Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011!

Here's wishing all of my fellow booklovers a wonderful, prosperous and happy 2011. May all your dreams come true. Let peace, love and good books prevail forever!

Also, thank you for being so generous with your comments and feedback to my blog this past year. I hope you've enjoyed reading my blog as much as I have enjoyed posting it :)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Books of the Year: Non-Fiction

It's probably a personal thing, but non-fiction always seems to strike me emotionally much more than fiction. I love reading biographies, memoirs, political/historical books and this year was an amazing reading year for me, non-fiction wise! Without further ado, here's my list of the top five non-fiction books that I would recommend to anyone interested in these subjects:

5. Diplomatic Divide: Cross Border Talks by G.Parthasarathy and Dr.Humayun Khan
Thousands of books have been written about India, Pakistan and the conflicts and the hurdles that hamper a good relationship between the two neighbours. Diplomatic Divide: Cross Border Talks is different because this book sees Indo-Pak relations through the eyes of  Pakistani diplomat Humayun Khan who served in India and former Indian diplomat G.Parthasarathy who served in Pakistan. 

Therefore, the book places on the table both sides of all the issues that India and Pakistan call 'core issues'. Since the book is written by men who have actually been part of decisions that have shaped the way India and Pakistan interact with each other, their thoughts hold a lot of weight. Also, the book isn't stuck in chronicling the follies and lost chances of the past, but also makes important suggestions for the future.  To everyone interested in the history and politics of India and Pakistan, I highly recommend Diplomatic Divide: Cross Border Talks.

4. City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
I remember having a conversation with a friend who was talking about how she's not a huge fan of foreigners writing about India. I think I told her 'Well, William Dalrymple writes beautifully about India. Oh wait, I don't really think we can call him an outsider'. And that's exactly the thing about Dalrymple. He writes about India like he really cares about the country and not as a condescending collection of stereotypes and cliches that a Western audience expects. City of Djinns is his tribute of sorts to Delhi and everything about it, from the people to the Sufis to Yunani to Partition to Bureaucratic red tape to the Mughals. His writing is witty, smooth and easy and engages you in a journey, discovering the charm, beauty and complications of Delhi alongside Dalrymple. If you've ever been to India/Delhi or want to, this book is an absolute must-read!

3. Letters from a Father to his Daughter by Jawaharlal Nehru
Anyone who's been following my blog for a while will know that I'm a huge fan of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his writings. Letters from a Father to his Daughter is a collection of the letters Nehru wrote to his daughter Indira (Gandhi) when she was ten. Nehru writes with such grace as he explains in exquisitely simple language the story of the world, its civilizations, India and her people, nature and so much more. This book seems to have been geared towards an Indian audience, but I earnestly believe that every child, across the world, ought to be given a chance to read this book. Nehru's world view, his opinions and his dreams for his country and his fellow citizens is reflected beautifully in this book. The values that he speaks about and the small anecdotes and messages that he teaches his daughter are universal. This is one of those books that I'd love to pass on to my children.

2. Nehru: The Making of India by M.J.Akbar
This book is a masterpiece. Writing a biography of a man who lived a full and busy life that saw history being made, the birth of two countries and the journey of fragile, battered young India being strengthened and healed, is an incredibly tough task. Nehru left behind a voluminous collection of letters to family members, Chief Ministers, Heads of States, apart from his own books. This might become a biographer's nightmare since there's just too much material about the man. But M.J.Akbar does an admirable job of chronicling the life of one of India's most charismatic, intellectual and visionary leaders. 

At a time when blaming Nehru  for every single problem has become the fashion, M.J Akbar's biography is an important book to read. Nehru: The Making of India does not acquit Nehru of the mistakes he made, but does not shy away from showering praise where it is required. This is an amazing portrait and rich tribute to a man whom many love, many hate but nobody can ignore when talking of India. 

My pick for Non:Fiction Book of the Year is actually my Book of the Year. I know genres make some books incomparable, but I have no hesitation in picking this incredible, shattering book as my Book of the Year.

1. Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer 
This book has found a place in so many 'Best of 2010' lists that I've lost count. More importantly, Curfewed Night deserves each and every one of the recommendations and awards it has got. This is journalist/writer Basharat Peer's part-autobiographical tale of Kashmir and what it means to be a Kashmiri. This is a book that shatters the comfortable cocoon of myths on the basis of which many people see the valley. It is a heart-breaking, emotional and incredibly important book that every Indian ought to read. Peer has spoken in many an interview about how tough it was to write the book, but his writing itself flows with such ease and brutal honesty,  conjuring unforgettable images of his Kashmir. The places he visits, the many people he meets, all have a story to say, a story it is time we listened to. 

Curfewed Night had me in tears more than once and refused to let me put down the book and turn to happier things. One of the things that Peer writes about in this book is his anger and sadness at the fact that almost every zone of conflict in the world has many books written about it by its own people, except Kashmir. Peer need not worry about that any longer. His book serves as that unforgettable voice that helps us understand the many realities of the valley. Many people have many opinions on Kashmir and for them all, this book is highly recommended. The way you look at Kashmir may never be the same again once you read Curfewed Night.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Books of the Year: Fiction

 The number of bad books I've read this year are few, the number of mediocre/disappointing books I've read this year are more, but I had the fortune to read several excellent books. Some stood out for their writing style, the subject they dealt with, the impact they made on me, the originality or uniqueness of the tale etc. This is a year-end collection of the top books I've read. These are books I'd recommend vigorously, lend or even hand-sell. And then I shall badger you to post a review or I'll end up interviewing you on everything about the book and how you liked it. 

Without further ado, here are my top fiction books of 2010:

Zama is the Indian Alexander McCall Smith. His writing is simple, beautiful and when telling a story that is as heartwarming and vivid as this one, very effective. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is the tale of retired Mr.Ali who starts a 'marriage bureau', and the many people he meets as he tries to find the 'right match' for the right person. The social commentary is subtly, but gorgeously done and Zama conjures the image of that Indian neighbourhood, with all its quirky, annoying yet loving neighbours, that all of us remember with nostalgia. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a feel-good book that is a rich treat for the reader. I'm looking forward to reading its sequel The Many Conditions of Love and will watch out for Zama's forthcoming books.

4. Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I'm usually not a fan of short stories, because it takes a gripping novel to engage me. But Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth captivated me, mostly due to Lahiri's prodigous writing talent. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories that deal with the overseas experience, its cultural repercussions etc. Unaccustomed Earth is a more mature, darker take on the immigrant phenomenon and its challenges. These are stories that are emotional, tragic, entertaining and overall, memorable. The hype surrounding Lahiri is entirely justified, for her eye for detail and engaging writing transforms short stories into unforgettable experiences.

This is one of those books that I never would have read if not for the blogger world and the many positive reviews and recommendations that I saw for the book. I had many reservations, especially because the primary theme of the book deals with Math and numbers and I, well, I'm the last person you'd catch reading books related to Math. But I'm glad I picked this book because The Housekeeper and the Professor is a unique, engrossing tale of the relationship between a genius Maths Professor who has only 80 minutes of short-term memory and his Housekeeper and her son. The characters involve you into the book and though it is a short book, its effect is definitely long-term. Don't be put off by the Math-related theme of the book.  Math here is used as a beautiful tool to understand people, their emotions and life itself. Really.

2. Rich Like Us by Nayantara Sahgal
I'm an unabashed fan of Nayantara Sahgal and I'm proud to be. Sahgal is one of the not-so-popular Indian authors, something which is a loss for the reading community in general. Because Nayantara Sahgal is one of the more intellectually slanted writers who bring to life the politics and history of the times with her wonderful writing. Rich Like Us is a tale of India from before independence to Emergency, through the stories of two women - one a cockney memsahib married to an Indian and the other a forward-thinking Indian woman. Sahgal writes skilfully and her talent of interweaving the lessons and stories of the past with the ideals of the present, is remarkable. Rich Like Us won the Sinclair Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Best Novel and it is easy to see why.  Evocative, gripping and unforgettable, Rich Like Us is a book that I cannot recommend enough.

