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This year in reading

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!!

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JM Coetzee again!

“Among middle-class Indians, for example, there must be many who have done their schooling in English, who routinely speak English in their workplace and at home (throwing in the odd local locution for coloring), who command other languages only imperfectly, yet who, as they listen to themselves speak or as they read what they have written have the uneasy feeling that there is something false going on” JM Coetzee in “Diary of a bad year”

This is part of an essay of  less than 500 words titled “On the mother tongue” and I wonder how does he know how I feel? The essay is  written by an ageing, famous author who is the protagonist. He has been invited to write a series of essays on contemporary subjects along with other famous authors. He employs an attractive young woman, who lives in the same apartment complex and whom he meets in the laundry room, to do the typing. The essays, his responses to the young woman and her responses to him run as parallel tales on each page of the book.

The author is a man of few words, not given to opening up too much and his attitude  towards the young woman is evident more from what he does not say, rather than from what he does.  From her accounts of the same events we can gather he is lonely with no family or friends and fatalistic attitude to his own life. She is garrulous, outgoing and is living with a much older man who has a devious mind. The events that unfold over the next few weeks, tell much about the characters and reveal unexpected depths where the least is expected.

But it is the essays themselves that are engaging and cover a wide range of subjects under two headings – Strong opinions (and by jove they are strong) and Second diary. The strong opinions are on ‘The origins of the state’, democracy, anarchy, Machavelli, Al-Qaida, Gauntanamo Bay, pedophilia, slaughter of animals etc… A

By now most of you must have gathered that I am a fan. I am going through all his books and none have disappointed so far. ” written in wonderful prose and as is his trademark, puts forward a simple, uncomplicated story line. In fact, there is not much of a story at all – a scenario is created by which Coetzee gets to talk on his philosophy and thoughts on a variety of issues.

Tales of displacements and transitions

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?

There are books and books and then there is Coetzee!

As may have gathered I am a book worm – if that means one who will read anything rather than nothing! Of course, I do not have to do that often and I do not read indiscriminately – I am partial to fiction and travel – but also popular science, some biography, history etc..In the recent days I have read Sylvia Plath, Ratna Kalpish, Indira Goswami (translation of the Assamese original), Paul Doherty, Eli Shafek, Jeffrey Archer, MG Vassanji, Gopalkrishna Gandhi etc… How do I pick these? Some from reviews, some are familiar authors (Shafek, Archer) and others are random picks while browsing through a bookshop.

And following all these I picked up a JM Coetzee on my first visit to he British Council library. The author was familiar, I had really enjoyed the earlier books of his I had read, especially ‘Disgrace’. ‘Slow man’ was a book I had not read before. It’s not a happy theme – Paul Rayment is a 60 year old divorcee, a loner who has an accident and has one leg amputated. His relationship with the Craotian care giver and her family is the central theme of the book. The loss of the limb is symbolic of a deeper loss – a deep, introspective probing into the mind of a ‘loner’ – who recognizes that his very nature has led him to this state with no children, the prospects of facing ageing and death alone!! His inability to take the leap and grasp friendships that are offered, his rejection of  helping hand  held out to him by Elizbeth Castello, who enters unannounced into his life, is beautifully potrayed. You are with Paul all along the way, feel sympathy for him and yet understand his rejection – or almost do!!

Such ability rests only with a master story teller – and the sheer pleasure of reading Coetzee is paralleled by few others. Of course, Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker twice and is the Nobel winner 1993. He must have legions of admirers around the world and needs no endorsement from me. But for an avid reader, who reads the many books that come my way, it is  a special delight when the book is a Coetzee!!!

My romance with historical fiction

At the very outset let me admit that I am a fan of historical fiction  – a genre that weaves fictional accounts around historical events, and characters.  ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves, ‘Desiree’ by Annemarie Selinko were among my early favorites – but the vast majority of the historical fiction I read was based from events in English history. This was probably because my early access to books was either my father’s collection or the Delhi British Council Library (then housed up the spiral stairs of AIFACS on Rafi Marg). There were the novels on the crusades by Arthur Conan Doyle ( he wrote stuff besides the Sherlock Holmes novels),  about  the court of King Arthur and Merlin by Mary Stewart, novels of Walter Scoot (yes, I read them unabridged) etc… I am not sure if these books were the motivation for reading all the volumes of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking people’ but with a better overview of the history, I savored these stories around courts and intrigues, prime ministers and priests and the politics of religion and conquest. There were the many novels around Henry VIII and his wives, of Richard II and Cromwell, of the Napoleanic wars and the Regency period (including  the light romances of Georgette Heyer) and of course Victorian England and the exploits of the Raj.

