Books to read this week
There are books for the drizzle, there are books for the downpour. Here’s a selection of old, new and classic paperbacks and Kindle reads to curl up with while the world’s getting drenched outside.books Updated: Aug 28, 2010 12:55 IST
A Little History of the World
Yale University Press
This isn’t your standard history book. It’s not really about dates but about a delightful sweep of man from the Stone Age to the Atomic Age written in a style that gives us a snapshot of ourselves on a paradoxically giant canvas. Written in 1935 by the 26-year-old Gombrich, it is to be savoured for underlining the difference between information and knowledge, usefulness and pleasure. Almost as if by magic, it isn’t even dated, so what if it’s too Eurocentric for some tastes.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Alain De Botton
We spend most of our waking hours in a job. When was the last time you asked yourself what does your job really mean to you? De Botton takes many occupations — the factory, the fishing fleet, the logistics centre etc — as case studies and tells us many aspects of working — its beauty, its strangeness — and tries to understand why it brings pleasure. He asks that old question that was marked on the gates of Auschwitz, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work makes you free) and wonders if that’s really as sinister as the Nazis made it become.
The summer of 1998 starts with a bang — Pakistan’s nuclear tests and Hamid’s hero Darashikoh Shezad, a young man from a feudal family on its way down, is fired from his job in Lahore. This is a smoky, dusty tale of a person at the centre of a universe that’s crumbling even as the swish set of the country, like bright, pulsating anomalies find pleasure behind gated houses. An underrated novel that’s astounding for its contemporary mix of depicting decay which siphons a dark laughter out of all the mess.
A Flight of Pigeons
One of the finest ‘1857 Mutiny’ stories, Bond’s slim novel tells us that big historical events are made up of countless small individual accounts. A British clerk working at the magistrate’s office in Shahjahanpur is killed and his wife and daughter seek refuge with the trusted Lala Ramjimal. But Javed Khan, a fiery Pathan abducts the two women and takes them to his haveli. But its transcultural passion and not an intangible hate that makes him keep Ruth Labadoor captive. The clash of civilisations in Bond’s novel is shot through with an erotic charge.
The Calcutta Chromosome
It’s Calcutta — but naturally — and the line dividing the past, present and future of the city is as blurred as the one that makes it tough to figure out if the book is a sci-fi thriller or a medical adventure. Antar, the protagonist, is informed by his computer, of a certain Murugan, who had disappeared while finding the truth behind the discovery of the cure for malaria. But his (re)search leads him to something deadlier than what he was looking for: the personality-shifting chromosome. And thus begins the quest for immortality.
China: A History
Perhaps more than any other country and its people, to know China’s present — and certainly its plans for the future — you have to know its past. Keay, in this meaty, anecdotal and non-Eurocentric epic narrative, tells the sprawling story of the world’s most populous nation right up to its present. The book buries into the time straddled by the various dynasties and explores the roots of Confucianism, communism and kung-fu capitalism. Forget those piles of books on China’s economic spree. It’s the history, stupid!
Nothing To Envy
If there is any description that sums up North Korea the best, it is ‘unnatural’. Much more than any other country, the land of ‘Our Dear Leader’ is a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma and then swallowed by a beached whale. Barbara Demick goes into this incredibly controlled and reclusive society and comes out to tell the world what she made of it. This year’s BB Samuel John Prize winner for best non-fiction, Demick’s journey into North Korea is part surreal, part far to real to be surreal.
The Hot Kid
Guns, molls and the Prohibition make the very fibre of American pulp fiction. But in Leonard’s period novel about an honest, straightshooting young marshal who wants to make a name for himself in the law enforcement business, there’s none of the bits that make us smile about the writer trying to make us smile with a cool turn of phrase or a stock blonde in a stocking. His characters are wholesome but his pace of telling the story blistering and slo-mo depending on the situation.
