Friday, May 23, 2014

The Year So Far in Books

It has been a great year so far as books go. Six books down and not one yet that I have regretted picking up. I have almost completely stopped randomly browsing for books. Admittedly, it is fun to spend time hanging around in a bookshop without agenda but the books one picks up in this fashion can be quite hit-and-miss. I still do frequent book shop trips but even then, I pick up books that come recommended via friends or social media. I am also completely hooked on to GoodReads. It is a great way to figure out what my friends are reading and saying about books and to keep track of books I want to read. I figured that it also works as a book registry. For my birthday, UTBT gifted me something she saw on my To-Read list (which I had bookmarked thanks to her rating on the site).

The Book Thief
Marcus Zusak

I could not have picked a better book to start the year with. I think I would rate this amongst my top ten books of all time. 

Narrated by Death, the book is a coming of age tale of a young German girl growing into adolescence against the awful backdrop of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

It is a book that turns many established ideas on their head. Most of my reading on the Holocaust so far has been about the Jewish experience or about Hitler and the Nazis. This book takes a look at the average German citizen and blurs the lines between black and white, good and evil and Jew and German somewhat. For me, books and the written word have always been wholly positive concepts but this book turns that on its head by pointing out that words can also be used to do great evil.

"Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. "I will never fire a gun," he said. "I will not have to."... His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible. He planted them day and night, and cultivated them. He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. It was a nation of farmed thought."

While it is a book that can be read pretty fast, I found myself wanting to sip it like a glass of good wine, slowly. The language is beautiful and there are many parts in the book that made me want to stop and take the time to absorb and mull over the prose as well as the ideas contained within it.

Maps for Lost Lovers
Nadeem Aslam

We read this book for our book club and the camps were divided on this one. My friend felt that the prose was too ornate and made it hard for her to relate to it. For me, the prose was what really worked. I found it beautiful and evocative and the book managed to paint pictures in my head on almost every page. I can't think of any other book I would say that of.

The book is set in England, in a small town that is home to a Pakistani immigrant community. Chanda and Jugnu, two lovers, have mysteriously disappeared and Chanda's brothers are suspected of murdering them to defend their 'honour' since they were living together outside of wedlock. The story is largely told through the eyes and experiences of the families of the two young lovers, especially Jugnu's brother Shamas and his wife Kaukab.

The book explores the many ways in which traditional Pakistani attitudes and beliefs collide with Western mores and morality, often with tragic consequences. We especially see this in Kaukab's world, her desire to cling desperately to the customs and beliefs of her beloved homeland and the resultant alienation of her three children.

I really enjoyed this book. Again, it is not a quick read. The prose is beautiful but heavy and you need to take the time to savour it and imagine the scene that the author is trying to bring to life with his words.

The Tiger's Wife
Téa Obreht

This one came highly recommended from a friend, who lent me her copy so that I could read it. A lot of people have had a lot of good things to say about this book, so I opened it with pretty high expectations. But I have to say, I just did not get it. I found it a rather strange, disjointed sort of book with three separate threads that did not really come together for me.

The book is about a young doctor called Natalia living in a war-torn Balkan country, who loses her grandfather at the start of the book. As a part of her mourning process, she narrates two life experiences that her grandfather had shared with her. The first one occurs when her grandfather was a boy and involves a tiger living on the outskirts of his village and the tiger's relationship with one of the girls in the village. The second one is from when he is much older and revolves around his multiple encounters with the Deathless Man.

I found the link between these tales and the central story of Natalia herself tenuous at best and I didn't really get the point of the book. If someone asked me what the book was about, I would struggle to explain. It is a beautifully written book and one gets the sense of a country that has been ravaged by war but I found it lacking in a strong plot.

But then again, maybe that's just me. Magical realism has never been my favourite genre.

Aruna Chakravarti

Set against the backdrop of the Bengali Renaissance, Jorasanko is an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the women in the illustrious Tagore family. I found it charming and very evocative of the times. I can see it translating into a lovely period film.

The author has done a good job of fleshing out each of the key personalities and I finished the book with a pretty clear picture of these ladies in my head. The size of the household and the family was quite mind-blogging and I am grateful for the family tree that the author has thoughtfully provided at the beginning, otherwise I would have got lost in the maze of characters that abound in the book! The most interesting characters were Jnananandidni, Kadambari (Rabindranath's sister-in-law and muse) and Mrinalini (his wife). In fact, when it comes to these three, I was left wanting for more!

It showed how rapidly social mores towards woman changed within the space of a generation. These girls came into the Tagore family as child brides but towards the end of the book, many of their daughters enjoyed freedom and education that they themselves could never even have dreamed of.

