Is your bookshelf your mind?

  Going by statements made by a judge of the Bombay High Court recently, it would seem that your bookshelf can and will be used against you. Justice Sarang Kotwal in a sedition case, against a well known activist, apparently asked why he had War and Peace – “a book about a war in another country” – on his bookshelf?

  To some degree hilarity ensued in the twitterverse but the reading public in general was horrified because such statements imply a turn towards a nightmarish dystopian future. After all War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a celebrated literary work and is recommended reading in schools and colleges across the world. What was even more frightening was that no one doubted that such a statement could have been made. Since it is not the fashion of the day to read, people don’t expect judges, lawyers and investigating authorities to be aware of literature. After all, writers like Tolstoy are the food for thought only of the literati.  Surely it is a sign of the times that people are willing to believe the worst in a situation and not question or try to verify what has actually transpired. Since the judge’s statement was reported, garbled clarifications have been made that he was not actually referring to Tolstoy’s book but some other book with a similar title. No one knows what the truth of the matter is because no one is actually willing to clearly state what had happened. Why bother? It’s easier to just make stuff up.

  That having been said, the situation does raise the question as to whether our  bookshelves actually represent our minds? After all, War and Peace is also about peace but what does one do if only the war in the title is emphasised? What about the Ramayana? That too is about a war in another country. Enid Blyton wrote inflammatory books about elves, witches and menacing little fairies harassing children. Let’s not even talk about the brothers Grimm with their stories full of nasty, evil characters. Harry Potter has been accused in the past of being a satanist. Jane Austen is subversive with her books being full of outspoken women characters. A Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution and therefore revolutionary. To Kill a Mockingbird must obviously be about killing defenceless wild life and therefore against the environment. Agatha Christie is all about crime, murder and poisons and we all have at least a few of her books on our shelves. What about a crime fiction writers researching different methods of killing? Can one imagine the kinds of books they might have on their shelves?

  Anything can be contorted to suit an argument by people who do not read. But a reader knows that each reader reads differently. Readers understand that the beauty of reading is that we all read the same book but take away different things from it, sometimes things that the author may not have intended. A story, well written, well plotted, with well fleshed out characters and a satisfying ending is all that one looks for in any fiction. The philosophy espoused by the characters is not necessarily what one reads a book for. Ultimately all successful books are about humanity and have to touch the reader on some level. Sometimes we even pick up books, which may be completely contrary to the way we actually think, just to understand a point of view. But that doesn’t mean we convert to that point of view. So the title does not define the book and the book shelf most certainly does not define the reader.

  We were going to have a photo of our bookshelves at the head of this post but decided against it as it would be revealing and may be held against us. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 anyone?

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Violent colours of a bleak island

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  Maggie Stiefvater’s  The Scorpio Races is all about magic, subtlety, myths and violence.  Magic of the stormy autumn seas that throw up the Capaill Uisce, the wild, meat eating water horses, straight out of Celtic myths; magic of the remote little island of Thisby which inexplicably holds some people and lets others go; the magic of the Scorpio Races held in November each year and which are the source of the islands identity; the magic of colours and the magic of love – of both humans and animals. Woven into it all is the magic of Stiefvater’s subtle writing which at times is poetry in prose. Except for the violence, nothing else is in your face. All emotions and feelings  are alluded to yet the reader gets a clear picture of each character. And somewhere within it all, it is a book about the strength of the women on the island which is the bed rock of island life.

  Thisby is probably an Irish island, but it’s exact location is not specified and it is famous for the Scorpio Races that are run on its main beach. The locals catch the capaill uisce which come ashore during the autumn storms and train them for a period of two weeks in order to race them on the main beach. This is no meant feat since the horses are constantly drawn back to the sea and also drawn to kill.

  The book is narrated from the point of view of two teenagers – Kate (Puck) Connolly and Sean Kendrick. The latter is the winner of the last four races, having a knack, partly magical, with the water horses and a special relationship with his winning horse Corr while the former in many ways is representative of the spirit of the island – isolated yet plucky and  self reliant. Puck and Sean come up against each other when Puck decides to participate in the race to save her house and prevent her elder brother from leaving Thisby.

  It’s amazing how Maggie Stiefvater weaves myths into normal day to day life where they are accepted in a matter of fact way. Hers is not a world on another planet or in another dimension, it is this world but only that some of the stories are real. This is the appeal of her books because who doesn’t want the mundane world to be laced with magic and for the myths to be true. The atmospheric writing manages to draw the reader in despite the deceptively mild pace of the story which meanders through the descriptions of various island inhabitants and their quirks. Ultimately it is the descriptions of the island and its bleakness, offset by the colours of the sea and the horses as well the red of Puck’s hair which stand out vividly. Not to mention Puck herself who is vibrant against the closed and taciturn Sean.

