The past three months have been unreal. No words can describe my whirlwind of self-inflicted life changes – but it does reflect in the dark, dark reading choices. In no particular order, Part 2 of My Favourite Books of 2021 –
1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – a story of Alzheimer’s, caring for the old, caring for the young, unrequited love and coming to terms with death. It’s about all of this and still, breaks any of the stereotypes you may have associated with these themes. Khong’s charming, quirky, sad writing style is difficult not to like. Link to my review.
2. Lost Gods by Brom – WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN! No, seriously. Why am I reading this now? Lost Gods is a story of a man who finds himself in the land of the dead and has to push his way out of Purgatory to save his family. It’s peppered with art by the author himself (who is an artist) and is just so incredibly detailed, it makes your skin crawl!
3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, this is the story of a pair of British Muslim sisters whose brother has left the family on a terrorist path, following in the footsteps of their father. It’s the story of a family’s loss and the little, big things that make up identity – language, food, nationality, what you wear, whom you marry. A haunting tragedy. Full review here.
4. Nightbooks by J.A. White – A little boy who loves to write horror stories finds himself trapped in a witch’s lair. In an Arabian Nights fashion, the only thing that keeps him alive is entertaining the old witch with his ghost stories. What happens when he faces the dreaded writer’s block? I wish I had access to such delicious, and also tasteful, horror when I was in middle school. I loved this book!
5. The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke – Self help in my world often takes the form of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dark Interval is about life and death. It’s a set of letters that Rilke had written to his grieving friends. Beautiful… that someone could be so sweet, sensitive and practical, and say the right things, in the face of loss… where most of us would just blubber and grimace.
6. Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K Massie – Wow, I’ve spent two months on this monster of a book! It is absolutely incredible just how much detail, intrigue and character Massie has managed to squeeze into the roughly 1200 pages of this book – not a word is superfluous. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar. I will write more soon.
I have not been reading much this year. But what I did manage to read, was devoured with the furtive urgency of a starving stray – excuse the crude metaphor. I started and finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie yesterday. Initial thoughts? This was my third read by her. Now, I want to read every other work of fiction she has ever written. Here’s why –
Summary: Home Fire is a modern-day reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone. The story follows two British Muslim sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and the people who flavour and mould their lives. At the beginning of the story, we see Isma Pasha move to the United States for her PhD, while her sister Aneeka pursues a law degree back home in London. The two sisters are close, except for a brewing conflict about Aneeka’s twin brother, Parvaiz. who has disappeared, seemingly to follow in the footsteps of their jihadist father. The sisterhood bursts at its seams when Aneeka uncovers a dark truth about Isma’s involvement in their brother’s disappearance. Aneeka attempts to seek help for Parvaiz and finds uncanny hope in a young Muslim man who happens to be the Home Secretary’s son. But the political climate is such that Aneeka has many obstacles in her way, including her very own sister Isma.
My thoughts: The story is anything but comforting – so it might be strange when I say this: Kamila Shamsie’s writing sends through me the same radiating warmth as a steaming cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. It’s comforting. I don’t know what it is about the flow, the words or the characters that creates this impression. She’s a fantastic storyteller and the book is engaging, even in its most horrific moments.
Well crafted, well rounded, meaty characters. She uses five perspectives in this book. The two sisters, the young man and his politician father, and the lost brother Parvaiz – not only does each character sound different – but every one of them is the star of their own little corner of the world, justifying their actions and stance to themselves as anyone would, caught up in their own struggles, coloured by their own biases. There is no narrator’s bias, no authorial judgement, and as a reader, you really are left to draw your own inferences and allegiances. A lot of responsibility to put on the reader!
It is a throbbing discomfort to know that, in a sea of possibilities, it is Isma’s character I most easily identify with – whose preferred choice of action appears to be the least obstructive, most pragmatic way out of conflict.
The more obvious themes – draconian citizenship laws, identity politics, Islamophobia, diversity, culture shock, loss of language identity, living up to and breaking stereotypes, fear-mongering, privilege. Lots of drama, but it’s a short book! Another plus: the book manages to avoid making sweeping generalizations. It keeps contextualising these issues within the boundaries of this story, using characters who really represent all sides of the argument; which is why I wouldn’t call it a ‘political’ novel, in that, it doesn’t push its own message.
There is something very interesting that Shamsie does do – and that is to build a reflection of… not the current political landscape, but a political soundscape. Throughout the story, she uses sound imagery and sound metaphors in the most interesting ways. The sounds of Urdu, the sound of Urdu-tinted English, the sounds of London, the sounds of the twins chatting with each other, the ‘ping’ of a Skype call, a Pakistani pop song, the sounds of men screaming as they die, a girl howling with grief, sounds of torture, of sex, of fire crackling, walkie-talkies crackling… and no one listening, not really; or everyone tuning in to their own version of reality. All that noise. We hear it, but do we listen?
