Monday, January 6, 2020

Reading Goals of 2019

Let's see how I fared:

1. To discover more women writers
Status: goal met

There was a time I only read books by men, barring a few exceptions like JK Rowling or Anne Rice. I don't know if this was a coincidence or influenced in some way by the kind of books I was surrounded by in bookstores, libraries and recommended lists. My favourite authors still happen to be men, but that is just circumstantial. This year though, I've consciously documented whom I've been reading - books by men, women and both here is for a book co-written by a man and a woman.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Favourite Books I Read in 2019

I saw someone post a list of their favourite books of the decade and while I would love to write a post quite as grand as that, it seems like an impossible task. I was 17 a decade ago and I honestly couldn't look at the books I read at 18-19-20... now, through the same lens as I did then. So I'll go with the Top Ten Tuesday standard, Ten Favourite Books of the year 2019 (how convenient that the last day of the year is a Tuesday.) I will be writing a detailed year in review post next week (yes, another new year's attempt at blog revival as it were.) So today's just a plain and simple list.

1.  Girl at War by Sara Novic: This is a book written by a Croatian writer about a young girl who loses her family in the Serbo-Croatian War. It exposed me to a part of the world I knew nothing about and with the glaring honesty of a ten-year-old narrator. Ana Juric, the main character, is rescued out of the war zone and adopted by an American family when she is ten. She grows up American, in denial and finally, mid-way into the book, unravels her past even as she comes to terms with it herself. A scene that still haunts me: this tiny little girl, convulsing in pain and vomiting as she has her first dinner with her new American family - she's never known what it is to have a full stomach. She can't bear it.

2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, it took me 27 years to pick this up and I'm not unashamed to admit it. Where do I even begin with this? I don't know what I was waiting for. Reading The Lord of the Rings sometime in May and and binge-reading up on Tolkien for the rest of the year has sufficed to transform my entire outlook on fantasy fiction -- one of my favourite genres at that. I don't think there is a greater quest in fiction nor a greater character than Sam. But that deserves more than a mention on a list, doesn't it?

3. What the F*: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen: It's not often that a non-fiction makes it to my list of favourite anythings (aside: it's fascinating how favourite is underlined in red for its UK spelling, but 'anythings' isn't.) I've annoyed everyone I know and would care to listen to exasperation singing praises of this book, so all I'm going to do is copy the book description from Goodreads. "Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time." There's no scope for being prudish while reading this one.

4. Columbine by Dave Cullen: Another non-fiction... what is happening to me. Now for the record, gun violence is as distant a reality to me as possible and that gives me the luxury of taking this book in a different vein than many other readers would. Takeaways for me, from this critical reporting of the Columbine massacre: compassion fatigue, misrepresentation of facts in the media, the celebration of a school spirit, urban myths and people juicing the tragedy for personal propaganda. The biggest trigger for me, as a school teacher, was just how much "in charge" a teacher is of her students' safety. Foremost, I think we, as a thinking and feeling society, must read this book to see how a small twist of facts can colour an entire story; and how important it is to look for facts in the face of compelling emotion.

5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I rarely pick up series, and even when I do, I hardly ever like the first book. Seraphina is a glaring exception to this rule. The beautiful medieval/steampunk story redeems its genre of young adult fantasy. Seraphina is the story of a girl who is part dragon, and her attempts to fit into the class ascribed to her by a society which doesn't understand or accept her full potential.

6. The Elephant Whisperer by Laurence Anthony: This was my first book of the year, and a memorable read. This is the true story of an Australian-African conservationist and his efforts to to rehabilitate a herd of wild elephant in the Thula Thula nature preserve in South Africa. Laurence Anthony loves elephants, that much is clear from the first chapter; but what becomes increasingly, and amazingly, evident over the course of the book is that these elephants love Laurence Anthony too. What we get is a strange tale of patience, hard work and the careful and precarious bonding between one man and one alpha female elephant, who work together to protect the lives of her precious pachyderm family. It's unforgettable. You learn about the intricate nature of elephant societies, their unmistakable intelligence, South African jungle laws and most importantly, the power of family.

7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It's becoming increasingly hard to pick favourites in a year that was so rewarding in terms of reading. Yet, I cannot forget this particular book that had the most compelling set of characters of all the books I read this year. It's the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple and their struggle to settle down in New York city. It is also about the American family they work for, and how the financial crisis of 2008 shakes their perfectly built world to the core.

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Let's be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love this book. It proudly proclaims to be a "YA" book and I have my biases about that. It also takes a line with so much power and cultural connotation as its title, I was certain it would be difficult to live up to the name. I was wrong. The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who at the very opening of the book, witnesses a police officer shoot down her best friend Khalil. As the whole nation is taken up in a speculation game, the only person who knows the truth is afraid of getting involved. This is a complicated story of race, identity, violence, friendship, and risking the facade of normalcy to protect and celebrate your roots.

8. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie: Oh, but this book is an epic, a story spanning nations and generations. The surprised outrage of America at the time of 9/11. A young Muslim couple in love facing the Partition of two nations in an old, old Delhi. The bombing of Nagasaki and the far-reaching injuries of this war on the minds and bodies of the people. It's set in Pakistan, and Japan, and Afghanistan too, and sheds light on war from any and every perspective, every generation and language. The storyteller is intelligent, unbiased, and compassionate and demands the same of her reader.

9. Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly: So, this may seem misplaced in an increasingly more serious list, but I abso-freaking-lutely loved this book. This is the premise: it is the greatest bounty hunt in history. The targets are the finest warriors in the world-commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today. On this list is the name of the US Marine Shane Schofield, who is not only a target but also quite possibly the only man who can stop this bounty hunt, if he doesn't get killed first. Reading Matthew Reilly's book is like watching a well made action movie. What Reilly lacks in terms of language or depth of character, he makes up for in speed and a kind of detail that is almost screenwriter-ish but in a good way. I won't be able to read these books one after the other, but it's perfect if you're in the mood for some entertainment.

10. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: The hardest pick of all that brings the list to a close. The Hired Man is yet another book set in Croatia, and a psychological dissection of war, when it comes unannounced and alters reality as you know it. This book takes you in the mind of a man who has suffered mysterious evils at the hands of an unnamed war, and the lifelong repercussions it has on his psyche. It's the story of a small town and its culture being silently rewritten by its scant inhabitants to account for the damages that were caused to them, about how the world has somehow moved on to the future while they're still grappling with a new present. An American woman and her two kids move into a house in small town Croatia. The woman hires a local man to help out with the refurbishing of what she wants to turn into a holiday home, and this man, our narrator, tells us the history of the house. A haunting read. The author hammers into your mind and turns the screw just when you least expect it.


That's it for now, which were your favourite reads of the year? 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sleeping Beauties by Owen King and Stephen King

Summary: In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, and the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

World War Z by Max Brooks


To be honest, I did not imagine it would be this hard to keep my only New Year's resolution for 2019 - to write a blog post a week. And yet, here I am, two months into the year and already failing. It's just that I have been so incredibly busy that it's been difficult to make time to open a book; let alone write about it! And even then, in spite of all the hair-pulling, fist-clenching, make-it-stop-screeching kind of busy that I've endured over these past few weeks, I've somehow, at the back of my mind, been chewing on this book. What follows is not my best review; rather a post-midnight spew of thought, but it's better than nothing (so I tell myself.) 

World War Z by Max Brooks is a book I've wanted to read for a long time. I'd read about it initially on the book blogging circles, many years ago, and eventually heard about the movie as well. And yet, nothing; I mean, nothing, could have prepared me for the ride that was this book. The most concise and precise review - what on earth. My reaction was as simple and as complex as that! It is easily one of the strangest, most accurate books I have ever read, and it blew me away.

The words "zombie apocalypse" bring to mind a very specific image, isn't it? A story in the style of 28 Days Later - lone survivors, lost and hunted, and the rapid breakdown of society as we know it. Stories of apocalyptic outbreaks are almost always from a singular perspective - one man, family or group of strangers against the countless armies of the infected. This is what I expected from World War Z by Max Brooks, which has always been in the "zombie apocalypse" category. 

But World War Z is no 28 Days Later. It's not a survivor's drama-tragedy. It's biting sociopolitical satire.The harsh realities and inner workings of different spheres of society, politics, geopolitics, economics, military are exposed. Written in the form of an "oral history," that is, a series of interviews of people directly involved in a "Zombie War" that nearly eradicated all of humanity. From the very first Patient infected with the virus that reanimated the dead, to survivors across the world fleeing to the icy regions where zombies turn ineffective; soldiers from the countless armies fighting against the attacks; even the government bigwigs involved in making the plans of evacuation and counter-attack; reporters covering the mass outbreak of disease; media seizing the day to publicise anthems of hope; right up to big pharmaceutical companies manufacturing fake antidotes! 

Each interviewee has his own voice, and tone - cold, reflective, morose, shattered, clinical. The book ties all the perspectives together into a loose narrative over a few years. What we end up with is this haunting, realistic case study of what would happen if the human race were to systematically fuck itself up to a great big fall. Does it end on a sweet ray of hope? Hardly. There are places and stories which spark a light of hope in your hearts, but one that is easily squashed moments later. I mean, you can always draw inspired conclusions about this indelible nature of the human race, our ability to push through and emerge victorious in times of great strife. But we'd be fools to ignore who got us into that struggle in the first place. 

Many chapters are imprinted on my mind and I don't think I'll ever forget them. But they're best read, not described. To give you a taste... 

"They say great times make great men. I don't buy it. I saw a lot of weakness, a lot of filth. People who should have risen to the challenge and either couldn't or wouldn't. Greed, fear, stupidity and hate. I saw it before the war, I see it today. I don't know if great times make great men, but I know they can kill them."
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"A lie? It's okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that's not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. "We're going to be okay." That was our message... There's a word for that kind of lie. Hope."
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“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and "They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine.”

Monday, January 7, 2019

You Haven't Lived Until You've Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven't lived until you've read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet... it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?

This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I've tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It's been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I'll write a Part 2. For now - 


1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It's the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean... and, a tiger. A survival's tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 

A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war - the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector's body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.

The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.

4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 

A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He'd sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else's appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?