Booker challenge and more in 2017

Its only in these last few years that I have been setting myself reading challenges. I got  on to this bandwagon, thanks to Goodreads. For the year gone by, I had set a target of a book a week, although in the previous couple of years I had completed 80+ books.  By the year end, my score was 71, since I am pretty meticulous about keeping a record. However, Goodreads insists the the number is 54!!  Goodreads has been putting up notice about a problem with their up-dation process, which has erased 13 books!!

And as always, the books were a mixed bag – established authors (Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Murakami etc) and debut works (, and fiction and non-fiction (approx one third). While I read only English, a fair number of the books were translations. While internationally, translations have always been widely prevalent, unfortunately it has not been so in India. It is heartening to see a change, with more regional language works getting English translations. Among the best books I read this year, was Perumal Murugan’s ‘One part woman’ translated from Tamil. It is a touching and honest love story and it is difficult to understand wha tall the fuss was about. I read a number of thriller/mystery books by Japanese (Keigo Higashino, Hideo Yokoyma, Murakami) and Chinese (Mai Jia), and of these Higashino stood out. I read the first Harry Hole (Jo Nesbo) book – and although he has a large following, I did not get hooked.

Of the fiction category, 13 were the books on the Booker long list. Following the announcement in early August, I challenged myself to read them all before the winner was announced in mid-October.  This is something that I am never going to do again – I was reading like one obsessed! Of course, the advantage is that the judges wade through some 150+ books to get the list of 13, and so none of them was bad at all! ‘Bardos‘ was the last book I read, finishing it a couple of days before the announcement – and I did expect it to win, based on its novelty factor, style etc. However, the books I liked best were Exit West (Mohsin Hamid), Home fire (Kamila Shamsie) and The history of wolves ( Emily Fridlaund). Other books in this category that I rate highly are ‘The story of a brief marriage’ (Anuk Arudpragasam), The sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen, translated from Vietnamese), Get a life (Nadine Gordimer).

I did read a wide range of non-fiction, of which the outstanding one was Sapien (Yuval Noah Harani), a panoramic overview of the human story, written in simple and clear language. Although I have a science background, the story is so simply put forth, that anyone could grasp the arguments Harani puts forth. This is a book that everyone should read. Its sequel, Home Deus was nowhere as good.

One of the changes in the past year has been the loss of enthusiasm for e-books. This maybe linked to the fact that I stopped working at the end of 2016. When I was commuting to Delhi for work, I used the Kindle in the car. While e-books are cheaper, the paper books provide tactile inputs which certainly add to the reading experience. And in my case, I  increasingly feel the need to go back in the book to recall/re-read bits. And this so not so easy on the e-reader. Of the 70+ books, only 20 or so were Kindle editions.

2018 is another year, and while we keep hearing of the struggles of publishers, the rapid decline in reading habits, the closure of book stores etc.,  I don’t think that reading as a habit, or books as a source of recreation will end so soon. For me personally, nothing is as precious as books, and reading is my greatest pleasure in life. While I have decided not to set any goals or targets, I am sure  that the coming year will another great year of reading.

And heres the full list

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Booker challenge – 5 #bookerlonglist2017

So the challenge was to read all 13 Booker nominated novels before the prize is announced – and that is tomorrow evening GST. Well I have not done too badly – just having completed the 12th one today. I have reviewed the earlier ones in a series of blogs (https://wordpress.com/posts/sitanaiksblog.wordpress.com) – and will this time give a little about Elmet (book 11) and History of wolves (book12) – both of which I read on my Kindle

Both these are by women authors and with Ali Smith, women make half of the short list. I also believe both are debut novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fridlund’s ‘History of wolves’ is a coming of age book, the protagonist being a young teenager who lives in the periphery of society in a remote Minnesota community. Linda in her mid-30s, recalls the events of one year in her life when she was fifteen old. She is awkward, gawky with little social skills and left to fend for herself by a very distant and detached mother – who she even wonders may not be her mother at all, and a quiet father who has very little to say, but teaches her to be one with the nature around them. She is comfortable on the lake in the canoe and  trekking thro the forest – the descriptions of the area is evocative. The story itself is about her friendship with the mother-son duo who come to live in a summer cabin. The mother is devoted to four year old Paul, for whom Linda becomes a regular baby sitter. She just about senses that everything may not be alright, especially when the father joins the family. But her secluded life has not given her enough sense of how things ought to be, what is right and what is wrong….. and it leads to a tragic end, with the sudden death of Paul. There is a parallel narrative involving a school teacher, who is caught out for molesting a young student in Linda’s class. Through the years, she follows his progress through the internet, and much later exchanges letters with him.  Except for Linda, the other characters are sketchy, and many aspects leaves you unsatisfied. There is little to look forward to, the story does not really progress……..and it left me with a feeling of having been let down.