The book is also about family – parental figures, and absent parents; and being saddled down with legacies. About love – misguided, overpowering, selfish, transactional, passionate and cruel love. Odd chapters here and there are only snippets off the internet. Articles, hashtags, tweets, taking reality and twisting it into its own viral anti-reality. What is true? What is real? Who cares?
Every once in a while, they heard the whump! of a section of dislodged snow landing on the ground, but it felt safe to keep going. Their talk was insubstantial – but even so, the Englishness of his humour, and his cultural references, were a greater treat than she would have expected. Small talk came more naturally to him than to her, but he was careful not to dominate the conversation – listening with interest to even her most banal conversations, asking follow-up questions rather than using her lines as springboards to monologues of his own…
My sister’s rather lukewarm reaction to my colour-coordinated bookshelf got me thinking the other day. What is so satisfying about colour-coordinating the shelf? I do like the way the yellow pops; it’s pleasing to look at. But it’s more than that.
It’s the act of arranging the books themselves that gives me satisfaction – a mundane mechanical activity. I wouldn’t derive the same satisfaction if I had to organize my books by genre or theme or anything else that would require more than a cursory glance. Is it about the books at all – or just the repetitive activity that somehow demands a break from my unending internal monologue?
I also love to kind of look at the books I have collected, every once in a while – flitting through pages… it’s like meeting old friends [probably derive more pleasure from the books than the old friends!] Books are memories in amber; reflections of past selves, and windows to old ideas and beliefs. An old photo album, but of your mind – I kind of feed on nostalgia. As far as the utility aspect of libraries or book collections goes, I prefer an organized chaos – I like to stumble upon new books that I didn’t know I needed, even if on my own shelf.
Which one do you prefer of the two of my shelves? The colour-coded one or the organized mess? I honestly can’t stop reveling in the sheer prettiness of the first, but I’ll probably read more from the second.
[Yes, that’s how I spell colour, sorry if it bothers you.]
I’m moving home, and reminding myself constantly that, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving,” (Terry Pratchett said that.) I stayed up reading overnight yesterday; or this morning. It felt good. Been a while since I did that. Then I ranted about the book on Goodreads. Sharing the rant here, too! A rare long review.
Amazon Blurb: Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year. Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become
Disclaimer-ish: Okay, I want to get this out of the way – this book is nothing like the ‘kind of books’ I read, if all those many kinds can somehow be clubbed together as one thing that this book is not. Which is also to say that if this book were a ‘typical’ example of some genre, I am fairly certain I have no clue which, or how it lives up to others like it. Yep, the strange and uncalled-for disclaimer ends here. The obsessing and fawning and oohing begins –
Rant: I LOVE THE BOOK. It is so emotional. This is going to sound like a tangent, but bear with me. One of my favourite high school teaching moments is asking students to decide what the ‘sigh’ at the end of Frost’s Road Not Taken stands for – is it regret, relief, frustration, helplessness, or just a resigned acceptance, even an ironic celebration, of the inevitability of life taking its course. For me, it’s the last, always has been. This book is Frost’s resigned sigh stretched/packed into a novel.
I am someone who tends to live in the past, if I can help it; against my own better judgement. Tonight (or this morning, it’s past sunrise!) I am delighted that the book found me – on the precipice of a major life change, I think I needed to be told that I should salvage the present, and look up and away from that inevitable yearning for the past. I couldn’t stop reading it! I think I might read it all over again, just to see what I missed in my haste to devour it.
Khong does interesting things with language. She describes the main character’s attempts to make a relationship work as “grotesque, like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.” I came to a halt here at the ridiculous image. A simile shouldn’t distract you from the main prose and make you pause and puzzle over it, should it? Isn’t seamlessness a desired quality in a narrative? But. Tell me this didn’t make you smile! What a weird thing to say. Then there’s a passing comment about gutsy seagulls which look like Jack Nicholson, what with their piercing stares. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a seagull or Jack Nicholson the same.
I made so many notes! Invented yoga poses, sabre-toothed squirrels, jokes hinged on a play on punctuation, and pronunciation, and pink loofahs. I just couldn’t steal away from the book to update my highlights on Goodreads or anything – and that’s a good sign right there.
An interjection of quotes:
Today we walked past a café’s colorful chalkboard and you asked me, “Why is that sun wearing a bra on his face?” “Those are sunglasses,” I told you.
