Category Archives: Books about Books Reading Project 2017

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos

Title: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
Author: David Bellos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374223236
Genre: Non-Fiction, Books about Books, Literary Criticism
Pages: 307
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

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I love books about books. There is something magical about them that cannot be ignored, say what you will. Books talking about books is almost surreal – not even meta, it is just something that makes you want to pick up the books that are being spoken about and reread them or read them if you haven’t already. This is what happened to me when I finished reading “The Novel of the Century” by David Bellos.

This book is about Les Misérables and how it came to be. I remember watching Les Misérables – the movie when it released (the one starring Anne Hathaway) and crying. I couldn’t get enough of it and surprisingly I hadn’t read the book. I had to change that. I did read the book soon after and was mesmerised by it. I mean the characters – Inspector Jarvet, Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and even the minor ones that play such an important role in this book of power, politics and love. I can see how it came to one of the greatest novels of the 19th century or the greatest, I think.

David Bellos takes a leap and writes about this book. How did it come to me? Why was it written? What was Victor Hugo thinking when he wrote this? How did he come about such characters? What Bellos also does is explain why this novel fascinates us (most of us at least) and how it places itself so beautifully in the modern context. To me, that was the most favourite parts in the book.

Bellos’ research is spot on. I was reading a lot about the book and the times in which it was set while reading The Novel of the Century and that to me is the best thing an author can do to you while he is writing about another book. The writing then is truly powerful. This is also not a biography of Victor Hugo but of course it has to trace his life briefly and how he came to write Les Mis. The angle of prostitution in those times, religion playing such a major role and also just how women survived is fascinating when Bellos brings it to the fore.

“The Novel of the Century” isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. It is for people who love Les Misérables or perhaps want to really read it sometime in the future. Having said that, I couldn’t get enough of Bellos’s writing – crisp, to the point and very meticulous with his research. At times, I almost felt like I was watching the movie or reading the book again. The characters I went back to welcomed me back and I for one felt so nice meeting them after all these years. A book for book lovers and of course of the classic as well.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Title: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
Author: Pamela Paul
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-1627796316
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love reading books about books and that experience becomes even better when the book is also a memoir – about growing up and traversing through life with books at your side. Nothing better than that read and somehow it also gives me hope, that no matter what, books will always be round the corner, waiting for you. “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” by Pamela Paul is one such book that I read this month and absolutely fell in love with it. This is also because Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review which is almost sanctimonious to me when it comes to following reviews and other content on books.

“My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” is a book, like I said before, about books and the power they have – to save, to heal, to rejuvenate, to give you a new lease of life and to just be around you. The chapters are based on titles of books (most which she has loved and some not so much) and takes us on a journey of books discovered, loved, wept for, and how Pamela’s relationship with herself and others grew or matured because of books. Pamela doesn’t preach nor does she force you to read (though it would be nice if you would) – what she does is share her world of books and parts of her life with readers, which makes it even more special.

I often wondered while reading this book what would it be like had I kept a record of every book I ever read – which is what Pamela Paul did and named that book BOB (a book about books) and as you read this book you see why is it so important to do so. Every relationship, friendship, life event, travels, and paths she forged for herself was because of books she read or did not.

Another reason I loved this book, is because it helped me discover books which I had not heard of and also give me some courage to read the ones I had abandoned (I will get to them someday I hope). At no point does Pamela Paul try to force these books on you as a reader – she is just documenting her life through these books. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it is just how a book about books should be – happy, sad, bittersweet, hopeful and full of life.

The House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez

Title: The House of Paper
Author: Carlos María Domínguez
Translated from the Spanish by: Nick Caistor
Illustrations by: Peter Sís
ISBN: 978-0151011476
Publisher: Harcourt
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 103
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

Books about books have always fascinated me. There is something so relatable about them that it breaks my heart and also repairs it at the same time. They are love letters to books – almost love stories between books and collectors – I am sure most will agree with me when it comes to this. A reader and his or her books can never be apart.

“The House of Paper” is one of those books you just cannot get enough of. It is a short book – a novella of 106 pages or so but every page and every sentence and every word gleams in it. This one was a reread for me and I had actually forgotten how much I loved this book, till I read it now. The story is of a Cambridge professor who is killed by a car while reading Dickinson (or so it is assumed). A book is sent to her – a dirty, dusty copy of Conrad’s “The Shadow-Line”. A colleague of hers travels to Uruguay, determined to know the connection between these two people and instead ends up hearing a very strange story – of the man Carlos Brauer and how he has built himself a house from books by the sea. The rest is for you to read and find out – the why, what and the how that is.

