Monthly Archives: October 2013

October 2013 – A Great Reading Month

October 2013 has been a great reading month. Managed to finish twenty five books and loved it. The month has been a roller-coaster of a ride, with books of various genres making their appearance. To reading books about books, to an old forgotten classic of a woman trying to live on her own terms to starting a great Novel Cure Challenge, the month could not have come to a better end.

October 2013 was truly a great reading month for me. I cannot wait to start November with “Would You Like Some Bread With That Book? And Other Instances of Literary Love” by Veena Venugopal. The review of it will be on tomorrow.

Thank you October 2013.

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Book Review: The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin

The Family by David Laskin Title: The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century
Author: David Laskin
Publisher: Viking Adult
ISBN: 978-0670025473
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are stories about so many families that have been written in the past and I have loved most of them (of what I have read). There is always something about the history of a family that gets me going to frantically turn the pages. I am aware that is has happened for real and somehow to lessen the blow of the events that occur, I pretend that it is fiction. Or also pretend that things will look hopeful in the book somewhere down the line and someone will not die after all. However, reality is miles away and different from fiction, and perhaps that is how it will always be.

“The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” by David Laskin is one such book about a family, its three journeys, of the different roads taken and the consequences and aftermath of each. David Laskin has beautifully written or rather documented his family’s history (from his mother’s side) in a book that is not only gripping but also profound and blends perfectly with the incidents of the twentieth century and sometimes makes you wonder, what being human is all about.

The Family is about several generations of a Russian Jewish family and the choices made by them in times of despair and turmoil. It is about how choices shape our lives and of those generations to come. The story begins in 1835 on the western edge of Russia in the village of Volozhin, where six children were raised by Shimon Dov, a Torah scribe and his wife Beyle. Shimon is David’s great-great grandfather. The story is about the children’s lives and how each one led to heading somewhere else and lives transforming, because of that.

From running a successful business by his aunt Itel to Zionist pioneers to family members choosing to stay back and getting erased during the Holocaust, The Family is immensely emotional and yet does not make the reader weep at any point.

The Family is not just the story of one family. It is connected to the history the world and its people during those times. It is about ancestors and descendants and how lives are intertwined, no matter how hard you try escaping it. Read the book for Laskin’s tracing back efforts to his family and charting the entire history. A book that would need time to be spent on. A great book, nonetheless.

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Book Review: One for the Books by Joe Queenan

One For the Books Title: One for the Books
Author: Joe Queenan
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143124207
Genre: Non-Fiction, Books, Reading
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Writing about books is not easy. Writing about your reading experience is very difficult. Why? Because you are letting people know something very intimate about yourself. Reading choices, the way a person is around books, the way a person touches books, smells them even and the quirks of a reader are close to being sacred. The very fact that an author or a reader wishes to share this with others only means that the person wants people to read more and let them know about the beauty of books and the written word. “One for the Books” (as the title suggests) is that kind of book written by Joe Queenan.

I had not heard of Joe Queenan till this book was in my hands. I was taken in by the book, being the book collector that I am and wanted to know the author’s perspectives on borrowing reading, buying, lending and just being with pages bound with glue.

Joe Queenan has written the book the way such a book is supposed to be written: With all honesty. He speaks of his reading habits and that of the others and at some point he is being judgmental but with reason. The book is categorized into eight chapters – talking about chance meetings on entering a book store, the bonding over books, the way he manages to read thirty books at one time, the rereads and the recommendations that he cringes from. At the same time, throughout the book, Joe speaks of his dislike of the Kindle and E-Readers and states reasons that I could not refute or counter-argue with.

There were times as a reader that I just had to stop and make notes about my perspective on what Joe was talking about. The connection was instant as it was about books. That to me says a lot about the book and its reach.