Elmet on the other hand is a compact, more linear tale with strongly etched characters and a haunting end. It is set in an undefined time and place, somewhere in rural England. The landscape is bleak but described beautifully. The central characters, a father and his two children, are trying to lead a self-reliant life, in which they have little interaction with others, the children are being rather casually home schooled by a neighbor and between them they cater to their rather simple needs. The tale is related by the son, who is the younger of the two children. They live close to nature and have  minimal needs – but, the outside world does intrude. The father’s efforts to protect the children comes to naught and events cascade to an inevitable if unexpected end. The book is well written, taut and enjoyable.

All this leaves only the 13th book, Lincoln in the Bardos,  the bookmakers favorite,  half read! Lets see if I am motivated to finish it in the next 24 hours

 

Booker challenge – 4 #bookerlonglist2017

Its more than 3 weeks since the last post, and so you can see that 4321 by Paul Aster (book no 8) has not been an easy read. Since I read it on my Kindle, I am not sure how long the actual book is – but it seemed to go on forever. Since I am not one who likes to give up on a book – and am an eternal optimist that the next page, the next chapter will change things, I persisted. In this case I did anticipate a disappointment half way through…….however, persistence is the name of the game!! This is the story of young Jewish boy Archie Ferguson, born in 1947, through his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. In that sense it is a coming of age tale, a true blood American novel with all things American – baseball, boys only summer camps, high school romances, college life – all dealt with in great detail. It envisages 4 parallel courses in the life for Archie, and for each of the 7 parts, his life is divided into, there are four sections for the 4 trajectories!

Aster, who I am reading for the first time, writes with fluidity and at many a place the prose is delightful. He also gets into the head of Archie with what seems to be a deep understanding of young people. But, the progress is slow and the exhausting detailing of each and every, every day event, locale, occasion becomes tedious and finally, all you can do is skip large sections of the prose. The political events of the 50s and 60s, are detailed 4 times over and innumerable  lists are rattled of – of Greek writers when Archie is taking a course, of the great composers when he is initiated into music, American writers, lists of great poets etc. etc……Aster seems to be impressing the reader with his vast reading ouvre and giving out his opinion on this or that writer. It becomes tedious and frankly boring. Unfortunately, only after ploughing through the book, towards the end the meaning of the title is revealed!! I shall wait with bated breath for the choice of the winner…..

As I was struggling through Aster’s book, I also read Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn‘ in parallel (no 9) and in hard copy. What a contrast –  the physical feel of a book (after 3 ebooks),  its lovely cover and  a great type face. I have read and enjoyed her earlier books (The Accidental and How to be both ) and this one did not disappoint – an absorbing and enjoyable book.  I understand that it is the stand alone first book of a planned quartet – one for each season. It recounts the friendship between  Elisabeth (with an ‘s’) a, 30 something college lecturer and  her 101 year old friend Daniel who lives in a care facility. The friendship is a few decades old, and started when the 9 year girl Elisabeth and the then 70+ Daniel were neighbors, and her single mother often left her in Daniel’s company. The friendship transcends the difference in age and through a series of flash backs, we learn in bits and pieces of Daniel’s early life, Elisabeth’s mother and her world view all in the context of contemporary brexiting England. As always, the prose is fluid, as time itself………

And book no 10, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, I read in one long session, interrupted briefly for food and other essentials.  Hamid  is well known for The Reluctant fundamentalist, which was made into a fairly successful movie. But it is a classic case of the movie doing little justice to the mood created in the book! His earlier book Moth Smoke was also very good. Exit West is the love story of our times, global, contemporary with the mix of the reality of the present and the magic possibilities of the alternative!! Saeed and Nadia, meet and fall in love in a crumbling city, which could be any city in South Asia? Middle East? And as life becomes more intolerable, they opt to exit to the west – to Mykonos, then London and finally to San Francisco. The horrors of every day life, the killings, destructions and torture in their home town are dealt with a calmness that accentuates it all  – Saeed’s grieving father while returning from the mosque watches some young boys playing football and smiles to himself – but as he approaches closer, he sees that the ball is a head and a few meters closer he realizes it is a human head!! But the actual movement happens through this magic door –  “Rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.”

