The Year in reading 2016

This is a post that should have been done in the last week of 2016 – but it was a busy and hectic week, with  the marriage of my niece in Chennai and some travel following it.  On 31st itself I was in Puducherry – and the weeks since I got back has been hectic for a variety of reasons. So January just sped by and well into February, I am at this post.

While I achieved the target of a book a week or 52 books by October, the final tally for the  year was 70, as against 80 in 2016.

As is evident from the list, almost one fifth of the list is of one author, Henning Mankell.  I have written previously about discovering this author and the obsessive reading I did of all his books. But I read a fair scattering of authors, representing  many countries across three continents. My progress on the TIMES 100 books list has not been great – having only progressed through 7 books, all American authors, and abandoning one. Of these  highly acclaimed books ‘The day of the Locust’ (Nathaniel West) and  ‘The  death of the heart’ (Elizabeth Bowen), Falconer  I could not appreciate, probably because they were very specific to a time and place to which I did not relate. While very specific to the period, ‘The confessions of Nat Turner’ (William Styron)  was a book that conveyed the realities of slavery through brilliant writing. ‘Go tell it to the mountain'(James Baldwin),  ‘The heart is a lonely hunter’ (Carson McCulles) and  ‘Housekeeping’ (Marilynne Robinson) were lyrical and wonderful books. Other American authors I read from this list were, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I felt was a great contemporary story, John Cheever’s Falconer (which was disappointing, since I had so enjoyed his Wapshot Chronicle) and Philip Roth’s The Anatomy lesson, which was tough going to finish. And from the same list I also read the ‘ A handful of dust’ by English author Evelyn Waugh.

The hype around the Neapolitan novels by Elenor Ferrante, did keep me off them for a while – but once I started, I had to get through all four. Everything is so ordinary in what happens, but it all adds up to an extraordinary story. I think I enjoyed it all the more, since  the protagonists (two close friends from a poorer part of Naples) were almost my contemporaries – born 3 years before me and lived through world events in another part of the world – but still not so different in their aspirations, challenges, successes and failures. Another author who is popular and acclaimed and  who I had never read (for no special reason, I must admit) was Haruki Murakami – and the first book of his I read (A wild sheep chase) was absorbing and different! I also read ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage’ – will definitely read more of his works.

There were some re-reads (Alice in wonderland, A handmaid’s tale etc)  and some that did not live up to expectations, like Sunjeev Suhota’s The year of the runaways (Booker nominated), Yann Martel’s The high mountains of Portugal (A previous Booker winner), Hanif Mohammed’s Our lady of Alice Bhatti (his Case of exploding mangoes was a great book). Many on the other hand were true to their reputation, such as Kamila Shamsie (Kartography), Andrea Levy (Fruit of the lemon), Kate Atkinson (Life after Life) and I thought  Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In other rooms, other wonders (which I had missed reading when it first came out) was really insightful and honest.

Although I did not read much non-fiction, those that I did were all outstanding- Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat files (almost scary in its reality), Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The gene, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath becomes Air and William Dalrymple’s Return of the King.

But, the book I enjoyed the most has to be Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar – so simple a tale of our modern times, so local in context (written in Kannada and brilliantly translated) that we can all relate to the protagonist and yet so universal in portraying the isolation of each of us!

The chances you take with books!

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.

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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.

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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!

Obsessive reading!

I have watched with fascination the obsession that revolved around the Harry Potter series. I remember the pictures of the lines outside stores for the release of each new book and my sister-in-law using all her contacts to get a pre-release copy sneaked out for my niece. These compelling, addictive series seem to be the fashion of the day, especially for young and young adult fiction. I watch my own grandson, addicted to various mythology based series – Maybe at that age I too went through the rage of the time – various Enid Blyton series, Bily Bunter and a great favorite, the William books.

