What Should We Read

What should we read? Read that which turns the mundane into extraordinary; that which turns the familiar aroma of the coffee in your mug, a luxurious affair between your senses and your conscious. Read that which makes you extend your fingers in the air and join that index and middle with your thumb to feel the silk and satin described in the text. Read that which not simply mentions the cheese in the sandwich the character devours, but traverses you to the slopes of the Swiss alps where the cheese finds its origins. Read that which makes you believe that it’s not the character, but you who is eating that cheese sandwich. Read Amor Towles.

A Gentleman In Moscow; Amor Towles

This book, along with the interplay of times we live in, brought my reading to a pace where instead of rushing through pages, I was reading and feeling and sighing. Sometimes I lost my mind to it, and in others, my heart to it. I am confused about setting it forth as a recommendation because, while I liked it and enjoyed it (let’s ignore the time here please), I wonder if everyone would.

However, if you do pick up A Gentleman In Moscow, I would recommend that you pair it with its audiobook. Nicholas Guy Smith has given an exemplary narration which complements Towles’s writing exactly the way the Count paired the bottle of the Mukuzani with the serving of the Latvian stew.

Times are strange for us. We all are in voluntary house arrest for no crime. But we live with a hope of being released. Unlike us, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov doesn’t enjoy this luxury. This gentleman has been imprisoned for life in one of the most luxurious hotels ever – The Metropol.

As a book, A Gentleman In Moscow, starts with all the fanfare of a beautiful read. I was smoothly floating into its layers, unhurried, the way a boatman rows his boat into a silent lake. I wasn’t hooked to the book. There were times when I left it altogether contemplating whether I need to go forward reading it. It is slow and long drawn, with descriptions that mostly enamored me and at times frustrated me. That is the book’s character. It mirrors the life of its protagonist. It is slow because that is how life is for Count Rostov. And as the Count lives through each day, celebrating his imprisonment, the reader too must persevere with him.

You will feel the passage of time through the book, and while the Count’s life is standstill inside the Metropol, the world outside is changing; and you will feel that too. The book divides itself harmoniously in time increments, going up and down in perfect waves, with the best of the Count’s adventures chronicled in the beginning and towards the end and the middle being, well just the middle. I pretty much decided to give up there as it was nothing but a compendium of vignettes from the Count’s life (and some of other characters) which turned extraordinary because of the Count’s affinity with goodness and propriety with a hint of classy wit and sarcasm. But I did not. Alas! I could not. I kept returning to the Metropol. I kept returning to Towles’s writing.

Towles’s writing reflects the times his characters live in. His characters are not other-worldly, but they are not mundane. His prose is eloquent, smooth and shines like the fresh coat of varnish on a expansive, evened mahogany desk. Exquisite – the single word I have used everytime I have described this book to anyone. A Gentleman In Moscow is a tribute to an era of classical writing that has lost its footing in the SMS lingo of the internet age.

The book is definitely a treat for the lovers of prose, classics, and those who love historical fiction. It is a quilt of images of Russia through the early 20th century. And even though, the Count and other characters are not active participants in Russian polity, their actions seldom remain unhindered by the events taking place on the world stage. But if you are someone who likes to down a shot of vodka instead of savouring the finely-aged rosé, you can steer away from this one.

The Obscure, The Average, The Plain Jane

There are books that I love and then there are those that I love and then go on asking everyone I meet to read it. The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is the latter.

Keiko Furukura is an obscure employee in a convenience store. She has worked in the store for 18 years and yet she has stayed at the same position. The sounds and rhythm of the convenience store is what keeps her going. It is her happy place. It is the anchor of her life. And that is what Murata has described in simple yet beautiful detail in this book.

We all know this book is a #Bookstagram favourite. I picked it up because it was highly praised from so many of my favourites here. But there was something else too that drew me to the book – the fact that this was the story of an obscure, middle-aged woman who loves her dead-end job to the core. Everyone writes stories about the extraordinary – people dig the extraordinary. But rarely we get to read about ordinary lives, rather the obscure ones, the plain average ones. The Convenience Store Woman is a book that undoes this.

It resonated with me because for a large part of my life I had felt like that obscure, hazy human being. Although, things have changed, but I can never forget the days when I would go on for days without being contacted by or speaking a word to people around. I felt like a unnoticeable smidge on the world’s canvas. Those days built me, and therefore I can never undermine them.

Keiko is an odd brick in the society’s wall. Although a lot of the readers found her quirky and funny, I largely felt an empathy towards her. Throughout the book, based on her actions and reactions to various situations, I kept thinking whether Keiko is autistic. Did anyone else feel that? There surely is a mention of people around her seeking a cure for her ‘condition’ but Murata has not made it clear.