Picking the Book of the Year: Fiction was incredibly tough because there are so many equally brilliant books from different genres, and therefore are incomparable. Therefore, as an indecisive Libran, I cannot select between the following two and I'm presenting to you my Top Fiction Book(s) of the Year:

1. The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group is an incredible masterpiece that tells the tale of eight Vassar graduates, women whose stories, experiences and opinions stay with the reader and linger in our minds. Set in the Great Depression, The Group drives home the status of women and the struggles and problems that they face as a consequence of their choices. McCarthy writes with such exquisite ease and brutal honesty about complex, depressing, even embarrassing but important issues. The Group is an important feminist voice that may shock you, startle you, make you uneasy, but will remain with you for a long time.

1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
If I was asked to pick a book to reread from the list of books I've read in 2010, I would not think twice. If I was asked to pick the book that I would most like to gift a friend, I know exactly which book I would choose. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is to fiction what The Sound of Music is to musicals - unforgettable, charming, emotional and heart-warming. This is an epistolary novel about an author getting to know about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the stories of its members and how they formed the society during the German occupation of Guernsey. A treat to every bookworm, this book is a wonderful mix of witty writing, fascinating characters and memorable scenes. If you haven't read this book already, well, what are you waiting for? In my opinion, this is a book worth buying and seeking refuge in, whenever in need of a comforting, relaxing and beautiful story.

What are your favourite fiction books from this year?

Note: These aren't books published in 2010, but books I read in 2010

P.S I'm looking forward to posting my final end-of-year list, that is the Top Non-Fiction books of the year. Many of the most memorable books I've ever read, find a place in the list :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Classics Countdown

I love classics. They may not be the easiest books to read nor will they all be to my taste, but they're books that almost always make me think, they're books that stay with me long after I'm done reading them. This year was quite a fruitful year as far as reading classics go. Here's my pick of the popular classics I've read this year. Get a cup of tea ready to sip in, and curl up with these books as they transport you to their era.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
I didn't enjoy this book as much as I hoped to, but it was still a beautiful read. I had my problems with the book in that it had too many characters that clutter the narrative and confuse the reader. But Flagg is a wonderful writer who brings to life the characters, the town and the time frame she talks about. She tackles many important issues in the book like lesbianism, racism and feminism and does so without making it seem pretentious or preachy. Also, the descriptions of food in the book would give Enid Blyton a run for her money.

4. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
In one word, Rebecca is a haunting book. The atmosphere of Manderley, its inhabitants and their story is so powerfully created that readers think of a certain 'mood' the moment they hear the word 'Rebecca'. I thought many of the 'twists' were obvious and I disliked the spineless unnamed narrator. I understand that she's supposed to be dull, but she's far too naive that the tale moves to the predictable arena. However, Rebecca is worth a read just for Du Maurier's excellent writing style and a gripping finale. 

3. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Is it sacrilegious that an Austen fan does not choose Persuasion to be her 'Classic of the Year'? I hope not, because once you see the top two, you would forgive me. But Persuasion is a remarkable book. A mature look at a relationship that flourished once, was broken, and left to grow again when the hero and the heroine were under totally different circumstances. The book boasts of memorable characters, especially a wonderful Captain Wentworth whose letter to Anne Elliot has earned its place in literary history as one of the best love letters ever written. Persuasion is a treat to every reader, Austen-fan or not.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery
Reading this book made me want to go and live in Prince Edward Island along with that red-haired, vivacious Anne Shirley and her amazing, wondrous imagination. Anne of Green Gables is one of those books that tugs your heart strings and makes you feel that you're part of the story because you genuinely care about the characters. Anne of Green Gables is a charming, emotional experience that you shouldn't deny yourself and is one of the most memorable books I've ever read.

1. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
It wasn't at all tough for me to choose A Tree Grows In Brooklyn as my 'Classic of the Year', for no book made me laugh in joy, smile fondly, feel angry, break into tears as this coming of age book did. Francie Nolan's growing up saga is a story that every one of us will have something or the other in common with. Smith writes like a dream; her language is rich yet easy and she conjures vivid images of the past that is she is writing about. She tackles the subject of poverty beautifully, without romanticising or trivialising it. This book could have easily become a compilation of cliches, but Smith writes so realistically that it is hard not to be moved by the book. The host of characters she has created will stay with you long after you're done reading this book and that is exactly the greatest thing about the book - it is an unforgettable experience.