The Complete Adventures of Feluda Vol 1 & 2
R 450 each
Forget the Bengalis for a while. You’ll have heard them tell each other countless times how they’ve grown up on Satyajit Ray’s ace detective Feluda a.k.a. Pradosh Mitter and exchanged plots and subplots and debated about favourite characters. Forget them and just get into the seat with the suave (at least for the 70s-80s) cigarette-chugging protagonist as he travels, along with his trusted companions, sidekick-nephew Topshe and thriller writer-fellow traveller Lalmohan Ganguli, across the country — and a few times outside the country too — to solve crimes. Satyajit Ray’s most popular creation wasn’t any of his movies but the Feluda adventures. But forget all that too. Just read one adventure at a time and enjoy the ride.
One doesn’t need to ask, request, beg or even bully someone into reading Chandra’s hillarious, multilayered and multi-plot book Sacred Games. If any Indian fiction writer has come close to describing the nation’s malnourished and diseased system and its diversified problems courtesy its, well, diversity, it has to be this one. The book provides a window into the seamier side of the Maximum City, where the underbelly of the underworld rubs shoulders with crooked cops and ‘honest’ encounter specialists.
The Savage Detectives
Arguably, the late Chilean master writer Bolano’s finest. It’s really a ‘search’ novel — two poets looking for a female Mexican poet Cesárea Tinajero. This is a road journey that centres on one of the searching poet’s admittance to a roving gang of poets who refer to themselves as the Visceral Realists. He drops out of university and travels around Mexico City. The second section careens off and turns into interviews with a variety of characters. Dizzying in structure as well as in theme. Imagination at a totally different level.
Luka and the Fire of Life
R 499 (In stores from September)
On a beautiful starry night in the city of Kahani, Rashid the storyteller falls into a deep sleep. It’s on his 12-year-old son Luka to enter the dream world to save his father from permanent sleep by stealing the Fire of Life. It’s fabulous fabulist Rushdie’s sequel of Haroun and the Sea of Tales. Or is it the ultimate metaphor for the struggle against writer’s block? Or is it the old Prometheus tale stitched to the Icarus and Daedalus one? Hell, or is it just a rollicking story for readers of all ages above 6?
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
R 250 (In stores from September)
The first two installments of an apocalyptic trilogy from creator of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy Del Toro and horror novelist Hogan, the saga starts with a mysteriously emptied passenger plane landing at New York’s JFK airport. What follows in The Stain is an evil descending on a bustling megacity. In The Fall comes the aftermath in which humans have been displaced from the top of the food chain. All that stands between a contagious evil — vampirism as a virus — and human wipeout is Ephraim Goodweather, director of the Centre of Disease Control.
Philip K Dick
Arguably the finest and most original mind of science fiction writes this story based on the simplest of premises: time running backwards. But in the hands of Philip Dick, it’s not only about people coming out of their graves or Benjamin Buttons living out backwards, but also about the all-powerful and feared organisation, the Library, whose job is to expunge written records of events that ‘have no longer happened’. In all this, a Black leader is ‘reborn’. The Library’s task is to eliminate him before racial violence erupts. The idea novel bombarded as a story of paranoia and a metaphor for politics.
The House of Fear
Safi’s detective Ali Imran is the man for all seasons. Like Inspector Rebus, he can solve any mystery and like James Bond, he always overpowers his foes. When three dead bodies with identical dagger marks are discovered, Imran has his task cut out. Safi is, by far one of the oldest and the most underrated authors of pulp fiction. Though his series Jasoosi Dunia has been enthralling Urdu readers for over 50 years, it wasn’t until last year that his work was translated into English. Did we mention how he helped many in Bollywood strike it rich? Ask die hard Safi fan Javed Akhtar.
The Golden Gate
Janet Hayakawa, a wannabe sculptor and drummer, secretly places a personal ad for her friend John. “Only her cats provide distraction/Twin paradigms of lazy action,” writes Vikram Seth in the verse-novel that made his name. Yes, Janet, too, is single. Wit, wordplay, abounding allusion, and some marvellous animals, among them the iguana Schwarzenegger, are the surprises that Seth springs on the reader in 690 sonnets that will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes. Seth’s experiment turned out to be more rewarding — and entertaining — than envisaged.
