#20 to #24 (2016)

An omnibus of a post for the book’s that didn’t get an individual one back in 2016…

#20 – A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces – David Davidhar
Extra-ordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present

A fascinating anthology of stories from a wonderful collection of writers. One of my laments was the realisation that I’ve been brought up on tons of British ‘literature’ as a kid, American stuff growing up but the Indian exposure is limited – almost incidental. This book could be the ‘rediscovery of India’ for a lot of urban nouveau-riche middle class foks of this era. I didn’t understand every story, not each of them are easy to read and some are more relate-able than others but there is something to be picked up about our country from each, something which can’t really learnt through a history book. What is a must is to spend some time online after each story, to understand the background and for some of the more abstract ones, the meaning and the context as well. Only then would one appreciate something like Ismail Chugtai’s ‘The Quilt’.

Fully intend to read this again sometime, one story every night.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

#21 – The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple
The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857

I’ve been a William Dalrymple fan-boy for a long time, ever since I heard him speak in Jaipur back in 2013. Read a lot of articles by him, heard him speak quite a few times as well but it was a matter of personal disappointment that I hadn’t gotten around to reading a full-length work. And after being behind the eight-ball in October, had almost given up on it for 2016 considering the size of his tomes. Bought The Last Mughal almost on an impulse and took it with me on a holiday. Lugging around a book as heavy as this on a back-pack across Vietnam is not something I regretted for one moment, and this is a testament to the writer. More history than historical fiction, heavy on facts with footnotes abound, this is nonetheless a stunning work which told me more about the 1857 War of Independence than anything I studied in school or any movie – whether involving Aamir Khan or not. Crucially, in an era where the narrative from both sides can be starkly different, retains objectivity most of the time. More importantly at a personal level, managed to spark off a renaissance of interest in this era and genre which will hopefully percolate into the coming years. This is not light reading by any means, but this is exactly how heavy reading can be made fulfilling & captivating. #Fan.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

#22 – The Creation of Wealth – RM Lala
The Tata’s from the 19th to the 21st Century

A book I’d been gifted in 2011, something I started reading more because I hoped some derivatives could be drawn from it into some work related projects. Perhaps the most disappointing of the books I read this year. Firstly, it’s more of a fact-finder than a book you could read, the narrative is missing. The structure the author chose didn’t work for me – going sector by sector – would a chronological approach been more appealing?  Secondly, the style of writing is very juvenile. If it was intended as a textbook or a children’s work – it may be perfect, but then the content also needs to be structured similarly. Thirdly, the tonality – almost, if not completely a hagiography. A more objective, critical assessment would certainly have been more convincing. Especially since I was reading it just as the house of cards was collapsing in real life with Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata trading barbs.

My biggest grouse is that the book just got boring after a point of time – something I’d attribute to all three reasons above. For the history of a group which has had such a pivotal and interesting story over the last 100 odd years, that’s truly unfortunate. A useful ready reckoner on the history of the Tata’s, something I’d gift to a high school kid who was doing a project on this, but hardly recommended for anything beyond.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★

#23 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

I’m going to borrow from a review on GoodReads on this. I went into this book with a bit of an attitude considering it’s been rating among the top 100 books you must read or on some such list. In other words, it means that this is the Dame’s best work – the one Christie you must read over all others. As a yuuuge Agatha Christie fan, who must have read at least 80% of her works, I wasn’t so sure. By some serendipity – I hadn’t actually read this one. (I wasn’t so sure that I hadn’t, you tend to forget the titles but recall the story once you start reading it). So I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up, the characters, the red herrings and wonderful ability Christie has to take us along the journey but still surprise us in the end. And since I’ve read Endless Night, I’d already decided that it surely wasn’t going to end in ‘thaat’ manner. A most delightful surprise.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