And each move westward consolidates the community of migrants, in loose camps on the Greek island, much like the one we see on TV to comfortable squatter’s accommodation in London, to more organized settlement in San Francisco. And we experience the travails and troubles of these new global citizens,  through the every day survival of the protagonists – the luxury of a shower, the smell of food etc.. There are very few other characters in the book, but you never feel their absence – and as Hamid draws you into their world, and you grow to understand and love them, they drift apart. I have not read a love story where the falling out of love is more poignant than the falling in! (I hope this is not a spoiler)

I just started  Elmet (no 11) on my Kindle,  while History of wolves (No 12) waits! In the week remaining before the winner is announced, I should get through these – leaving only Lincoln in the Bardos which I started it a long time ago.  I have not been enthused to pursue it –  let me see how that goes, especially since it seems to be the bookmaker’s favorite to win!

 

 

Booker challenge – 3 #bookerlonglist2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These were book Nos 5, 6 and 7 of the challenge, as I continue to select the books on a lottery system. The first two books  – one by an American author (Whithead), the other by an Irish one (Barry) were both set in the Americas of the mid-nineteenth century, and both were related in part or in full, to slavery. This I thought was quiet something,  considering the possible millions of topics on which fiction is written.  I had read neither authors before, although later googling has shown that they both have been highly appreciated for their earlier works,

The Underground railroad is a slave story set in the late 1830s. While I am familiar with the broad outlines of American history, I am totally unfamiliar with the history of slavery itself. Of the many famous slavery stories, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an all time classic, which I read so long ago, that I recall little of it. Stowe was an abolitionist and wrote the book  in the 1850s when it was the second highest sold book after the Bible. It is attributed in part to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Confessions of Nat Turner (William Styron), Invisible man (Ralph Ellison)  and Beloved  (Toni Morrison), are the other classics on slavery that I have read. These show aspects of this inhuman practice from the perspective of individuals and their stories.

In The Underground railroad, Whithead gives a more sweeping overview of slavery. Center to the story is the life and escapades of Cora, a young slave who escapes from a particularly cruel plantation, and then manages to escape again and again …….. Through her experiences we learn of the extreme forms that  human cruelty can take, the laws that were passed by the Southern States, to preserve their leadership in tobacco commerce and the humanity of people who were willing to take unbelievable risks on behalf of the enslaved. The ‘underground railroad’ was a term coined for the route through which escaped slaves were helped to reach relatively safer places like Boston, Canada.. In the book, this has been given a physical form in the shape if an actual underground tunnel…and the book ends on an optimistic note with Cora escaping through the underground tunnel. It is disturbing in many parts, as it reveals what man is capable of doing to his own. One of the things that struck me was the strong Christian faith of the pro- and anti-slavery groups, who could find support in the scriptures for their diametrically opposing stands. It is not unlike some of what we see today, where religion can be used to support opposite sides of the story with equal faith!! All in all an interesting book, which won the Pulitzer and the National award in 2016.

Days without end, looks at another set of human cruelties – here the protagonist, Thomas McNulty,  is a young Irishman or rather boy, as he is only 17 at the start of the book.  He escapes the potato famine which kills his family, and takes a boat to America. The story is told by Tom, and describes the transformation from a raw youth (‘nothing people’ as he describes himself) to the hardened middle aged person who has seen it all – the wars with the tribes (with as much cruelty and inhumanness as the slavers), the civil war with all its contradictions, etc but it is  his friendship with John, a young American he meets during his early days in America, which flows through the story.   They join one of the private armies that help to preserve White domination  over the American tribes, and travel as far west as California. Tom and John also fight on the side of the Union forces against the confederates, are taken prisoners, rescued, go back to their old fighting unit, fight the Indians again…..It is a wide panorama of a story with two parallel but intertwined themes – the  growing love between Tom and John (a true same sex love story with John dressing as a woman), and their love for a rescued Indian girl and the transformation of their commanding office (the Major) for whom Tom feels respect and loyalty,  from a humane soldier, who is driven by his personal tragedies, to a monster like so many others Tom sees around him. The story stretches over two decades, and although the time periods do not overlap, I could almost imagine Cora hiding behind a bush on her northward escape, watching Tom and John being marched South by the Confed soldiers!!

Solar Bones is a contemporary novel, also by an Irish writer. Its greatest challenge is its style – Its 266 pages are just one long sentence – maybe not even that as it does not start with a capital or end with a full stop. After the first few pages, I was wondering how long I could go on – the whole book is a recap of his life by a civil engineer living in a small  Irish town. All the people in his life, and there are not too many of them, and all the major events are recalled in no specific sequence – but as you get to know him, he grows on you and the ordinariness of his life has something to say to you. His relationship with his father as a child, as a young man and his with his son; his courtship and the every day-ness of their marriage, the oh-so different daughter …… it dragged here and there, but the end is a climax.

