2013 – My Year in Books

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I was a voracious reader during my college days at IIT Guwahati. Those were the days when I had ample free time, access to a superb library, and a set of awesome friends who shared my passion for books. After leaving college, due to multiple priorities and other pressures, the amount of time I was able to spend reading books gradually declined. Until this year.

2013 was the year when I rediscovered and reclaimed the book addict in me. In terms of the number and quality of books I was able to read, this year was as good as any of my golden college years. Through my blog and twitter I discovered a new set of friends sharing the same passion and zeal about reading as me, making my reading experience much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Ignoring Kindle Singles and short story collections, I read around 24 awesome books this year.

Some books I read in 2013

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 Some thoughts, facts and trivia about the books I read on 2013:

  • Best Book I read in 2013 (it was very difficult to decide) – ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (see my review here). ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh would be a close second (see my review here)
  • Most Innovative book – ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ by Mohsin Hamid (see my review here) – I have never read a second person narrative fiction before!
  • Best opening line – “History is the third parent” from ‘The Blind Man’s Garden’ by Nadeem Aslam
  • Crib of the year: Out of the six books shortlisted for the Manbooker prize, I had read five. The one I did not read, actually won the prize.
  • One that was tooooooooo long – ‘NOS4A2’ by Joe Hill (700 + pages – at one point of time, I was literally praying for it to get over)
  • Deeply Philosophical – ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil (see my review here)
  • Most anticipated yet really disappointing – ‘Doomed’ by Chuck Palahniuk – This, I think, is the worst Chuck book ever.
  • Made me laugh out loud – ‘The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson (see my review here) and ‘The Competent Authority’ by Shovon Chowdhury
  • Ending totally surprised me – ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Out of the 24, if I have to select one to be made into a movie – it will be the ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
  • Most uplifting book (it’s actually a Kindle single) – ‘In the Tunnel’ by Takamichi Okubu (see my review here)
  • “Blast from the past” read of the year – Idle, alone, and completely bored on a weekend, I fished out one of my old favorites and an all time classic – “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie. This book is such a delight.
  • Brilliant unreliable narrator book – ‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch
  • Notable Misses: There were two brilliant books which came this year, and in-spite of being on top of my “to-read” list, due to one reason or the other, I was not able to lay my hands on them. These are the “Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson and this year’s Manbooker winner – ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton 

How was your ‘2013 in books’. Do share through comments.

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Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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A Tale for the Time being

“Am I crazy?” she asked. “I feel like I am sometimes.”

“Maybe,” he said, rubbing her forehead. “But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.” – Excerpt from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

‘A Tale for the Time being’ has an innovative and non-linear structure. Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, has recently relocated from California to Tokyo after her software engineer father lost his job. Nao has decided to commit suicide and as a last meaningful activity, she decides to write a journal telling the story of her great grand mother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist Nun. However, this journal is as much about her and her family as about grandma Jiko. In fact, this journal seems to be an escape route for Nao, her way to deal with her problems – extreme bullying in school, family’s financial problems, and her father’s acute depression and resulting suicidal tendencies (the idea that suicide is a legitimate means of solving one’s problem is a recurring occurrence in this novel. This is probably due to the fact that Japanese Culture is much more tolerant towards suicide.)

Travelling across the pacific ocean, this journal reaches Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese accent who lives with her husband and a pet cat (named Schrodinger) in a remote island. Recovering from the recent death of her mother due to Alzheimer’s, Ruth is struggling with writers’ block. Alternating between a chapter written by Nao and Ruth’s reaction to it, the story moves back and forth between the past and the present, Canada and Japan, Ruth and Nao – until it all converges.

I would categorize Nao as one of the most nuanced teenage characters ever written. From being bubbly and humorous, she will suddenly shift gears to something visceral and brutal. Like being hit suddenly by a hammer when you are laughing out loud. Ruth’s character on the other hand could have been better itched out. Other characters like Oliver, Ruth’s husband, Nao’s father and mother, etc. are deliberately underdeveloped, probably to keep the focus on Ruth and Nao and present their world as seen by them.

