Reading Novels in Verse by Kwame Alexander

Man, I wish someone had introduced me to Kwame Alexander’s writing when I was a kid. Growing up, poems meant Wordsworth and Frost – the first I would never grow to love, and the second was never taught as more than a maudlin, sentimental version of what he had to offer. Poems were distant, archaic and dull. I was too obtuse for poetry and poetry took itself too seriously for me.

About two years into my teaching career, I stumbled upon The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. I had been looking for “books about sports for boys” – such a common request from parents of reluctant readers who hate to empty their pockets (not surprisingly) on the favourite Wimpy Kids and Captain Underpants-es. The Goodreads blurb of the book sounded too good to be true. It goes something like:

Summary“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood. Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.

What a fitting search result to my query. I looked up The Crossover with some apprehension, because I don’t exactly understand basketball, or any sport for that matter; not entirely sure I understand the mind of a 12-year-old reluctant reader. But it was the middle of the school year and I was out of options for this kid, so I picked it up. And there was no coming back! Enter: unapologetic 27-year-old fangirl.

Last month I read the “second instalment” in the series called Booked, an unrelated story, this one about a young soccer player, but a similar pattern of writing. I knew what I was going into, and it didn’t quite have the same impact as The Crossover, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

Kwame Alexander does what I wish someone had done when I was a kid – he makes poetry seamless, flowing and fun. I thought that the verse would be a part of the book that I’d get used to, you know, something I’d learn to ignore after a while. But NO. I loved it! The ridiculously no-holds-barred experimentation in writing; it was so enjoyable. He pulled out all the stops. You leave these books with a new understanding of the narrative breadth and depth of poems. Here’s what I mean:

two consecutive chapters from Booked

The writing is simple, without being simplistic. It’s clear. It comes from a good place, but it’s not preachy. It sounds unapologetically like its characters; not like what grown-ups think kids sound like… It has a casual sense of humour. And it does a very serious job of promoting the exploration of language as a means of expression, and family values and friendship, and bullying, and life-choices… and it does all that without a hint of self-indulgence or pretension!

Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 2

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.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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…

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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.

Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 1

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.

The Houses of Iszm by Jack Vance

look at the expression on that flower

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.”

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Book 1 of 2021. I have been seeing Normal People by Sally Rooney just about everywhere in the book blogging world, so I was keen to pick this book up when it was recommended to me. I like to read books that are not overly discussed at the moment, because then, I am afforded the luxury of lower expectations. Anyway, preamble aside, I was surprised by how much detail the Goodreads blurb went into, so instead of copying the whole thing, I’m sharing here only bits and pieces of the summary I had read:

Summary: “Frances is a college student and aspiring writer and the endlessly self-possessed Bobbi is her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and completely taken by her tall, handsome husband, Nick. However amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect…”

The book vaguely reminded me of a slim little story I had read years ago called Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. “Can something be laid back and intense at the same time?” is how I had described it then and that glove fits this book too. Like Dept of Speculation, Conversations with Friends has ‘marriage’ as one of its main themes; it is, after all, another book about an affair. A trying topic, I did not expect to be so taken by Melissa and Nick’s difficult marriage. The circumstances of the affair raised issues like ego and vulnerability, poor choices and trust. But more than anything, the failing marriage portrayed how you only ever see others as extensions of yourself – paradoxically more so when you “know them better.”

But here’s the thing, what I loved the most about the book – this marriage – was not what the book was about. It was about friendship, as goes the title. I found Frances and Bobbi’s friendship interesting because it went against the odds – they were in no way alike and they were hardly ever honest with each other about their “inner worlds.” Yet, they were friends, unequivocally so; and would give each other just enough space in the event of any conflict, that their friendship somehow survived all the trials they put it through! I’ve been in friendships like that, albeit with less drama.

The writer used emails to show glimpses of all her characters’ perspectives and in doing so, showed us how their misunderstandings transpired. It was an interesting device because we saw many facets to each character, and it was hard to pin them down to any trait. Bobbi with Melissa was not the same as Bobbi with Frances; and Frances with Nick was not the same as she was with Bobbi. And the Frances we saw as the narrator, inside her mind, was not revealed to anyone at all. She cared so much about how she was perceived, she lost herself somewhere in all the theatre!

Unreliable narrator or not, I couldn’t help but call Frances two-faced! She was immensely dislikeable – not because of how closed off she was or how she changed colours, but because of how easily she let herself off the hook. Because no one knew the real Frances, no one could hold her accountable for anything – for her envy, her mistakes, her active aggression. Was she fooling herself too? They’re kids, they’re twenty one; I kept having to remind myself, as I watched her coolly carve her identity into whatever suited her then. Is anyone this deceptive?