Even for a fairly rapid and compulsive reader, I have not been obsessive about a series or a fictional character for a very long time.  The first Henning Mankell book I read was  Daniel which I picked up one of  my increasingly infrequent visits to bookstores, for the usual reasons (Of that, another time!) – interesting cover, interesting blurb, good things being said by writers I respect, new locale etc…But the book was well written and interesting.

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So,  I ordered a  Kurt Willander book, since I learnt this is the series he is best known for. And surprisingly I was hooked –  I have read all ten of them, one after another, between March and June. Before I got to the end of one, the next was already on my Kindle. And I have been wondering what it was about the books that kept me hooked, especially since I am not partial to the ‘mystery’ genre!

First of all, the approach is upside-down, with each episode starting with the detailed description of the crime. So there is no suspense to deal with, and the feeling ‘Oh! How come I could not work out the culprit”, while every one else could! The story always takes off, with the telephone ringing by Willander’s bedside – usually at unearthly hours of the night – a traditional land line in the early books set in the mid- 90s and later the cell phone (the last book is in 2005). From then on, its the interminable hours of dogged police work, the freak intuitions that push him along, the thin line he treads at the boundaries of legality, all leading up to the final unraveling of the case.

Set in the small town of  Yastad in the Southern Swedish district of Skane, these local crimes have international connections. Through these connections, many major historical transitions, like the  breakdown of apartheid in South Africa, the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, the rise of the neo-nazi like organizations are brought in, always from a perspective we don’t often see. The other interesting aspect is the slow but inevitable infiltration of technology, which is in the background in the initial episodes. But, there is the clash of generations, that we have all experienced, with reluctance for change among the older officers and the easy, enthusiasm among the younger.One glimpses the changes within Swedish society, through the conversations between the various officers, and the changes that are brought into the force. And the nature of the crimes change too, with cyber hacking and international monetary crimes creeping in in the later books.

As the episodes move into the 21st century, the inevitability of technology gets accepted and even the conservative Kurt begins to appreciate the large international criminal databases, the rapid communication networks, finger-print and face recognition soft ware etc… He at some point,  admits that the typed and stored notes were better than the hand written ones to which he had clung on for a long time.

Much as these episodes are all interesting and different, it is the character of Kurt that is the center of the series. At the start, he is going through a difficult divorce and strained relationship with his only daughter. His subsequent passage through loneliness, multiple near-death experiences, an on-off relationship with a Latvian woman and most centrally his difficult relationship with his eccentric father. It takes him many years to reconcile with the death of his father and accept  his daughter for the person she is. Of course, her decision to become a police detective is unexpected but one he learns to accept and then appreciate her life and its choices. He has few friends, is prone to depression, has all the usual marks of human fraility – and it is for this that he grows on you.

And finally, Skane itself!  Sparsely populated with predominantly farming communities  and few towns, you almost feel that you have been there. The land is  bleak  and the sea, with which Kurt has a close relationship, is captured through every season and mood.  Every season is caught with clarity and detail, one almost feels the chill of the winter wind, the wetness of the sleet, the joy of the first flowers of spring!

If I ever, get to visit Sweden I know that I would head South to flavor the streets of Yastad, which have become so familiar.

 

 

Reading Challenge – halfway through the TIME 100 books

I have stayed away from Reading challenges – because in any case I read too much, if there is such a thing, and I am scared that a challenge would make me obsessive!! But I drifted into the ‘TIME All time 100 novels’ as a self-challenge  because I found the list interesting So, around a year ago I decided to read these 100 books at my own pace.

