Sunday, December 30, 2007

2008: Back to reading

The holidays are coming to an end, and its back to my busy routine, with no time for anything at all. Conversly, no late night movies and no partying mean that I will get to read more!

December went by in a whirl of activity. My husband's sister and family spend 10 days with us, and books took a backseat, as we went houseboat-cruising, temple-worshipping and family-visiting. They did make a brief reappearance, when my mother-in-law gifted the two cousins, girls of 11 and 15, Treasure Island and Robin Hood. To my kids, she gave a copy of Oliver Twist, which I set aside for them to read later. I hope my son, Aditya, at least, turns out to be as precocious a reader as I was. Though I think he will perhaps outstrip me. I recall being average in that department till I was about 7, and then suddenly going all out! Aditya, who is 4, is crazy about reading, and tries to read every word he sees, even brand names. Sometimes that bothers me - I don't want him to think that extra, for instance, is spelt 'xtra'.

This year we had a christmas tree for the children. Christmas was spent with my friend Nandini, over a glass of Cabernet Shiraz. I stuck to my one glass, in spite of all thier urging - but she would be happy to know that I had two full glasses at our company do!

But tomorrow its back to school for the kids, and hopefully I'll get around to finishing A.S. Byatt's The Game.

Happy New Year, all!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Peter Hoeg is back

His new novel 'The Quiet Girl' has just been reviewed by salon. See

The premise sounds a lot like Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow. Good.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Viking in me

A long time ago, when I was a tennis-watching, fanatic worshipper of a certain blond Swedish serve-and-volleyer, I tripped on all things Viking.

And being a very all-or-nothing type, I wasn't content with merely being a fan. No. I had to read up on Scandinavian history, read books by Swedish, Danish or Norwegian authors, own a road-map of Sweden, an English-to-Swedish dictionary, collect Swedish stamps, listen to Swedish musicians (Europe, Roxette, Abba, Ace of Base, you know...). I dreamt of doing up my home in Swedish glass, blond wood and Ikea furniture.... and my daughter would, of course, be named Annika.

My craze probably peaked with my Norse Mythology project, where I would read up on the subject and take little notes on Thor, Odin, Mjollnir, Ragnarok, Valhalla, Aesir, Vanir, and a lot more besides, that I thought I had forgotten. Part of my fascination (God, what a nerd I must've been) was because, somewhere, at the back of my mind, I planned to write a great epic . A historic, viking-era saga.

That more or less describes what I'm reading now - The Whale Road, by Robert Low. I couldn't be happier with it - I have about a quarter to go. Set in 800 - 900 AD, it is about a group of Vikings in quest of treasure. The author, Robert Low, apparently himself takes part in Viking re-enactments (more on that here at and it shows in its fast pace and action-packed content. The atmosphere he evokes is almost tangible - the smells, the sounds, the emotions of it. The style is manly, yet poetic. Also, though I am no expert, I have read much shoddy historical fiction - there are no anachronisms I can point out here. This is no slim tale masquerading as an epic.

The protagonist, Orm is someone I've been able to empathise with more than any other character in recent times.

And luckily, this seems to be a trilogy - so I can plunder, pillage, and search for treasure to my heart's content.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Weekend with friends

Feels like it, certainly. Finished The man of my dreams' by 'Prep' author, Curtis Sittenfeld. Good, though not as satisfying or personal to me as Prep.

Now reading Maeve Binchy's 'Quentins'.

Also, the hubby was seen toying with my copy of 'The Deathly Hallows' (HP 7 to you non-believers). I resisted the tempation to stand over his head and insist he read the books in some kind of order. Just about. I think he got as far as chapter 2, but I am not optimistic.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Reading update

Finished Oh Play That Thing, Roddy Doyle’s second book from trilogy, The Last Round-up, last week. Eagerly awaiting the last book. I hope it’s not too long a wait. As it is, I read the first book, A Star Called Henry quite a while back, and other than the essentials, I didn’t remember much.

Like all the Roddy Doyle books I’ve read, Oh Play That Thing also gathers steam midway. You can never quite tell where one of his books is leading, or how it will end. I liked the ‘sandwich board’ parts and all the bits with Louis Armstrong (and by extension, his milieu) were fascinating. The ending went off in quite a different – though heart-rending – direction. Wonder what’s coming next. Still, I can’t help but feel that I like Roddy Doyle best when his subject matter is less vast, less epic – like in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

Also finished The Kiterunner by Khalid Hosseini, which is another one of those much talked about works. It was a fast, absorbing work, with a very poetic cadence, which I, with my limited reading of such books, tend to associate with Islamic writing. Very filmy though, the storyline. I wouldn’t think it out of place in a Hindi movie, albeit one of the better ones.