I suppose one could call this story a portrayal of the modern idea of love, relationships and friendship – the sort of fleeting uncertain messiness. The Goodreads summary (that I clipped short) labels this lifestyle as “a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.” I can understand this too, also relate to it in some parts, but I cannot for the life of me claim to like it. And this is my issue with the book – I just don’t want to be part of this world, even if this world is very like the real world, or perhaps because it is so.

Rooney’s writing redeems the book and she leaves you with these teenie memorable moments and turns of phrase that beautify the drama.

“Afterward I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”

“I laughed to myself although there was no one there to see me. I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator. I liked to think of him waking up at night and thinking of me.”

Have you read the book? Or Normal People? What did you think? I guess for all my complaints, I will pick up Normal People one day, after all.

Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 3

Hey, it’s January! This blog is getting ooold. Anyway, this post should have been written in December, but I have a lot of “looking ahead” bookish posts coming up and might as well start with this little unfinished Favourite Books Part 3. Links to the other two: Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1 and Part 2.

1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I’d borrowed this gem from a friend and it came highly recommend and it was worth every moment spent on it. I have seen and read enough fiction around WW2 to feel compassion fatigue and a general wariness about picking up yet another formulaic designed-to-make-you-cry book. This was a breath of fresh air. The story is … – quoting the Goodreads blurb – … about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – One word: genius! The Sympathizer is set at the end of the Vietnam War. As multitudes of Americans evacuate the country, our narrator is one of the locals who escape. He works for a general of the South Vietnamese army. Except… he’s actually been a North Vietnamese spy all along, a Communist sympathizer. What unfolds is a social satire of the Vietnam War, its depictions by American media, the alienation experienced by those rendered homeless, loss of identity in exile, and the Westerner’s misguided understanding of the East. It’s a comedy, tragedy and psychological thriller all rolled into one.

3. Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman – Full review here. A detective receives a mysterious phone call with some clues from her partner, and hours later, he is found dead. She sets off on a mission to find out what really happened, following the few clues left by her partner… only to be lead into a dark supernatural trap that lies waiting beneath our mundane world. It’s an American Gods meets Dresden Files kind of adventure – with shadow creatures, clowns, goblins… and could it be possible?… dragons! One of the coolest finds of the year.

4. The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden – A touching, sweet story about two ten-year-old boys, growing up in Baghdad, both of them innocent spectators and soon-to-be perpetrators of communal violence, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In early 2008, there was a snow fall in Baghdad for the first time in a hundred years (in fact, it happened again last year after more than a decade.) This story is weaved around that one event, that miracle, that while it lasted, seemed to blur out the differences that waged war in lives of these boys. The story has an uncanny depth of character, and this subtlety, both surprising for a book means for young adults.

5. First They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman – Quoting the Amazon blurb – “Habiburahman was born in 1979 and raised in a small village in western Burma. When he was three years old, the country’s military leader declared that his people, the Rohingya, were not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups that formed the eight “national races. He was left stateless in his own country. In 2016 and 2017, the government intensified the process of ethnic cleansing, and over 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh.” It is a small, personal glimpse into a modern tragedy, a political horror story that is too difficult to fit into words. Unimaginable!

6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali – Oh man, this book. You really need to have the stomach for this kind of brutal honesty; the kind that makes you uncomfortable, or “sounds funny” or sounds not-true, because it’s so beyond your scope of imagination. It starts out as a quasi-memoir, as Abdudali details her own experience and soon transforms into a cut-throat dissection of rape culture. A must read for any and all of us!

Reading Looking For Alaska by John Green

Disclaimer: I reached the end of the blog post before I realised it’s not a review; so here’s a warning, this is not a review. In fact, I may have forgotten to write about the book entirely, as in its plot or themes or characters. Goodreads can help you there. Let’s call it what it is – It’s a rant. 

Disclaimer 2 – I also quote myself a bit; not being self-indulgent here, just lazy.

Have you read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett? It is this tiny little book which poses and answers a question: what would happen if the Queen became a reader? Among other lovely things, there’s a scene in the book when the Queen invites all these writers she’s newly discovered to a dinner of some sort. And at that dinner, she discovers something that all readers eventually learn: the writers are not their books. She’s disappointed.

Ever since I read that book, I mentally put authors I read to the “uncommon reader test” – do I like them as much as I like their books? Stephen King and Sir Terry Pratchett are the only two writers to pass that test unequivocally, for me.

Over the last few weeks, I have been binge-watching old vlogbrothers videos from back when I actually followed vlogbrothers videos. I’ve also been wondering why I stopped following them because I absolutely ADORE John Green. Yet I haven’t read much by him. I’ve said this before on the blog in my Turtles All The Way Down review; but I feel like he’s one of those people who – when he writes, he becomes unstuck in time and is a teenager himself – the effortless points of view, the angst and rebellion – only to come back to his adult self when structuring his stories.