#24 – And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Nothing like reading an Agatha Christie classic on a winter afternoon to unwind and relax. This is the only book on this list I’d actually read before. It was a bit of a cheat-code up my arsenal, I’d bought it in the middle of the year but decided to read it only if the targets weren’t being met. It helped that I kind of knew the end but didn’t necessarily remember it very clearly. And so on the 31st of December, the perfect coup-de-grace to the year, a knockout punch of nostalgia and Christie-mystery.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Allie Brosh – Hyperbole and a Half (#19 of 24)

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Credit: https://effusionsofwitandhumour.files.wordpress.com/

This is a very difficult book to write something about. I actually found myself avoiding writing because I honestly was not sure what to write! It’s really nothing like anything you’ve ever seen or read before.

Just to clarify, I loved it and had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading Hyperbole and a Half. What is it about though? Well, it is about a 20 something (I guess) girl who shares life-experiences and stories, and her perspectives on various personal events. Two things which distinguish it from the millions of other younglings who may also attempt such a stunt.

First, she has a razor sharp ability and eye for self-introspection. It is quite magical actually the way she gets into how you (we all) think and then put it in words. It leads to thoughts and experiences which are universally relateable and almost the kind of things which you may be embarrassed to express yourself, but which actually feel nice to read once you see that someone else also feels that way. I actually think this is a big part of why this works so well. The topics include her dogs, her childhood incidents, how dogs behave, battling depression, self-identity issues and really mostly topics which seem to be quite ridiculous if you’d asked someone to write about them. But all this expressed in a dead-pan, poker-face tone (if you can imagine that) works, and how!

Secondly the pictures. Oh my God, the pictures. She actually calls her tales ‘picture-stories’ herself, however these are pictures unlike anything you’d expect. We’ve been a little more conditioned to poorly drawn comics and cartoons in recent times, what with Southpark or even minimalistic work like XKCD. But Brosh’s work is bad. It looks like pictures drawn by a 4 year old. A 4 year old without too much talent i.e.But in fact it’s so bad that it’s actually good, it’s cute and the more you read it the more it grows on you. By no means do I want to say that it’s not intelligent work or that imagination isn’t being used in the bad-pictures. It’s just remarkable how something which would normally be assumed to be a terrible weakness for a comic writer (?) has been turned into one of her USPs and biggest strengths in fact.

I’m guessing most of the stories in the book are also available on the blog. And this is a slightly pricey book – what with colour pictures in it. I’d still recommend it in a heart-beat. It’s probably good for self-introspection. And if that doesn’t work, it’s definitely good for a lot of laughs – irrespective of your age.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Vince Flynn – American Assassin (#18 of 24)

My adventures with audio-books hit a bit of a road-block after the wonderful reading of The Martian I heard last time. (I’m not counting some Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful as they were as a complete book.) So when a couple of long bus journey beckoned, I thought it was the perfect time to dive right into a right ol’ potboiler. I had an app with a limited library but The #1 New York Times bestseller for Vince Flynn and the solid ratings on GoodReads were good enough indicators that this should be a fun ride.

American Assassin was the title to be picked up because it was the first in the Mitch Rapp series, although not the first one published. I felt I might as well start properly at the beginning. Mitch Rapp is essentially James Bond + Jason Bourne + Ethan Hunt all rolled into one, and with a nicer more humble personality to boot. This we’re told without too much precursor. This is also annoying because there is zero grey to his character, making him a template, unrealistic superhero. He can do anything physically, is as courageous as could be, has a temperament which his bosses can’t sustain. He’s thoroughly unrelatable in other words.

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Dark events in his past – his girlfriend died in a hijacking – have left him thirsting for vengeance and he is enrolled (how? that we never know) in a secret program that the CIA runs. The first part of the book is about this training program and the war against a bad-ass Jack Nicholson like boss and how respect is grudgingly earned. Then they’re thrown on the field into a couple of missions, first in Berlin and then in Beirut. There’s a motley bunch of Russians, Syrians, Palestinians, Arabs – all different flavours from the cookie-cutter villain factory who need to be defeated (and they will be, whatever the odds). And I’m not even getting into the one-sided missions and the overdose of God Bless America.

