June 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in the month of June.

~The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey – A memoir of a year spent with a woodland snail. The author suffers from a debilitating illness due to a viral pathogenic infection two decades ago. A visiting friend picks up flowers from the forest outside her house, unwittingly bringing along a hitchhiker of a snail which provides companionship and many life lessons on the way. Well written and researched, with ample literature about snails, conversations with malacological experts, and a wonderful glimpse into a curious world. 5/5

~Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson – The merging of neuroscience with contemplative practices and ancient meditative techniques that seek to explain the rewiring of the brain towards peace, well-being, wisdom and happiness. Change your brain to change your life. Informative with practical applicability, the writing style feels a tad drab. 3.5/5

~How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones – A coming-of-age memoir of living as a homosexual, Black man, practising Buddhism in a Catholic family. Beautifully blending poetry with prose, Jones’ haunting narrative captivates throughout – a powerful voice in today’s literary scene. 4/5

~The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – An English translation of a Japanese book about a housekeeper with a ten-year old son, hired to care for a brilliant Math professor with a memory lasting only eighty minutes. A mesmerising story about the love for and beauty of numbers, living in the present, and the equations that form relationships – in Math and beyond. 5/5

~It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini – A teenager on the way to kill himself, makes a desperate call to a suicide helpline and gets himself checked into a resident program at a psychiatric hospital. His interactions and experiences with his fellow residents help him to confront the sources of his own anxiety. A book about depression, self-harm, OCD, schizophrenia, narrated through a fifteen-year old. A tough topic tackled with light humor addressing dark issues. 3.5/5

~Downward Facing Death by Neal Pollack – An ex-cop turned yoga teacher cum private investigator is hired by the FBI to investigate the death of a prominent Hollywood yoga guru. The narrative is simplistic and might not appeal to all, but the numerous yoga analogies make this a fun read for yoga practitioners. A hilarious and insightful outlook into the commercialization of yoga culture. 3.5/5

~The Guest List by Lucy Foley – A wedding party hosted on a secluded island, where neither the victim nor murderer are revealed till the end, making this a dual guessing game for the reader. An entertaining story that keeps you hooked till the end. I liked the shifting perspectives – almost feels like you’re on the guest list yourself, obtaining a first person account of the events leading up to the moment of the wedding, while reminiscing about the past and raising the question of how well do we know the people we know.  4/5

~You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann – An English translation of a German book, featuring a screen writer working on the sequel to his hit movie in a newly rented house in a secluded location. That the house has a life of its own becomes obvious on the first night itself. Rooms rotate, swivel, appear and disappear; windows reflect things and not people, basic Maths doesn’t apply to the measurements of the house’s dimensions, you exit a room only to enter the same room you left. The first person narrative  of the book flows parallel to the script being written, heightening the eerie atmosphere – are the narrator’s thoughts part of his fictional story, hallucinations, or observations of what’s happening? Gripping and haunting, closely blending the lines of psychological horror and ghostly horror. 4.5/5

~The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain – Djinns and drones come together in this cauldron of fantasy fiction and science fiction. A djinn king awakens after millennia of slumber, finding an ally in a Gurkha, to take over a new kingdom to rule. Only it’s a post-apocalyptic world, run by an AI called Karma. A roller coaster of a read – hilarious, entertaining, thoughtful and literary, combining legends with speculations, a juxtaposition of the past with the future. Not a book to be missed. 5/5

June2020

Snakes by A.K. Ramanujan

A.K. Ramanujan was a poet, translator, folklorist and philologist from Mysore, India. He wrote in both English and Kannada, his poetry known for its themes of modernist transnationalism, hybridity and transculturation. His writings contributed to a wide range of disciplines including linguistics and cultural studies. He earned his PhD from Indiana University and taught at the University of Chicago, where he developed the South Asian studies program.

Here’s one of his poems titled “Snakes”, which appeared in the July 1961 edition of Poetry magazine – a monthly devoted to verse in the English language.