At the outset, let me confess that my two big bang reading phases have been in my teens (the late 1950s and early 60s) and in these least few years after retirement. In between have been rather lean years – studies, marriage, family, professional demands although a book was always by my bedside! My first phase was of course influenced by the books available in my father’s library and access to the British Council Library, that was then housed on the top floor of the AIFACS building, on Rafi Marg. The lean years had the occasional spikes, mostly the summer holiday visits to my mother’s house, where all my father’s collection was housed. My father had agreat taste and his books ranged from the classics to poetry, history and biography. And although he read the usual best sellers of the day, his taste in fiction was wide ranging. The shelves had a host of English and American authors and a large number of European authors in translation. It was here that I was introduced to Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, John Cheever, Evelyn Waugh and more! These last few years, nomination lists for various awards and book reviews have been the usual resource for my reading. Of course, the issue of availability has been reduced with the advent of Amazon and Kindle into my life.

Glancing through the list with my limited reading experience, I felt that there was an American bias to the selection.  And I was right, an actual count showed close to 2/3rd were by American authors, many I had heard of and many I had not.  So I  felt that this self challenge would be a good way to push me into areas away from  contemporary authors and into exploring American writers.

On my first glance down the list, I felt ‘Oh! I’ve read a lot of these!’. But an actual count revealed that I had only read 1/3 of them, with a bias towards the English authors – 19 against 14 American. And so I started to go systematically down the list starting with A-B, reading the books I had not read. And over the year, I have covered 20 of these, recently going past the half way mark.

Let me start by admitting that of these 20, I abandoned 3 books, which is unusual for me , as finishing a book is a sort of challenge I seldom give up on. But Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) was pointlessly violent, At Swim-Two-Birds (Flann O’Brien) had a style I could not get around and Death Comes for the Archibishop (Willa Carther) seemed long, pointless and too Catholic!! Of the rest, only 3 were by  English authors – Brideshead revisited and A handful of dust by Evelyn Waugh and A death of the heart by Elizabeth Bowen.

The American authors ranged from the 1930s novels like The American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), Call it sleep (Henry Roth), The day of the locust (Nathaniel West) and Appointment at Samarra (John O’Hara)  to the 2001 novel The corrections (Jonathan Franzen).  Each of the 1930s novels reflected the human state of the time in America – the immigrant experience, the Depression and its impact, the Class struggles and so forth in the outstanding language of these great Masters. And Franzen, a contemporary master, was a sharp contrast, reflecting  the modern American family with all its foibles.

Then there was a group of books from the 1950s,  The adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), The assistant (Bernard Malamud), A death in the family (James Agee),  Go tell it on the mountain (James Baldwin), each addressing sharply different themes, reflecting the issues of the post-war America.  Falconer (John Cheever, 1977), dealt with the America of the 70s, the drugs and the high life and crime.  The confessions of Nat Turner (William Styron) caught the reality of slavery in the 1860s in the American South while American Pastoral  (Philip Roth) was set in the 1960s and told the story of a confused father, who cannot understand the motivation that drives his teenage daughter to place a bomb that kills the local doctor. She goes into hiding, only to re-surface many years later as a vegan, Buddhist of some sort.

It would be difficult to pick one over the other and they were all different in style and content. But, Philip Roth and James Agee  were superb, addressing human emotions and bringing you so close to the events described, that you become part of the story. Many of the stories were timeless (Death in the family), while others which seem alien to present day America could well contemporary for us (The Assistant and The adventures of Augie March) as they address upward mobility, restlessness of youth, lower and middle class struggles…….

And now I am plunging on over the rest of the list, at my own steady pace. I am happy I ventured into this as it has given many hours of pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Readings in 2016

You have read 24 of 52 books. Edit 46% – 9 books ahead of schedule
  • Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek ShanbhagReturn of a King by William DalrympleThe View from Castle Rock by Alice MunroA Handful of Dust by Evelyn WaughIn Custody by Anita DesaiAncestral Affairs by Keki N. Daruwalla

This is what Goodreads  told me a couple of weeks ago. I had set a modest target of 52 weeks for this year but as the first quarter draws to an end,  I have already gone through 25. The fare has been varied, some old, some new and mostly fiction, but history and essays too!