~ “I’m just saying, if I were you, I’d forget about him,” she said. If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.
~ I rip up the page. I mean to throw the pieces away but can’t. I put the pieces into my pocket to throw away later, or to forget to take out of my pocket and have destroyed by the washing machine. It’s all so messed up. I think what it is, is that when I was young, my mother was her best version of herself. And here I am, now, a shitty grown-up, and messing it all up, and a disappointment. What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person. Here’s the fear: she gave to us, and we took from her, until she disappeared.
Rating: So why 4 stars? Some parts of the book are stretched a little too thin. One has to take the level of detail with a pinch of salt – the narrator’s dad’s journals chronicling her childhood weirdnesses are too unrealistic. Children do absurd things, but no child does so many absurd things, so consistently, all in one day – for so many days. It’s quirky, but the narrative framework is a flimsy support for it. The “fake classroom sessions” set up for the narrator’s dad also are impossible to pull off with such non-chalance. All the “side characters” unite in a mission to keep up a semblance of ‘normalcy’ for this man suffering from dementia; and the lengths they go to do it are over the top and forced. A small issue. If it was a book that was driven by the plot, it would matter more – but it’s not.
Recommendation: The book is not ‘ha-ha’ funny, but funny in the same sense as “life is funny!” A summary wouldn’t do this book justice, so I haven’t written one. I mean – what’s up there in the description is as much as anyone could say and it’s not enough. It’s not a book about breakups, or parents, or health, or Alzheimer’s or loss or memory – though it has all of that. You need not satisfy specific ‘experience credentials’ to get this book. You just need to have lived a little.
Have I been reading as much as I wanted? Not quite. But I’m happy with the books I’ve read so far this year.
1. King Rat by China Mieville – an urban fairytale retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. King Rat is set in London, as so many of Mieville’s books and it unearths a lot that the city has to hide, and some that it fails to. This is how I effervesced about it to a friend when I was reading it – “It’s like someone took a bunch of Neil Gaiman books, put them through a grinder and something messier came out.”
2. The Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta – A tea master’s apprentice in a dystopian future, the debut novel by a Finnish writer. Uncanny, tragic and a beautifully seamless translation, done by the author herself. Sharing a quote –
“We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. They go together always, in the world and in us, and the time will come when our water runs dry.”
3. Steve and Me by Terri Irwin – This one was like revisiting my childhood, and I somehow now have even more love for the crocodile hunter, the family, the Australia Zoo staff and their escapades! This book is an autobiography of a marriage like few others…
4. Broken Places and Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor – I have since read fiction by Nnedi, but this memoir will never cease to put me in awe. The science fiction writer talks about her struggle with paralysis, race and how she found her stories. The very real hidden magic of our world, animated through the eyes of a writer… is just something else.
5. Love, Loss and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi – The third memoir on this list, how! I knew very little about Padma Lakshmi going into the book – Salman Rushdie’s ex wife would have been one my top descriptions, followed by Top Chef. This book really made me think about the tiny realities that populate the big stories around us. Her story is generously peppered with anecdotes starring a ragtag band of charming, meddlesome characters, brimming with that very Indian matter-of-factly-ness; she has brought to life her childhood through the vivid sights, and all the smells and the tastes.
6. Ranmitra by Dr. Prakash Amte – The first book I’ve managed to complete, in my mother tongue. I can choose to be embarrassed about it, or I can choose to be glad. I’m glad! A life worth reading. This book is a collection of stories [experiences and learnings] gathered while raising rescued or orphaned wild animals, from leopards and bears to even crocodiles… peppered with the loveliest pictures. Read this article to know more about Amte’s Ark.
Such a WEIRD book. I always marvel at how oldish science fiction throws you headfirst into a new world and leaves you there to sink or swim. I am not well versed with the classics of this genre, but I do feel like this happens more often with science fiction than any other genre. [Fantasy, for instance, has a lot more blatant world building and info-dumps that aren’t even jarring.]
So: The Houses of Iszm is this ridiculously tiny book packed with so much character. I picked it up at a book sale because of the fascinating [and menacing] cover, and it lived up to the expectation. The cover is deliciously old-fashioned, the writing is archaic but in a pleasant, flowery way; and the world is absurd and makes me curious about Vance’s other works.
The story is set on the planet of Iszm, where the inhabitants [called Iszics] grow and live in tree houses; houses which are alive. The walls, floors, ceilings and even the furniture of these houses is part of the tree, grown in these peculiar habitable shapes. In the whole of the universe, it’s the Iszics alone who can grow these house plants from female house-seeds.
