Author: RK Narayan
Keywords: Delightful. Humourous. Natural.
Few writers have the gift to make everyday life interesting. RK Narayan does so with a flourish. He makes us want to journey back in time to the town he writes about. Life was simple, and the range of characters makes for a perpetually entertaining townscape. The reader feels as if these are real people, so effortless is Narayan’s storytelling. The stories themselves may be simple, but the writer’s astute observations give us insights into human nature and the societal norms of the time. RK Narayan is one of those rare writers who notice what most of us overlook.
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Realistic fiction (maybe)
Keywords: Moving. Intense. Disconcerting.
I don’t read many plays but All My Sons is more than just a play. Based on a true story, it reveals the deeply complex and fundamentally flawed nature of human beings. It delves into ethics and idealism, and questions how personal greed and selfishness allow people to ignore their moral responsibilities. Its broader themes hint at the corruption prevalent in any system, and it questions the American dream of the 1950s. All My Sons is so relevant to India today; it will strike a chord in many readers’ hearts. A story that stays with you, and haunts you for a while.
Author: Bel Kaufman
Genre: Epistolary novel
Tags: Realistic. Humourous. Unconventional.
My cousin – a school teacher – never stops raving about this book. So I finally got my hands on it. And no wonder teachers love it, because no book explains the life of a teacher with all its trials and triumphs as well as this one.
Set in a school in the New York area in the 1960s, Up The Down Staircase rings true even today. The book unfolds in different voices, in the form of dialogues between people; notes between teachers, from the trash, or the suggestion box; letters between characters; scribbles on papers and so on. This lends authenticity, landing the reader smack into the life of a teacher, with all its challenges and rewards. It also makes for an interesting read, as you experience school life from various points of view. We see the growing pains and difficult lives of certain students, the insecurities and pettiness of some of the staff, and the dedicated teachers who truly love their profession. There are plenty of little stories sprouting around the main theme. Even fifty years later and continents away, one can relate to and enjoy Up The Down Staircase.
Author: Alex Haley
Tags: Realistic. Historical. Poignant.
Human lives often makes for the most interesting stories and Roots is no exception. This is the story, or rather the history, of one family. It starts seven generations back, with the first ancestor, Kunta Kinte. He is a young boy living with his family in a Gambian village in Africa in the 18th century. He is captured by white slave hunters and brought to America. He tries to escape several times, with brutal consequences. Finally, he is resigned to his fate. Later, he marries and has a daughter, but his deep hatred for the white race always remains, and with good reason too.
The book recounts the story of his daughter, her children, their children, and so on and so forth until it ends with the author himself. The African words and tales from Kunta Kinte had been handed down through each generation, connecting all of them to their origins.
This however, forms just the background narrative of the book. The main story recounts the lives of slaves on the white-owned plantations, their work, their families, their struggles for survival, identity and freedom. At times, the oppressed identifies with the oppressor. We see the attitudes of both black and white communities to one another. The story weaves in and out of important moments of American history, such as the abolition of slavery. It is a fascinating, and at many moments a heart breaking read. This is the best and worst of human nature told through one long family story.
Several years (ten or more) ago, I tried to read John Steinbeck. At that time I struggled through The Grapes of Wrath, which is known as his best work. I couldn’t quite digest it.
But sometimes, certain books captivate us when we are of a certain age. You have to come to the book at the right moment in your life. I think that happened only now. Steinbeck’s writing is spellbinding, a slow and exquisitely detailed unfolding of life and people in California in the 1920s and later. Steinbeck has been rightly called a ‘giant of American literature’.He writes about the simple everyday lives of people, but it is incredibly realistic, stirring, and thought provoking.
His work is a fabulous time machine, a journey back to a very different America, when farms filled Palo Alto, and many struggled against crippling poverty. Some of his descriptions, especially of the hardy farmers and their families, resonate with the sorry state of farmers in India today. Like all great writing, the themes are universal. His characters lived in a different time and place, but they are so real, you feel you know them personally.
Closer home, Rohinton Mistry is the writer who reminds one of Steinbeck.
The Grapes of Wrath
Touching. Compelling. Philosophical.
