Currently reading…

I was excited to pick up two old favorites from our local public library yesterday. Both books are fairly new, but while I had reserved John Grisham’s ‘The Appeal‘ a month in advance, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jeffrey Archer’s ‘A Prisoner of Birth‘ available on the New Releases bookshelf.

Why so, I wonder? Do other folks share my waning enthusiasm for Archer’s recent narrow choice of themes and slow and (dare I say?) pompous style of writing? Or is the American public simply not as crazy about British authors as most of us in India are? Back home, I read a few random pages from both books to decide which one I’d read first. Surprisingly, ‘The Appeal’ won hands-down. Is Archer losing his magic touch then? I would say yes, particularly since the disappointment of the monotonous ‘False Impression’ is still fresh in my mind. As you can imagine though, for someone who so enjoyed ‘As the Crow Flies’, ‘Kane and Abel’, ‘Honor among Thieves’ and other Archer classics, this is a pretty tough admission to make.

To be sure, the same accusation could be directed against John Grisham too, but I like the fact that Grisham has experimented with different styles over the past few years. I especially loved the warm and funny ‘Skipping Christmas’ from amongst these experiments and ‘The Painted House’ was quite interesting too. And the legal thrillers, though repetitive in terms of theme and treatment, manage to hold my interest for the most part. The lure of Grisham’s unique writing style has not yet worn thin for me. I love the short snappy sentences, colorful character descriptions and caustic interplay of dialogues, especially during his famous courtroom brawls.

So ‘The Appeal’ is what I am going to be reading for the next few days and ‘A Prisoner of Birth’ will follow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Archer will surprise me with one of his famous red herrings this time around though! Will let you know if that happens.

Disclaimer: I agree that there is no basis to compare the two authors, their genre and styles are completely different. I am not attempting a comparison here. It’s just that the two have been my long-time favorites in the thriller category and a few years back, making a choice would not have been easy for me at all. I was simply intrigued by my shifting preferences and hence this post. Now any Archer fans out there who would care to disagree?

Another Book Tag

It’s raining book tags! Right on the heels of Shruthi’s tag, here comes Chakli’s. The rules are – Get the book closest to you. Open the book to page 123. Count to line five. Write the next three lines.

I am currently reading Thomas Friedman’s ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, so this is the book closest at hand. The lines to be reproduced do not make much sense by themselves, but that’s the fun of doing a tag! So the lines are – ‘The P.L.O. leaders were archetypical petit bourgeoisie. They were neither notables nor educated professionals, but rather school teachers, like Abu Iyad, or engineers, like Arafat…’

Thomas Friedman is better known for his most recent book ‘The World is Flat’, but I found this book, his first, far more riveting. Based on his first-hand experiences reporting from Lebanon and Israel for the New York Times, the book is an honest attempt at making sense of two different but interconnected Middle East tangles. (The first half of the book focuses on the Lebanese civil war, while the second is about Israel and the Palestine conflict.)

For folks like me who are not so familiar with the details, it is a good starting point to understand a drama that has been at the center-stage of world politics for more years than we can remember. The fact that the book is dated (from the late 80’s or so), makes it even more fascinating in my opinion. Imagine looking back at what we now consider as ‘history’ through the point of view of ‘current affairs’! As I was reading, I was plagued with questions. What was the outcome of the conflict? Is the situation peaceful now? How were these seemingly insurmountable differences resolved?

I was glad to read that peace, or some semblance of it, has returned to Lebanon. Unfortunately though, the Israelis and Palestinians are hardly on better terms today. In fact, had the author not mentioned dates in the book, I would have just as easily believed the events described in the book to be contemporary. (The headlines on Google News yesterday read ‘Three dead in fresh Gaza clash‘.)