Coincidentally, similar threads – the Middle East, adoption - run through what I’m reading now. Which is Digging To America by my perennial favourite, Anne Tyler. Next on my list is a book I suspect is unabashedly pulp fiction – Lord Of Snow And Shadows by Sarah Ash, (Isnt that such a perfect name for fantasy writer?) which seems to be some sort of historical novel/fantasy/saga. Am I willing to be drawn into another make-believe world, replete with detailed backstories, so soon after Harry Potter?

In the meantime, I’m reading aloud Red Rackham’s Treasure to my kids, who’ve had their fill of fairy tales. It’s also a way to re-live my own Tintin reading days. That goes without saying! I do worry a bit though, will they think it worth the bother to actually read it themselves later, since they already know what the story is all about?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

One more for the genre

Where the heart is - Billie Letts

Female Protagonist - check

Small Town America setting - check

Simple homegrown prose - check

Moment(s) of crises - check

Overall feeling of warmth and cosiness - check

Oprah Book Club recommendation - check

If you're wondering what the hell I'm talking about, see my earlier post.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Reading, anyone?

I was at home for the long Onam weekend, and surrounded by my mother and sister, both voracious readers, the topic inevitably turned to reading. Both consider me a less-than serious reader, since I do read more popular fiction than either of them. Strangely enough, I am also the more prolific reader these days! They, especially my sister, found it quite surprising that I find the time to read in spite of a fairly busy schedule that includes a job, and two small children to raise.

Growing up in a small town in Assam in the 80s with no television in our colony till a neighbour bought a small black and white model, reading was something we did without question. With a bookworm for a sister, it was only natural that I turned out to be something of a precocious reader. But at no time did I get a feeling that I was in any way different from my friends who all, I think, read. Tintin, Asterix, Archies and commando comics were universally loved. Enid Blyton was a staple and so was Sherlock Holmes and classics by authors like Dickens, Jules Verne etc. I thought it was perfectly normal.

Coming to Kerala, I had the good fortune to study in a wonderful school, albeit in a small town. Again, I had classmates who read. But already the percentage of readers had lessened. It was the probably the first time that I heard people actually say that reading was boring.

By the time I got to college, readers were few and far between. My sister, who had preceded me to the same institution, did not have a single friend or batchmate who read. She was considered to be something of a curiosity, with her nose always in a book. I was luckier. My two closest friends read. One introduced me to ‘To kill a mocking bird’ and the Laura Ingalls series, the other, to more populist authors like Colleen McCollough. A third friend fired my enthusiasm for impressionist painting. Those were heady days. I devoured classics, philosophy, history and biography. I read every author whom I thought it behooved me to read. I struggled through quite a few books that I didn’t enjoy. I was feeling my way then, but today, I read only for pleasure.

While reading was always my biggest and my most enduring passion I had a fierce love for music and cinema, which is why I probably didn’t get slapped with the ‘bookworm’ tag. All this and more we talked about this Onam. But I was telling my sister that there was a big change since our college days. Fewer people read, I observed; on the other hand, more people read what was fashionable to read than in our day. That meant the current booker winner; the Indian-author-writing-in-English who was the flavour of the moment; or the unexpected runaway hit. And another thing – in the age of the internet, geography is no longer crucial in connecting people of similar interests. It has been great to note, on orkut or facebook, on blogs or elsewhere, that reading is flourishing! The guy sitting next to you may not be reading, but the chick you are chatting with, is.

My close pals have all become mothers in the last decade, some twice over. Connecting with them recently, I was surprised – though I really don’t know why I should be – to discover that they had all been reading Harry Potter, and around the same time as me! It felt terrific that like me, in the midst of all their chores they too had been caught up in the same excitement.

I often tell people around me – I have to read, because that is what helps me write, and that is how I earn my living. But I also know that this is something I do more for pleasure than anything else and I know I’ll always love reading. I hope I’ll always be surrounded by people who share this love!

On my table now? Better English by Vallins. A book which reminds me to write with more coherence and regard for grammar! High time, I must say. And a book by Baroness Orczy, whom I haven’t read since school.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Looking back...