  Like Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series, The Scorpio Races is a book that slowly gets under your skin and weaves a spell. A story to be savoured.

 

The days of plenty

  Being readers we are always fascinated with the way people read and how they are drawn to certain books and, these days, the medium in which they read. We also love to write about our observations. Sometime back we had written about the easy availability or downloadability of books from around the world because of e-readers. At least for readers, these are the days of plenty.

  Just last week someone we know was reminiscing about the days when the release of each Harry Potter book was an event – how one person in her class ( in school and then in college) would get a copy and it would be passed around the entire group of friends. Each one who would complete the book would maintain their silence about the story until the others had finished their turn. We too well remember the anxiety and eagerness whilst waiting out turn for a long awaited book. Once finished, you could never sit on the book because the next person in the queue would be breathing down your neck.

  Until about five years ago even books which were not well known would be picked up by one person who might have read a review somewhere, had it recommended at the bookshop, seen it on the shelf and liked the look of it, gifted it by someone or stumbled upon in the library. These books, if liked would be discussed with friends and colleagues and then lent to them. Everyone who had at least a shelf of books which had been either bought or gifted and equally treasured, would happily run their own little lending library for their friends. The books would however be lent along with dire warnings for safe return and death threats for non return. One never bothered to buy books which were already in the library of someone we knew. Those were the days when a lot of books were not easily accessible and a random copy might crop up in an odd shop somewhere. One of the ‘to do’ things for anyone travelling, even if was just to Mumbai or Chennai, would be to visit a bookshop there in order to pick up books not available in Bangalore.

  Gone are the days when one had to scrounge for a book. This was borne upon us last week because of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow which we had loved and reviewed in our blog post a few weeks back. A number of friends have since decided to read the book which we had borrowed from the e-book library and then subsequently bought for ourselves on the Kindle since it is book which deserves a second and third reading. A friend was gifted an analog copy, another friend downloaded the e-book, another one is reading it from their e-book library. No one asked if we had a copy which they could borrow. Gone are those days, it’s now all about I, me and my device. And of course the convenience of availability.

  Although so many people are reading the book, which is great for the author and the publisher, somewhere we feel as if something has been lost in that little bit of withdrawing into oneself.

Irrepressible green thumbs

 There was a time, long, long ago, when Bangalore was known as the Garden City of India. The old Bangalore had tree lined roads, bright bursts of bouganvillea and Rangoon creepers spilling out over walls and carpeting pavements. Every home had a garden in front with perhaps a little pond in it. People took pride in their gardens and were not beyond robbing cuttings from their neighbours or any random house. Rapid vertical concretization has put paid to all such things which brought us a good climate and pleasant environs. Buildings are now constructed to the edges of each property so that builders can optimise their profits to the last construct-able inch with the municipal authorities willing conspirators in the money making exercise. As a result even a tiny strip of land is not to be seen and the city’s character has undergone a sea change (a sea of brick and concrete).

 The gardens have all but gone and those of us who remember can only console ourselves that they might still exist in a parallel universe. But, even though the gardens have disappeared, the gardeners all haven’t. They crop up in the lonely tree to be seen in the balcony of a 90 flat building, the hibiscus that spills out in abundance through the rails of another, the terrace gardens and vegetable patches that reveal themselves as one travels in the elevated metro. The green thumbs still hanker for that tiny bit of soil and seed.

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 In 1929 Karel Capek, a Czech author, published The Gardener’s Year which is a whimsical collection of essays on the year in the life of a gardener. Capek’s humour and obsession for his garden is something that people can relate to even today, no matter where they are in the world. People for whom the climatic conditions and varieties of plants are totally different can still identify with his frustrations, worries and preoccupation with soil, weather, rain, sun and pests. Man/persons were meant to garden from the time of Adam – no matter that we now live piled one on top of the other in crowded cities and have no patch of land to call our own. Gardeners will and do continue to exist and garden in pots on balconies and terraces and on window ledges.

 Like readers and pet owners (or pet family members because ‘owner’ is no longer politically correct) gardeners, when they identify each other, instantly bond . The most boring of parties become interesting in discussing the best way to get rid of aphids and spider mites whilst bemoaning the attack of squirrels, crows and monkeys. Those with surviving little patches of land end up waging wars with bandicoots. But in recounting these battles, most gardener’s exhibit an indulgence of the various creatures together with the frustration. After all, a gardener more than anyone else understands the need to live with nature and find some sort of a balance. There can also be unexpected benefits – a gardener we know, worried about the bats nesting around her house, had the pleasure of discovering different fruit plants cropping up in her pots because of the seeds dropped by the bats.