My encounter with the crime genre (Collen McCollough’s On, Off and Henning Menkell’s Faceless killers and Dogs of Riga) I have already recounted. I enjoyed Menkell’s detective so much that I have read the 4th one in series, The white lioness. Menkell’s non-crime book “Daniel” was outstanding. Its an amazing story of a young Swedish entomologist who sets off to the Kalahari in the 1860s to collect insect specimens. He returns home with a young  black boy, who he names Daniel. It is an engrossing tale told in a lovely style. The others were contemporary works and three classics – all as varied as could be. I just picked this one out while browsing through Midlands Book Store, one of my favorite book stores in the NCR. It is such a great feeling, when an impulse buy turns out so good!

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Let me talk first of the classics –  Alice in Wonderland I read after many decades and although written in 1865 it is essentially timeless and place less – and the mother of all fantasy fiction. While modern fantasy is a genre I am not partial to, I enjoyed Alice for its so-English-language and the humor!  Sc-fi, is another genre I have never taken to, although I think i did enjoy  Arthur Clarke in the past, am not very sure! I had not read Childhood’s End and found it interesting and entertaining.

I am going through TIME 100 Books list, as a leisurely challenge (no time targets) and from this list,  I read William Styron (The confessions of Nat Turner, 1967), Elizabeth Bowen (The death of the heart, 1958), Nathaniel West (The day of the locust, 1939), Evelyn Waugh (A handful of dust, 1934), James Baldwin (Go tell it on the mountain, 1953) and James Franzen (The corrections, 2001) – the 4 American books were distinctly different from the 2 English ones (Bowen and Waugh) in style and the issues addressed. The writing styles also differed hugely, generically between the two sides of the Atlantic, as well as individually! Franzen, of course was the only contemporary one and I enjoyed this book enough to read his latest, Purity.

I also read a whole lot of books, out of the to-be-read list (which in my case, rests partly on my phone, partly on Goodreads, some on Amazon wish-list and  in stray note books) – Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (an author on Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s 2015 reccos, though not his book), The year of the runaways by Sunjeev Suhota (booker long list 2015), The Guernsey Literary an Potato Peel society by Mary Ann Shaffer (for its curious title, and on many recco lists), In other rooms, other wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin and the recently published Ancestral Affairs by Keki Daruwall (which was interesting and enjoyable) Then there were the random pickings from the library shelf, some enjoyable and some not so much – A hundred horizons by Sugata Bose (interesting theme, not so absorbing to read), Inner workings by JM Coetzee  (Essays on European authors and their writings), Curious pursuits by Margaret Atwood ( a delightful set of essays on her early struggles as a woman writer), and The view form Castle Rock by Alice Munro (among the few short story writers I enjoy).

I also finally read  Return of the King, William Dalrymple’s opus on the Afghan wars of 1938-42, which I had started a few times and abandoned. Once I got trough the early part, which was a challenge, it was absorbing and readable, like his many books on India. It gives you a great sense of bearing on Afghanistan, its ethnography and terrain which had then and continues to dictate the geopolitics of the area. I had a similar feeling when I read A short walk in the Hindukush by Eric Newby, a book which had me hooked to the travel genre.

A book which was a huge disappointment  was When breath becomes air, the book by the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, written in the brief period between his diagnosis with lung cancer and his death. While frank and forthright about his journey, it had very little new to offer. I cannot say it was over-sentimental or too pragmatic, or that the persona were not interesting, but  the hype around  I could not fathom! The out-of-the-ordinary feature in the tale was the conscious decision taken by the couple that they should conceive a child, who the father was certain he would not even see!! I would not classify it as brave or stupid – but individual, and on the part of the mother brave!!

Finally, a few words about Vivek Shanbaghs’s  Ghachar Ghochar – a remarkable book, which has stood the test of translation and reached us English readers, for which I am really grateful. It was probably the best reads in the year so far.

PS – Only 10 of these 25 were on Kindle – so I’m not doing so well on saving the tress!