Naturally, the demand for these seeds is tremendous and the stern and efficient Iszics control their export across worlds. With the universe facing a population crisis, many planets are vying to end the Iszics’ monopoly on these organic dwellings. A big heist is brewing. The theft of a female house. And our narrator, an Earthling botanist, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Will he escape the ruthless Iszic security and prove his innocence? Read to find out.
“Sun, Earth, the Moon: an archipelago of bright round islands, after a long passage through a dark sea. Sun drifted off to one side, Moon slipped away to the other, Earth expanded ahead: grey, green, tan, white, blue – full of clouds and winds, sunburn, frosts, draughts, chills and dusts, the navel of the universe, the depot, terminal, clearing-house, which the outer races visited as provincials.
It was at midnight when the hull of the Andrei Sinic touched Earth. The generators sank down out of inaudibility, down through shrillness, through treble, tenor, baritone, bass, and once more out of hearing.”
Note: Migrating from Blogger to WordPress [so late] has been a lot of fun, because I keep unearthing old write-ups from my 500+ Blogger drafts! So this is an old post from 2015, which was written with an incorrigible intention of making fun of everyone; starting with myself. My reading habits have changed considerably in the last five years, but my befuddlement at intellectual elitism and the “fiction / non-fiction is not useful” tirade endures, and that’s what this post was about. Here I go:
Ever since I started Tabula Rasa, I have met, virtually of course, many fiction fanatics. In real life, however, I only know so many. My real world is filled with those who promote conscious reading of non-fiction and newspapers and real world knowledge-expanding truths. People have often scoffed at and expressed utter puzzlement over my love for stories. Biographies, some can understand, but fantasy – hell no! “What is the use of reading things that are not true?” I have been asked and sometimes, generously shown articles that answer the very question. Forced into interaction with this breed of people for over twenty years now, here are some things I have discovered about them:
1. They are extremely well informed. Because they dedicate their reading time solely to non-fiction and factual information, they regularly fill their minds with important dollops of knowledge. Because they don’t let themselves get distracted by that which is not true and never existed, they build a good memory and possess a high recollection power. 2. They are very grounded. Unlike fiction readers, they don’t indulge in escapism and can firmly face reality, having practised it throughout their lives, on a daily basis! 3. They are time-management experts. They value time and resist the urge, if ever they have one, to escape from the real world. This is rather obvious, seeing as reading which we fiction-readers view as a hobby is actually a method of learning for them. They simply cannot help but direct all their time to a useful end. 4. They are logical thinkers. They tend not to get carried away by emotions, and when push comes to shove, are able to focus on the critical necessities of a situation than be affected by extraneous, for lack of a better term, fluff. (I have yet to figure out just how this relates to reading non-fiction, but have generally observed it to be true.)
1. They are uncreative. Since they only ever read non-fiction, they don’t get as much of a chance to exercise their imagination, and inevitably lead dull uninspired lives. 2. They cannot come to terms with their own emotions. Since they miss out on the cathartic relief offered to us fiction-readers, they spend their lives unable to grapple with their complex feelings. They do prefer raw facts to temperamental silliness, anyway, however, the lack of emotional self-awareness must cause problems. 3. They lack empathy. Unable to comprehend even their own feelings, they lack the compassion necessary to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. They find it difficult to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and obstinately stick to their world-view. This may lead to inexplicable loneliness – not caring about feelings doesn’t make one immune to them, after all. 4. They make enemies. Cold, logical thinkers who cannot empathise with others, their argumentative nature often gets them into trouble. They do get along mightily with other non-fiction readers, engaging in debates and healthy competitive discussions on general know-how. But a part of me wonders if they ever make any real friends.
There are other random observations I have made about people who don’t read fiction. If you, unlike me, are a non-fiction reader (in which case, welcome to my blog, hope you find something of use here,) please be so kind as to clear my doubts.
1. Language: Are readers of non-fiction less likely to sound pseudo-intellectual and do they have more of a business-like vocabulary which helps their expression stay precise and on point? Or am I being baseless and arbitrarily judgemental in this specific instance? Surely not all fiction has extravagant flowery writing! Although to be honest, the vast majority does… 2. Enjoyment: They must watch TV and film for only the aesthetic quality, because insofar as I know, stories don’t give them pleasure. Speaking of which, is it all right in their world of non-fiction for them to enjoy themselves for the sake of it? Or do all non-fiction readers naturally want to indulge in only those actions that have a purpose…? Wait, this vaguely reminds me of something I read in this book called The Metaphysics of Morals (or something like that, curse my bad memory.) Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what it was. See, I quit reading after the second page when I realized it had no plot…
Or rather, books I bought, but didn’t read. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic makes me sad, because that list is always longer than I’d like it to be. Here we go with ten random picks:
1. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman – The second installment in the sequel-trilogy to His Dark Materials. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t read this year – dying to!
2. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston – This is about the origin of the ebolavirus. It came highly recommended by at least two different people. As fascinating as the blurb makes it sound – science fiction thriller, mystery, horror combined but TRUE – it just hits too close to home!
3. Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – This book is all about what the internet has done to language – the history of it, the science, the magic! I’m a little sad about this one because it’s been sitting half-read on the shelf for no reason.
4. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Speaking of sequels and trilogies, this is the third book in the Thomas Cromwell saga that started with the oh-so-brilliant Wolf Hall all the way back in 2009. I’ve been admiring this beautiful cover on my shelf for months now, but too scared to pick up the tome.
5. A Promised Land by Barack Obama – I absolutely fell in love with Dreams From My Father, which I read a few years ago, but which was written over twenty years ago, when Obama had been elected as the first black president of… the Harvard Law Review. I expect this won’t be anything like that but would certainly like to read it.
6. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry – I found this at a book sale early last year. This a little guide to writing poetry, with tasks and exercises and advice from the inimitable Stephen Fry. Just haven’t had the time to read it!
7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – This book was recommended to me by a friend, I gifted it to two people who both absolutely loved it and I still somehow haven’t got around to it. It will happen soon!
8. The rest of the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski – One of the highlights of last year was starting this series. I love it, love it, love it. Maybe this is my gateway back to fantasy series after many years!
9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Another book I was SO excited to read! I adore Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But with Piranesi, the first ten pages were very different from my expectation. I was curious but worried it would be letdown, so I put it aside. Should I pick it back up?
10. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – The image of this gorgeous book has been haunting me for all of 2020. I left it in another city and was then stuck somewhere else for the rest of the year! We shall meet again.
What about you? Any unfinished business, books left on the shelves last year?
In the quest to become a more regular blogger, I find myself thinking more. This sounds like a silly thing to say, but it’s true. For the past two months I’ve been making more time for just that sort of staring-off-into-space zone. I would just say it’s another word for procrastination; if only it didn’t feel OH SO good.
Anyway, this lovely picture of the moon from my window prompted me to hunt down a poem by Yeats that I absolutely used to love. Disclaimer – I am totally obtuse in poetry matters, but there’s something about this that gets me every time!
Cat and the Moon
The cat went here and there And the moon spun round like a top, And the nearest kin of the moon The creeping cat, looked up. Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon, For, wander and wail as he would The pure cold light in the sky Troubled his animal blood. Minnaloushe runs in the grass Lifting his delicate feet. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? When two close kindred meet, What better than call a dance? Maybe the moon may learn, Tired of that courtly fashion, A new dance turn. Minnaloushe creeps through the grass From moonlit place to place, The sacred moon overhead Has taken a new phase. Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils Will pass from change to change, And that from round to crescent, From crescent to round they range? Minnaloushe creeps through the grass Alone, important and wise, And lifts to the changing moon His changing eyes.
There is something voyeuristic about reading this poem because it you see him referencing the cat ‘Minnaloushe’ which was the name of Maud Gonne’s cat, the same Maud Gonne whom Yeats loved and who did not love him back. It is as if the poem is for her to read and understand; not for your prying eyes. Yeats may be the cat, he belongs to her but not quite and Maud the moon; for the moon is so often feminine… And they chase each other, though hesitant; both so similar, yet so apart.
And then there are these constant contradictions. He yearns to dance with the moon, teach the moon a new dance, but they’re both changing. And at the end of it, he is still alone and aware of it. But even without that little spiced factual/historical tidbit, the imagery is so compelling. These playful, almost innocent visuals of a cat dancing in the moonlight, make it impossible not to dive into the poem! The poem might just be the story of any unrequited love, or the struggle between the base animal and the divine, between mind and heart…
A poem that lends itself to interpretation, to meaning-making, is a win, in my world. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “reading too much meaning into something.” Words exist to mean, right? To engage with the reader. A good poem surrenders itself to its reader. Isn’t that the point? Cat and the Moon is beautifully written too, linguistically and structurally. Consider Minnaloushe. What an adorable word, three sonorant sounds ending in a little kiss. I’m obsessed.
[P.S. British linguist David Crystal has written a fair bit – linked here – on why certain words sound more beautiful than others, structurally, culturally (and arguably), based on the kind of syllables, sounds, sound combinations they have. Look up sound symbolism too if this piques your curiosity!]