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“No, it does not happen

when I walk through the woods.

But, walking in museums of quartz

or the aisles of bookstacks,

looking a their geometry

without curves

and the layers of transparency

that make them opaque,

dwelling on the yellower vein

in the yellow amber

or touching a book that has gold

on its spine,

I think of snakes.

 

The twirls of their hisses

rise like the tiny dust-cones on slow-noon roads

winding through the farmers’ feet.

Black lorgnettes are etched on their hoods,

ridiculous, alien, like some terrible aunt,

a crest among tiles and scales

that moult with the darkening half of every moon.

 

A basketful of ritual cobras

comes into the tame little house,

their brown-wheat glisten winged with ripples.

They lick the room with their bodies, curves

uncurling, writing a sibilant alphabet of panic

on my floor. Mother gives them milk

in saucers. She watches them suck

and bare the black-line design

etched on the brass of the saucer.

The snakeman wreathes their writhing

round his neck

for father’s smiling

money. But I scream.

 

Sister ties her braids

with a knot of tassel.

But the weave of her knee-long braid has scales,

their gleaming held by a score of clean new pins.

I look till I see her hair again.

 

My night full of ghosts from a sadness

in a play, my left foot listens to my right footfall,

a clockwork clicking in the silence

within my walking.

The clickshod heel suddenly strikes

and slushes on a snake: I see him turn,

the green white of his belly

measured by bluish nodes, a water-bleached lotus-stalk

plucked by a landsman hand. Yet panic rushes

my body to my feet, my spasms wring

and drain his fear and mine. I leave him sealed,

a flat-head whiteness on a stain.

Now

frogs can hop upon this sausage rope,

flies in the sun will mob the look in his eyes,

and I can walk through the woods.”

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Healing With The Arts

“Take your story – paint it, dance it, write about it, do drama about it, move into it – express the artist that you are. Art is five things: It’s the word which is a journal, poetry, and theater. It’s visual which is painting, sculpture, photography. It’s dance – moving your body; and Music – playing or listening. And all together a ceremony. Art is really about gifting. And the greatest gift you have is the gift of who you are.”

A few weeks ago, I had enrolled in a course on the Arts. The lines above are by Mary Rockwood Lane – one of the course co-ordinators – who acknowledges the many forms of art; all dependent on and leading to the artist – The merging of creator and creation.

Today I would like to present my take on photography for the module of Visual Arts. This period of quarantine and self isolation has left us with limited resources, leading us to work with the little we have available. I love to read, and books have always occupied a large part of my life, especially in today’s situation where they offer comfort and a connection to the world around. I have photographed some of my books, working with the theme of the books and what they meant to me. Both paperbacks as well as my kindle reader have been included – with reference to the complete lockdown here where we can neither visit book shops and libraries, nor can we order books online since home deliveries are not allowed, causing e-books to be a lifeline for us readers who do not have immediate access to new paperbacks. Here are some book pictures clicked in the past few weeks:

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There’s Something About Christmas – Book Review

Title – There’s Something About Christmas

Author – Debbie Macomber

Genre – Fiction, humor, romance, seasonal, festive

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Emma Collins stopped celebrating Christmas the year her mother passed away. Christmas, for her, meant family and tradition and preparing cakes and sweets together, and it has failed to have the same meaning anymore. Emma works as a journalist with  ‘The Examiner’, a local newspaper for which she writes obituaries. The ‘Good Homemaking’ magazine had run a nationwide contest a month ago, for the best fruitcake recipe in the country – the winner of which would be announced on Christmas Day. Emma finds herself with a new job description – to interview the finalists of the fruitcake competition, and present a series of articles as a build-up to the Christmas season.

“Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.”

“Fruitcake is about the ritual of a family recipe. The longer the ritual is repeated, the more it becomes part of the holidays.”