Finally, there remains an unresolved question in my mind. In spite of all the strife and uncertainty in Israel, why do Jews continue to migrate there? I am reminded of a Jewish Indian family, family friends of ours, who moved from Mumbai to Israel a few years back. To my knowledge there is no antisemitism in India. An average Indian would probably be unaware of a religion called Judaism even. What, then, was the inexplicable hold this country had over our friends, a hold far stronger than the comfort of a peaceful and familiar life in the country of their birth? Can religious affinity be this strong in our ‘modern’ times?

This was fun! Thanks Chakli! I tag Silvara, Trupti, Indian Home Maker, Cee Kay and Usha. No pressure though, feel free to ignore the tag if you’ve already done it, or are otherwise unable/unwilling.

A Book Tag

Shruthi has gifted me the tag of my dreams! I am to list and describe my ten favorite characters from literature. Can anything be more heartwarming for a book-lover? Without more ado then, but with a ‘If my choices match yours, it just goes to show we both share great taste!’ disclaimer, let me begin.

Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)

Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind)

I am pretty sure these two gentleman would feature on most girls’ lists. In both cases the lure is the thrill of taming a wild headstrong man, the goose-pimply moment when he goes all mushy in love… Picture the rakish Rhett Butler murmuring sweet nothings as he comforts Scarlett after a nightmare. Need I say more?

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)

Dare I add Scarlett to this list too? Yes, she is selfish and shallow, but isn’t her strength and childlike enthusiasm and can-do spirit infectious? I cry for her each time I read the last page, when Rhett dismisses her with his famous ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ line. And I smile the very next moment when I hear Scarlett say, ‘Tomorrow is another day’!

Sir Percy Blakeney (The Scarlet Pimpernal)

Father Ralph (The Thorn Birds)

These characters are pretty alike too. Love is painful in these stories, it is deep and strong but unrequited. And so very sweet when finally expressed. Who can forget the last scene in ‘The Scarlet Pimpernal’ where Sir Percy tenderly carries his lady aboard his ship, all misunderstandings and distances between them forgotten?

Jennifer Cavilleri (Love Story)

Love is fun here, it is a young, mischievous and bantering love, yet also a deep and abiding love. ‘Love Story’ is one of those magical once-in-a-lifetime stories for me and I especially love Jennifer with her strength and tenderness, her humour and her zest for life.

Mathew and Marilla Cuthbert (Anne of Green Gables)

I am an unabashed romantic, as you can see. But love can be powerful in other forms too, as is seen best in the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series. The magic of Anne’s innocent childlike love melting Mathew and Marilla’s crusty hearts is a joy to read (and re-read). Why isn’t Anne on this list instead? I do love her, but I think I am partial to Marilla and Mathew for some reason I cannot explain.

Susan Calvin (Isaac Asimov’s robot stories)

A lonely woman very similar to Marilla in many ways, Susan is unable to relate to people and finds solace in work instead. There is no Anne to melt her cold demeanour, but her beloved robots are probably of some consolation. Her sharp tongue, razor-sharp wit and caustic humour make Susan Calvin Asimov’s favorite character and mine too. (I assume she must have been his favorite, considering she appears so often in his robot stories.)

Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes Minister)

One of the most delicious characters ever. Sharp biting sarcasm, Machiavellian political skills and a hilarious ability to confuse and complicate the simplest of situations – Sir Humphrey Appleby rocks!

Malgudi (R.K. Narayan’s work) / Mussoorie (Ruskin Bond’s work)

And I challenge any of you to prove to me these settings are not the most fascinating characters in Narayan’s or Bond’s stories. So there!

I compared this list with the list of my favorite books I had compiled a while ago and was surprised to find many favorites from the old list missing in this one. The one explanation I came up with is that the story is probably the hero in most of the other books.

Take for example ‘A Suitable Boy’, one of my all-time favorite books. All the characters in this book are interesting, nay fascinating, yet no one character makes me fall in love with him/her… food for a separate post perhaps?

Now comes the tough part, I need to tag someone. I have a hunch Priya, Chakli, Chandni and Manpreet would enjoy doing this tag. Would you, girls?