 We have been bombarded last week by pictures of huskies in Greenland pulling a sled through water which should have been ice. The horror of it sends chills down one’s spine (despite the warming). No matter how much people may deny it, climate change is real and environmental degradation is on our doorstep. Despite all the nay sayers and all those who don’t care, there are the gardening few who hold out hope that nature and greening as well as the joy of seeing something grow which you can eat or put in a vase, share with friends or just sit in the midst of with a cup of tea, has not gone out of fashion. The world may yet be saved, a gardener a day. May their tribe always increase.

Old world charm

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Every once in a while a book comes along that you can fall quietly and deeply in love with and you know that you can pick it up over and over again and read bits of it. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is one such book.

In the Russia of the Bolsheviks the protagonist Count Alexander Rostov, a youngish man, is tried and declared a ‘former person’. He escapes the usual fate meted out, which is execution, because he is credited to have written a revolutionary poem during his college days. And so he has to suffer the lesser punishment of being placed ‘under arrest’ and living out the rest of his life in the hotel (The Metropol) where he is staying.

With the Count the reader too is confined to the limits of the hotel for a book that spans a period of almost 40 years, as he makes a life for himself within the The Metropol. On being ‘arrested’ the Count is moved from the suite he was occupying to an attic room and is allowed to keep only such personal effects as would fit in the room. The Count finds ways to continue his life under these new circumstances and though, in effect imprisoned, he manages to retain his personality, gentlemanly ways and innate curiosity.

One would expect that a story restricted to the events that take place within walls of one building could easily become boring and descend into nothingness; instead the life of post revolutionary Russia flows in and out of the doors of the Metropol before the eyes of the Count, an avid observer and commentator. It’s amazing how the character feels very little resentment for his own situation or that of his class. Instead he is for the most part curious about the changes life brings and the vicissitudes of society. He is able to draw parallels between the old system and the new since people are just people at the end of the day. Other than an occasional nostalgia for his family estate and his long dead sister, there is very little in the way of melancholy in the character. Instead he makes friends with the chef, the waiters, the barber and with a little girl, the daughter of a bureaucrat staying at the hotel. The friendship with the girl (who has a skeleton key to the hotel’s locks) opens up to the Count areas which he didn’t even know existed.

The progression of a person from an aristocrat to a self reliant person and then a worker without losing any of his innate graciousness is written by Amor Towles with amazing charm and a fondness for the character. The reader is forced at some point to acknowledge that perhaps the aristocracy were more than just a privileged, entitled, thoughtless and racist bunch of people. In a world where boorishness is not just accepted but prized, for the reader to be able to inhabit a book steeped in the manners of a gentleman seems almost soothing.

We had never heard of Amor Towles till now but as soon as we finished the last page of A Gentleman in Moscow we ordered his first book, Rules of Civility, from the library and are waiting impatiently for our turn.

Readers and Borrowers

D846F71D-683E-4EFF-B12A-9C4D5C018787  There is no doubt that we love reading and love books. Due to space constraints and lack of dusting motivation, we prefer to buy only those books which we know we will read again and again. Besides, we like the idea of supporting libraries as we believe they are intrinsic to the reader’s life and like the concept of having them around. However the e book lending libraries have been a game changer. The reader is now not only able to see where they are in the waiting list for a book and how many copies are in the library but also the approximate time frame when the book is likely to be available for download.  This new way of borrowing gives one quite a perspective and insight into the pattern of book borrowing. In itself it could well become a study into the reading habits of types of people and genres of books borrowed.

  The borrowing behaviour has certainly caught our attention and interest. While waiting for much in demand books, one is bound to speculate as to why it is taking so long! So, after a suitable amount of mulling over, we have figured there are three kinds of readers (feel free to add more categories) – the reader, the avid reader and then just the plain borrower who may or may not read what they have borrowed.

  You also have roughly three categories of books – the ‘ooh I am reading it’ books, those are books that are popular for having won a big prize, or the biography of a famous person or the ‘in fashion’ self-help book, this category can sometime also include the latest bestseller. Then you have the ‘I am so smart I am reading…’ book which comprises of either literary fiction (read highbrow) or the Nasim Nicholas Taleb type of books. The final category are the genre fictions like fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries and thrillers.

 It has been our experience that the genre fiction readers are the avid readers who believe a bookmark is an insult, food splashes on the book/e-reader and finger print smudges are all part of the deal. They will read through the night (under the bed covers and with a torch if necessary), while eating, riding the train and even surreptitiously at a meeting if they can manage it. What comes next rules their mind. These are the good souls who devour the books as soon as they get them and promptly return them to the library to make space for the next book. Waiting for a genre fiction book is very nice because you can see the waiting list numbers falling day by day. We have been waiting to read The Wicked King by Holly Black, the second book in a fantasy trilogy, and it’s a pleasure to wake up each morning and check how much closer we are to getting the book.