The reader is taken through Emma’s life in the weeks leading up to Christmas – her earnestness in making a name for herself as a journalist, a boss who doesn’t take her seriously, a colleague cum best friend and sole support system, her estrangement with her father, her mourning over her mother’s death. The author begins every chapter with quotes by real life chefs and bakers, on what fruitcakes symbolize to them. Emma’s journey as a journalist also comes across beautifully, as someone who documents the lives of others but personally feels she has hardly made a smudge on the page of her own life. Her aversion towards Christmas and the festive season shows us how not everyone celebrates festivals the same way, depending on what memories are attached to specific days/seasons. Her interviews with people from various walks of life reveal the stark differences in each finalist’s life story, along with the common bond they share through their love for baking. From an octogenarian widow to a young mother of four, Emma receives life lessons along with fruitcake lessons from an unassuming bunch of people.

“When I was with my husband, I felt there must be something lacking in me. Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?”

“I never could figure out people, but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”

The more Emma goes over the notes of her meetings, the more she realizes that the interviews are not so much about fruitcake as much about the people themselves. “Lessons about life, wrapped up in a fruitcake recipe.” From traditional fruitcakes to personalized ingredients like chocolate or apples, and even no-bake recipes, Emma comes across a variety of methods to prepare the same product, which serves as a metaphor for life, in that, each of us lives our own journey. There are contestants who spent several years trying to bake the perfect fruitcake, only to realize that their life was what needed working on instead. Some divert from traditional recipes and use ingredients of their choice, serving the lesson of doing what you love and not following the herd. Others use the no-bake option because they want to “enjoy it now” – a lesson for living in the moment.

There are different fruitcake recipes provided in the book for the reader to try out. All-in-all, a sweet Christmas story that doesn’t succumb to clichés. Macomber writes with the right mix of humor and romance. Those who love baking and animals would enjoy this book. The epilogue was a tad drawn out and could have been done away with, but otherwise a cheery Christmas read that gets you into the festive spirit.

My rating – 3/5

In The Tall Grass – Book Review

Title – In The Tall Grass

Authors – Stephen King and Joe Hill

Genre – Horror

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“The grass flows and you flow, too. Think of it as becoming one with nature.”

With Stephen King celebrating his 72nd birthday last weekend, and the movie releasing next week, it was apt to read this collaboration with his son, Joe Hill on this seemingly fun family holiday, which soon turns nightmarish. A pair of siblings on a long distance road trip, find themselves on a deserted strip of road parallel to a large field. Sounds of a child in distress emit from within the field. The boy doesn’t sound too far away, but it’s easy for a small kid to get lost in towering blades of grass. Within minutes of entering the field on their rescue mission, the brother-sister duo lose track of each other, feel disoriented in blades over seven feet tall, and get entangled even further in the verdant mass while trying to follow each other’s voices. Turns out there are more people similarly lost in the tall grass, and though they can hear each other, they can’t seem to find the owners of the voices. Directions and time melt in the grass. “There is no morning or night here, only eternal afternoon. If we had shadows, we might use them to move in the same direction”, reflects one of the characters. The grass has dew throughout the day and cannot be burned, new blades shoot up as soon as old ones are crushed under foot, and the “softly flowing ocean of green silk” appears to move even though the people are still, causing them to move without moving.

The father-son imagination of King-Hill elevates the horror to another level, and might not be suitable for all readers. Caution is recommended to those who get squeamish easily, as the story has a lot of gore. King is known for his detailed writing – the subtle fun of a character who speaks in rhymes and another with a fondness for limericks, are easily interspersed with the brutality of its stomach churning moments. The protagonist/antagonist/lead character/side character, which ever way you see it, is the grass. And Stephen King proves once again why he is the king of horror, with his ability to find fear in the unlikeliest places/events. A disturbing read, but recommended for horror buffs.

My rating – 3.5/5

Books For Every Occasion

“Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.”
~B.K.S. Iyengar

Recommending two books on the occasions of International Yoga Day and World Music Day:

The Goddess Pose” is a biography of Indra Devi – the woman who brought Yoga to the West in the early twentieth century, from where the practice rose to the global phenomenon it continues to be.