Kitabon mein!

Folks who know me well will confirm I am an incorrigible bookworm. When I was young, my best friend had to literally drag me out to play in the evening. When that didn’t work, my mom had to push me out from the other end, threatening dire consequences if I came home within an hour!

A lot of it also had to do with my notoriously bad skills at ‘langdi’ or ‘pakda pakdi’, the games we’d usually play. (I always preferred the more sedate games like ‘hide and seek’ or ‘statue’.) Since everybody knew running was not one of my stronger points, I was usually the first target to be tagged in any game. From then on, everybody would run around me in circles till either someone’s luck ran out, or we got tired of the game. Now how much fun can that be, huh? (Hey, I couldn’t have been as bad as that surely! Memories tend to be exaggerated versions of the truth, methinks.)

But yes, given a choice I would rather have curled up in a corner with a book in my hand. Books were always my first love. I don’t remember how my love affair with books started though. My earliest book-memories are of the primary section library in my school. (In a city like Bombay, we had two separate and huge libraries for primary and secondary sections in our school. Now how lucky is that, huh?)

A weekly trip to the library was a must during the library class. The class started with a short story telling session and then we had lots of free time to browse through the books to our hearts content! I think the story telling sessions were a great way to introduce our young minds to the wonderful treasures waiting to be discovered by us in the library. If I close my eyes, I can still see our librarian, Mrs. Nagarkar, with her soft voice and expressive eyes, enthralling a group of tiny tots with the adventures of Don Quixote. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I was hooked for life.

We were encouraged to borrow at least one book every week. Although all the books in the library had been carefully chosen to suit our age group, Mrs. Nagarkar would still want to see the book each one of us had chosen, more out of a wish to understand and hone our interests than any desire to police us, I’m sure. When we went back the next week to return the book, she would be sure to ask us whether we liked it. And she was quick to catch on if somebody was foolhardy enough to return a book unread!

The next week would see a closer questioning of the suspect with some leading questions related to intricate plot details, and subsequently a sound tongue-lashing once the errant boy or girl confessed. Needless to say, I was never a part of this unfortunate group. If I erred, it was always on the side of excess. Many a times, I remember her gently reprimanding me when I returned mid-week to borrow a new book. ‘Exams are near, I shouldn’t be giving you a second book this week’, she would say, but with a twinkle in her eyes, as if to say we are partners in crime really, we understand each other.

After my school, the next biggest influence on my love for reading was our neighbor, ‘Doctor Kaka’. ‘Doctor Kaka’, to my eternal good fortune, was not only a voracious reader, but also a voracious collector of books. The room on their terrace was entirely devoted to books. I am sure there must have been more than a thousand books in that room. I would spend hours in the tiny room, going through each book and carefully making my selection. Shouldn’t take too few, else I would have to come back too soon, shouldn’t take too many for that would certainly elicit a scolding from my mother. A difficult proposition, surely!

Unfortunately, ‘Doctor Kaka’ was as keen as Mrs. Nagarkar to see the books I was borrowing and to discuss each one that I was returning. What a thankless wretch, I hear some of you saying! I know, it does sound a tad ungrateful. But my dilemma was simple, really. For one, I was very shy at that age (and in many ways still am) and slightly in awe of ‘Doctor Kaka’. Hence the hesitatation to offer my opinion in front of him – what if I made a fool of myself!

Another reason that became increasingly bothersome during my teenage years was – how could I choose a romantic or (gasp!) sensual book and discuss it with him! Fool that I was, I never realized he must have been comfortable reading and discussing these books if they were a part of his collection. Poor ‘Doctor Kaka’ must have thought I didn’t seem very much interested in our little discussions and soon gave up on me. I regret that now. It would have been fun to discuss my beloved books with someone who was just as interested in them as I was. (Sigh!)

