Monday, December 16, 2013

Books I Have Met Recently

Lately, I have been feeling an urge to pen down my thoughts on the books that I have been reading. I have been sharing tidbits on Facebook and Twitter but I want to record these in a more detailed, consolidated and permanent way. As a reader, I go through a lot of books and I am hoping that this will make them stay in my head more than having just read them and moved on. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished
Anand Neelakantan

As Winston Churchill famously said, "History is written by the victors", so a book that aims to look at the epic story of the Ramayana from Ravana's perspective definitely makes for an interesting premise. But the idea is so poorly executed in Anand Neelakantan's Asura that one is left feeling sorely disappointed. 

Character development was a big issue. I expected to end this book either hating or loving Ravana as represented on the pages. Instead, all I felt was indifference and supreme relief at having finished the ordeal of reading this book. Even events like the death of children that typically tug at the heartsrings were written in a manner that excited no emotion in me. It did not help matters that Ravana's narration bordered on the schizophrenic. Within the space of a paragraph, he would contradict himself. An example: "I wanted to hug Prahastha's still body and tell him that, more than anyone else, I had respected and loved him. I also wanted to tell him that he had always got on my nerves with his unwarranted advise* and talk about Asura dharma. Suddenly I hated him from deep within." (Page 396) - From love to hate in three sentences! Seriously?

The literary style was very slow and repetitive. I lost count, early on in the book, of the number of the times the same arguments about the caste system were hashed and rehashed. Also, this is supposedly a historical/ mythological piece so it should reflect the period. I found many of the phrases and analogies were quite anachronistic. For an example, terms like 'an efficient time manager' and 'useless jargon and mumbo jumbo' are very 21st century phrases and it jarred me to find them in a book set in the ancient times, especially since the narrators were the characters and not the author himself. It greatly detracted from the authenticity of the book.

Lastly, the editor on this book did a pretty shoddy job. There were multiple errors of spelling and grammar.

To me this book represents the fact that a good idea is not enough and that bad writing can demolish even the best of ideas. I would not recommend this book to any reader with some discretion.

* erroneously spelled in the book

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Nayomi Munaweera

For a slim book and a fast-paced read, Nayomi Munaweera's debut novel packs a gut-wrenching punch. It is narrated in the voices two young women - one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, on the opposite sides of the brutal civil war that tore the island nation of Sri Lanka asunder in the preceding decades. The conflict, of course, is one that is well known to any South Asian who hasn't been living under a rock but it is one thing to read about a bunch of horrors and statistics in a newspaper and quite another to imagine what it might have been like for two young girls to come of age against this backdrop. More than anything else, it manages to put a human face on the tragedy. 

For a first-time author, I thought the book was fantastically well-written and Nayomi certainly knows how to turn a phrase. With her elegant prose and evocative metaphors, she manages to bring the natural beauty and human tragedy of Sri Lanka's past alive in the most visceral way. 

Though the book has two very different narrators, Munaweera manages to give both their voices authenticity, without taking sides. My only beef was that Yashodhara, the Sinhalese girl, was by far the primary protagonist of the book - we get to know her family history and her childhood in a fair amount of detail. Saraswathi (the Tamil protagonist) gets the short shrift on this front and I was left wondering if this was a bias of some sort, in its own way.  

That apart, I really enjoyed this book. After a long time, I found myself with a contemporary novel that beautifully written, easy to read and with a gripping storyline. That makes for quite a package!

Jhumpa Lahiri

After reading Unaccustomed Earth (and having already read The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies), I had resolved to stop reading anything further by Jhumpa Lahiri till she found something new to write about. While there is no denying that she is an accomplished author, I had pretty much had my fill of her much-repeated theme of a displaced diaspora struggling with culture clash, alienation and loneliness. But then someone at my book club happened to mention her new novel and I am never very firm when it comes to resolutions about books (or resolutions of any kind actually) so before I knew it, I had ordered it from Flipkart and was all set to read it.

