It has been my year in books, literally. For, looking back, there seems precious little I did with my spare time this year other than devouring books. Quantitatively, the count is at 52 and growing, perhaps the largest number of books I have read in a year. Qualitatively, the endeavor to tame some beasts that I have hitherto been afraid of has paid off very well. And, lastly, my attempt at diversity in genres has been well rewarded, I must say.
Here goes a list of random observations from this year's reading pack:
The best of the best
Middlesex was one of the first books I read in 2015, that I instantly fell in love with. Easy language, right pace, structured thoughts, a dash of history, and a very sensitive subject at hand, Jeffrey Eugenides did not win the Pulitzer for nothing. The book made me think of sexuality, nature vs nurture and genetic mutation in a different light, and I cannot thank Eugenides enough for that.
When one reads Midnight’s Children, everything else one has read thus far does pale, dim and then disappear into obscurity, and so was the case with me. “To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world”, says Salim Sinai, the protagonist. To understand Rushdie, one has to swallow this book over and over and over again. One reading cannot be enough. He employs magical realism to weave together words and thoughts and imagination and reality, irreverently at that, transcending governments, faiths, religious beliefs, tolerances and intolerances.
“O fortunate ambiguity of transliteration! The word ‘buddha’, meaning old man, is pronounced with the Ds hard and plosive. But there is also Buddha, with soft tongued Ds, meaning he-who-achieved-enlightenment-under-the-bodhi-tree”, says Rushdie, through Sinai. His writing enlightens me, makes me believe that a writer becomes truly one when he holds himself back no more, when he is honest and fearless and unafraid of the dead and the living, and everything in between.
Bring in the old, and ring in the new
When the going gets tough, the comfort books get going. For me, these are largely Archers and Christies, and the occasional Georgette Heyer. In one such stream of tough goings, I picked up Clifton Chronicles this year. Archer has fine-tuned the art of writing so much that it feels engineered to the T, like precision equipment, that is designed to emit alternating positive and negative signals, at agreed frequencies. The man has a set timetable per which he writes, so it isn’t surprising he can churn out books at an alarmingly high rate, seemingly similar to one another, yet being attractive to the reader within us.
When the going is smooth, it is a good time to ring in the new. This year, I discovered some interesting authors, alive and dead, normal and abnormal.
Anthony Horowitz resurrected Sherlock Holmes for me in House of Silk. While he is no Doyle, it is no mean feat to attempt a Holmes' recreation, even if it is only 50% successful.
Wilkie Collins is apparently one of the first people to write full length mystery novels. I imagine this guy must have had Christie’s head and Austen’s face as he churned out novels set in the Victorian era, resplendent with dinner gowns and large grounds, butlers and valets to go with, and an unraveling mystery stretching well over 600 pages each.
Keigo Higashino is my favorite pick for the year though. The man writes not about who was responsible for a certain crime. The whodunit is obvious from the initial chapters. How the person did it is the mystery, and a mind-blowing mystery at that.
The genre experimentation
I don’t understand fantasy fiction, I cannot relate to science fiction, and I am averse to graphic novels. All these myths have proven to be exactly that this year. FunHome by Alison Bechdel is a graphic novel I am sure to read and re-read many times over the rest of my life. Andy Weir has ensured I lived in a claustrophobic spacecraft with a largishly blown up bedroom and only the brown sand outside for company, while reading The Martian. And, it will be many years before I forget what happened to Angier, the magician, from The Prestige, which, at 360 pages, was the most difficult book that I traversed through this year. Thanks Chris Nolan, for making such a beautiful movie out of this monster.
Will history be the same anymore?
And while speaking about genres, I am not sure where I should classify 1984. It is dystopian at the least, and highly disturbing, disorienting and maddening at the most, as I struggle to come to terms with history as I have known it for so long. Did the Second World War truly happen? Was Gandhi really peace-loving? Did Julius Caesar die only because of Brutus? Is Big Brother watching me as I type this out? Gosh! If I go crazy earlier than I am slated to, it is because of Orwell and Orwell only.
Where do my loyalties lie?
Bookless in Baghdad by Shashi Tharoor is a book I am reading as I write this piece. This guy is truly a genius at writing, and when he writes about the books he has read, the outcome is fantastic. But, how can he, how can he possibly throw mud at R. K. Narayan, my Swami and Friends idol? Should I not follow Tharoor anymore because he doesn’t like my childhood author? Or, should I stop being respectful of RKN because Tharoor is the writer of my dreams? Perhaps, I can live with both and love them both, one dead and another alive, one traditional, the other modern, one for my childhood, another for my adulthood.
And, now for the not so nice
No, it has not all been hunky dory this year. In fact, more is not the merrier as I have learnt to my chagrin. Indian authors have let me down with weak language (Sita’s Sister), bad plotting (White Tiger), and insipid writing (R. K. Laxman – you took the right call by sticking to cartoons). Harper Lee was happily immortalized in my memory till Go, Set a watchman came along. And, I promise I will never get swayed anymore by a book because the title attracted me (Madras Miasma, I am looking at you).
As I move into 2016, I promise myself I will not pounce on every book that my eyes come across, but that is going to be impossible. My shelf for 2016 is at 44 and increasing, and not all of them seem tried and tested and enjoyed by all. But, then, to understand this world, one should swallow all its books, after all, while remembering they may not all be true, that fiction will remain fiction, and some non-fiction will be fiction too.