Friday, January 04, 2013

Books of 2012

I read 56 books in 2012 - that's about a book a week. No idea if that's a big or a small feat because I've never kept track before (thank you for changing that, Goodreads).

Here are eight of my favourite reads from 2012, not necessarily published in 2012 and in no particular order of importance. They entertained me, touched me, simplified something in my mind or worked as hyperlinks to  change some long-held perceptions.

Here's wishing you a happy reading year!
Arzee The Dwarf


Blurb - Arzee the dwarf's dream has come true. He has been crowned as head projectionist at the Noor, the a Bombay cinema where he has been working since his teens. Arzee thinks that the worst of his troubles are behind him, and that he can marry and settle down now. But not for the first time, Arzee has it all wrong!
Arzee the Dwarf follows Arzee through day and night, slow time and fast time, agitation and reverie, beautifully setting off the inner world of Arzee’s jagged ruminations against the beating and pulsing of the great city around him. The narration vividly brings to life not just the protagonist, but also a host of characters to whom Arzee turns in his hour of need. Can Arzee find a place for himself in "the world of the fives and the sixes"? This bittersweet comedy, shuffling between hope and dread, between the yearnings of body and soul, is a book about the strange beauty of human dreaming.   

My take - I had never heard of this book (go figure), and it was with some trepidation that I borrowed it from a library. I now regard it as one of the best books I've read in a while.

The above blurb is way too complicated for such a wonderfully concise book. While there is a convenient arrangement of faiths followed by some of the characters, and some very offbeat and realistic characters, the book rides on the able shoulders of Arzee the protagonist, his dreams, ambitions and complexes. A wee bit reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry - not for the presence of the Parsi character, but the unique everydayness of each character. Much after I read the book and returned it to the library reluctantly, my book-luck kicked in when I visited a bookstore to find the sole copy of this book heavily discounted. I doubt one gets that feeling with an ebook.

 Em and The Big Hoom 
Blurb - In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, through the last decades of the twentieth century, lived four love-battered Mendeses: mother, father, son and daughter. Between Em, the mother, driven frequently to hospital after her failed suicide attempts, and The Big Hoom, the father, trying to hold things together as best he could, they tried to be a family.

My Take - This defining account of mental illness, is written with such lucidity, humour and great affection that it could only come from a deeply personal space. At the heart of the story, is the quirky, irreverently funny Imelda Mendes, also called Em, who is also suicidal when in the throes of bipolar disorder. Her husband, Augustine, also called the big Hoom, is the bulwark of the family. The children - Susan and the narrator son, who stays largely unnamed – are given free access to their beloved Em's letters and diaries wherein we discover more of her story, particularly preceding and following her falling in love with Augustine. Somewhere in the midst of Em's flurry of words and the big Hoom's quiet presence, we sense the deep love and regard they have for each other. 
(Reviewed for the September Issue of Culturama)

A well-designed hardcover - you'll know what I mean when you hold it in your hands, flip it open and see how the drawings across the book piece together the picture on the cover and the narrative pieces together the story of the Mendes family.

 The Illicit Happiness of Other People: A Novel 


Blurb - Ousep Chacko, journalist and failed novelist, prides himself on being “the last of the real men.” This includes waking neighbors upon returning late from the pub. His wife Mariamma stretches their money, raises their two boys, and, in her spare time, gleefully fantasizes about Ousep dying. One day, their seemingly happy seventeen-year-old son Unni—an obsessed comic-book artist—falls from the balcony, leaving them to wonder whether it was an accident. Three years later, Ousep receives a package that sends him searching for the answer, hounding his son’s former friends, attending a cartoonists’ meeting, and even accosting a famous neurosurgeon. Meanwhile, younger son Thoma, missing his brother, falls head over heels for the much older girl who befriended them both. Haughty and beautiful, she has her own secrets. The Illicit Happiness of Other People—a smart, wry, and poignant novel—teases you with its mystery, philosophy, and unlikely love story

My Take - This book is at once darkly comic and moving. The novel is in a voice that seems to channelise Ousep Chacko's anger and cynicism of the world he lives in even as he regrets not knowing enough about his cartoonist son, Unni. The section I love most is the one (on Page 104 of the yellow cover edition), where Ousep watches his younger son, Thoma readying himself to step out of the house and into the day that lies just beyond the doors. The layer that I loved was about the feeling of being an outsider, the whole 'us-and-others' view of the world. Do stay with the story until the end.

A one-of-a-kind novel - slightly depressing, but balanced brilliantly with some pretty accurate observations that only someone treated as an outsider in insular Madras could have come up with. 

Blurb - "Exotic," "spicy," and "delicious" are adjectives rarely applied to first novels; however, Reef had critics on both sides of the Atlantic smacking their lips. Reef is the coming-of-age story of Triton, a talented young chef so committed to pleasing his master's palate that he is oblivious to the political unrest threatening his Sri Lanka paradise. The London Times called it "incessantly pleasurable," and Booklist writes, "After slowly and reverently savoring Gunesekera's debut novel, it's easy to see why this flawless book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize."