The book follows the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, who grow up in post-Independence Calcutta. Born within months of each other and inseparable as children, they nonetheless develop into very different individuals and chose dramatically different destinies. Subhash, the good older son, does as is expected and finds a job in America. Udayan, on the other hand, gets sucked into the Naxalite movement. It is a decision that alters not just his, but the destinies of his brother and Gauri, the woman he loves as well.

On the plus, I really enjoyed reading about the roots of the Naxalbari movement. It was fascinating to imagine the Calcutta of old with the revolutionary undercurrents sweeping through it and see the beginnings of the movement that still continues to challenge governmental authority in many parts of the country. 

But other than that, I have to say that it was a rather joyless read. It could have something to do with the cold, bleak Rhode Island landscape against which much of the book is set. It could be that I like my happy endings and this book stops well short of achieving that. But that's not all. It is probably that the book lacks a single, truly happy character. Udayan's actions seem to reach out from beyond the grave to rob all their lives of any joy whatsoever. It makes for very depressing reading. Further, as a central character, I couldn't really get into Subhash's head. He seemed dry, dull and incapable of taking control of his own life and decisions. 

I would say this is a book you should only read if you are an undying Jhumpa fan. Otherwise, just skip it and hope she puts her admittedly substantial talents to better use in her next book (which as of now, I have resolved not to read).

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Cuckoo's Calling is pretty much a case study in the power of a brand. When the world thought it had been written by a new author called Robert Galbraith, it met with limited success. As this article tells it, it had managed to sell just 1500 copies in the UK and achieve a lowly Amazon rank of 5076! And then those stickers appeared on the books in the shops announcing that Galbraith was, in fact, a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling and sales pretty much went through the roof, pushing the book to top rank on Amazon. It was still the same book but suddenly everyone wanted to buy it. I had not even heard of the book till Rowling was outed as its author but even if I had, I am pretty sure I wouldn't have given it a second glance. My constant refrain these days is 'So many books, so little time...' so you won't find me frittering away that precious time on just any book. For me to pick up a book, it has to meet one of two conditions. It either has to be written by an author that I know and like or it has to come highly recommended by a friend or social media acquaintance whose book sense matches mine. The Rowling reveal put the book in the former category, and so I picked it up.

I know it's unfair to compare this novel to her Harry Potter series but how can one not? While one clearly wasn't expecting murder by Avada Kevadra and was adequately primed to expect an entirely Muggle tale, one certainly did expect of the magic of her storytelling on her blockbuster series to carry through to her new work. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

On the plus side, most of the elements of what one would consider an accomplished work of crime fiction are there. It was an interesting plot - Lula Landry, a high profile but troubled super model falls to her death and not everyone is convinced she committed suicide. Cormoron Strike, the private detective who is hired by the victim's brother to investigate her death, makes for an interesting lead character. He is an injured army veteran with an unsettled childhood, struggling to keep his private eye business afloat whilst recovering from a soured relationship. His newly hired secretary Robin is a decent sidekick, with the right mix of efficiency and sex appeal. Like in any mystery novel worth its salt, one is left guessing at the murderer's identity till pretty close to the end.

But but but.... like I said, the magic was missing. I found the pace too slow and while I wouldn't go as far as to say it was plodding, it did get a bit boring in parts. Don't get me wrong, I am all for atmospheric murder mystery novels that give us a peek into the world that they are set in. It totally works for Henning Mankells' Kurt Wallander series. Like Rowling has attempted here, those too manage to bring in socio-economic dynamics like immigration and racism but this never gets dull or compromises the pace of the novels. The Cuckoo's Calling, in my opinion, could not quite achieve that. 