The book describes the journey of a family of poor farmers — from Oklahoma to California — in search of better land and a way out of poverty. They travel on Route 66, stopping in makeshift camps. They have to struggle for food, water, and gas, all the while running out of precious money. But more hard-hitting is the hope that keeps them going, and at moments it seems to be all that holds them together and keeps them from going insane or turning criminal. There are incredible descriptions of the land and the people who inhabit it. Steinbeck makes you feel the dust in your shoes and the burn in your belly as you walk alongside the Joads. The concluding scene of the book is powerful and unforgettable.
The Moon is Down
Suspenseful. Dark. Intriguing.
This story is set in a small town in Europe during World War II. Although the countries haven’t been named, it is obviously German-occupied territory. When an enemy solider orders a townsman to work in a mine, he retaliates and kills the soldier unintentionally. The soldiers then execute him by a firing squad. This incident turns the townspeople against the soldiers. Though they are largely unarmed, they start plotting revenge. The atmosphere of secrecy and animosity takes a toll on the soldiers' spirits. The town's Mayor is faced with a hard decision, an existential crisis. The book reveals the great truth that there are no truly peaceful people. Under threat, everyone changes, often for the worse. Finally, the book is a great proponent for peace, as it reveals the utter futility of war.
East of Eden
Rich. Emotional. Biblical.
This is truly an epic, following the lives of two families in the Salinas Valley. Their interwoven lives and intricate back-stories make this a captivating tapestry. Most interesting is the female character Cathy, a dark and twisted soul who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. It is not often that one encounters a powerful female villain in literature, and this is one hell of a gal. This is a journey through several people’s lifetimes, both physically and emotionally. Although the ending doesn’t have the same impact as the end of The Grapes of Wrath, it is still a very soul-satisfying read.
A story set in Monterey — a town in California — and the characters that live on one of its streets. A group of poor friends wants to do something nice for Doc, a person who is always kind to them. They have good intentions, but in their enthusiasm they mess up their plan and have the reverse effect. They cause Doc considerable trouble. A humorous read, definitely lighter than his other works. But at times it becomes a little monotonous. Personally, this is the only book of Steinbeck that I did not absolutely love.
Of Mice and Men
Two migrant workers are strongly bonded together, and share the dream of owning their own land someday. They work on a ranch. One of the workers has a limited mental capacity but unlimited strength. One day, he kills the ranch-owner’s wife, entirely my mistake and is petrified. He runs away but is followed by a lynch mob. It is upto the other worker to save him from a painful death. This is a heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of friendship, dreams, hope, and the unforgiving side of human nature.
Author: Sheena Iyengar
Tags: Informative. Interesting. Insightful.
How do we make the choices? This book analyses factors that influence choice, such as cultural conditioning, our perception of the situation, being in or out of our comfort zone, and so on. The author discusses research and experiments in the field, and breaks some myths such as – more choice is always a good thing. We see how we make choices in both the mundane (which butter to buy), and the emotional realms bl(family-related decisions). Most interesting is the fact that humans – and even animals – feel happier when they believe they are being allowed to exercise choice (even if it is an illusion of control). One can understand why we celebrate or regret certain choices. We can understand if our choices are driven by our personality, our convictions, or our cultural surroundings.
Author: Julia Alvarez
Genre: Non-fiction historical novel
Tags: Inspiring. Heart-breaking. True.
This is a gripping account of the incredibly brave Mirabel sisters who lived under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The story is told in the different voices of the sisters, moving seamlessly from first to third person as needed. At times we read of experiences typical to young women anywhere, with light-hearted episodes such as teenage crushes. As they grow up, we read of the non-typical terror of living under a dictatorship, and the personal difficulties they face as women and citizens. The slow rebellion that always boils beneath the surface creates an atmosphere of terrible suspense. Their country’s circumstances made these women into brave, inspiring national heroes.
Happy New Year! 2016 is here, and with it the usual well-meaning resolutions of
‘exercise more’, ‘wake up early’, and so on. Besides these, I’ve realized that I’ve been lazy about blogging for the better part of 2015. My last blog post was in mid-May (pathetic!). It’s quite easy and far too tempting to just forget that one has a blog. Some of the hiccups I’ve faced in maintaining a blog:
So now in 2016, I’m going to hopefully resolve all of the above by writing short (150 words at the most) posts, once a week, on a book I’ve read or am reading. This way, I don’t have to wrack my brains for a topic. Since I love reading, and love encouraging others to read, why not dedicate this blog to just that?