 The ‘readers’ are the people who like to read and enjoy reading but do not necessarily have the time to read and are not the persons who will go to any lengths to make the time. They like reading classy stuff or informational books, literary fiction if it is fiction or in non fiction it will be Malcolm Gladwell, Naseem Nicholas Taleb, Yuval Noah Harari or Carlo Rovelli. They are not interested in grabbing these books as soon as they are published and may even have heard of them some years down the line. Once they have the book they will sit on it for ages. To be fair these are also not the kind of books which can be read in one sitting and the reader is required to ponder over whatever the author is saying or how beautifully the sentences are constructed. These books have long waiting lists in the library but few copies and take forever to come to you even if they have been around for a few years. We recently put in a request for ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles published in 2016, a book with excellent reviews, with old world charm and written by a known author. It also has a waiting list longer than one’s arm. We will be lucky if we get to see the book before the end of the year.

 The final category is the ‘borrower’ or the ‘buyer’. These people do not read. They like to carry books around with them and tell people what they are reading but rarely do they move beyond the first few chapters. They will hold on to the book until the next ‘happening’ book or award winner is out and then move onto that. These are the books which are next to impossible to get hold of from the library. People just do not return them! We put our name on the waiting list for Becoming by Michelle Obama and even with a total of seventy(!) copies in the library we are nowhere worth mentioning on the list.

 As a result of all this waiting and ruminating we feel compelled to give self serving advice to ‘the borrowers’ – Don’t be pretentious. Most people don’t bother reading these days in any case and will not be too impressed by your claims of reading the ‘in’ thing. Those who do read are able to pick up the subtle signs of a non reader so you can forget about impressing them. Do others a favour, return the book or get off the holding list, read the  Wikipedia summary, a couple of reviews on Goodreads and find some quotes that should be enough to suitably impress your book club. 

From a younger perspective

It’s always great to talk to someone who enjoys the same books as you and when it’s your favourite author that they like – it’s that much more fun.  We have never had a third party interaction on our blog posts before, so when, because of an unexpected school holiday, we found ourselves chatting about Terry Pratchett with a fourteen year old, over ice cream on a Monday, it was both envy raising as well as fascinating.

Why envy? You may well ask. When we start reading TPs books, it was an anxious wait every year for the release date of the new book but the younger generation have had the pleasure of binge reading all the books without need for pause or wait.

But it is fascinating and also great to known that the younger generation has the capability to appreciate TP. Which is why we we ended up grilling the kid and bought her a second ice cream so that we could continue. So here is a conversation all about Terry Pratchett.

Us: Which was the first Terry Pratchett you read and how old were you?
Kid: I was 12 when I read the first two Tiffany books – Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky.

Us: Which would you say is your favourite Discworld book?

Kid: I don’t know… wait… Hogfather and Monstrous Regiment, I think. Hogfather because of the idea that belief makes the Hogfather real. Small Gods has a similar theme but Hogfather has Susan in it. In Monstrous Regiment, it’s the dystopian feel and female empowerment that I liked.

Us: Of all of the amazing characters TP has introduced us to who is your favourite?
Kid: Susan with the hair (Susan has light blonde hair with one streak of black) and Tiffany with her rather violent cheese that wears a kilt and goes mnam mnam. What I like about both of them is that they are very sensible and don’t put up with any nonsense from anyone.

Us: If you could live anywhere on the Discworld, where would you choose to live?
Kid: I would want to live in Lancre, because that’s where Nanny Ogg is. (Oh, the appeal of witches!)

Us: And if you were living on Discworld, what do you think you would like to do?
Kid: I would love to be a witch but I am not practical enough so maybe I would join the Watch.

Us: What is your go to series? Since you are wearing a Marvel T-shirt?
Kid: Definitely TP and Discworld! I wish there was any Discworld merchandise available. Because then that is what I would be wearing. Also if I had 15 mins I would pick reading a Terry Pratchett book over watching Marvel movies any day.

Us: what draws you to TPs books?
Kid: It’s an entirely new world that is relatable but yet detached from ours. It’s not dependent on any thing that happens here but has everything that we don’t have like dragons, imps, goblins, vampires, witches, wizards and elves. What appears good is not necessarily good and what is bad is not necessarily evil. Because everyone is shady. Except for Carrot (In the Nightwatch series) who is so good that he seems off.

Us: What is your favourite food on Discworld?
Kid: Nanny Oggs suspect recipes.

Us: So which series do you prefer, Harry Potter or Discworld?
Kid: Discworld, because it’s funnier and more relatable. TP makes you think more and you can’t ignore the darker shades. Although Harry Potter is great too.

Us:  Do you feel reading TP changed your reading habits in any way?
Kid: I discovered at it at the right age. It supported the direction I was already going in.

So that’s it, another one is quite obviously bitten by the bug. And probably the bug will last life long.