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Yes, I love the smell of books!

I’ve been reading since I discovered my brother’s Noddy Books and Enid Blyton. After I was done with that I was lucky enough to be introduced to the caustic British humour of P.G.Wodehouse. Some books like 3 Men in a Boat, made me bend over with laughter, while simultaneously gaping in open mouthed awe at the use of the language. But after I was done with these, there came a lull in the books I read. For a few years I found nothing I read held my interest, with (popular) authors like Agatha Christie & Sidney Sheldon leaving me unenthused and uninitiated into the world of ‘grown-up’ reading.
Luckily, this phase lasted for only a few years, and this blog is about the books I’ve read since then. I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, but I am always intimidated and overwhelmed by the authors that I would be writing about. I have no literary background, and everything that I say here will boil down to the fact that it is my personal, amateurish, uneducated view. But since it’s MY blog, I’ve decided to pen down these thoughts anyway. The following post describes the top few books that have grabbed my attention in the past few years – whether for reasons good or bad.

1.       Leo Tolstoy / Author
I was browsing through a few book discussion forums. Most of the people who had reviewed Tolstoy positively said that he was tedious, or an effort that was worth it. That’s just my point, if you find a book tedious, then it hasn’t engaged you. I, for example could not put down Anna Karenina, and finished it in 10 days flat. The depth of the characters, the beauty of the language, the intricacy of the cultural web all drew me in to the extent that transported me to St.Petersborough. Some lines are so beautiful; I stopped and reread them, unable to believe the exquisiteness of the language that came through even in a translation. The story is about – well yes, Anna Karenina, a strong willed Russian lady, who falls in love with Vronsky, a younger, dashing military officer. Anna leaves behind her husband and child in a bold move to follow her heart, and thus comes about the slow disintegration of her peace of mind; brought about by guilt, the fact that she is ostracized from society, her total dependence on Vronsky. This previously indomitable spirit is finally so broken, that she throws herself in front of a train, at the very spot where she first met Vronsky. What it must be like to read Tolstoy in Russian! I definitely do not have the qualifications to even endorse this author, all I can say is that, in my opinion, he is the best the world has ever had the good fortune of seeing. When Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace, I was left feeling depressed and dejected. That’s not because I’m some sort of a sentimental fool, but because at the end of this novel, you know his character, have fought his battle for survival, have shared his hope and love for Natalie. And that’s why Tolstoy is a genius. He doesn’t tell a story. He makes you live it.

2.       Markus Zusak / Author
Coming in a distant second is the author of Book Thief and I am Messenger. There is a new meaning to creativity that this author brings to his books. The very first pages of Book Thief are itself so original, the mere fact that the narrator is ‘death’ make it an unforgettable read. It’s a heartwarming book about a subject that isn’t at all cheery – the Holocaust. I am Messenger is totally different, though not in the same league, it’s still a good read. Again original in thought and faultless in execution, it’s about a simple, average youngster’s struggle to make a mark in the world. Or atleast in his own town.

3.       Dostoyevsky / Author
This author I wouldn’t recommend to the faint-hearted. Till I came across Demons, I never imagined that a book could have such a profound impact on my mental and emotional state. Crime and Punishment too will drag you down to the very depths of maniacal, schizophrenic, delusional wells – all through well thought out logical debates that the young protagonist Raskolnikov has with himself. The killer’s state of mind is something you begin to identify with, the guilt is transferred to you as if you yourself wielded that axe. When final confessions are made, you heave a sigh of relief, not because the fat book is over, but because you are at last free of the burden of being party to a morbid, brutal murder.

4.       Mark Haddon / Author
A lesser known book called Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time introduced me to a style of writing in which vocabulary was not the focus. The narrator being a little autistic boy, the author takes you through a confusing, bright, beautiful and depressing world. All this managed through undemanding language and straightforward expressions that draw you into the very psyche of this distressed child. Brilliantly simple, I can’t say much more about this book except that it touched me deeply.

