#52Books | January + February 2012

A quick list to remember what I’ve read (and re-read over the past two months) in no particular order:

1. John Le Carre - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Loved the Gary Oldman movie based on the book and to make sure I didn’t miss any of the nuances and details not covered in the film, read the book. Slow read but unlike the movie didn’t feel I was sipping on single malt. Was a little weary from reading the book.

2. Alexander McCall Smith - The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

3. Alexander McCall Smith - The Charming Quirks of Others

Isabel Dalhousie’s adventures in Scotland. After reading these two books from the Sunday Philosophy Club series, I know I don’t want to spend a penny on McCall Smith’s books - lazy Sunday afternoon reads but like any reality altering drug are meant to get you hooked. They offer a world of kindness, gentility and creature comfort or as the New York Times reviewer put it, “Offer the literary equivalent of herbal tea and a cozy fire. They’ll come back for more.” Not adding any money into the coffers of your well-oiled machine, McCall Smith, No-No.

4. Kakuzo Okakura - The Book of Tea

Sunil on Twitter went through my Flipkart Wishlist and pointed out that The Book of Tea was available for free download on Kindle and that’s how I found myself reading the book before its time. 37 pages long and the book that completely flummoxed me: What is Kindle doing with page numbers and irrespective of the font size of the text, how are the number of pages remaining the same?

A book about the role of tea in the cultural and aesthetic aspects of Japanese life, It starts at the beginning with tea as a medicine, the evolution of tea through the different schools and then details out the Japanese Tea ceremony and ‘Teaist’ movement originating from it.

It gets a little tedious when Okakura’s historical commentary boils over into bitter criticism of the West. It’s amusing to read these diatribes on how the West misunderstands, misinterprets the East in the same beautiful lyrical style he chooses for his visual images of the teaist movement:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him.

Strangely enough humanity has so far met in the teacup, he writes all the while trying to delicately balance the teaist appreciation of beauty in simplicity and brewing up a storm in a teacup.

5. Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid’s Tale

With the Susan G Komen Foundation in the news for withdrawing support to Planned Parenthood, it seemed like the perfect time to read this book of speculative fiction. Set sometime in the future where Republic of Gilead a fundamentalist Christian totalitarian state has taken over the United States, the population is at an all time low, men are solely in power and women are reduced to mere child bearers.

Women are not allowed to hold jobs, use money, or read - and if they’re healthy and of childbearing age, most of them are conscripted into being Handmaids to Commanders and their wives who are past their child bearing age. Written from Offred’s perspective (“Of-Fred” - A Patronym, her name comes from the Commander she’s assigned to), the novel seems ever more relevant today. Especially when women lead similar lives, dictated by biological determinism and misogyny.

(I do plan to write a longer review of this book - this is a book I need to remember and think about a little more.)

6. Philip Pullman - The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I had just finished reading Sjowall & Wahloo’s Roseanna, it was a Sunday evening the clock had just struck 9 pm and I knew I wanted to start on another book and that’s how I started with Good Man Jesus…and wrapped it in a couple of hours. Delicious. I loved how Pullman splits Jesus of Nazareth into twin brothers, Jesus and Christ. As different as chalk and cheese, Christ is fanciful, cautious while Jesus is passionate and enamoured of the world’s realities.

Pullman lets Christ play the 'villain’ in the story - he’s the Satan in the wilderness urging Jesus to perform miracles, he’s Judas the betrayer and in a lovely twist to the tale, after Jesus really dies he plays his part as the resurrected Christ.

7. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - Roseanna

8. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

9. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - The Man on the Balcony

I’m hopelessly addicted to Scandinavian Crime Fiction after reading Steig Larsson’s Millennium Series. Digging around for more of the same, led me to Sjowall & Wahloo who wrote the Martin Beck series - a series of 10 novels written over 10 years. Called the original Scandinavian Crime Sensation, many writers count them as influences and are credited with changing the world of crime fiction forever.

According to Wahlöö, their intention was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.” Going by the 3 books I’ve read so far, they hold up a mirror to Swedish society in a very tumultuous time.

The couple carefully planned out and executed this extraordinary body of work: 10 police procedurals that are just as much about crime investigation as they are about its detective, Martin Beck.

10. Isaac Asimov - Foundation

A coffee and conversation with Atul Chitnis about psychohistory and Atul’s flight of fantasy where he imagined Steve Jobs pulling off a Hari Seldon took me back to Foundation. I think I should revisit the Foundation series often - science fiction from the last century is probably the only way we can remind ourselves of what has gone by and what lies ahead.

11. Siddhartha Deb - The Beautiful and the Damned

This is a book that I bought for the chapter on the Ponytail Chaudhuri only to find out that the Indian edition doesn’t have the chapter. Boo.

If I ignore the condescending tone of the writer, ignore the bits where the writer has assumed he’s writing for an ignorant audience (or an ignorant Western audience, you choose) the book offers insights into the lives of people who are riding the wave of India Shining but still somehow come across as baggage lost at sea. Their lives, their trials and tribulations are swept under the carpet as everybody in a self-congratulatory tone talks about how there is a new middle-class that is empowered, moneyed and the face of a new India. Deb tries very hard to write to be transparent, even trying his hand at empathy and weaving in bits of his own story but comes away writing about India in the same wide-eyed manner that is now characteristic of all those trying to explain India to Indians.

This is why I’m looking forward to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I’m hoping her writing has less condescension and more sensitivity.

12. Jon Krakauer - Into the Wild

This book thoroughly completely annoyed me. I liked the movie, loved Eddie Veder’s soundtrack but hated the book. If there’s one thing modern society should be ashamed of, it’s making heroes out of idiots. There’s nothing heroic about going out into the wild to find the meaning of life without prepping for the worst case, being irresponsible and not sparing a thought for people who love and care about you. Also there’s nothing stupider than raising these idiots onto a pedestal and hero worshiping them.

Reading the book also reminded me of a friend A who was a schizophrenic. Very often taking off on 'spiritual journeys’, reading a bunch of tosh and then spouting psychobabble about the meaning of life, spirituality and religion and then expecting everyone to understand, mollycoddle and be accepting of this unnecessarily bizarre behaviour. When all that the guy really should have been doing is figuring out his dopamine, popping his medicines and giving back to the world exactly what he expected from it -  some love and some breathing space. Same goes to you, Chris McCandless.