The books we see in Indian bookstores are mainstream. My cousin — a middle-school English teacher in Mumbai — has introduced me to some fantastic literature in the last two years. I’ve suggested these books to other friends, who have absolutely loved them. These books are well known abroad, but are not easily available in India (most of them are on Flipkart, but aren’t cheap as they are foreign editions). We readers felt that it’s a real tragedy that the typical Indian bookshelf has to be so limited.
So here’s to reading new books in the new year!
Now before you assume I’m one of those who detest, or are petrified of technology, I’m not. I work on a laptop/desktop, browse online, giggle at Twitter, waste time on YouTube, and yawn at LinkedIn. I even do all this on my phone. But increasingly, it feels like I’m trying to run a marathon alongside a cheetah. No matter how many warm-ups I do or how much water I drink, it feels like it’s always miles ahead, somewhere on the horizon, while I’m gasping, clutching my stomach, stumbling alone crying, “Wait up!”. But technology doesn’t give a shit. It keeps sprinting further, a wise and evil grin on its face.
A few years back I got a smart phone. In those days they had a QWERTY keyboard. You need to have fingertips the size of a two-year old to type fast on those. Incidentally, most two-year olds do type faster than me. Nevertheless, with practice and patience I became fast and quick at typing, even with my fat fingers. The moment I was really good at it, everyone got a touch screen phone. One day I was buying tomatoes when I had to message someone. The bhajiwalla cracked up watching me struggle. “Madam, smart fone le lo! (Madam, get a smart phone!)” He waved his sleek golden iPhone at me. I became as red as the tomatoes and upgraded the next week.
Now I’m happy with this touch screen business, but I’m struggling to keep pace with the apps. Companies suddenly decide they will shut down their websites and provide only the app. Every hour some app or the other needs an upgrade, and cries for attention, like an annoying baby with loose motions.
The other day I was talking to a friend about how we used to chat over landlines. Her 15-year-old cousin was in the room, playing some video game on his phone. He overheard us and looked petrified. Turns out, he thought landlines were the cousins of landmines, and we used explosives. Now that’s what mobile technology does to people’s brains. It’s called a smart phone because it’s often smarter than it’s owner.
And it’s not limited to phones. For some reason, Gmail will keep twiddling with their user-interface. They say it’s for ‘improvement’, but it sends people like my mum into a flap. By the way, I’m now a Google Help Centre. I spend hours answering questions like this:
“Where has the password space gone?”
“I can’t find Drive? Where did they put it?”
“How do I see this attachment?”
“Where did reply-all go?”
“What is the green circle near my name?”
I keep reassuring mum that a computer is
a) a machine
b) does not think but only follows orders and
c) will never bite her or explode.
I want Google to either give their employees something better to do, or pay me as a Help Centre.
I started using a computer for work in 2001. Floppy disks were on their way out, and compact disks were on their way in. That was the last time I was actually riding the crest of the technology wave. After I had a massive collection of CDs, they vanished overnight and were replaced by the USB drive. And then they made USB drives so tiny, that I was forever losing them. So I started swallowing them for safekeeping. All my work is saved on little USBs somewhere in my intestine. It couldn’t be safer.
Passwords have become tricky fellows. They can no longer be sensible words like ‘woof’, or ‘password’. Websites prompt me to use my great-granduncle’s middle name, the date of the Crimean War, then type it all backwards with random capitalized letters. Besides, we’re told not to keep the same password across different websites. I’ve been working on my very own Encyclopaedia of Passwords, and I’m on Volume 3. I suggest you do too.
Now of course, everything is ‘in the cloud’. All our words, photos, thoughts, opinions, lives, are floating in one massive nest somewhere in the sky. This should make things easy, and it does, to a large extent. I’m just waiting for the day we can upload our brains to the cloud. But I suspect that some people (like that 15-year old I told you about), already have.
Also published @medium