Joe’s uncanny passion or rather obsession over books is fantastic. He takes you in a minute from a bookstore in Paris to his experience of a North American town where he just moved and the bookstore that meant so much to him for over twelve years or so. I loved the way the book was written and structured. Of how he compares reading to visiting the Louvre where every piece of art is tempting, where everything needs to be devoured, as in reading, everything that catches the eye needs to be read.

Queenan also speaks of books that he will never be able to finish – Middlemarch being one of them, as much as he would like to get through it. What I found most interesting was also that he spoke of the American School Reading List recommendation and how his children would get irritated on reading something that they did not enjoy.
He speaks of how one year he decided to read a book every single day and almost managed till he fell ill. I loved this reading project (for the lack of a better word) as it gave him choices to grapple with, books to go back to and new books to discover.

I could go on and on about “One for the Books” and how much I enjoyed the read. It made me weep in most places for the love of the written word – the imagination that it conjures, the poetry, and the hunger to finish one novel and move on to the next. “One for the Books” is truly a love song, a poem, a recollection of reading, and most importantly a reader’s tribute to books and reading.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

“People we adore pass on; voices we love to hear are stilled forever. Books hold out hope that things may end otherwise. Jane will marry Rochester. Eliza will foil Simon. Valjean will outlast Javert. Pip will wed Estella. The wicked will be overthrown, and the righteous shall prosper. As long as there are beautiful books waiting for us out there, there is still a chance that we can turn the ship around and find a safe harbor. There is still hope, in the words of Faulkner that we shall not only survive; we shall prevail. There is still hope that we shall all live happily ever after”.

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Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm Title: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780670024971
Genre: Fairy Tales
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

We are all fascinated by fairy tales. From the time we know of their existence, to the time we believe in some of them as we grow up, and hope they do come true as we live out our lives. Fairy tales play a very important role in our lives. We never really forget what is handed down to us at such a young age – fairy tales are never forgotten.

Having said that, every version somehow seems to be different every time it has been retold. The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales were among the first ones to be told and retold and retold and handed down over generations. The brothers heard the tales through various sources and this was way back in 1812, when there was a seemingly large interest in German everything. What Philip Pullman started doing some time ago was that he started giving his voice to fifty of the Grimm tales. He started writing them differently (well not so much so – the structure remains the same). Pullman does not try and give a different spin to the tales. He respects them hugely. What he does instead is just clean lines, make them more satisfying so to say (at least for me) and give us further insight into each tale picked by him, by adding relevant footnotes at the end of every tale.

The book consists of popular tales such as, “Rapunzel”, “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Hansel and Gretel” and also some of them such as, “The Nixie of the Millpond” and “The Goose Girl”. Philip Pullman does a fantastic job of putting his point through this book. The tales are well-structured and hit the so-called sweet spot of the reader’s imagination. The other thing in the book which is not there and which works brilliantly is the use of pictures. There are no illustrations in the book, which is great, as readers have to use their imagination to capture in their minds what they read on paper.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm comes in a lovely penguin classics deluxe edition with the fantastic illustration of Hansel and Gretel on the cover, or it could be any other fairy tale actually and yet it just speaks to you in so many ways.

All in all, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman is a very satisfying read which goes down well with a nice cup of hot chocolate way into the night.

The Art of Japanese Literature

Japanese fiction needs to be read slowly. It deserves that. You cannot rush through it – even if it is a crime pot-boiler or a love story. It needs patience. Like a good brewed cup of tea. The beauty of Japanese fiction sometimes is only best understood when you read more and more of it and do not generalize it to be flooded by suicides or dark plots.

My introduction to Japanese fiction began when I was sixteen and picked up my first Yukio Mishima. Mishima’s works are dense, full of longing, yes suicides as well and of a Japanese Era gone by – that of aristocrats and empires and emperors. The books written by him are something else – The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy is epic in its scope and story-telling. Moreover, the translation is just perfect. And that is where my love for Japanese literature took place.