A Tale for the Time Being is an offbeat novel. It will require patience, careful attention and some amount of thinking and introspection to fully understand and appreciate this beautiful book.

Ruth is a Canadian/American novelist/filmmaker and her earlier works include the critically acclaimed “All over the Creation”.  ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

Bonus Material: Ruth talking about the book

Bonus Material: Trailer of the book

Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

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“Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,’ he said wistfully. ‘It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.” – Excerpt from River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.

River of Smoke is the second book of the Ibis trilogy. Like the first book, Sea of Poppies, it is set in early 19th century, against the backdrop of the opium trade between India and China, and explores the lives of various characters involved in the trade.

As against the Sea of Poppies, which was set mostly in India, a large portion of River of Smoke happens in Canton, the port thru which opium was imported to China. Balram Modi, a wealthy Parsi businessman from Bombay is carrying one of the largest consignments of opium ever on the Ship Anahita to Canton. Another ship, Redruth, carrying horticulturist Frederick Penrose and his assistant Paulette, who are in search of rare Chinese plants and flowers, is also heading towards Canton. Things take an unexpected turn when the Chinese emperor bans opium trade, resulting in some interesting social, political, and economic consequences.

There is no doubt that River of Smoke is a difficult book to read. It contains dialogues in multiple dialects – English, Hindi, Gujrati, Bhojpuri, Cantonse, pidgin etc., with little effort from the author to translate everything to English. Many a times, one has to judge the meaning of these dialogues by the context. There are words like pus pus, muchi, allo olo, gradmanzees, etc. One has to interpret the meaning of these words. Although making reading difficult and demanding, it give a unique flavor of authenticity to the narrative. And in spite of being laborious to read, it is by no means boring or dull.

The characters, some continued from ‘Sea of Poppies’ and some new, are engaging and there are interesting ways in which their  stories crisscross each other. The author has presented early 19th century Canton beautifully. The depth of research which has gone in writing this book is commendable.

The book (and the trilogy) covers one of the most interesting and historically significant part of British-Indo-chinese history (the events leading to the Opium War). It is most certainly a captivating read of those who are interested in this slice of history.

I have read the first two books of this trilogy and I have no qualms declaring it one of the most epic and grand literary exercise undertaken by any Indian author. Eagerly waiting for the third installment.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Lowland By Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland By Jhumpa Lahiri

“Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.” – Excerpt from The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland is the second novel by the famed Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri. Her earlier works include Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and novel The Namesake (which was adapted to a motion picture directed by Mira Nair). The Lowland has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

The Lowland is the story of brothers Subhash and Udayan. Born just 15 months apart, but having a dramatically different personalities – Subhash is pragmatic and realistic whereas Udayan idealistic and romantically besotted with the ideals of communism. Udayan gets drawn to the violent Naxalite movement whereas Subhash moves to the US for further studies. The story takes an unexpected turn when Uadyan is killed by the police for involvement in anti-government activities and Subhash marries his pregnant widow Gauri and takes her to the US. But it is difficult to escape the consequences of what Udayan had done, and which will define the lives of Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela.

Similar to her earlier works, the characters here are burdened by sense of remorse which results in their emotional isolation. The highlight of the book is the emphatic portrayal of these characters, particularly of Gauri and Udayan. Some of Gauri’s actions seem to be cold-hearted and, at times, even cruel. However, Jhumpa never makes an overt attempt to justify these actions, gradually revealing information from the back stories and leaving it to the readers to make any judgement.

Similarly for Udayan, he seems like irresponsible and unemotional to his family, putting them into unnecessary danger and hardship. From a rational point of view, it is difficult to understand and reconcile with his behavior. Yet, not much space is spent explaining his point of view.