Keiko has sharp observation skills. The way she could fathom the needs of the store just by looking at its surroundings and the weather in general blew my mind away. It might seem trivial to an outsider, but the world of a convenience store is a throbbing phenomenon, especially for Keiko.

Keiko was drawn to the world of convenience store when she was just 18. She did not just work at the store, she assimilated its cogs and bearings into her muscles and blended herself into its machinery. Just this adaptability made me wonder that had she been introduced to some high level government security agency, she would have turned out to be a world class spy, even a badass assassin. The fact that she can adapt to the tones and speaking styles of people around her just by observing them tells us that she is no less than a chameleon, and I say this with high regard.

Her one handicap is that she is extremely self-conscious, low on self-esteem. Keiko will do everything to live upto the expectations of the world. Early in her life she realized that the world does not think the way she does, and since then she has bent herself in every way possible to hide her real self from the world and show them the one they expect to see. This does reminds me of my old self. Although I could never go to the lengths of changing myself the way Keiko did.

Another aspect that I was enthralled by was Keiko’s love for her work. She is well aware that she is in a dead pan job, that there’s no real scope for gathering accolades or wealth in the role she performs. Even though everyone around her is always shocked at her living situation and job status, she defends it with all the might she has. Now here’s a message that I dearly loved – in a world where everyone is talking about hustling, here we have someone who is not rushing through life. She is in love with her job and she would have it no other way.

I had a really good time meeting Keiko and getting to know her. If I ever met her, I would probably want to hug her. But I doubt she would like it so much. May be I will just look at her from a little distance, smile and move on.

A Question of Choices

We all experience moments in life when we wonder how our lives would have panned out had we not made the choices that we made. Do you ever crave to get a glimpse of that alternate life? Given a chance, would you like to witness it?

In Ramayana, Sita’s story pretty much stems from her association with Lord Rama. It’s not wrong to say that her identity is one of Rama’s consort. Unless you take an effort to delve into her story, you won’t be served with one the way Rama’s is done. Here’s a significant female character of Indian mythology, but we rarely get to hear her voice. Even Ravana has been given a better voice than her. However, things are changing now, times are changing now, and people are shifting their focus to Sita too. And just for her silent resilience to stand with her husband and uphold his wishes throughout her life, she is deserving of it all.

Retelling stories closely bound with the faith of the masses is always a double-edged sword. These stories are close to the heart of people, often forming the foundation of their values and ideals. Bhumika is Aditya Iyengar’s retelling of Sita’s story, and I am just floored by the way he has balanced the original with his. Iyengar’s Sita is Bhumika, and Bhumika, even though is Sita, but she is not.

The story…

It has been a long time since Sita left Ayodhya. She has reached the final stage of her life and is quietly spending her days in Rishi Valmiki’s ashrama. A visit from a wandering troupe of performers makes her wonder about how her life had been had she not married Rama, had she not accompanied him into exile, had she not been kidnapped by Ravana. These questions gnaw her but she has no answers, until one day Rishi Vishwamitra arrives and introduces her to Bhumika.

More thoughts

While Ramayana talks about Rama Rajya, Iyengar’s Bhumika talks about Bhumika-Rajya. Bhumika is the queen of Mithila and the bearer of the divine bow, Pinaka. She’s fierce, independent, and one with her own mind. She’s flawed too. She dreams of a land that treats everyone ¬¬– women and men – equally, but is well aware of the hurdles that lie in the path of establishing one. And in Iyengar’s Bhumika, it is Rama who goes through Agnipariksha – trial by fire.

Iyengar took Sita, who always stood behind Rama, and brought her to the fore as Bhumika. He tells a story that could have been without maligning the one that exists. And that is the beauty of this book. Sita is still the bearer of the story – Iyengar does not discard her values and choices but leaves us with a profound message about freedom of choices and respecting what each chooses for themselves.

“There are many different ways for a woman to live her life. None is superior or inferior.”

I am glad that I got to conclude this powerful book so close to International Women’s Day. The universe is resounding with the thought of empowering choices made by women, and it’s a blessing to have got the opportunity to widen my horizon with this brilliant tale.

George Orwell’s 1984 

It has been 3 days and I am still not able to gather appropriate words to describe this book. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. And it baffles me how he imagined such a world. Was he in cahoots with Nostradamus? If he were alive today he would have looked at the trends of the world and smirked at us and said, “I told you so.” The man’s a pure genius to have imagined a dystopia which almost seems real today.

1984 is a story of an extremely totalitarian society the signs of which terrifyingly matches with what is going on around the world presently. Orwell has created a world where people are being watched and heard constantly by the ‘Big Brother’. This is a world scarier than the one created by Hitler or Stalin.

Orwell’s concepts of thoughtcrime, doublethink, newspeak, sexcrime, the thought police, and his portrayal of propaganda and obliteration and re-composition of news and history is all just so brilliantly designed and executed.