My take - What a brilliant title for this book! Reef captures the fragility of a certain social order in Sri Lanka in the 1970s as witnessed by Triton, a teenager who becomes cook/housekeeper for Ranjan Salgado who in turn, studies the fragile coral formations off the coast. There's a lot of food in this novel, but it doesn't overpower the core idea.

Love the passage on page 82 of the edition I've marked, where Triton describes how difficult it is to keep secret, a visit to the house by Nili, his master's lover when she wants Salgado's shirt as measurement for another one to be tailored. Triton seeks to find and hide traces of her presence so Salgado doesn't guess she was here. 

I'm a little more encouraged to read  Booker-winners now.

Last Chance to See 

Blurb - Join bestselling author Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine as they take off around the world in search of exotic, endangered creatures. Hilarious and poignant--as only Douglas Adams can be--LAST CHANCE TO SEE is an entertaining and arresting odyssey through the Earth's magnificent wildlife galaxy.

My take - For a person vaguely interested in nature and not too keen on actively interacting with species other than my own, I found this book an excellent read. This book is in no way depressing, but it is sobering to read about how callously we treat our resources.

Douglas Adams (yes, him) wrote this book after travelling with Mark Carwardine in search of endangered species like the Kaka Po, the White Rhino and the Baiji Dolphin. He met some of the most passionate conservationists and sighted the actual species, and he describes these voyages in his inimitable brand of humour.

A must read for any one who has even vaguely identified a bird other than those in the backyard. Do catch the documentary of the same name if you can - it was made after Adams death, with Stephen Fry accompanying Carwardine on the same voyages to see if the conservation efforts paid off.

In Defence Of Food: The Myth Of Nutrition And The Pleasures Of Eating 

Blurb excerpt - What to eat, what not to eat, and how to think about health: a manifesto for our times. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." These simple words go to the heart of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, the well-considered answers he provides to the questions posed in the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma.

My Take - One of the most sensible books on food. If you've ever been stumped by the fact that food research findings tend to contradict each other eventually, this is the book that may just prove that your grandmother may have been right after all. (I did read his Food Rules - not a patch on this one). 
Blurb - Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

My Take - This was a recommendation from one of my friends from a reading group I'm part of. Brilliantly narrated and made me believe that I can run too. I even signed up to walk a 10k as a start to my marathoning persona, but a broken heel has taught me the wisdom behind the adage, 'One needs to learn to walk before one can run'! 

In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology 
Blurb Excerpt - "Sita is one of the defining figures of Indian womanhood, yet there is no single version of her story...However she is remembered, revered or written about, Sita continues to exert a powerful influence on the collective Indian psyche. In Search of Sita presents essays, conversations and commentaries that explore different aspects of her life. It revisits mythology, reopening the debate on her birth, her days in exile, her abduction, the test by fire, the birth of her sons and, finally, her return to the earth—offering fresh interpretations of this enigmatic figure and her indelible impact on our everyday lives." 

My Take - The above blurb is a little misleading - the book doesn't have answers for all your questions on Sita. A dear friend of mine was disappointed with the same book, because she didn't find any new perspectives (She did give points for compiling so many opinions on the subject in one volume). 

This is a good collection of articles, stories and poems centered around Sita from the Ramayana. It includes folk retellings, versions other than Valmiki and Tulsidas, and also feminist interpretations without depicting Sita too much as the victimised female lead of an epic, as popular media would like us to believe. She is still a little-understood character, but the facets explored are interesting.  

I particularly loved the pieces written by Lord Meghnad Desai, Ranga Rao, Namita Gokhale, Sonal Mansingh, Devdutt Pattanaik and Madhu Kishwar.The fictional retellings - some written in English and some translated from other languages - are well written.I would have really liked at least one chapter on Kamban's Ramayana in Tamil which I am told depicted the characters in the epic to be more human than perhaps in the Valmiki or Tulsidas versions.
Growing up, I was spoilt for choice for female role models, but there was one character I didn't want to be associated with at all – Sita - and all the moral high-ground she signified. Based on what I had read or seen in literature and entertainment media, I regarded her as a wimp, a victim and a doormat to Rama and patriarchal society. After reading In Search of Sita and Madhu Kishwar's wonderfully sensitive chapter in it, I've finally refined my idea of Sita a little. 

Perhaps I chose to judge her not in the context of her own story, but in comparison with other, larger-than-life dramatic personas - she doesn't quite compete with the valour of warrior princesses, fear-inducing wrathful goddesses and screaming social activists, does she? I've come to realise that perhaps Sita's greatest strength is her unflinching tenacity, a rather timeless quality that we tend to underestimate for its lack of high drama. She feels more human to me now and I know that in this discovery, something has shifted inside me as well

Blurbs and Book Covers from (or publisher websites). My reviews are at Goodreads in more or less the same avtar.

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