I started reading Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders) as book 3 and am still struggling through it while  the 9th book  I started on 12th was 4321 by Paul Aster. Yesterday the short list was announced – lo and behold none of the 7 books I have finished are on the list. It has the two I am reading and the 4 I have not read – History of wolves (emily Fridlund), Exit West (Mohsin Khan), Elmet (Fiona Mozley) and Autumn (Ali Smith).  I thought that was quite something since I have been selecting on a blinded lottery system!! So I have 4 weeks to complete the list – the winner is to be announced on 18th October.

 

Booker challenge -2 #bookerlonglist2017

Arundhati Roy’s first book “The God of Small Things” was published twenty years ago and won the Booker – one of a handful of debut books that have earned that honor. Since then she has been very active and productive with non-fiction titles. Her politics and her books have been in the limelight and I must confess that I have not read any of them. And while I enjoyed “The God of small things”, I read it soon after it was published and only recall the broad outlines. ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’  is her second novel – and it is difficult to place it. It is not quiet fiction, more like fact-ion, with the thin plot veering around every major political events of the last 3-4 decades – from the Sikh riots, through the Gujarat riots, Babri Masjid, Kashmir- and politician be it Anna Hazare and Kejriwal and Narendra Modi ……… and we see them all from the Arundhati Roy view of the world. The last of these, Kashmir, gets the most prominence, as it (along with the Maoists) has probably been her major pre-occupation these last few years. Of course, there are parallel stories of which the two major ones are that of the hijra, Anjum and of the non-conforming Tillomina, who is an almost autobiographical character. There is a lack of love in Anjum’s life, and finally  it is all heaped on an abandoned baby that she adopts. Following the many turmoils , including a year spent in  Gujarat during and after the riots of 2002, she  takes up residence in a graveyard near her old home. Tillo, on the other hand has three men who are in love with her, but circumstances leads her to the same graveyard.

It is a frustrating book – when you think ‘enough is enough’, let me give it up, there is a flash of brilliance and you wan to read on. I could not get engaged enough with the characters to want to know what happens to them – but the prose itself becomes engaging enough to go on to the end. Overall, a mixed reaction……..            [Book 2]

Zadie Smith is a more regular writer than Roy, this is her 5th book. She is an author whose books I have enjoyed,  having read all her 4 previous books, although not with equal interest.  This is her 2nd Booker nomination, the earlier one was for “On beauty”. The story is of a friendship, between the protagonist (whose name we never learn) and Tracey from their pre-teen years through the early decades of their life. There is much in the relationship that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan  novels – the girls grow up in a disadvantaged council housing, go to local schools. The  more academic protagonist, who sees herself as somehow the lesser of the two admires and in part envies her friend, who she sees as the more talented and self assured. But life has its own games – while the protagonist achieves some level of success – she becomes personal assistant to a Rihanna style pop dive – Tracey’s dance career does not go far, she has 3 children without a father in sight, lives on dole. But as to who is the happier, now that is a question that Smith has us thinking about. What is happiness? she seems to be asking. She also delves deftly into the complex issues of the immigrant guilt, the link to the mother land, color etc…. On the whole its is a great book with few  characters that are well etched, a well scripted story, and of course great writing. However, I felt that it was maybe 50-80 pages too long!                                                                                         [Book 3]

Another author I have enjoyed, is Kamila Shamsie, having read three of her earlier books. But this is her best, short absorbing, intense with living, breathing characters and situations that could happen every day in  this crazy world we are living in. Shamsie is of Pakistani origin and lives in London, thereby familiar with the intrusions that the current ISIS/Islamophobic world has made on the every day lives of Muslims – even the most ordinary citizens. And the protagonists in this book, are not ordinary Muslim Brits of Pakistan origin – there are the  3 siblings who live in the shadow of the terrorist father who was tortured and died in the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the handsome young son of the Pakistan origin, British Home Secretary. The plot is a modern, albeit modified re-telling of Sophocles “Antigone” and poses moral questions of the ‘natural law’ versus ‘man-made law’> It leads to a climax that is unexpected and affects the lives of all concerned. In spite of that, no other ending would have been appropriate – and left me feeling – ‘Wow, this is a GOOD book’!                                                               [Book 4]