How do I pick the books to read? I have predominantly been reading fiction for most of my life – its only in these last few years, post-retirement, that I have picked up non-fiction. While my non-fiction choices run to travel, modern history especially pre- and post-independence and science (no sci-fi, though) related, my choice in fiction has been fairly random. Since I only read in English, and are not into the best-seller authors, I either select the known-and tried variety (Margaret Atwood, Edna O’brien etc…), or resort to book-lists, award lists (like the Booker long list or the American National Awards lists and reviews in The Guardian or NYT, Hindu etc.
And then there are these BIG names, who have been around for a while, and for unexplained reasons I have avoided or just not got around to reading. Well, one from the former type is Murakami, whose books I avoided probably because believed they tended towards the para-normal/dystopia variety, genre that I am not fond of. But, earlier this year I decided to give it a try, the first one I read being ‘A wild sheep chase’. While the plot was neither para-normal or dystopian, there was an element of non-normal which somehow was the exact amount I could have accepted. Also, a certain calmness about the story, pace, characters was novel and interesting! The second one I read more recently was “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage’ and I liked this one too – the characters being so common and yet so different. So, Murakami will be on my list and he has a long list of books – which I will get around to, at a leisurely pace.
Among the big names, one which I never got to read, for no particular reason, was Donna Tartt. Nevertheless, I picked up her first and much acclaimed “The secret history” while prowling through a bookshop – an event that is becoming less frequent. It was on my shelf for many weeks – each time I finished a book, and was pondering over the next one o read, it was picked up and replaced – just the size of it (625 pages) is daunting.
This is the closest to a real love-hate (although hate may be too harsh a term, more like dislike) relationship I have had with a book for a long time! I am ‘must-finish-once-I have started’ kind of reader and I actually give up on a book only about 1 in 100. This was not one I’d have given up on – but it was a challenge to get to the end. Well for starters, it is a murder not-mystery (a whydunnit as against a whodunnit) , since we are told at the outset about the event and the characters involved. Well, its not that this style does not work – it certainly works in the Willander mysteries, and I read those in a binge. The story is told in first person by one of a gang (Richard Pappen) of six young Classics students at an elite college in rural Vermont. Richard is an outsider and observes the five upper class, spoiled youngsters, four boys and a girl, who befriend him and also use him in a way. In fact, the truth about the death never does come out – and the story skirts around the event. Over the 625 pages Trott builds up characters who can even justify their action, two murders. Just as I started to get bored with the mundane routine of dorm life, the booze and drugs and parties etc. and was giving up on the book, there come the interesting bits about the enigmatic Classics scholar Julian (who is also the mentor for the group)! And so it goes on, till in the end all but the protagonist break down in some way as a fall out of the events that are the center of the book. the story is sketchy, the characters are weak and every time I wanted to put the book away, there were these lovely gems of Tartt’s writing.
The book has had rave reviews and Tartt is one of the leading , if not THE leading American writer of our times. But as a reader, we mature with time and I often find myself at odds with the reviewers. Over time contemporary American themes seem to interest me less and less – the pre- and post war America is what I find fascinating. ‘The anatomy Lesson’ by Philip Roth, which is the book I read directly after Trott is absorbing and engaging – and Roth is such a wonderful writer.
So, while I felt good about having finished ‘The secret history’, I am not sure when I will pick up one of Tartt’s other books!