In “Master on Masters“, veteran musician and sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan writes about the lives of some of the greatest icons of Indian classical music, having known many of the stalwarts personally – all eminent musicians of the twentieth century.

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Have you read either of these books? Are there any other non-technical books (memoirs, biographies, stories) on these subjects you would recommend?

Birthday Bookathon 2019

Halfway through the ‘Birthday Bookathon’. As part of the yearly goals I set on my birthday each year, my reading goal for this year was world literature in translation – an ode to translators, without whom many of the books we read would not be accessible to us unless we knew every single language in the world. I have selected languages from each letter of the English alphabet, and the aim is to read one book (at least) from each of the languages corresponding to a letter. I began on the 14th of November (my birth date). Today we are at the half way mark, and these were the books finished in the past six months.

~Albanian – The Accident – Ismail Kadare
~Bangla – The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told – Arunava Sinha
~Cantonese – Never Grow Up – Zhu Mo
~Danish – The Last Good Man – A.J.Kazinski
~German – The Bird Is A Raven – Benjamin Lebert
~Hungarian – Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó
~Italian – Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello
~Japanese – The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa
~Persian – The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat
~Russian – The Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
~Swedish – The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – Jonas Jonasson
~Turkish – Istanbul Istanbul – Burhan Sönmez

This is the original blog-post I had written on my birthday when I started the reading list. Another fourteen more languages to go. 🙂 I am trying to keep one language for each alphabet, but I also have books from more languages, which will be read as I get the time.

Eine Buchrezension – A Book Review of Miss Hamburg

The beauty of language is that it opens up so many new avenues of communication. We can talk to more people, watch movies and read books in their original form, learn about different cultures. This blog site features write-ups mostly in English to cater to a wider reader base. When I post in any other language, the English translation follows the original post. I started learning German a few months ago, and have been attempting to read books in the original language, on the recommendations of librarians. The past few weeks have been busy, and I just finished my Deutsch A1 exam yesterday. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the vast expanse of German literature. Like every little drop adding to the ocean, we start with baby steps and gradually increase our strides towards bigger things.

This is a review of the book Miss Hamburg. I’m attempting to write in German (and the English translation will follow below).

Der Buchtitel – Miss Hamburg

Die Autoren – Theo Scherling und Elke Burger

Genre – Fiktion

Sprache – Deutsch

Ein Buch aus der Leo & Co. Serie – des Bücher über eine Kneipe. Leo ist einen Maler und eine leidenschaftlicher Koch, und Besitzer der Kneipe “Leo & Co.” Unsere Protagonistin Anna ist eine Studentin, die Teilzeit in der Kneipe arbeitet. Anna liest eine Anzeige von einer Modelagentur und möchte mit einem professionellen Portfolio einsteigen. Ihre Freundin Veronika, Boss Leo und Oma Trude, zusammen mit dem Fotograf Kai helfen Anna dabei. Ihr anderer Freund Paco scheint ist nicht glücklich, dass Anna mit dem Modeln anfängt. Das Buch führt uns durch die Reise diese Gruppe von Charakteren, die Anna bei ihrer Verwandlung von der Kellnerin zum Model unterstützen und im Miss Hamburg-Wettbewerb beenden. Nervenkitzel, Missverständnisse, Freundschaften, Familie – der Leser wird zussamen mit Anna.

Eine mittelmäßige und kurz Geschichte. Gut herausgeätzte Charaktere und eine interessante Übersicht, die von Klischees ferngehalten wird. Eine etwas ausgedehnte Erzählung hätte das Leseerlebnis verbessert. Das Buch wird von einer Audio-CD begleitet, die eine große Hilfe ist, um die Aussprache beim Erlernen einer neuen Sprache zu üben.

Empfehlenswert, wenn Sie Bücher mit einfachen Handlungssträngen mögen – aber ohne Klischees – die menschliche Gefühle berühren.