Stephen King’s writings are out of this world, this way or the other. Either you love his forays into the occult, or you’re too fearful to pick them up. Here, the psychic son of an aspiring writer, Jack Torrance, makes his father sensitive to supernatural forces. Torrance takes up the role of the caretaker of a hotel not knowing that the edifice has its set of ‘abnormalities’: it hyperbolises the psychic abilities of its guests and controls the living and the dead. Reading The Shining can keep you up an entire rainy night. You would fear falling asleep, or keep
turning the pages till dawn breaks over the city.
The Gospel According to Coco Chanel
Om books international
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel isn’t only about the little black dress and women wearing trousers. She was about Le Chic. Coco’s philosophy was akin to rock’n’roll or punk, in the sense of her sense of style being a way of life that went beyond clothes. Her offbeat book is part biography, part palmbook of ‘life lessons from the world’s most elegant woman’ as narrated in chapter themes according to Chanel’s amazing rags to much beyond stitches life. ‘Enjoy being loved’ is one of Coco’s commandments. That’s a fashion statement and more.
It Rained All Night
If a book is banned because it has the potential to shake up the very principles upon which a society is built, then it’s either a riveting true story or a ‘must read’. The latter definitely holds true for Bose’s courageous attempt to present ‘obscenity’ in its purest way to his Bengali readers in the 60s. It was banned and subsequently became a best-seller. What was the objection, you ask? Adultery and the recounting of the primitive human emotions of jealousy, desire and love. A slim novel whose bane was that it was well ahead of its time.
If Daniel ‘the frigid’ Craig left you shaken but not stirred in the movie version of Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, then here’s your ticket to redemption. Set in the cold war era, ‘M’, head honcho of the British Secret Service, makes the best man on the job, James Bond thwart a Russian spy, Le Chiffre, from winning 50 million francs — KGB funds that he had lost through an investment in a chain of brothels. It is high on the quintessential high-octane Bond mix of guns, girls and gadgets.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Long before there was Captain Jack Sparrow, there was Captain Nemo. Perhaps the most popular book in Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires series, it’s unarguably one of the best works of science fiction so far. A bevy of sea attacks has caused a stir in the American government. Professor Pierre Aronnax is sent to catch the sea monster, allegedly behind the attacks. But when Nemo is found out to be the ‘perpetrator’, things get even better. It’s a classic underwater adventure for both overgrown children and adults.
The End of The Affair
Greene upsets some of his critics when instead of talking about the ‘meta’ destruction caused by World War 2, he focuses on human relationships in this book. Loosely based on his own life, The End of The Affair is a story about an aspiring author’s recollection of his fling with the wife of an influential civil servant. It explores the oft-explored human emotions of love, jealousy, obsession and faithfulness. But what rescues the book from becoming a run-of-the-mill romance is the author’s ingenious writing style that keeps you turning the pages.
Let the Right One In
John Ajvide Lindquvist
Lindquvist explores the themes of rejection, friendship and loyalty through the template of genre fiction — which in this case happens to be that of horror fiction. Oskar, the 12-year-old boy lives with his mother in a dreary housing estate; Eli is a young girl who moves next door, nothing out-of-the-ordinary apart from the fact that she’s a 200-year-old vampire frozen in childhood and lives on a diet of fresh blood. Don’t wait for the American remake of the Swedish original film based on this book.
Killer in the Rain and Other Stories
These are early Raymond Chandler stories that set the groundwork for the creation of the Philip Marlowe character, Goldfish and Finger Man. Chandler doesn’t go off the tangent here. The plots are tight and he does a fine job of putting you in the detective’s place, as in, playing on the ‘what the hell do I do now?’ feeling. A behind-the-book news: Chandler didn’t allow reprinting of these stories for he cannibalised them to form the sub-plots of his other works.