P.S Coming up next are my final end of the year lists where I pick my Book of the Year in the genres of Fiction and Non-Fiction :)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Year Of Austen

'My idea of good company is the company of cleverwell-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company'

Austen and Janeites are excellent company. This year, my Austen obsession manifested not in terms of the number of Austen-related books I read and movies I watched, but in terms of how I could relate every random thing that happened, to Austen.

Indeed I wrote a profile of myself - an Indian Austen fan - as a guest post for the lovely Priya at Uniquely Priya. I referenced Salman Rushdie's quote that linked Austen and Indian women. I wrote about what it meant to be an Austen-tatious Indian:

"To me, Austen’s books have been something to seek solace in, no matter what. They are books for all moods. When I’m sad, a few witty sentences of Pride and Prejudice or a heart-warming letter in Persuasion, can put a smile to my face. When I’m lonely, it’s pretty nice to have Mr. Darcy and Mr. Tilney for company. Every time Auntie X harps about the need for ‘you girls’ to get married to an NRI, I think of Mrs. Bennet looking to push her daughters to the richest man possible. Every time Mr. Y speaks about his looks, I’m reminded of the vain Sir Elliot in Persuasion."

I even used/misused an Alfred Tennyson quote to prove a point about Mr.Darcy For men may come, men may go, but Mr. Darcy goes on for ever ;)

The Year of Listening to Pride and Prejudice:

Matthew Macfadyen is an amazing actor. But what's more amazing is his voice. Especially when he reads out a wonderful passage from Pride and Prejudice for the Carte Noire readers. I downloaded this a long while back and I'm glad I did. I start out early every morning, come home after a long time and in my journeys by bus, auto or just walking, it is nice to listen to Mr.Macfadyen read from Austen. It is good company, I must admit.

'The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novelmust be intolerably stupid.'
I have a yearly tradition of reading Pride and Prejudice at least once every year. This year was no different. But if there is an Austen book that stole my heart this year, it has to be Persuasion. After hearing from all and sundry about the wonderfulness of Captain Wentworth, I decided to find out for myself what was so great about him. And I'm glad I did! 

Persuasion is a beautifully written, mature love story; the kind that you feel was ahead of its time. Anne Elliot isn't a typical dashing heroine, but a heroine you care about, one whose personality flows so well with the story. I loved Persuasion and it is my second most favourite Austen book, next to Pride and Prejudice. And oh, that letter

That made this Darcy fangirl a Wentworth fangirl too. 

I also watched Rupert Penry-Jones' version of Persuasion and well, that's the only thing I have to say about it: Rupert Penry-Jones. The movie did not do justice to the book and I'm hoping that the Ciaran Hinds version is much better.

'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can..' 

One of the highlights of my year in Austen is Miss Austen Regrets. In one word, this take on Jane Austen's life is: unforgettable. I believe this is a must-watch for every Austen fan and I'm sure you won't regret watching this movie. Miss Austen Regrets depicts Jane Austen the way I imagined her to be: spunky, sarcastic, witty and brave. To all those disappointed by Becoming Jane, Miss Austen Regrets will be your healing balm. Olivia Williams is phenomenal as Austen and it will be hard to get her image out of your mind when you read Austen.

'How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!'