“The House of Paper” is magic realism and a lot more than just that in my opinion. Books and reading form such a core of this read that you wished it were longer and that it would not end at all. The book raises questions of mad bibliophiles and the length they will go to for their love of books. At the same time, it doesn’t make it too philosophical or dreary. This book is perfect to the ones obsessed with the written word and for one I cannot stop recommending it. I must also add here that the translation by Nick Caistor is tongue in-cheek, lively and not to forget the beautiful illustrations by Peter Sís. My copy by the way is from The New York Public Library and I was delighted that it came to me in India from there. Only booklovers will understand this. Also this book. So read it. Please.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

books-for-living-by-will-schwalbe Title: Books for Living
Author: Will Schwalbe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385353540
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 288
Source: Author
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “The End of your Life Book Club” a couple of years ago. I was mesmerized and touched deeply by it. It was a book about a mother and her son and the books they read and discussed while they went for the mother’s chemotherapy sessions and doctor appointments. The son is the author Will Schwalbe and that book touched me so deep. I could not stop crying as I read it and it just made me feel alive and raw all over again. When books do that to you, you know you are home or that is what I believe.

His second book “Books for Living” as the title suggests is just that – books that have inspired him, made him relive moments and memories right from his childhood to adult life and more than anything else, books that have made him a better person. This book as the first one comes from a personal space. Each book mentioned in this book is deeply personal and important to him and that is what I loved the most about this book. It is not a random list. It is a list of memories, handpicked and the reader is allowed to get into his life and know and experience what he went through with each read.

He deftly crafts each chapter around important life topics such as trust (the book associated with it is the girl on the Train), connecting (Giovanni’s room which was my favourite chapter in the entire book), remembering (David Copperfield, where he also speaks of his closest friend David who died and the bond they shared) and many such topics that will make you smile, cry, or remember people who you haven’t spoken or connected with in a while.

Schwalbe’s writing is stark and pure. There is this honesty to it, which I love. I think when you speak of books that have touched you and mean something, you cannot not be honest. He speaks of reading and how it changes people (rightly so). Schwalbe knows the terrain of books and the power they can have over people and that to me is beautiful. I loved how he weaves his life around books and they come to life in his hands.

Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb

avid-reader-by-robert-gottlieb Title: Avid Reader
Author: Robert Gottlieb
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374279929
Genre: Literary memoirs, Biographies and Memoirs
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I am a sucker for literary memoirs or biographies. Anything related to books about books, I cannot resist. I mean, I have to go out there and read all of it on this subject. I chanced upon “Avid Reader” by Robert Gottlieb and this was without knowing who he was (once I did, I was in supreme awe and fascination). So who is Gottlieb? Well, he was the editor at Simon and Schuster and Knopf and his career is enviable, given the kind of authors he has worked with. “Avid Reader” is his memoir of his career in publishing (kinda reminded me of Ashok Chopra’s book) full of zest, gusto and life. It is after all a sixty-old career and that cannot be easy to write about.

Like I said, I love reading everything literary – what happened to this book (I mean one off book and many more in this book by Gottlieb), how it came to be, how did Gottlieb edit it and what was the equation with writers involved, and more anecdotes had me begging for more and more from Avid Reader.

At the same time, at some point in the book you feel that it is nothing but a series of dedications by Robert to the people he has worked with. Having said that, the book doesn’t lose its sense of irreverence and gumption. At the same time, I was amazed by Gottlieb’s sense of determination to make it in the world of publishing and from there come all the insights to the mad world – from excessive use of punctuation in books to fighting over authors to how to market books, it is all there in this one.

What makes this book even more important and a must-read is the relationships built by Gottlieb over the years, which he is very candid about. My favourite parts of the book though were his growing-up years. Something about the 30s and the 40s and the way he describes them is utterly charming and quaint.

Robert Gottlieb is of course great at his writing skills (that goes without saying, doesn’t it?). I couldn’t wait to know more about this industry and its workings. Every anecdote was laced with humour and a lot of pathos. “Avid Reader” is the kind of book that will also ring true to most debut writers and also the seasoned ones. The bottom-line of course is all about getting out a good book and Gottlieb has done that consistently for such a long time and chronicled it in this wonderful book. A must read for sure.