The complex relationship between Bela and Subhash is captured beautifully and forms some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the book.

Overall, The Lowland is a beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

Bonus Material: Jhumpa talking about the book

Trying to Understand India – Three Books You Must Read

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The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

There is no better book to understand the history of India. Right from the Indus valley civilization through the various phases of its history, it is truly a journey to discover India. Written by Jahawarlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, when he was imprisoned during India’s freedom struggle, this book was an effort by the leader to understand and chronicle the rich past of his country. 

Notable Quotes

“India has known the innocence and insouciance of childhood, the passion and abandon of youth, and the ripe wisdom of maturity that comes from long experience of pain and pleasure; and over and over again she has renewed her childhood and youth and age”

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Nothing captures post Independence India like Salman Rushdie’s seminal work – Midnight’s Children, which is probably the best book ever written about India. 

Notable Quotes

“‎No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”

“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is to post globalization India, what Midnight’s Children is to post colonial India. Aravind has such a fine understanding of the pulse of this new India, it almost make me jealous.  

Notable Quotes:

“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.”

“The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.”

“Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.

These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.”

Enjoy Reading!!

 

Book Review – The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

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“History is the third parent.” – Opening line of The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

I read this line. I re-read this line. I took a pause and inhaled. I read it again. This is one of the most powerful opening lines in recent times. And then I realized, this isn’t going to be an ordinary book. It is a piece of art, the kind of book which remains with you forever. It cannot be treated like an ordinary book. It has to be given the respect and reverence a masterpiece deserves. You have to read it slowly and attentively, savoring each and every sentence, some times re-reading portions to admire the elegant, poetic and beautiful writing.

The Blind Man’s Garden is story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – the aftermath of 9/11, USA’s attack on Afghanistan, the resultant rise of taliban and religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. Rohan is a religious Pakistani from Heer, a small town in Pakistan. He used to run a school, which has now been taken over by the fundamentalists. His doctor son Jeo, along with his close friend Mikal, sets off to Afghanistan to help the wounded civilians. However, they get entangled in the war there, Jeo get killed and Mikal captured by the tribal lords and handed over to the US military. Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s wife, were in love before Naheed’s marriage to Jeo. There are multiple sub-plots, each character has its own story, however, Mikal’s journey back to his love Naheed forms the main plot.

It is a beautifully written book with very well itched out, realistic characters. The way the inner conflicts and turmoil of the characters is brought out by Nadeem is commendable.

The dialogues are deep and meaningful, sometimes you have to pause your reading to fully absorb them.

Highly recommended!!

Bonus Material: Nadeem Aslam taking about the book

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Book Review: Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel

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Trail  of Chupacabra by Stephen Randel

Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel is the story of Avery, an eccentric and quirky geek/explorer, who enters Mexico in search of the mythical animal – Chupacabra. His companions in this adventure are Zippy, a burnt out hippy and a crazy private militia (called as “Southwest Texas Revolutionary Armed Confederate Border Operations Militia STRAC-BOM”; headed by General x-Ray). It is about how they get entangled in the rivalry between the feared drug lord Padre, his enemy Barquero and the Mexican army, and how they eventually come out of it.

The premise of the story is interesting and has a potential to be a highly entertaining book. There are two parallel tracks – Avery’s search of the chupacabra and Barquero’s revenge on the Padre. The two tracks merge towards the end of the book resulting in a superb climax. However, the undoing of the book is its uni-dimensional characters. While funny and hilarious to start with, almost all the key characters (Avery, Ziggy, General X ray etc.) become repetitive after some time. Even the humor (Avery’s complaint letters to the authorities, Ziggy histrionics, and STRAC-BOM’s stupidity) feels stale.

To summarize, Trail of the Chupacabra is the kind of book which can be harmlessly browsed through if you have spare time and nothing better to do. However, you may not like to take out time specifically to read it.

PS: I received a complementary copy of this book in order to review it.