Overall though, I have to say that I did enjoy reading it and have no regrets about picking it up. But it is not a novel in line with what one would expect a writer of Rowling's calibre to produce.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In the past, holiday and beach reading was always associated with light, trashy reads. But I have changed my mind on this in recent years. Daily life, with its never-ending cycle of morning madness, school pick-ups, mealtimes and bedtimes, leaves me with only bite-sized pockets to read and that's the worse way to read a heavy book. The beach, on the other hand, makes for a great babysitter and with the husband sharing childcare duty, I find I can really dig my teeth into a meaty book. And what's more meaty than an old Russian classic.

Crime and Punishment follows the inner turmoil of young Rodion Raskolnikov as he considers committing a crime (a murder), actually commits it and then comes to term with it. It is a fascinating look into his mind as he initially starts out believing that some people are above crimes, especially since these crimes benefit humanity. He believes that he falls into this category and that his murder of a usurious pawnbroker is justified. Of course, it doesn't pan out this way and the novel documents his physical and emotional struggles on his path through guilt to redemption

I am not sure that I can say anything about this book that hasn't been said. I really enjoyed the book. I found it a much easier read than I had expected and the language was not overly heavy. It drew me in at the first page and kept me hooked right till the end. Dostoyevsky was obviously incredibly insightful and the book felt real and contemporary in many ways, even though it was written almost a century and a half ago. 


  1. Great review of some recent books!:)

    I wish I could set apart time to read some books..i was once the sort who would read from dawn to dusk with breaks only to bathe and eat!

    1. Me too! I think those days may come back only once the nest empties but still, I try my best to find some time to read. Especially since I want my kids to read and love books and for that, they need to see me reading.

  2. Ro, try this one. Very satisfying and got some wonderful answers to questions which I am sure my son is going to ask me when he is a tad older.

    1. Hi Fing! Good to see you here :-)

      Someone gifted that to my son earlier this year! Especially the funny answers at the end of the book :-)

      I have been dipping into his library on and off these days. Must get my teeth into this one.

  3. Ro - I was just making a list of books I should carry along on my holiday next week and I am now convinced about adding Crime and Punshment (or any of the other classics languishing in my cupboard) to my list. You hit the nail on the head about the daily routine that allows only bite sized reads!

    1. I am counting this as my best (and possibly only) epiphany of 2013!

  4. Anonymous4:05 pm

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Hello

    We're a class of 6 and 7 year olds in Norfolk, UK, and found your blog while looking for blogs from all the different continents of the world.

    Our topic for this term is airports and far-off travel. We're trying to get as many visits to our blog as possible from different parts of the world, and would love a visit from India if you have the time. Our blog is at

    The latest book we have read was 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' by C.S. Lewis. We really enjoyed it!

    From Robins Class @ Lingwood Primary School, Norfolk, UK

  6. Anonymous12:53 pm

    I made a similar resolution about Jhumpa Lahiri after I read The Namesake. But to be fair, its not only her writing per se, that prompted the decision, but that whole genre of women trapped in post-marital disapora writing that got to me. Most recently I made the cardinal error of picking up Oleander Girl by Chitra DIvakaruni Bannerjee, and was similarly disappointed. I think Im done with this whole segment of writing, even if it means I will be totally judging some of their books by their covers. But so be it, there is only so much of one kind of overdone writing that I can take :S

    I read Crime and Punishment wayyy back in high school (yep, it was on my class 12 lit syllabus) and remember being drawn in so quickly. With the rest of my class cribbing and ranting their way thru, I don't think I got as much out fo the book as I could have. You're so right about holidays being great for heavier reading simply because there is so much more mindspace so sink in and devour it. Your post has made me want to put C&P on my list for 2014..

    1. Ok phew. I was thinking of picking up Oleander Girl and now consider myself duly warned. I loved her Palace of Illusions and was considering picking up this one but now I won't. Totally agree with you on the the diaspora space being overdone.

    2. Anonymous8:07 am

      In case you want further affirmation: :D

  7. Anonymous1:08 am

    Totally with you on the Lowland. Found the book to be rather mediocre. As for Nayomi's debut novel, I couldn't resist writing to her after I read it. It is a beautifully written book.

    1. Did she reply? I am waiting for her next book.