Yasunari Kawabata is another under-rated Japanese writer in my opinion. He had written all in all around twelve books and that’s that, most of which aren’t even translated to English. Having said that, most that are translated are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haiku, almost like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as it satiates the mind and the soul anyhow. Yasunari Kawabata in his time wrote of social issues at hand – a love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha, depicted beautifully in Snow Country to another ill-fated love story as seen in Thousand Cranes. Kawabata’s short stories are full of eroticism (which is not in your face) and desire that stems and grows. In short, he is one writer; I would urge you to read.

Then came the significant time in my life when I read the first novel so to speak, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a Japanese noblewoman and a lady-in-waiting. It almost changed the way I viewed fiction and its importance in my life. It has all the elements of the modern novel – and is considered to be a psychological novel – probably the first of its times. The characters are defined by their function in the book, rather than their name and that stood out the most for me, giving an insight to early Japanese culture. The book recounts the life of a son of the Japanese Emperor, known to the readers as Shining Genji. The Tale of Genji takes us through his romantic life, the aristocratic society then and the barriers. It could have very well been an ancient Romeo and Juliet. The fact of the matter is that it is a great read, though strenuous at times.

I then lapped up Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”, which spoke of a Cat’s life and the world through its eyes over three volumes. What I enjoyed about this one was the one singular voice of a Cat and the impact it had on me as a reader. The cat is aware of the human world and its fallacies and depicts it with great humour, sarcasm, and wit. So there is also the funny side of the Japanese writer.

Very soon other writers joined the bandwagon. The urge to read more Japanese literature was like no other. I wanted to know more about the culture – their behaviour patterns, the way they thought, the society formed – the way of thinking – ancient and modern and the conflict within. No better writer than Junichiro Tanizaki to put that in perspective. I have read five of his books, and each book down the line spoke of two themes – sexual freedom and the free will to think and act. Tankizaki’s characters are strong, with the hidden weak side that they do not want anyone else to know and that as noticed and understood through his writing is a treat.

Kazuo Ishiguro joined the forces very soon. Ishiguro, a native of Japan and now settled in England, speaks of varied themes. From cloning and unrequited love as depicted in Never Let Me Go (a brilliant film also) to the state of butlers and maids in The Remains of the Day, his novels are not traditionally Japanese – except for two, but his sensibilities sure are and that is what makes him a great writer – the sensitivity, the sparing and effective use of language and the best judgment displayed in making his characters feel and speak the way they want to.

Japanese Literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite literally at that. There are close to a thousand nuances probably out there in every second book. The plot doesn’t reveal itself till it wants to be seen. The reader almost gets frustrated and his patience levels do not sustain the beauty of the language at times. I have seen that happen to most people. One such Japanese writer who has currently taken the literary scene by storm is but definitely Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s works again are not easy to understand and yet he connects with his readers in a manner unlike anyone else. It does take time to seep in to his books, but once you have, then there is no way out for you. You will read and re-read and quote and be dizzy with his words and the beauty of translation. From unrequited love to a detective story to parallel universes and subtleties of love and heartache, Murakami touches on these topics and more like a true genius. My love affair with him started with Sputnik Sweetheart and still continues to this very day. Thank you for writing the way you do.

Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, “Rashomon”. On knowing that it was a short story on which the film was based, I had to read it. Sure enough, the short-stories written by Akutagawa were spectacular. It revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each version with a different twist and re-telling. I loved the stories. For me, that was a hallmark of short-story writing. There was so much there which was done in terms of language and description and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.

I could go on and on about Japanese Literature. However there are so many writers I would urge you to explore if you have not already – Banana Yoshimoto being one of them, with her classic themes of loss of identity and voice, Osamu Dazai, well known for his character sketches and romanticism, Kobo Abe, with his skill in explaining the gore and the unknown nature of man, and Kenzaburo Oe, with his ruthless description of the dark corners of the human mind and soul.

Japanese Literature for me in most ways is the mirror to my soul. Every book read and every author speaks to me in different ways and on different levels.