The year that was in reading!

Books have always been an important part of my life. My father was an avid reader and I grew up surrounded by books. My early taste in books was also influenced by his tastes, since the books available to me were the ones on his shelves. So, although as a young girl, I did read my share of the Enid Blytons, my father could rarely be persuaded to buy these for me. The few books I got were usually the classics – Dickens, Jerome K Jerome, Victor Hugo etc. I outgrew the Enid Blyton genre rather quickly as I started to explore my father’s shelves. And in my teens, while others graduated to Nancy Drew or no reading at all, I was reading Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, Pearl Buck, Hans Suyin and many more. I don’t ever remember my father without a book by his bedside and after retirement he probably read through the entire collection at the Bangalore British Council and the Century Club libraries.
I never stopped reading at any stage of my life, through college years and all through my working life. The quantum and nature of the books varied depending on the availability of books and time. Availability of books was limited by affordability if those early years and as the afforadability improved, time became a constraint. And when I retired a couple of years ago, what I was looking forward to most was the time and leisure to read a lot more than I has been able to do in the last few working years.
After my father passed away, my mother moved from Bangalore to Chennai and I packed his library and moved it to her new flat. It was my duty on annual trips, to take down all the books, dust them and rearrange them on the shelves! While cleaning out his library, I found a dairy he had maintained of his reading. After I retired and moved to Gurgaon, I rediscovered this diary among my books. Although I had been maintaining an Excel sheet of books I had read and would like to read for the last many years (a bit sporadic and hence incomplete) I decided to start making entries of my own reading in his diary. So, it sits on my bedside table, a gentle reminder that there are so many bonds that tie us to those departed.
So, while the year end recaps, informs us of what the favorite book was of this and that celebrity (!!), I though I would share my own take on some of the books I read this year. So, in terms of statistics I have 32 entries in the diary for 2011 – I am sure I have missed a few. My entries are not as meticulous or neat as my father’s!! The list is mostly fiction and covers a wide range of authors – from re-reading RL Stevenson’s ‘Travels with a donkey’ (very enjoyable) and reading the fascinating “Secret Agent’ by Joseph Conrad (terrorism has always been part of post-indutrial societies) to the modern thrillers by Stieg Lassen in the “The Millenium Series”.
The best tale, also beautifully told, was Amitava Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’. The characters were so realistic and the tale was set is a period that could be termed the “quiet age” – the first half of the 19th century – about which we hear so little. I liked this book more than the earlier one of this triology ‘Sea of Poppies”. Another wonderfully told tale was “Emperor of all Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjea. This was a remarkable book, in that a serious account of cancer, could be told in such a readable way. This book had fetched the author the Pulitzer Prize. I would recommend this book to even non-readers.
Another award winning book, the Booker winner of 2010, (The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson) was a less rewarding read. It is a story that highlights the nuances of the anti-semitic sentiments that still run subtly through European society. How can we relate to it? We do not have Jews in our society and all other anti-groups have no subtility at all. So, the topic was too contextual and difficult to relate to.
A book with a really a marvelous story was Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games”. It had been beckoning me from the shelves for many months. Its massive 900 pages were a put off and I had picked it up and put it down again many a time. But when I did start it, I wanted to finish it. It is so real in parts that it is scary! You know that this is what the underbelly of our society is like, but it is so much nicer to live in denial!! But it is also a book of hope, that in every walk of life there are honest, good and brave people.
The second and third books in the Alex Rutherford series ‘Empire of the Moghuls’ (on Humayun and Akbar), while a little behind the first one on Babur, were still absorbing stories. I have a weakness for the historical fiction, so these books were starting out with a handicap! The second book by Andrea Levy “The long song’ was as beautiful as her first. The African writer, Chamamanda Adiche’s ‘Purple hibiscus’ was poetic and raised interests in African cultures and their turmoil with transitions which are so similar  to ours. It is easy for us to relate to these sentiments and made me realize how little access we have to these writings, unless they win some exotic European award or other.
The much acclaimed “Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk is a long, love poem in prose. And unlike prose, poetry does not translate well. So, although I read it to the end, on each page I was left wondering how lovely it would have been in its original.
Among the non-fiction books, I enjoyed the three books on my profession by the young American Indian surgeon, Atul Gawande. I think two of these have been on NY Times best seller list and he is a regular contributor to the prestigious New Yorker. His gentle and though provoking observations on the foibles of the medial profession are not for doctors alone. Of course, I think all doctors must read them.
There were a few more, some mundane like John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer (read in the hospital room while looking after my mother) and some interesting like McCall-Smith. I also read some from my father’s collection as I had to spend a few weeks in Chennai. And of these, was the most thought provoking and stimulating book that I read this year – Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”. I had read it many years ago, and remembered the broad outlines of the story. But, I don’t remember it having the effect it had on me, as it did this time I read it. The book was published in 1962 and the Penguin edition I read was a 1968 one! She was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of our time, but it was only in 2007 that she was awarded the Nobel when she famously said “I had been waiting for it for so long, that when it came it was a bit of an anti-climax”. The Swedish Academy citation said she was “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’. You have to read the book to see how true that is.
So the 2011 book experience has been wonderful, with a combination of fiction and non-fiction, the light and the not so light. I did not find good travel books, another genre I am partial to! There are already half a dozen books waiting for me on the shelves to begin 2012 with and I am sure it will continue to be a wonderful journey.

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6 thoughts on “The year that was in reading!

  1. I grew up on my Grandad’s books (that includes the range form Shakespeare and Victor Hugo to Erle Stanley Gardner) but a lot of my reading was also influenced by what my elder sister Poonam read and brought back home from her college library. Peculiarly, she would even make us, her two youger siblings, sit with her for hours at end narrating the stories of her current read. Can you imagine sitting through Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” being narrated over the better part of a summer vacation! Ultimately, I got to read “War and Peace” in my high school summer vacation (Poonam had made the story sound so important to the civilzed world that if you had read THIS book you had read the greatest masterpiece of all time). I dont think I could sit through such a massive book anymore but I wish I can get time to read more.
    My all time hits reads are Rushdie’s Midnight ‘s Children and Michael O’s The English Patient!!

  2. Sundeep, lovely to hear how you started out! Eesh and Vijaylaxmi Bhatia and you are the only doc friends who share my interest. Will write sometime about my all time hits.

  3. Aunty, wonderful post – for a very selfish reason – I now have a list of books that I can look up and read 🙂 all in one place. (I haven’t read many of the books you mention). I was surprised to read that you have retired! But…that gives me a reason to write the PS 🙂

    PS: As I have told Mukta countless times, please do visit Sydney and stay with us.

    love and regards
    Som.

    • Great to hear from you. Sydney has not been on my travel list as i have visited 3 times. But i shall keep it in mind as an Australian trip is due to see the Northern terrotories

      • Well, northern territories, then 🙂 what i had in mind was more like the delhi days – when mukta and i walked and chatted for miles around CP, and then once in a while met up with you and uncle, and you treated us to those wonderful dinners 😀 lets just say i miss those days of crazy talking on any subject in the world, and walking around in the city, something you can’t do with everyone, especially as you grow up 🙂 and I would love the kids to meet too!! but of course, needless to say, if you find time for a trip by yourself too, that would also be great!!

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