In Orwell’s dystopia, the world is ruled by the ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Party’. The Party wants power for its own sake. It is constantly monitoring everyone’s behaviour. It has a set routine for everybody which is mandatory to be upheld, starting from the morning exercise. It succeeds in admonishing any or all resistance; one can survive only with absolute, unquestioning, blind allegiance to the Party. Sex is condemned and people are brainwashed right from childhood. There is no concept of  ‘family’, and kids are on a constant lookout to report any deviations from their parents to the Party. The Party controls everything – the past, the present, and the future – by controlling historical records, language (yeah, they have developed a whole new language – Newspeak), and even thought. And those who of think of rebelling are ‘vaporized’. Citizens live in dilapidated conditions, eating bland rationed food, and wearing drab uniforms commissioned by the Party.  But they do not know better.  No one is ever alone. ‘They’re listening. There is no place for love or freedom.

I can only hope that the politicians are not reading this book. And if they have, then I can only hope for them to be less intelligent to comprehend what powerplay is given in the book. Another thought that doesn’t leave me is ‘what if we are already living this dystopia and don’t know it yet.’ It definitely scares me.

This book is powerful and terrifying. It is a testimony to the hunger for power. Not wealth, but pure power. To close, just want to leave with these lines from the book.

“But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

Room – Emma Donoghue

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2 weeks back, a glance through the ticketing app had me booking tickets for this movie called Room. It had great reviews and through that, I even came to know that the movie is based on a Booker Prize-nominated book of the same name.

The movie was good. It has some brilliant performances although, like every book turned into a movie, many details have been trimmed. So, if you want to enjoy the movie, I suggest you do it before reading the book.

But, then it sure does acts as a big spoiler to the book.

The reason that triggered me to watch the movie was the same to pick up the book – the extraordinary plot.

5-year-old Jack was born in Room and has been living in it ever since with his Ma. Jack’s world comprises of and is limited to Ma and all things in Room. For him, it is just Room and then outer space. And then all the ‘unlying’ happens. After 5 years, Jack is introduced to ‘Outside’ where all the world exists.

Room is not a typical tale of escaping from confinement. It is more like a before-after story. It tells you about how a young mother nurtures her kid despite limited space and resources. It is the story of how a kid fights all his fears and helps his mother get out of 7 years of captivity. It is also the story of the struggles of these two when they finally achieve the one thing they wanted most.

First half of the book contains the frustrating mundanity of life in Room. So much so that readers might want to just leave it at that. But if one holds on, they will realize how it was necessary to communicate that frustration. Then there is the ‘Great Escape’ which will leave your heart thumping and your hands gripping the book. And then the freedom.

Room is narrated by Jack. The writer has done a good job at bringing forth the imperfect knowledge and rigid pragmatism of a 5-year-old who believes that he knows everything. “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.”

Emma Donoghue has treated her characters with honesty. She has made them imperfect, flawed, and selfish to the extent that each one of us would be in their situation. But said that, one cannot not marvel at their grit, their brevity, their determination, and their ingenuity. Both the protagonists are powerful and more than that honest. And I would recommend anyone to read this book just to experience that honesty in story.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

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Name: Norwegian Wood
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction, Romance

This is only my second Murakami, but what caused me to pick this one and read was the many reviews which told that this one is totally different from the standard Murakami books. Not a proper authority to judge yet, I shall give you a POV of a rookie Murakami reader.

Norwegian Wood, the title is derived from the song of the same name by the famous band, The Beatles. This book caused me to obtain the majority collection of the band and now I am totally in love with their music.

Set in the 1969 Japan, this is the story of 19 year old Toru Watanabe, who is in love with Naoko. Both, Toru and Naoko, are connected through the life and death of Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boy friend. While Toru leads an oblivious life of a normal Japanese student, he is devoutly in love with Naoko, who herself is troubled by her own demons. A patient Toru bears with all of Naoko’s whims, while waiting for her to accept his love. Meanwhile, Toru is also drawn to Midori, a self-reliant, independent, and highly out-going girl, who has fallen in love with him. But his wait for Naoko is holding him back.

This is not an everyday love triangle. This is a train ride which will take you to the depths of all kinds of emotions. Murakami has rendered a story so beautiful that one cannot help experiencing what the characters are going through. You will get high when they get drunk, rejoice with them, relax with them, get all worked-up, and even feel spaced-out when the character does so.

Norwegian Wood is a poignant, deep and a beautiful love story. The romance is pure and is marked by its own imperfections which only goes to make the story so real.

The characters are powerfully sketched but each has been molded with edges so soft that it really hurts to see them hurt.

The story flows just like a calm crystalline stream, meandering gently through the plains, which is in no hurry to reach its destination. For me, it almost worked like a travelling-capsule, which transcended me into a zen space everytime I have picked it to read it.