So what kind of books do I read? Nothing earth-shattering, to be frank. I hope my lengthy discourse hasn’t given anyone a lofty impression of my reading habits. In that sense I am just about an average Indian female bookworm, I guess. I started out primarily with Enid BlytonsThe Enchanted Woods, The Wishing Chair, Noddy, Famous Five and the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series. And I’m sure there must have been many more that I can’t think of right now. Enid Blyton’s world was a magical world, full of love, innocence, mischief and adventure. And lots of yummy-sounding food too! I could write a separate post on just her books and probably will sometime soon. (Note to self here.)

Since I started reading earlier than many of my friends, I exhausted the children’s stuff sooner than most. For a while I did experiment with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, but to be honest, they never enthralled me like a Famous Five adventure would. There was an American adventure-mystery series called the Bobbsey twins that interested me, and the superb Three Investigators series that I adored. But these books were hard to come by in local Indian bookstores or libraries. The few that I found were usually after hours of scrummaging through the collection of various Bombay raddiwalas. So that regret still remains. I would love to read the entire Three Investigators series if someone were kind enough to gift them to me someday. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink! Do you know my address, kind people?)

Then there were the classics whose abridged versions I read as a child, and the teenage me was subsequently delighted to discover there was such a thing as unabridged versions of these marvels. I read Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice being one of my all-time favorites), Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Louisa May Alcott and a little known book called ‘The Scarlet Pimpernal’ by Baroness Orczy. And how can I forget the wonderful heartwarming Anne of Green Gables series? I’d laugh my head off at Anne’s antics and sob at the tender passages about Marilla or Mathew. I probably would do the same even today.

When I was somewhere in middle school I happened to read a ‘grownup’ book that my father was reading. I don’t recall the title but it was one of Jeffrey Archer’s books. A whole new world of books opened up to me that day. I had graduated from children’s books to grownup ones. Anybody who has ever read English books would surely have heard of Jeffrey Archer’s books, so I won’t enumerate them here. Suffice to say that I read and loved them all. Sadly, his recent offerings seem to be getting a tad repetitive, and False Impression was downright boring. Is Archer losing his touch or have I moved on? Other than Archer, I enjoyed reading thrillers by Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Michael Crichton and others who are considered masters of the thriller fiction genre. ‘Da Vinci Code‘ was good, but Dan Brown‘s other books, again, repetitive.

Like most teenage girls the world over, I also secretly devoured countless ‘Mills and Boons’ and their imitations. The stories were predictable, true, but whoever read Mills and Boons for its story! What counted was the number of ‘thrills’ one experienced when the hero swept the heroine off her feet. Then there was a phase where the forbidden nature of Jackie Collins novels attracted me, but I thankfully grew tired of them soon enough.

Many novels offer a wonderful insight into the social mores of their time and setting. ‘The Kite Runner‘, for example, offered a searing glimpse into life in war-torn Afghanistan. Among them, special mention must go to the wonderful sagas, ‘Gone with the Wind‘, ‘The Godfather‘ and ‘The Thorn Birds‘. I like the emotional depth of Erich Segal novels too. I loved ‘The Class‘, ‘Doctors‘, ‘Man, Woman and Child‘ and the classic ‘Love Story‘ never fails to bring tears to my eyes despite umpteen re-reads over the years. I accidently discovered another such gem, ‘The World of Suzie Wong‘, while casually browsing through a raddiwala’s collection one hot summer day. It is amazing what treasures can be found in such rickety shops!

I don’t read much of pure humor (I don’t think much of Wodehouse, for example – yes, gasp!) but find ‘Yes Minister‘, ‘Yes Prime Minister‘ and their desi versions hilarious. Inscrutable Americans was good too. Upamanyu Chatterjee‘s writing is enjoyable in parts but on the whole, a bit too raw for my taste. Chetan Bhagat is just about okay to pass time on a lazy afternoon. Ditto Shobha De, although one of her less famous novels, ‘Second Thoughts‘, did have some spark to it. Ms. De has me puzzled though, there were parts of her non-fiction books, ‘Selective Memory‘, ‘Speedpost‘ and ‘Spouse‘, that seemed to be straight out of my own life, while the rest was just plain sanctimonious rambling. Is she a good writer or not?