5.       Haunting/ Genre
A Million Little Pieces is a biography of sorts, of a recovering addict. The narrative is so dark and engrossing that you will actually share the author’s withdrawal symptoms, especially when the book ends. Another few in this style are Not without my Daughter and Kite Runner. The formulae for success here are the captivating, touching and horrific stories, making it ok if the style of writing is not exceptional. Shantaram, when read like a novel (not an autobiography) gives you an interesting view of Mumbai and its underworld, albeit a view that is in all probability fictitious.

6.       Fiction- Fantasy / Genre
I will put all my favourite fiction authors under one heading, for one reason – they can all be best described through one word – ENTERTAINING.
Whether it is the witty humour of the Bartemeaius Trilogy, the genius plots of Artemis Fowl, the intricate storyline of Lord of the Rings, the classic Good vs Evil-ism of Harry Potter or even the mindlessness of the Twilight series and Twilight Watch (a translated Russian Fantasy trilogy) – with Werewolves, Vampires, Witches, Fairies, Hobbits, Genies(!!!), there can be no better desert for your brain than a good Fantasy. One book I will mention here, sitting dusty on my bookshelf, I absolutely could not get through is Eragon. Paolini is one lucky kid, to have become an overnight sensation by churning out boring, unimaginative garbage, impeded further by his lack of expertise and flair in the art that is story-telling.  

7.       Holocaust Literature / Genre
I put this under a common heading so as to demonstrate the 2 extremes of writing – a topic that it guaranteed to generate interest, the author must make an extra effort to ensure (or atleast hide the fact) that he is not looking to climb the ladder to fame and fortune by spitting out mediocre writing about the inconceivable pain and shame of millions. If you read the The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas you will know what I am talking about. It is a book written with ludicrous simplicity, the theme being that the son of the Nazi administrator of Auschwitz becomes friends with a Jewish boy in the camp. The 10 year old boys meet daily at the fence of the camp, and have hours and hours of conversation! One day the son of the Nazi sneaks into the camp (because that’s so easy) and is gassed to death, holding hands with his friend. Whatever chance of success such an amateurish plot ever had is lost forever, thanks to the style of narrative makes you believe the author really is a 10 year old boy. But a spoilt Irish one, who decided to publish his school composition project – where he uses words like ‘peckish’, which are glaringly culturally ill-fitting to the time and place of narration. I highly doubt this author ever stopped to research a single thing about the Holocaust, and he uses distressingly juvenile attempts to build an aura of authenticity. For example, these boys are supposed to be so innocent and small that they are unable to pronounce ‘Auschwitz’, and instead keep referring to it as Outwith (or something, I couldn’t be bothered to remember)

Compare this (actually don’t) to Sophie’s Choice – the author does not even have to make an effort to pull at your heart strings. It’s an automatic link you feel to Sophie’s pain and murky past, her Survivor’s Guilt, her inexplicable loss, and her ultimate struggle with life. The style of writing draws you in, taking you back and forth in the time path of the novel till you are dizzy, but never do you feel like an outsider to this story. Even when Sophie narrates her story in first person, the language is halting and construction is odd – exactly how German speakers of English translate their thoughts. You can smell the stench of Auschwitz and the sweat of Birkenau. The book never once resorts to gore to make you believe, the description is always centered around the mental struggle, rather than the physical surroundings. It is the attention to detail, the hours of study gone into the book, splattered with liberal doses of boyish wanderings that make the book so… genuine and believable.

8.       Uh hello, why did I just read that? / Generalisation
Two books that bored me mindless: The Life of Pi and Tuesdays with Morrie. Oh man, they are so without storyline that I kept waiting for the climax, until the very last page. Yawn! The reason they make a separate entry here is because they are ‘critically acclaimed’. If boring was the criteria, the critics have done a great job. There are a few more in this category, like Namesake, and I have now begun to shy away from books that have won too many awards. Mindlessly sappy books that are supposed to touch your heart, Love in the Time of Cholera and Love Story are just about survivable, but I fail to see what the hoo-ha is about. 


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