A long while ago, perhaps just before I embarked on my degree in English, I had made a list of books that I just had to own. Kind of my top ten, but more than that. I dreamt of not just owning, but owning beautiful-looking copies of these books. Collectibles. Looking back, I realise that these are still some of my very favourite books. So much for emotional growth! Here they are:

Howard's End - EM Forster

A Room With A View - EM Forster

Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow - Daniel Hoeg

The Diary Of A Young Girl - Anne Frank

The Great Longing - Marcel Moring

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen

Jude The Obscure - Thomas Hardy

To Kill A Mocking Bird - Harper Lee

An Old Fashioned Girl - Louisa May Alcott

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha - Roddy Doyle

I don't think that I could go back to Jude The Obscure, though inspite of the heavy tragedy, it was the most readable of the Hardies in my view. And Old Fashioned Girl, my cousin tells me, is unforgivably mawkish, but to me it brings back memories of winter in Assam and chapathis dipped in melted butter. And I do have a copy of Anne Frank's Diary, but unfortunately I bought it just before the unexpurgated version was released.

I've been casting about for my next read (have already read The Deathly Hallows twice, back-to-back, and saw the movie of the fifth book last Sunday; even for me, it was a little too much Harry Potter). Let's see if I can trace the EM Forster I have yet to read: Maurice.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Just this about Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

I have to say: Read. Relieved.

On the whole, it works brilliantly. Of course, there's the epilogue, which has largely been reviled.

But I wouldn’t change a thing, really. It wouldn’t do for us to out-JK Rowling JK Rowling. The book began in her head, and in her hands alone can it reach completion. It’s hers to do what she will, and I for one, am satisfied.

Never lose sight that it is, in fact a children’s series. And children may not like the ambiguous ending that adults seem to be clamouring for.

Friday, June 29, 2007

HP 7 - The wait is nearly over

There's less than a month to go before the final book in the Harry Potter series. (Or so you would've known if you were anywhere on Planet Earth this past year.) And what a long wait it's been. In the meantime, I finished Anita Shreve’s Sea Glass and Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue. The latter is an Oprah Book Club recommend, and the former is written by an author whose ‘The Pilot’s Wife' was also, surprise, surprise, on the same Book Club.

In my head there is a genre taking shape. 'Turn Of The 20th Century/Early 21st Century American Women Authors With Novels rooted in Small Town America'. Because I have read, over the past year, at least 5 or 6 that I could classify in this manner. (Another example, off hand - Discovering the Body by Mary Howard.)

I tend to put them all in one category because most of them have female protagonists with a rich interior life, often non-conformist in a quiet way. Usually there is some element of mystery (a murderer on the loose, a missing girl, an abusive husband to be escaped) or a life changing event. And though I wouldn’t say that each of these authors write in exactly the same way, they are clearly united by their simple, spare writing styles, which is still replete with rich imagery, often of the homespun type. There is very little pretention and narratives are mostly linear - but that's not to diss them.

These are books that won’t waste your time. But they are disturbing without being depressing – not cathartic (like Prep), uplifting (like A Very Long Engagement) or hammy but extremely enjoyable (like Possession). Yes, it does seem that these books have been my yardstick for judging other books this whole year. I think I have this mental checklist which goes ‘Did it move me as much? Did it interest and fascinate me as much? Did it so perfectly match my tastes as much?’

Other books I read recently include The Devil Wears Prada (no comments) and 123 magic (a parenting guide I abandoned half way because it made me feel guilty). I am now reading The Inheritance Of Loss,which is going well, but somehow I don’t feel too inclined to rush through it. But I know I have to finish it fast, before the release of Harry Potter 7. You’ll know how eagerly I am awaiting that event when you know that I log on to the site from which I ordered the book, everyday to check my order status. Even though their customer care department has assured me that everything is ship-shape and I will get my copy without fail!

Of course nothing I love comes easy and HP 7 is a case in point. Another friend of mine had ordered her copy from another site, which promises delivery 2 days later. The book is out on a Saturday and I am due home that weekend. I planned to leave on Saturday evening, because I thought I would only get my copy on Tuesday - but it turns out my site offers same day delivery for my city! Another frantic email and Customer Care – who I’m sure by this time consider me a certified loony (or Luna...) - told me that I would get my copy probably by Saturday evening. On Saturday definitely. So now I’ve postponed my departure by a day.

I absolutely have to get my hands on the last page (I know, I know).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Not quite fluff

When I want to read something that's easier, but not too easy, I turn to my favourite women authors. Anne Tyler and Maeve Binchy. Who perhaps have little in common, except that they weave beautiful stories out of nostalgia and less admirable sentiments like being bored with life and the need to compromise. These books are everything Danielle Steele aspires to create but can never, in a million years hope to - full of homespun wisdom, wry humour, gentle ironies, colour and warmth. And needless to say, both authors, unlike the prolific Ms. Steele, are more than competent in their craft.