I have never read much Tagore myself, but I think this book would be good fun for readers familiar with his work, containing as it does many back stories on what inspired some of his more famous verse. I also wonder what kind of research the author did for the book, where the fact ended and the fiction began and how much of the more controversial stories were based on gossip or hearsay.

This was a book club pick and again, we were quite divided in our views on the book. Some felt that the book was 'time-pass' but nothing special and did not reflect enough of the happenings in the world outside the household and the family. Others, and I am firmly in this camp, felt that the point of this book was to look at the world from the perspective of the Tagore women, who (with the exception of Jnananandini) lived and breathed the life within the four walls of the family mansion. And it has done that well. Looking at broader social and economic themes would have been out of the scope of this book and would have felt forced, had the author felt compelled to include them. Also, I think we tend to undervalue books that tell women's stories. Just because a story focuses on domestic relationships and issues does not make it a lesser book. I think these are important stories to tell as well.

Emperors of the Peacock Throne
Abraham Eraly

At the book club, we decided to flirt with non-fiction for a change. After some discussion, we voted for Eraly's biography of the Mughal emperors. As experiments go, this one was not terribly successful and we had the lowest record of book completion in our brief history.

Admittedly, it is a monster of a book - 521 pages not including the 20 odd pages of notes at end. It is also missing some key elements that are basic expectations when it comes to a work of history. There are no maps in the book, not one. Considering that a lot of the subject matter revolves around battles over territories and the expansion and collapse of the empire, these would have been invaluable and are sorely missed. Even as a Indian with a Humanities background, I found it hard to get the geography straight in my head, so I can only wonder how an international reader would cope with it. The book would have also greatly benefited from a cast of characters at the beginning - towards the end of book, I was scrambling to place some of the characters that popped up. Lastly, pictures! The author described each of the six featured emperors in a great degree of detail but you know what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words...

But the flaws notwithstanding, I think it is a very well-written book and the meticulous research shines through. It really brought the emperors alive for me as real flesh-and-blood human beings, not just figures from a history textbook. They come across as full-bodied, three-dimensional personalities, each with his own quirks, virtues and frailties. The fact that Eraly has succeeded in doing that without resorting to fiction is really quite commendable. One also gets a bonus look into the Mughal Empire's two main adversaries - Sher Shah and Shivaji.

If you are history buff and interested in the Mughal era, this book is a must-read.

Sorting Out Sid
Yashodhara Lal Sharma

I am pretty embarrassed that I got around to reading this one so late. Yashodahara is a friend and I have been a long-time follower of her blog. I also enjoyed her first book, Just Married, Please Excuse. And so, every time I saw a post related to her new book on Facebook, I mentally winced in embarrassment. But I had some issues with the credit card that is linked to my Kindle, which finally got sorted out only a few weeks ago. I decided that it would be the perfect travel companion for my trek in the Himalayas, so I saved it for my trip and read it up in the mountains. And I am glad I waited because it was a perfect read for the circumstances - light and funny, but with interesting characters and situations that were easy to relate to.

Sorting Out Sid is, not surprising, about a guy called Sid who is caught in a mid-life crisis of sorts. His marriage is falling apart, his best friend appears to have betrayed him, his job sucks and he keeps putting his foot in his mouth when talking to Neha, a cute single mum he meets at a party. Throw in a kooky tarot card reader, a bossy and interfering female friend, a disapproving father and (wait for it) a beanbag that is also a shoulder to cry on, and you can begin to imagine the madness that ensues.

I can imagine that it must be hard to write a character from the opposite gender but Yashodhara manages to do it very convincingly in this book. I could see shades of some of my male friends in Sid and yet she stops short of creating a stereotypical caricature. If you are looking for a book that will bring a smile to your face, this would be a good book to pick up. 


  1. Ha. Did the 'Tiger's Wife' come recommended by our mutual friend? I gave away my book to her for the precise reason you have mentioned i.e. I did not really get it. Feeling kinsmanship now :)
    Adding the other books to my reading list!

    1. Er... yes. I have your copy only :-)

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  3. Sonia6:46 am

    Rohini!!! 'memba me? I was Grafxgurl in them those days =P So glad to see you're still blogging!

    1. Of course, I remember. How have you been? Good to see you.

      You stopped blogging? I blog but barely.

  4. Good collection of books and objective review. Inspired to read

  5. I love to read. This will add to my list

  6. After reading your post, I loved most "THE TIGER's WIFE" Loved this one, Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Very nice book collection. really liked it as i am also a book maniac