Bewertung – 3/5

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For English readers,

Title – Miss Hamburg

Authors – Theo Scherling and Elke Burger

Genre – Fiction

Language – German

A book from the Leo & Co. series – a number of books featuring various incidents surrounding a pub of the same name. Leo is a painter and passionate cook, who runs the pub “Leo and Co.” Our protagonist Anna is a student who works part-time at the pub. Anna chances upon an ad by a modelling agency, and wishes to enter by creating a professional portfolio. Her friend Veronika, boss Leo, and grandma Oma Trude, along with Kai the photographer, encourage and help Anna in the endeavor. Her other friend Paco doesn’t seem too keen on Anna taking up modelling. The book takes us through the journey of this motley group of characters as they assist Anna in her transformation from waitress to model, culminating in the Miss Hamburg contest. Thrills, apprehensions, misunderstandings, friendships, family – the reader is taken on a roller coaster along with Anna.

A mediocre story line, which I felt passed too swiftly. Well etched out characters, and an interesting synopsis that stay away from clichés. A little drawn out narration would have enhanced the reading experience and given us more time with each character and their role in Anna’s life. The book is accompanied by an audio CD, which is a great aid to practice pronunciations when learning a new language.

Recommended if you like books with simple story lines – but without clichés – that touch on human emotions.

My rating – 3/5

Reader’s Delight – Learning A New Language

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Günter Grass, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche – whether literature or philosophy, German writers have given us some of the finest works in novels, short stories, and non-fiction. Several literary gems have been made accessible to us through translators. The curiosity over what might be lost in translation, however, coupled with the quest to read what the original writer has written, in his/her own words, is something that drives me to learn new languages. The ocean of these literary giants is too vast to dive into so soon, so I’m momentarily dipping my toes into the smallest pond of German literature.

This site has not seen many write-ups lately, because I started German classes a few months ago.  I have daily lectures, along with working full-time, and haven’t had much time to write.

So, I just finished reading my first German book – EINE SPEZIELLE BAND by Sabine Werner. I will attempt to write a full review in German in a separate post. For the time being, this is a YA book featuring its protagonist Michael who hates school, doesn’t like the area he lives in, and doesn’t get along with the kids around him. His only happiness lies in music – listening to his favorite musicians and trying to recreate their music on his guitar. At a concert one day, a chance encounter with a random stranger and fellow music lover, leads him to being invited to join a band. And thus we set out on a musical journey with this group of youngsters who love hearing and making music.

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Sabine Werner narrates a simple story, accompanied with beautiful illustrations for each chapter. The book came along with an audio CD. I highly recommend audio accompaniments when learning a new language. Often, even voracious readers mispronounce words since they’ve only read them and never heard them. When starting a language from scratch, it is important to learn correct spellings and pronunciations. The audio uses different voices for the various characters, which is a good learning aid since people speak differently, even in the same language. There are questions pertaining to each chapter, so the reader can practice how much of the text has been understood at the end of every chapter. Interspersed between chapters, are a handful of pages sharing general information about Germany – something that relates to the chapter you just finished, as well as educates about the country’s culture.

A beautiful package of reading and hearing a delightful story. A must-read for music lovers, or those looking for a simple story on friendships and life surrounding music. It’s always a sense of achievement to learn something new. As a reader, studying a new language gives one access to a whole new ocean of literature in its true form. The giants of German literature are still a long way off, but baby steps with easier books will get me closer there some day.

P.S. If there are any German speaking bloggers who follow this blog, your suggestions and recommendations on German books to read will be highly appreciated.

 

Literary Christmas Tree

In keeping with the Christmas tradition in a house filled with bibliophiles, here’s my teensy, bookish Christmas tree for this year.

Story behind the picture: I’m out of shelf space and the latest purchases and gifts have nowhere to go. They’ve been in boxes the last few weeks, and ably supported the festive decor. The upper layers of the tree have Christmassy books that I’ve been reading this month. The lower ones, I will get to gradually through the new year. The bottom layer has books already read that need to be donated.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 🙂

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