Like a lot of my treasured finds, the movies introduced me to these books, specifically Maeve Binchy's Circle of Friends - which launched the career of Minnie Driver- and Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grown-Ups, a Hallmark production which featured the amazing Blythe Danner. So I have read everything by the two the local libraries have to offer, which is nearly not enough.

Maeve Binchy is Irish; that I suspect is part of the charm. There is a certain 'fey' quality in her work that I would associate with the Irish; rightly or wrongly. There is both a bitterness and a sweetness to her books. Anne Tyler's books are set in small town America and typically feature a woman at a crossroads. Her observations, especially of the minutiea of relationships - subtle signs like a raised eyebrow or a drooping shoulder - is especially acute. Both are at their best when working out the dynamics of relationships, and their conclusions are seldom simplistic - but they are of course, coloured by the particular way in which women see things. They are perhaps not for everyone, because these books are not ones in which a whole lot happen.

But if you have a sunday afternoon to spare and are in the mood for something a little wistful, do pick up a Maeve Binchy or an Anne Tyler.

Monday, February 26, 2007

much better

Ian McEwan's 'The Innocent' is an atonement for Atonement as far as I am concerned.

Berlin 1956. Ten - eleven - years after the end of the war. The cold war is beginning to extend its icy grip all over Europe. An English post office employee, Leonard Marnham comes to the American sector in Berlin as a small - a very small - cog in a large espionage wheel.

After a slow start, The Innocent held my attention tight, to the very end. As tight as Otto squeezing Leonard Marnham's balls.

The descriptions of the couple in love - English Leonard and German Maria - brought back some yearning, though I like to think myself past that stage - I am not really. Everyone wants to walk hand in hand through some beautiful city in Spring. So do I, even now. Which makes me realise, when is a book best enjoyed? When it brings back some sparks from the past, some vague longings you never knew you had, some fleeting feelings you recognise....

McEwan is devious in the way he unfolds the plot. By the time Leonard decides to turn informer for reasons quite unconnected to patriotism, you'll be left shaking your head at it all.

And yes the epilogue. As I've mentioned earlier in this blog, I'm no longer the patient reader I was. I like my stories tied up neatly for me, thank you very much, John Irving. I don't have the energy to interpret an author's nebulous conclusions.

Yes. Much better, indeed.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A very long engagement

I have many reasons to thank Logging on to this website is a process I go through religiously two or three times a week. The book and film reviews especially have me salivating. Salon gives me the double pleasure of good criticism set forth in good writing. It’s true I don’t always agree with their opinions. I love Anne Tyler (that’s another post) though Salon doesn’t always; BBC’s Pride & Prejudice is still the definitive adaptation in my book, whatever Stephanie Zacharek may say. But on most counts I would trust Salon to help me on what to read and what to see.

Where I’m leading, in my longwinded way, is that the last time I was at the library, typewritten list of books in hand (a mix of booker prize winners, nominees and Salon recommends), a title, ‘A very long engagement’ caught my attention. I knew I’d heard it somewhere – in fact I was sure I had read a review of its movie in Salon.

A very long engagement, by Sebastien Japrisot, turned out to be, with ‘Prep’ and ‘Possession’ the best book I had read in recent times. Set in France during and in the aftermath of World War I, it tells the story of five soldiers who shoot themselves in the hand to avoid combat, are courtmartialled and left to die in a snowy trench on the frontlines. Chiefly to be an example to anyone showing such traitorous impulses. It’s impossible any of the five may have survived, yet possible they may have, as well.

But this is just the background. The actual story is about Mathilde, the fiancée of the youngest of these men, who takes up the search after the war is over. She reminds me quite strongly of Smilla from another of my favourite books – Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow. Mathilde is wheelchair bound, (not in the movie version, Salon tells me), so there are no Da Vinci code kind of ‘adventuring’ scenes. Most of the action is internal – or more accurately, cerebral. Several times it seems as though Japrisot is setting up Mathilde – and us – for a huge disappointment. And the ending, well, it’s not what you’d expect.

One thing that struck me throughout the book was Mathilde’s unquestioning love for Manech, her missing fiancée. Is it humanly possible to be that constant? Manech is no lost war hero, he is a deserter. A man, one might say, not worth loving. And it is also evident that by the time he shot himself, he was already driven out of his wits, by the atrocities of the war. But the constancy of Mathilde’s affections are never in doubt. And as you peep into her memories – mere suggestions – you can see why. One gets the distinct feeling that Japrisot does see the five men as heroes – for their revulsion to war.

I did go back to Salon to try and trace the review – I was right, there is a film version, starring Audrey Tatou as Mathilde. And did Salon like? Salon did.