It is good for me that over the last 5 decades the genre has only thrived, as seen by the double Booker for Hillary Mantel for her novels  “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the bodies”  based on the life of Cromwell and his role in the ascent of Anne Boleyn and the demise of the Catholic church, followed by her descent and execution. And after a gap of almost  5 decades, I recently renewed my British Council membership. And there in my random selection from the Fiction section I picked up “The poison maid” by an author I had never heard of, Paul Doherty. It turns out that he is a prolific writer, and has published almost 100 books. Many of them are historical  thrillers, as is the “The poison Lady”. This is set in an earlier England, in 1308 just after Edward II became King. It is full of court intrigue and murders, in the times when the Catholic church and the French Kings were trying to dominate England, through marriages, treaties and manipulative diplomacy. It is an easy read, the suspense is not very suspenseful and although I learn that this is the second book in a three book series, I was left with no urgent desire to find the  other two.

In fact, as I read the book, what drew my interest more than the plot  was the detailed description of the life on the London streets, the hustle bustle, the strays, the inns and hostelries……’hawkers, hucksters, chapman, free fruiterers and pedlars sold tarts, fresh eels, meat pies of every description, mousetraps, birdcages, shoehorns and lanterns. Tipplers with their upturned casks offered stoups of beer to passers-by. Water-beareres staggered along with ladles and buckets of ‘pure spring water’. Stalls in crooked lanes, built for the wheelbarrows rather than carts, forced the crowds to pause’. The description would well fit equally well today for the old cities of Varanasi, Meerut, Old Delhi – except for the nature of the wares on sale!!

The description of the food served at court (honey coated dates, juschelles stuffed with eggs and herbs, boiled and spiced veal, oat-stuffed pike, white broth with almonds, leg of mutton in lemons) and in the eateries (beef broth with freshly baked maslin bread, venison stewed in ginger, chicken boiled and stuffed with grapes) was also interesting. It almost sounds inviting – something not connected with English food today. Are these descriptions authentic? Was trade brisk enough to take dates and almonds to UK? and when was all this lost – with the loss of the French connection?

I am sure that there is a lot of documentation available of the times and with enough research the picture painted maybe authentic. But how do we know? As readers, do we accept that the author’s research is authentic or does artistic liberty give the right to sketch it as the author envisages it? But in spite of these thoughts, the genre does not pall – and while I will take the descriptions with a generous dose of salt, the stories will continue to bring to life the romance of times gone by.

Terrorism is not new!!

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!

The book cover

The book cover

The inside title page

The inside title page

On reading

There has been some buzz in the ‘books-reading’ related sites that pop up in my inbox (of course, I must have signed up at some point!) about the death of Scottish novelist Iain Banks. From these I learnt that he had lived only a few weeks following his announcement that he had cancer on his website. It was also ironic that the book he had been writing (to be published later this year) is abut a middle aged man diagnosed with cancer. He was just 59 and appeared to have been fairly well read and popular in UK. So I did a bit of looking around (not literally,  of course!) and learnt that he had been fairly prolific in his 3 decade long writing career. He wrote 2 genres of fiction – novels with an interesting twist as Iain Banks and Science fiction as Iain M Banks.

The description of his books in the Observer Obituary further fueled my interest and since Flipkart is my usual shopping destination for known books or authors (as against bookshops for the spontaneous buys) , I did a quick search. They stocked a fairly large list of his books, (listing 85 items) but was surprised to see that these were all imported ones and cost was in the range of  Rs 700+. So I looked around other online suppliers and found that Gyan Books of Daryganj had many of the titles in the 400 or so range. This got me looking around for some information on books and their publication. The statistics are quite fascinating and I felt well worth sharing. As per latest available figures, close to a million titles are published annually,  of which the Us (2010) accounts for one third, UK for about 0.2 million with China a close third. India is at 7th position after Russia,  Germany and Spain, and the last available figures are about 82 thousand in Hindi and 20,000 in English with no mention of any other language. So, if one includes the 25,000 or so published in other English speaking countries such as Canada and Australia, more than half the books published in the world are in English. These figures are very approximate, but gives a fair idea of the per capita book status and puts UK way ahead of all others in this area. India on that score is a very poor performer indeed!!

These numbers, of course, refer to books of all genres. By some convoluted logic, the figure of 100,000 has been arrived at for the number of English fiction titles published annually. There is an  increasing  productivity by Indians writing in English from across the diaspora – and these always reach us. But I suspect that  the large majority of the titles published around the world do not  reach Indian book stores. This scenario may have improved slightly with the growth of the e-book stores such as Filpkart.

We Indians  have an advantage that many titles are  locally produced and printed, allowing us to get them at prices far cheaper than their US/Europe editions. However, there must be some economics logic  involved in deciding which ones do see an Indian print!! While the Dan Browns,  Jeffrey Archers, David Baldaccis and Ken Follets are the prima donnas, the Booker and similar prizes push those who make their long and short lists into some sort of nine-day wonders!! However, since  all  these awards lists are not without some prejudice, and  as a serious reader of English fiction, I wish I had a wider access to  contemporary writing and could make some judgement for myself as to who I liked! Will Amazon in India bring in a wider selection?

Coming back to Iain Banks, from the prices at Gyan Books it seems to me that he has been published in India, but why does Flipkart have only the imported ones?  Landmark did not have them at all in their stocks. Gyan did not indicate the publisher or have a picture of the book. Anyone out there who has read Banks? (Not the sci-fi, a genre I never read) Feed back welcome!