What I Read In March


Books / Sunday, April 1st, 2018

I read a lot in March! I also read a lot with my friend, the two of us setting aside a time together where we Skype but don’t talk – we just read together. From Bangalore to Dublin. It’s been wonderful. It’s been magical. And it’s making me read a lot more!

Books read in March  17
Number of pages 3,775
Average book length 222 pages
Average rating 3.6
Highest-rated book/s Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao and Folktales From Vietnam by Glenn Manigold

Classics

The Autobiography Of A Chinese Girl: Ping-Ying Hsieh
Rating: 4

chinese girlSometimes, it really does pay to scour old bookshops. I would never have come across this little gem of a book otherwise! In our social media crazy world, we are always hunting for the next “bestseller” to read. What’s trending on Amazon? Let me read that! What’s made it to the NY Times list? Let me add that. Quiet books like this that are full of courage just get lost in the clutter.

My fascination and love for China will forever be the story of my life. China is the country where I grew up. Where I learned to fail. Where I learned to live. As I read through the rather disjointed memoir of Ping-Ying Hsieh, I was struck by how different the China of 2003 was compared to the China she describes. I was lucky. Ping-Ying not so lucky. Yet, she is one of the most heroic people I have ever read about. There is something utterly heartbreaking about her desire to lead a life that is at once different and non-conformist. Even in today’s world, I have met people who won’t live up to their ideals, who are inauthentic, and who won’t fight for their values. Not Ping-Ying. This is a riveting story of courage. I am just sad that the book ends rather abruptly – I want to know more of Ping-Ying.

Fathers And Sons: Ivan Turgenev
Rating: 3

Many, many years ago, I read Ivan Turgenev’s masterful story of adolescent love – First Love. It remains one of my favorite books. It’s been a while since I read any of his other works, and ‘Fathers and Sons’ is my second. What is it about Russian novels that move me so? In ‘Fathers and Sons’, Turgenev has created the deep, dark, sarcastic, brooding character of Bazarov, the Nihilist. The novel traces the interweaving lives of Bazarov and Arkady, their friendship, and stunning explorations of the nature of love.

For me, there was nothing quite as moving as Bazarov’s parents and the sheer love they have for their only son. The scene at the end fairly shattered me because of such love we seldom come across. This is a book that can be read on multiple levels. Is it a commentary on Russia of the times? Yes. Is it political? Yes. Is it a romance? Yes. Is it a satire? Yes. But beyond all that, this is a beautiful commentary on life – on the sheer, excruciating, painful mass of heart throbbing pulses we call life. That is the beauty. That is the compassion in the pain.

Of Human Bondage: Somerset Maugham
Rating: 5

It had been a while since I had read a bildungsroman like this. After having spent a long time on my bookshelf, this book finally got the attention it deserved. I didn’t read another book while I was reading this – I wanted to immerse myself completely in Philip’s travels, travails, and suffering.

Despite being more than 700 pages, you don’t feel the strain of reading it. There were beautiful passages that echo Maugham’s views on life. Philip, I thought, many times was a cad, treating women in miserable ways, yet there is a kindness in him that shines through, and you can’t help but feel for the utter struggle and wretchedness of making a living. Without a doubt, one of the favorites on my shelf.

 

The Nose: Nikolai Gogol
Rating: 2

I had been thinking of expanding my pitiful knowledge of Russian literature beyond Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Gogol, is, of course, one of the foremost writers in Russian literature, and I picked up ‘The Nose,’ as my initiation into Gogol’s writing. I think I should have done some research before I started reading this.

‘The Nose’ is absurdist and often borders on magic realism. To truly understand the satire, you need to have some idea of St.Petersburg and indeed the Russia of Gogol’s times. On the surface, ‘The Nose’ is symbolic of what Gogol perceived as the degeneration of Russian society – the obsession with rank and status. Poor Gogol would find that nothing much has changed since then. We are still obsessed with rank and status, and we now have glorified tools of social media to propagate our seemingly glorious lives. The hypocrisy of it all!

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being: Milan Kundera
Rating: 4

The process of clearing out my bookshelf has resulted in me reading some very interesting books. Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ waited patiently on my shelf for almost nine years.

When I finally picked it up over the weekend, I was quickly drawn into Kundera’s haunting, lyrical prose. So much so, that I had to make two trips to stationery shops to procure book flags and a highlighter for marking all the passages I liked. Considered a modern classic, I was floored by the unremitting tension that marks the exploration of intense relationships. I was curious about Tomas, a ‘womanizer’ and Teresa who sticks to him despite all his affairs, and then the rather faint interlude of Sabina and Franz.

And then, almost with a crash, bang, and a faint whimper of thunder, the book went downhill for me. Kundera’s premise of ‘kitsch’ might have fascinated me if I were writing a thesis as part of my literature paper, but the exploration of communism, mankind, and the follies of state left me wishing for the intensity of the first half.