American Assassin is not a terrible book – it just seems more cut out for a Hollywood movie or a young-adult literature genre. There’s some interesting parts about Beirut and if you’re particularly aware of the geo-political situation there in the 80’s and 90’s, you might be able to connect the dots, some nice details of intensive training routines and torture mechanisms – but it all grew stale for me pretty soon. I could never really get stuck in to the book, it’s solid if unspectacular. Perhaps a good first attempt for a young first-time writer. But for someone as experienced as Vince Flynn, it tells me that this is not an author after my own tastes.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★
Readability : ★★★

RK Narayan – Under The Banyan Tree & Other Stories (#17 of 52)

My first memories of RK Narayan are unlike most Indians of my generation – not the TV series Malgudi Days set in the eponymous town of Malgudi, but a small set of stories called Swami and Friends which I must have read in primary school. And although I don’t remember the finer details, it was a book that has stayed stuck in memory, a young boy crazy about cricket as he grows up in a town middle-class India.

RK Narayan’s wonderful set of short stories – Under the Banyan Tree, is what I’d like to classify as comfort reading. Because it seems achingly relate-able, warmly inviting and enticing the reader into its world, minus the shame of a voyeur. It is set in a milieu of the 1950’s to 1980’s I assume, in small towns across South India – which is I’m sure a world away from the India which we inhabit today. And yet, it draws you in with the constants of everyday life, the way we think and interact with each other – those which may never change – which is why in the opening note Narayan speaks about the timelessness of short stories.41704z0bp8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The prose is simple yet elegant, the characters are often weird or flawed but definitely believable. Most of these stories are what they call ‘slice-of-life’ tales – there is often no head or tail, no moral at the end, no lesson to be learnt. It’s just a colourful and detailed picture into the life of people around you.

I read it over the period of a month – in cabs when stuck in traffic, in the nights before I dozed off, in crowded metro trains and never once did it seem to be a task to read it. I could pick up a story from anywhere and it would happily crackle to life, reinvigorating the dormant data-point from the recesses of my mind. I wished it could go on and on and I could return to it whenever I wanted something comfortable, which reminded me of home – like dal-chawal and ghar-ki-chai – this is ‘comfort literature’ at its very best.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Stephen King – Pet Sematery (#15 of 26)

There are some authors you ‘discover’ as you grow older, as you read more about reading, meet more people and in general as you broaden your horizons. And there are some whom you’ve always known of but you still ‘discover’ their work at a later point of time. Stephen King is one of the latter category of authors. I remember this even from when I was younger – much much younger – as I waddled (I assume) to Shri Gajanan Circulating Library as a 7 year old to grab my Enid Blyton’s or a few years later when I gravitated to the mysterious Franklin W. Dixon & Carolyn Kleene – Stephen King’s works would always be there in those bookshelves, within reach and seemingly worn out. Why then I never thought (or dared) of picking them up over the last 2 decades I do not know. I explain it in recent times with a rationalisation – since I seem to have developed an aversion of sorts to the horror genre – whether it is books or movies. But before that I have no logical answer – it just seems to be ‘one of those things that can’t be explained’.

