first option – every now and then, I have bought a book. However, i was always reading both e- and paper book simultaneously – and I always finished the paper one earlier. I am not sure, whether it reflects a prefarance or was it chance?
I also started using Goodreads to keep track of my list. Of course,I have not abandoned my physical list – but Goodreads provides a short summary of the story. This is a very useful aid, as I find it hard to retain the name of books, authors and the story line. However, I seem to have clicked some button which has linked it to FB – and so everyone knows what I’m reading or want to!! Not too keen on this, but cannot find a way to delink.
The list of 60 has been varied – fiction, non-fiction, popular, historical etc. In spite of intentions to the contrary the non-fiction to fiction ratio was 13 to 76 – but some of the best books I read were from the non-fiction genre. “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skoot, which I have already written about was highly readable. More recently, ‘The mapmaker’s wife” by Robert Whitaker combined two of my favorite genres – travel and history. This is the remarkable story of a grand middle aged Peruvian lady, who traveled thousands of miles through the jungles down the Amazon to meet her husband in the mid-18th century. Thubron’s ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ and ‘To a mountain in TIbet’ I would recommend to anyone who enjoys travel writing. And finally, Rushdie’s ‘Joseph Anton’ was readable and revealing – the details and extent to which the UK system went to provide him protection was revealing. Especially in light of our responses in such situations! I’d also recommend Lizzie Collingham’s ‘Curry’ ( a very well told tale of the history of Indian cooking) and David Quammer’s ‘The Kiwi’s egg’ (about the years Darwin spent between the end of the voyage on the Beagle in 1836 and the publication of his theory of natural selection in 1859).
Among the fiction, I read Eli Shafak, Alex Rutherford, MG Vassanji, Jaina Sanga, Indira Goswani, Sylvia Plath and many others. New releases by authors that I had read before and proved disappointing include Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the mountain echoed’, Shafak’s ‘The flea palace’, and Gunasekara’s “The prisoner of Paradise’. Shafak’s ‘Shame’, Vassanji’s ‘The magic of Saida’, Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The reluctant fundamentalist’ were among the more memorable books I read. And, I cannot end without special mention of JM Coetzee, whose every book (and I read 4 of them) was a delight.
But, I am afraid that among a host of good books, there is not one that I would call outstanding or memorable and I would want to read again!!! I look forward to the coming year and hope that the ‘un-put-downable’ book is the next one I will pick up!!
Getting back to a library is a refreshing experience – and I must confess a novel one for recreational reading. It speaks volumes about our priorities in nation building that except during student years, we have no access to a library!! And I am not sure how good college libraries are – having been in medical Institutions all my life, I know that college libraries seldom have the money except for course related books. So, I am enjoying my new membership to the British Council library in Delhi!! Although I am familiar with many British authors, there is a feeling of freedom in selecting at random, new names and titles, without the sense of hesitation about shelling out cash for something that may be a bit of a gamble!!
It struck me as really interesting that four of the six books I picked on my last trip, have dealt with issues related to political transitions and resultant adjustments. Vastly different in the period and locale, the human issues related to such events seem to be of interest to a number of writers of fiction. I picked up “The year before sunset” by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, partly because they were the familiar, early travel writers who featured often in the Sunday papers in the pre-internet/travel blog era and partly because the blurb said it was a book set in pre -partition India of 1946. The story is that of a young English boy from a family that identifies itself with India rather than ‘Queen and mother country’ in the fragile environment of that time. His trials and tribulations amongst the Burra Sahibs who can only talk of their return to England and the Anglo-Indian community form the core of the story. A scenario with great potential, the book provides an unsatisfactory glimpse into the life of the Anglo-Indian community, and the effort to build some tension around a so-called rebel Indian freedom fighter is not at all convincing. A number of typical stereotyped characters and a mediocre prose make for a poor book.
Coincidentally Paul Theroux’s “Kowloon Tong” is set in 1996, a year prior to the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Bunt (short for Baby Bunting) is a forty+ Englishman born and brought up in the colony, who owns a clothing factory and lives with his elderly mother. While around them their ex-pat brethren feel betrayed by the British, but feel that they have no option but to go back ‘home’, Bunt has no such plans. He is comfortable with the double life he leads between this world and the world of Hong Kong bars and night clubs and hookers. However, he cannot stay untouched by the transition and forced encounter with the Chinese way of working and the ultimate move out of Hong Kong make for an interesting story. Theroux is better known for his travel writing and this was his first work of fiction that I have read. It is a well written book that leaves you feeling sympathetic with Bunt’s plight at the end!!