Poetry

Flower Thoughts: Louise Bachelder
Rating: 4

I love flowers. That’s like saying I breathe. Anyone who knows me will know how much I adore flowers. There are so many times that flowers have breathed life into me, have caressed me with their willingness to look at life, and have hugged me with their fragile petals. When I came across ‘Flower Thoughts’ in this beautiful, illustrated edition by Peter Pauper Press, I just had to buy it.

There are some beautiful quotes from some of the best lines ever written by poets who have swooned over the faintest weed to the trembling dandelion. The illustrations just added to the magic. A much-pleasurable Saturday morning it is when I spend it in the company of my beloved flowers.

For Teenage Girls With Wild Ambitions and Trembling Hearts: Clementine Von Rodricks
Rating: 3

Another of the Internet “insta-poems” that make their way into the print realm. This 64-page long poem is spread across some beautifully illustrated pages. I had no idea what it was when I picked up the book, but it was a short read, and I loved this line: “Do not let their doubting drown out the sound of your own heartbeat.” The world is laid out for us to set on fire, and all we have to do is “burn.” Reminds me of my love, Kerouac.

The Universe Of Us : Lang Leav
Rating: 4

Until last year, I didn’t know of this whole new generation of “Insta-poets,” – poets who rose to fame because of social media platforms like Instagram or Tumblr. From the old Romantics to the Beat poets, and now the Insta poets, we sure are seeing a change in the way the world reads. And that’s good. Change, I believe, is always for the good.
Having started my initiation into this world of strange longings, aching desires, and fervent hopes with Nikita Gill and Rupi Kaur, I have now traversed the heart-filled soul-crushing world of doomed love of Lang Leav. All these poets sound melancholic. There is a touch of sadness of what will never be, for the loss of preciousness, and also, if you look deeply at it, a certain love for toxicity. Love my darkness. Love my torture. Love my demons, they seem to whisper in flower-kissed words of serenity. Yes, love is a many-splendored thing. But we don’t have to be demonized or tortured in the name of love.

In “The Universe Of Us,” Leav took me on a sad, wistful journey where the forevers turn into nevers. Capturing the ravine of forgotten and lost love, Leav merges words with stars, and syllables with fractals of light from the Universe. These poems are a lovely read on a sun-dappled afternoon. They won’t be classics, but they are representative of the way our generation reads today. In that sense, they are important.

Children’s Literature

The Visitor: Upasana Mehndritta
Rating: 4

“A man is visited by a strange blue dot.
Is it a bug? Is it an alien?
Where did it come from?
What does it want?
And why is it following the man?” – Thus begins this quaint no-words picture book by Upasana Mehndiratta. While this book can be read on many levels, I was fascinated by what I perceived as the symbolic meaning of the blue dot that seems to grow bigger the more the man runs away from it. Eventually, he turns around, faces the dot, and it just reduces in size. Isn’t that what fear does to us?

A beautifully illustrated story, worth treasuring!

Stuart Little: EB White
Rating: 4

I first came across EB White when I read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ last year in a beautifully illustrated edition. Continuing my journey across Children’s Literature, I picked up ‘Stuart Little’ wondering how I hadn’t read it before. After all, I identify myself with a mouse! ‘Stuart Little’ is another adorable tale, although it doesn’t quite have the depth and poignancy of ‘Charlotte’s Web’. But as with both the books, EB White touches upon ordinary values that are extraordinary to find these days – values of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and love. Above all, love.

Stuart is a cute little mouse, alright, scampering from one adventure to another. The end of the book, I felt, was rushed and I really can’t believe that there is no sequel to this. Certain aspects of the book can be viewed in a harsher light – the way EB White makes fun of ‘fat’ people. Typical children’s stuff, I suppose, but the adult in me cringed at that.

Contemporary Fiction

The Friend: Sigrid Nunez
Rating: 3

Don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t pick up a book by its blurb on Goodreads. Well, I do both. How can you not resist beautiful covers? And how can you resist a blurb that says a woman bonds with a gentle giant of a dog after grieving over the loss of her lifelong mentor and friend?

So, this was my first Sigrid Nunez book. And both the cover and the words were quite misleading. The dog, Apollo, plays only a minor role in the book. But who plays a major role? Is it the narrator’s dead friend? Who was he? Who is the narrator? None of the important characters is named in the book. Sigrid moves back and forth, weaving in expositions on writing to the gentle bond that develops between the narrator and Apollo. I was confused, I admit, at this interweaving. But she does write beautifully, and there were certain lines that made me pause and look out at life, reflecting on their wisdom.

In the end, I finished the book, but I am not sure I understood it all. Maybe, Sigrid doesn’t want me to understand. Maybe, the nameless narrator should just carve faceless thoughts on our mind and leave the scars for the stars to see.

Transit: Rachel Cusk
Rating: 3

If you have never read Rachel Cusk, then you might find ‘Transit’ a bit difficult to get into or understand. I had read her earlier work, ‘Outline,’ and while I loved it, I would not recommend it to just about everyone. Only a few would love that book.