Then, in my first year of engineering, one of my crazy friends bored us to bits with her ravings about a weird new book that had wizards, wands, magic enchantments and other such childish notions. We scoffed at her but she was constantly urging us to read the stupid book. Finally, tired of her nagging, I borrowed the book from her and tried reading it under her watchful gaze. Need I say more? Any sensible person would agree, to read Harry Potter is to love Harry Potter, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, I started reading Indian authors writing in English pretty late in my reading career. But as usual, there was no stopping me once I started. For a while a few years back, I read Indian authors almost exclusively. Not that all Indian authors write well, just that I can relate to their subject matter better. A lot of people argue that Indian author books are dreary and cater to the western audience’s stereotype of Indian exotica. The criticism has some basis. But there are some real gems in this genre too. One publishing house, I can’t recall its name, has brought out the translations of regional literary giants such as Tagore, Saratda, Mulk Raj Anand, Mahasweta Devi, Manto, Ismat Chughtai and many other lesser known but equally brilliant authors. It is a formidable and must-read compilation.

Among contemporary Indian authors writing in English, ‘A Suitable Boy‘ is an absolute favorite. So are Manju Kapur‘s novels, especially her first one, ‘Difficult Daughters‘. I recently read and liked ‘The Namesake‘ but thought the ealier short story collection, ‘Interpreter of Maladies‘, was slightly better. (Nitpicking, ain’t I?) Partition novels usually strike a chord in me, which is strange considering my family has no personal experience of it whatsover. Apart from the obvious favorites like Tamas, a lesser known novel called ‘Azadi‘ is one of my favorites. While on the subject of contemporary Indian fiction, how can one not talk of the original master, R. K. Narayan? My only complaint – why isn’t Malgudi a real place? I so want to go there sometime! And for the record, although I know I am going to get crucified for this, Arundhati Roy‘s writing leaves me completely cold.

My mother constantly berates me for not reading anything in my mother tongue, Marathi. She is probably right too. I must be missing out on a real treasure trove. I once read the translated version of a hilarious book of short stories by Gangadhar Gadgil and proudly showed it to my mother. She had a good laugh going through its contents, promptly informing me of all the humor that got lost in the translation! My rather poor excuse has always been that I can’t read Marathi fast enough, so by the time I have completed a paragraph, I have already forgotten what the earlier one was all about! The pleasure of reading is rather lost when you concentrate on reading each sentence, don’t you think? I know, I know, poor excuse. This is definitely on my to-do list for the future.

Do I read fiction excusively? With a few exceptions, yes. I have read a few good non-fiction books. ‘Maximum City‘, ‘India Unbound‘, ‘The World is Flat‘, ‘Freedom at Midnight‘ and the biographies of Lee Iacocca, Sam Walton and Akio Morita are some that I can think of right now. But on the whole, I do prefer fiction over non-fiction. Mostly because a lot of the latter simply bores me.

There’s no use pretending to be an intellectual in these matters, I think. As I said before, I am just a plain old-fashioned book lover! I read books that I love reading, that amuse me, touch me, make me laugh and cry. Best of all are the books that make you wish you were a part of its world, where you yearn to meet its characters and want to cry out when the story comes to an end. Or desperately want things to end differently at the very least. ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’ did all that to me and much more.

Phew, thats done then! It turned out to be a pretty long post. But I can’t believe how much fun I have had compiling this list. If anybody is reading this, hope you had fun too! If you are reading this, you are probably a book lover too. So if your list differs a bit from mine, or you think I have absolutely no taste in books, or (wishful thinking) you happen to like the exact same books as me, do write in please. And let me know if you think there are some really good books that I might have missed. I’d love to hear about it from you! Lets have some fun, kitabon mein!