Anne Tyler’s “Digging in America” is about adjustments that follow political events – in this case, the over turning of the Shah in Iran. Set in the 90s and post 9/11 US, it deals with the issue of adjustments and cultural clashes. Even for a completely integrated Iranian family, the close friendship with a American family brings forth the deep insecurities that even second generation immigrants cannot completely shed. The protagonist is a sixty something Iranian widow, is unlike most of her fellow immigrants from Iran in that as a student she had been part of the anti-Shah protests. So, she is culturally still alienated from the American way of life, and in many ways also alienated form her own community. Her coming to terms with herself and her the people around, including an attentive elderly American widower are sensitively dealt with. Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer awarded novelist, and quite prolific I find – but this was my first book and I really liked it.
And finally, Colin Thubron’s ‘Turning back the sun’ – is a grim and serious political tale set in a undefined place and time. He is a celebrated travel writer and that is evident in his descriptions of the countryside – evidently the Australian bush. The politics of controlled regimes and the life of the marginalized, in this case the Aborginal people, are vividly picturised. For me, in the India of today, the scenario could very well be something we could see around us – what with political parties preaching restrictions on internal movement of people, the plight of the tribal communities etc…… The book is slow but absorbing – not the usual light tale and may not be most people’s ‘cup of tea’ – and makes one think. Well written too, the title referring to an aborginal myth. THubron, also better known as a travel writer, did surprise me with this novel.
So, was it just a coincidence – or is it that there is so much shifting and churning in the world that it is written about by so many?
I had written earlier that i have been trying to trim my book shelf ! In this process, i had put aside books that “were to be read and discarded”. Of these an old paperback edition of Joseph Conrad’s “The secret agent” struck me – partly because Conrad was an author I had enjoyed reading oh-so-long-ago in my teen years and it also brought to mind images of the handsome Peter O’Toole in dashing white uniform in the film “Lord Jim” based on another Conrad novel.
The copy of ‘The Secret Agent’ that I found is a browning Pan Classic, a 1975 edition, probably bought by a ‘Meliwali Itiazi’ – as this is what the signature on the first page in pencil looks like. But on page 3, my daughter’s signature is clearly present with the inscription ‘Sunday market, Delhi, 10th January, 1999′. I wonder if Pan even exists today! The book itself was originally published more than a century ago, in 1907 and is dedicated to H G Wells. Joseph Conrad was Polish, who started a seafaring life at a young age and is best known for his stories set around the far East and South Seas.
Conrad’s “Secret Agent’ is of a completely different genre from his seafaring tales and maybe termed a ‘thriller’. But it is much more than that. It describes events around an actual aborted attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. So blowing up things is not as new as we seem to think. Only the scale has changed. Late 19th century London was a haven for political exiles of all sorts – refugees, partisans, anarchists. Verloc, the protagonist made his living by spying for the Russian government, while simultaneously passing on information to the London police, specifically Chief Inspector Heat. In response to the demands of a new Russian ambassador that he prove his worth or lose his salary, Verloc sets off a tragic chain of events. These involve his pretty young wife Winnie and her retarded brother Stevie, and ‘ Professor’, who has a fascination for explosives and destruction and thus the person who Verloc contacts when makes when needs to make a bomb.
Conrad writes with a wonderful feel for the language and the characters he sketches have so much flesh and blood to them. You feel that you may run into one of them down the street. The emotional trap that each is hiding in, their the day to day interactions and relationships all go to make this a gripping tale. And of course the description of London, the dark streets, the foggy days are all evocative. For us, reading it in the present, the tools of espionage and policing are interesting – for instance the communication across London (and this London of 1894!!) is by runners!! THe story has an interesting climax – justifying the thriller tag to a point.
But what kept me arrested to the book was how the moralistic questions raised by Conrad in an understated and ironic way are as relevant today as it was then. Is not the world we live in now is much filled with perceived enemies, groups that think they have the ‘right’ way to solve the problems of the world, that every one should be converted even if by ‘hook’ or ‘crook’ and the host of those in the periphery who get drawn in for reasons that have little to do with these philosophies as it was then? So, really terrorism is not so new at all!