He just does teenage well; without that internal lack of structure and self-awareness that a real teenage point of view would have. He knows when to start and stop being his characters, you know? He also gets storytelling more than many writers that fall hopelessly into that young adult books’ club.

So, Looking For Alaska. This is the third book of his that I have read, and the first he has written. I did not like A Fault In Our Stars, the infamous tear-jerker. I LOVED Turtles All The Way Down. And now, Looking For Alaska completes the set by falling somewhere in the middle. Green certainly has a ‘type’ of plot, he has his own set of tropes… and I don’t know if his books spawned the many similar others, or he just followed someone else’s worn path.

But you have the school setting; the misfits who ‘fit in’ more than you’d think; that one English Lit/Arts teacher who is just a cool teenager in sheep’s clothing; the endless quoting of music and writing that, let’s face it, couldn’t possibly be so popular among real-life teens [I’m thinking of the likes of Faulkner and Maugham, and correct me if I’m wrong about this], not to mention, abysmal parenting that is taken in a stride by all the adult characters. Young adult tropes abound.

But so do the more-than-occasional delicious turns of phrase; the warmth emanating from every page; the depth of feeling and that kind of untamed teenage energy… Turtles All The Way Down had a lot more of it in my view, but this book does too. A few years ago, I wrote this about teenagers in an unrelated post on another blog. Kind of fitting to add it here –

As annoying as teenagers are, they kinda make me nostalgic. I mean, when else would you be so lost in your own little technicolor bubble as when you’re in your teenages, when the whole of life and creation is spread out before you and you’re this tiny speck floating around aimlessly in the wide universe, and yet somehow you picture yourself in the centre of the whole damn mess. You never get to be as beautifully self involved as when you’re sixteen, not before nor after.

Looking for Alaska is that – self involved, but beautifully so. I have got around to it rather late too. As it turns out, this was published in 2005 – when I was 13. How weird is that. I probably would not have liked it back then. I was busy playing very own young adult trope of being too “grown up” for certain books, you know, and judging them too harshly. Young Priya would have been wrong. I read the book rather quickly but it was an evening well spent. A whole three stars’ worth.

Do you read young adult books? What do you think of Green’s writing? And what about your “uncommon” writers – do your authors live up to their books?

Favourite Books of 2020 -Part 2

This post is the second of its kind and there will be at least one more. Part 1 of Favourite Books of 2020 can be found here.

1. Baptism of Fire (Witcher #3) by Andrzej Sapkowski – This is admittedly a strange choice for a favourites list and it doesn’t work as a recommendation. Surely you would have to read at least 2 books before you start this, not counting the short story collections before that. But I just loved the book! It has so much character development.. and the pace, and story perfectly complement what it sets out to do. Like any mid-series installment, it wants to take a pause, stall the reader and very books achieve that very well.

2. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward – Short review here. Men We Reaped is a memoir set in Mississippi. It follows the tragic and difficult stories of the writer’s childhood and the men she lost to drugs, suicide, accidents and the kind of bad luck that only afflicts the poor and the minorities. It is anecdotal, emotional, nostalgic… and this style of writing adds substance to a dry discourse on race that often inundates, but does not move.

3. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje – I often choose to read the “less famous” works to get a taste of the author before reading what they’re best known for. Running in the Family is hilarious! It’s a partly fictionalised, surreal, postmodernism memoir about the writer’s family in Sri Lanka, wherein he traces both their history as well as a recent visit he paid them. It’s also a travelogue and poses as a love letter to Sri Lanka with all its quirks. Superb writing!

4. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson – I wanted to read this ever since I read about this lawyer through Anthony Ray Hinton’s perspective in The Sun Does Shine. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and the man behind Equal Justice Initiative, which is a non-profit that provides legal representation to prisoners who have been wrongly convicted, denied a fair trial or anyone on death row. Just Mercy was published in 2014 and it is interesting to see what the initiative has done in the years since. The book itself is heart-breaking and terrifying at once… the information just plain scary and the stories heavy with emotion.

5. Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill – Sea of Rust is this fascinating double dystopia… the human civilisation has been long destroyed and taken over by AI, and now… it’s the robot civilisation that has turned on itself… Left on the planet are a few stray scavenger robots, who are on the run from what seems like inevitable assimilation with their very own big brother. Stranded in this place, called the Sea of Rust, is one old robot. This story is his search for meaning and for some remnant of the humanity in whose image all robots were created.

6. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elisabeth Russell – Detailed review here. An incredible book! This is the story of a woman who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with a reality that she had buried.