‘Transit’ is much in the same vein. The thing about her writing is that the nameless narrator is almost your friend, conversing with you about all the different people in her life. We are taken through different characters and their stories, in short, delightful snippets that reveal the entire fabric of their life. It takes great skill to achieve that as a writer, and Cusk is as masterful as they come. To shed the layers and reach the core in just a few, sparse sentence – that is Rachel Cusk’s art. I loved the languid prose of this book. I wasn’t too worried about the lack of obvious plot. Think of it as stream of consciousness in a conscious style. Delicious. Like warm cookies next to butter tea.

Fantasy

The Gift Of Acabar: Og Mandino
Rating: 3

I am not sure what drew my eyes to this tattered edition of ‘The Gift of Acabar’ at a bookstore. I think I was drawn by the idea of a fable that revolved around stars. Set in Finland, Og Mandino creates in this fable basic ideas of living life with courage and meaning.

I was fine with most of the book, but I was absolutely baffled by the ending. There are obvious Christian overtones to the book, and the ending perhaps was based on Jesus. That is what stops me from loving the book. I like it because there were certain passages of meaning and beauty. There were some universal truths that spoke to me. It reminded me of the time I devoured Richard Bach’s ‘The Seagull’ thinking that was the greatest book I have ever read. Smile. How our reading interests change with time!

Folk Tales From Vietnam: Glenn Manigold
Rating: 5

I am just loving all the books that Peter Pauper Press brought out in this series! In a rather curious way, I stumbled across ‘Folk Tales from Vietnam.’ I had first discovered the book last year in my favorite bookshop and had gifted it to a friend, thinking we could read it together. We never did, and I never found any more copies of that book.
Fast-forward almost a year later. I go to another bookshop, searching for a play on adultery, and what do I find hidden there but this book? I can’t understand how this book came to me again. What was it doing in the Drama section? And there were no other copies of this book no matter where I searched.

While I ponder the vagaries of the Universe and Fate, I also enjoyed these fables from Vietnam. Most of them are rooted in simple tales of nature. Why does the buffalo look ‘ugly?’ for instance. Or the beautiful tale of the Milky Way. At heart, they are simplistic reminders urging us to lead a good life where our values guide us, and where we understand that what goes around comes around.

Young Adult

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Rating: 2

This is what I can say is a book that requires not much exercise of your intellect. You can just keep skimming through the words, reach the end, close the book or in my case, the Kindle and just forget about it. I am still yet to find terrific YA fiction- I think the closest I have come is the works of Benjamin Alire Sanchez.

I was anxious to finish the book, and it was with much relief that I picked up Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage.’ My wounded soul was immediately soothed. Not to disparage or take anything from ‘Simon..’ because this book is hugely popular. Let’s just say that it didn’t appeal to me.

Indian Writing in English

The Illicit Happiness Of Other People: Manu Joseph
Rating: 3

“Why did Unni do what he did?” That is the central premise of the book. That is an interesting premise, indeed, and that’s what kept me going through the book.

I have known and felt the breath of suicide all my life. We really think we know the people we live with, but they are just specters of dust, molten light passing through our minds, touching our souls, and waving their goodbyes. There are questions I want to ask of certain people all my life. And it is usually the same as what Ousep Chacko wishes he could ask of his dead son, Unni when he kills himself.

“Why did you do what you did?” That’s my question too. I wish then that I can go on a quest and find the answers, but while Ousep can find answers beyond death, there are no answers I can seek from those who are alive, but who consider me dead.

Much of the early promise in this book dissolves towards the end, where I just wanted to read through the end. It’s sad because that promise is what kept me going – but the sheer incredulity of the end made me stretch every sinew of belief from my mind. Easy reading, but difficult thinking. A strange book.

Girls Burn Brighter: Shobha Rao
Rating: 5

Not since I read Hanya Yanahigara’s ‘Little Life’ have I been so gripped by a story of unremitting sadness and unfathomable friendship. This book reminds me so much of Yanahigara’s story of almost constant despair, relentless misogyny, and yet, at the heart of it the depths of love. Not love as boxed in families and marriages, but the sort of nameless love that echoes in our hearts, that whispers in our soul, and which lays its aching head on our shattered hearts.

Poornima and Savitha were just barely out of childhood when they were ripped apart by the follies of men. They traverse through almost parallel lives, through unimaginable pain, always holding together the memory of what they shared. There were times when I had tears in my eyes because for Savitha, the one thing she cherished more than anything was a little piece of cloth that she had been weaving as a sari for Poornima. Do what they want to her, but that cloth kept her alive. And what can I say of Poornima who defies everything to find Savitha? Her determination to finally meet her friend?

I don’t know if I have that kind of intensity of love as Poornima, but I did realize something. If I were to disappear tomorrow as Savitha did, I know of one person, one friend, one piece of my own soul, who would run the world ragged to find me. How blessed I am to have my own Poornima in you, Birdy.

An exquisite lyrical novel that is one of the best to have come from the genre of Indian Writing in English. Shobha Rao, you are my new favorite.

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