I was predisposed to like these two Austen-inspired books: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. I first saw the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club and I loved it! I thought the book might disappoint someone who had seen the movie first, but that's not the case. Fowler writes beautifully and the book features several discussions about Austen herself, her characters and her books that every Austen fan would love to be part of! The Jane Austen Book Club is a poignant, heart-felt tribute to the legacy of Austen and the impact she has had on so many of us.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, on the other hand, is pure fun. An Austen fan wakes up to find herself in Jane Austen's time, something that isn't quite as rosy and romantic as the Jennifer Ehles and Matthew Macfadyens have lead us to feel. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is a little like Lost in Austen meeting Bridget Jones' Diary. The storyline isn't original, nor too surprising and I felt the romance parts were a little boring. But where Rigler scores is in bringing out, quite comically, what it means for a 21st century Janeite to find herself stuck in Austen's England. The reality-check of sorts is hilariously written and I enjoyed reading it! (On a related note, this is great fun)

This year in Austen terms was a very memorable one. I would have loved to had more time to read many Austen-inspired books and biographies, but work and study left me with little time.To quote the lady herself: Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings. How was your year, Austen-wise?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thursdays With Tagore - December 9

This week on Thursdays with Tagore is a poem I've known by heart and have sung ever since I was a child. It was one of our daily prayer songs in school. I used to just recite the words those days, focusing more on coming to the end of the poem and opening my eyes, than savouring the words. Today though, when I read through the words, nostalgia strikes me alongside pleasure at understanding the simple and compassionate meaning of the poem.

This is my prayer to thee, my lord — strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart.
Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.
Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.
Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.
Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles.
And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.

What a beautiful message to teach everyone, especially children!

Thanks to Mel U at The Reading Life for sharing this link which has the English version of Tagore's Nobel Prize winning Gitanjali along with a wonderful introduction by William Butler Yeats. Do check it out!

From this week onwards, I will be posting a couple of end-of-year lists including my pick for Book of the Year (Fiction and Non-Fiction). Do look out for that!

Next Thursday, I will not be posting a new poem, but I'll be re-posting a couple of poems featured in Thursdays with Tagore and will be asking you to vote for your favourite Tagore poem among those. I know that is an awfully tough task, but I'd love to find out your pick among the several poems I've shared with you this year. I'm excited and I hope you'll enjoy voting :) 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thursdays With Tagore - December 2

This Thursday, I dare you to not smile while reading this poem:

When I bring to you coloured toys, my child, I understand why there is such a play of colours on clouds, on water, and why flowers are painted in tints - when I give coloured toys to you, my child.

When I sing to make you dance I truly know why there is music in leaves, and why waves send their chorus of voices to the heart of the listening earth - when I sing to make you dance.

When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands I know why there is honey in the cup of the flower and why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice - when I bring sweet things to your greedy hands.

When I kiss your face to make you smile, my darling, I surely understand what the pleasure is that streams from the sky in the morning light, and what delight that is which the summer breeze brings to my body - when I kiss you to make you smile.

This is a wonderful, heart-warming poem where Tagore understands the ways of nature through his affection for the child. The comparisons are simply, yet delightfully done. This is a beautiful poem that made my evening! How about you?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

South Asian Challenge 2011

One of the many things I've learnt this year is the fact that I'm dismal at completing challenges. The list of challenges I've completed - don't look at my sidebar! - is embarrassingly low, due to a combination of work, lethargy, work, work and work. But one challenge that I completed very early in 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed was the South Asian Author Challenge.

It was easy for me to complete (and indeed exceed) the maximum level of that challenge because I always read a lot of Indian authors. I've discovered many a wonderful author through the challenge and I hope you've found some good recommendations from my blog too. 

I'm delighted that Swapna Krishna at S.Krishna's Books is continuing with this challenge and I'm happy to sign-up for the South Asian Challenge 2011. Here are the slightly different rules for the new version, which concentrates not on the nationality of the author alone, but rather the geographical area that the book deals with. I'm being (probably overtly) ambitious in choosing the challenge level of 'South Asian Guru' where I read more than 10 books. I'm going by the fact that this year I've read almost 15 South Asian books and I hope the trend will continue next year too!

A tentative list of some of the books I'd like to read next year:
1. Serious Men - Manu Joseph - DONE
2. Nationalism - Rabindranath Tagore
3. India Remembered - Pamela Mountbatten and India Hicks
5. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
6. Chef - Jaspreet Singh
7. The Far Pavilions - M.M.Kaye
8. A Passage to India - E.M Forster  - DONE

Thank you once again Swapna for hosting this! I'm glad that this challenge gives people across the world an opportunity to discover new authors, cultures and traditions. 


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