The story contains its own gentle highs and lows. And the prose is as beautiful as a love letter written during the classical era. All I feel after reading this work is a weightlessness that one feels when one gets totally separated from the chaos going inside and outside of them. A detached bliss that only a love story like Toru’s is capable of giving.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Author: Ransom Riggs
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Jacob Portman grew up listening to the stories of his grandfather’s childhood which for the most part contained descriptions about peculiar children and monsters. At the age of 16 when Jacob is wise enough not to believe the bizzare stories that his grandpa told him, a mind-numbing incident takes place which leaves Jacob questioning his doubts.

The quest to demystify his grandpa’s last words and also to clarify his own doubts takes Jacob to a remote Welsh island where decades ago a home had given refuge to Abraham Portman. Here unfolds a series of secrets that divides Jacob’s life into a ‘Before’ and ‘After’.

“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.” When a book starts with a line like this, it surely grabs the attention of not only your eyeballs but your mind too. Indeed the book is filled with extraordinary. Ransom Riggs has carefully crafted this book which he has based on numerous photographs borrowed from various collectors. He has meticulously placed all the photographs across the book and has weaved a story, filled with mystery and fantasy, around them.

The book starts at a good pace, slowing down a bit towards the end with bit too many twists and turns and an unexpected ending. But unlike most fantasy books this one neither has any wizards, nor vampires. The book, as the title suggests, feature ‘peculiar children’ which bear the element of fantasy in the world of 21st century. The story has its own creepy and scary moments at times even edging along dark fantasy and even horror.

The book is the first part and its sequel “The Hollow” released in 2014 which I am yet too read. A movie based on the book is under process which is said to be directed by Tim Burton with its screenplay being written by Jane Goldman who has also written screenplays for X-Men – First Class, The Woman in Black, and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Just like any fantasy fiction this book will garner equal interest from both children and adults and is a good book to read over a weekend. Grab this book and get along with Jacob into an adventurous, dangerous and brave journey into a world of unexpected and extraordinary.

The Book Thief

In the short life that I have lived I have read few books. And from those books only countable have been able to make it to the list of my favourites. Today one more got added to the short list – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Here is a book which I am sure I will read it time and again. If ever I become a mother then I will give this book to my children to read and perhaps grandchildren too. Yes, I even pictured a wrinkled, weak and frail me with sparse silver white hair on her skull, sitting in a wooden rocking chair and sifting through the book.

This book is ageless, just like how the narrator describes Werner to be. Werner, brother of Liesel Meminger and the first person to come in contact with the narrator. The Book Thief – here is a story about words, about love, friendship and relationships, about life and Death, about bravery and humanity.

This is the story which comes straight from the heart. It is filled with a warmth that seeps into the reader even as she eyes through those words that describes snow clad Germany. This story will make you happy, it will make you smile. This story will also make you sad and it will make you cry. It made me cry.

One cannot say for sure whether it has a tragic end because even though there is loss the story ends with a sunshine of hope. The characters are timeless. They will stay with you long after you have finished reading the book. But there is an end to each person’s story. And perhaps that is the reason that even though you are left with a hollow in your heart that usually accompanies the end of each book one reads, there is also a peace and a calm that it tags along and which continues to warm your heart.

All I can say is that today I earned a new friend, a new friend which will stay with me for a lifetime. And even though it is too soon, I wish that when I meet the narrator, he finds me lying amidst the words of this book.

Stack of Houses

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The houses that were built upon me, they feared not of the doom that faced them. Happily unaware, they went on building them, one upon the other.

I am weak. I am no more able myself to carry this burden. Should I take it off? Should I take it off and keep it aside? And yet I wonder not of the weight that is burying me inside. I wonder of the fate of the houses.

I never wanted any more on me other than me. I knew I was not made of those bold stuff to carry them. But yet they thought I could. They stood on me and continued doing so. I carried them somehow.

One day I could no more. I took it off and kept them aside. Some fell and broke, some shivered violently. Some just shook in silence. I picked them up no more. I let them be off me. They yet stand still.

Step Two

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“970, 980, 990, 1000.”
He completed counting the books stacked in the corner and made note of the same in the notebook he held. Keeping the notebook beside the desk littered with old newspapers and plastic bottles, he sat in the broken moulded chair.
‘A thousand books’, he thought. ‘Is it enough? It should be.’
When the clock struck 1 pm, he stood and pulled the shutter down from inside. He carried the books to a room inside, in small sets. Once he had carried the last stack in, he flicked a switch on. The room was flooded by warm yellow light.
The room surrounded by steel racks. Racks in which numerous books were kept. Books of all kinds. From sleazy superflous pulp fiction to thick bound volumes of outdated laws and acts.
A week from the day, Badhua, who had never read a letter in his life, put up a board over his shop which said “Library For All”.