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Pet Sematery, my first Stephen King has a few ‘things that can’t be explained’. But it’s an enthralling and captivating read above all because it does start of trying to explain. Lois Creed – the protagonist – is a skeptic like every intelligent reader would like to be, explaining away mysterious occurrences and rationalising every experience that he can seem to for as long as seems humanly and logically possible. And even his descent into the murky world of magic and powers he can’t control is made extremely relatable – something which I can and I’m sure you can, believe happening to you. It has battles in the mind and decisions that don’t make sense but you know that maybe, just maybe in that kind of situation you may have taken that kind of call yourself. Or maybe you’re too chicken to do so but you could certainly empathize with someone who did take that kind of call.
Alas, I get ahead of myself. It took a chance comment on a Facebook group, a second-hand bookseller on Amazon who gives away wonderful books at throwaway prices and a quick Google search for me to pick up Pet Sematery and then actually pick it up to read it as well. One of the reasons was to explore newer authors and territories in this endeavor over 2016, which is why I did not pick up the DI Rebus work lying besides this. Another reason was to attempt to find out if a fear of fear existed with the general unwillingness to go towards this genre or was it just basic Resistance to Change 101. I started reading this on a flight where I should have by all means been sleepy, but I didn’t feel so once I started reading this. And then over a busy 4 or 5 days – time was squeezed in while travelling, in the wee hours of the night after everyone has gone to sleep and when logic tells you it’s not a good time to read spooky tales, and one particularly delightful session with a vista I would like to believe I will always cherish and relish.

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King is a master of creating an atmosphere and the initial part of the book certainly takes it’s time doing so. Atmosphere isn’t quite the perfect translation of what I want to say, although it’s probably the closest – the Hindi word mahaul seems to have more subtle undertones around it which convey the idea. The beginning is as idyllic as the blurb on the back would tell you – picture perfect American family, lovely country house by the woods, a seemingly friendly old couple across the street – you’d be forgiven for expecting some more cliches to come pouring out of the pages that follow. But there aren’t – he takes his time creating this utopia, opening up the characters incident by incident, chapter by chapter of differing size. And so we learn about the eponymous pet cemetery, Lois’ world at work, his wife’s fears and backgrounds, the undercurrent of tension in the extended family, the fears of a young girl, the simple joy of a father flying a kite with a son and the history of this small-town – all unveiled bit by bit.
I could realize why this is an author who is oh-so-successful, King has a way with words to convey the most complex of thoughts by breaking them down into the easiest to comprehend pieces. And also a talent for knowing when to release some information to keep you well and truly hooked – something that mirrors what TV novellas and series look to do with their still-to-come’s but in an almost casual manner. And an imagination bar none – to be able to pick up from real life incidents as he’s mentioned in interviews, do what I’m sure was extensive research and on folklore and customs and then mix and match the two together. There were parts where I found the descriptions too detailed – especially the exhumation scene – where I would constantly be skimming through the pages, only to catch myself and with a reproach read it properly – where perhaps crisper editing could’ve helped. But it’s a minor quibble, maybe more to do with an incorrect self-assessment of my own patience levels and which could have led to a lesser mahaul. It also was a nice flashback to a life without omnipresent mobile phones, cameras and computers – without which certainly this tale would not have been possible – along with a Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of 1980’s Americana.
Mid-way through the book you kind of figure out what’s going to happen in the second half and you put two plus two together. A pet cemetery that brings pet’s back from the dead and a dead human being – you know what’s coming. But there is a masterful pulling of the strings to try to get you to side with Lois although you know you shouldn’t be and this can’t end well. And the third part (which is hardly a part) but which will give you the goosebumps that you knew were prickling up.
Pet Sematery has convinced me to accord more respect to the category or genre as a whole. Mr. Stephen King, I will definitely be back.
Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

Ian Rankin – The Beat Goes On (#14 of 26)

I have a Ian Rankin novel (Let It Bleed) which has been lying with me for a while now but I somehow never got around to reading. Amazon has forever been pushing ‘And The Beat Goes On’ to me as something ‘I might like’ or under ‘this was bought by people who also bought something else which I happened to buy’. I was tempted but didn’t bite because there already was one of his works lying in wait for me. Until, there was some super sale and I got a 500 odd rupee book for a 100 odd rupees. As an Indian, I’d like to think that I know a good bargain when I see one so I latched on to the bait. And boy, am I glad.

Background for the uninitiated (as I was until a few months ago) – Ian Rankin is the author of the best-selling series of novels all based around the central protagonist Deputy Inspector Rebus (DI John Rebus), set in and around Edinburgh, Scotland – part of a genre which is now known as Scottish Noir.

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The Beat Goes On is a collection (a large collection at that) of short stories about Rebus from over the years – an omnibus of sorts. The wonderful part about the character is that he’s aged over the years as a normal person would do, when Rankin started writing about him in 1984 – he was a forty something detective, divorced and with a young daughter. Over the years he’s grown in rank, experience and curmudgeon-liness perhaps? Rebus is a fascinatingly normal character though – refreshingly free of any Hercule Poirot-ish behavioural quirks and Sherlock Holmes-ish genius. He has at best a discerning eye, a keen sense of intuition for who’s a bad penny and what’s wrong but at no point does he seem like superman which is what made him so endearing for me. His overall character is also well roundedly normal – a world weariness and cynicism towards his job, a love for music which goes deep into indie territory, an affinity for some drink with special mention for IPA, a platonic friendship with a junior detective.  And in a way an omnibus of stories like The Beat Goes On is the best way to see this transition over the ages – the adjusting to technology, time, age and the world around you in general.

A fine fine read, the perfect kind of book to curl around with a cup of tea on a Saturday evening. DI Rebus, you’ve got me hooked for your longer works.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train (#11 of 26)

This was the potboiler that had been making waves for quite some time now and I’d consciously avoided picking it up after Gone Girl. Then I’d once dabbled with the possibility of listening to the audio-book version of it but Audible failed me then. With the impending movie hurtling towards and Amazon offering a nice discount, the bullet was finally bit.

First things first, the comparisons with Gone Girl are justified because of the basic theme – there is no escaping that. A missing girl, man-hunt, mixed up relationships, the police on the heels of the central protagonist – the similarities are quite stark and will have you deja-vu’ing in no time. So the good – the writing style is smooth, easy and hookable – it’s unputdownable without exaggeration.There’s genuine tension created, there’re some solid twists (although mildly predictable I felt) and a basic premise which is very relatable. After all who hasn’t sat in a train and wondered about the lives of the people we see? It’s voyeuristic and yet familiar.

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Where the two books differ is in character building and narrative styles. I thought one of the big successes of Gone Girl was how Gillian Flynn had us rooting for Amy in the first half, and then Nick in the second half. TGOTT didn’t quite do that for me – I couldn’t find any of the three point-of-view characters sympathetic, least of all Rachel who takes up most of the time and footage. And while it’s still a page-turner by all means, it’s one of those page turners where you’re rushing through to get over the ‘unknown’ instead of relishing in all its glory. It’s difficult to root for a character who’s constantly in a drunken stupor, constantly cribs and complains, does nothing reasonably sensible – in fact does things which are completely ridiculously stupid, shows no intent to buckle down and make things work, right up to the end.

My other peeve was the way information was revealed. Again, I hate to compare to Gone Girl but while we had unreliable and dishonest narrators, it seemed that was the way they were. The diary entries were misleading, but intentionally so – and while we didn’t know that till later, no one else did either. Likewise with a lot of Nick’s dirty laundry, it was gradually revealed to the reader as it was (or before it would be) to the rest of the world outside – or when the protagonist got to telling that part of the story. In TGOTT, I got the feeling the author was ‘cheating’ a bit. First with the dates – the whole part of Megan’s story running in a completely distinct timeline was the key to the whole book. And that’s not really fair, if you want to let in information like that – use a better plot device like the diary. Secondly, while it’s okay to not have a character be completely honest – to be selectively dishonest is even worst (I know it’s a thin line). So if Megan never mentions Tom, or there’s a throw away reference about how she doesn’t want to speak about Tom maybe – that’s OK. What’s unfair again is speaking about Tom, meeting him, knowing his relationship with his wife but then leaving out a big fat point of data – only because it would have taken the sting out of the story. And finally I kept feeling throughout that the drunken memory loss – even with the swerve – is a lazy crutch to tell a mystery story.

The masala Bollywood movie equivalent  – don’t overanalyse it, go with the flow and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★