06-Jun-2012

Reading Updates

The last month has been quite interesting in terms of reading and I have managed to diligently stick to reading books I own/have borrowed rather than buying a bunch of books and then ignoring them. My latest decluttering drive is beginning to hit my book purchases too.

The Troubled Man by Henkell Manning. In my search for interesting new thrillers, I decided to try this one out. The book features popular fictional detective Kurt Wallander. A friend had mentioned the series long ago and I knew a TV show was running somewhere. So it was with great expectations that I began the book.

The story was intriguing enough. Set in Sweden, the story revolves around a highly decorated and retired naval officer who disappears one fine day. Wallander’s daughter has had a child with the naval officer’s son and the family ties pull in the detective though it is not really his jurisdiction. Wallander digs into the past and unearths secrets from the time of the Cold War, when Russia was a huge threat to Nato forces till he finally figures out ancient secrets that have lead to the present day situation.

Somehow, I get the sense that fictional detectives have become a morose lot. Wallander is no different. Besides being old and living in a country where isolation can hit one quite easily, the tale becomes a shade more depressing than regular ones. I suspect earlier Wallander books may not be quite so morbid since this book seems to be a culmination of sorts to the detective’s career. Going by the plot, I think it should be worth trying a Wallander if one is interested in reading thrillers but maybe this is not the best book to start off with.

Verdict - Read but pick another book in the series

Smokes and Mirrors by Pallavi Iyer – After the bleak, fictional landscape of the previous book, I turned to this delightful account of living in China during its ‘coming out’ days. Iyer follows her boyfriend to China in 2003 and in her five years there as a teacher and then a newspaper correspondent, she gets to observe China’s growth story. She comments on everything from the change in skyline to the pre-Olympic drive to learn English and the changing economy. She also comments on her personal experiences in getting to know her Chinese students, neighbours and acquaintances better and gives a good sense of how the local populace thinks. My own favourite part of the book is her ‘Indian’ insight that come from a middle-class upbringing in Delhi. It leads her to ponder over questions like ‘would I prefer to be a Dalit in democratic India or a toilet cleaner in single-party rule Beijing’. (The answer is the latter since the Chinese don’t treat toilet cleaners like they were born to do the job). It is slightly dated now but that makes it all the more interesting to read since you can compare how two neighbours with potential have been taking different paths.

Verdict - Read

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan – I had borrowed this book a while ago but was not quite sure if I really wanted to read it. This is a fictionalized account of Mughal empress, Noorjahan’s life from the time she married Jehangir to his death. In the end it turned out to be fairly absorbing. The book provides an account of how court intrigues would have been back then, which is fairly standard stuff if one has read enough historical fiction. The interesting parts are the author’s imaginative account of how events would have affected Noorjahan personally in the historical context of then. A quick page turner for a slow day when you want to read something more engaging than chicklit.

Verdict - Read if you have the time

Serious Men by Manu Joseph – The book works on a good plot and touches upon the sensitive topic of caste divisions without making any pretensions about ‘how everyone is really equal in the end’. They are not.

Ayyan Mani, the dalit clerk works in the prestigious Institute of Theory and Research, a formidable bastion of intellect populated entirely by upper caste staff. His boss, the brilliant and well-connected Aravind Acharya is up against a bunch of scientists with a contradictory agenda. As events unfold, Acharya tries to hold his own. Ayyan, meanwhile fights the system in a subtle manner with his own little games involving his young son.

None of the characters are particularly likeable in the book. Ayyan is the sort of person, were he to sit as a clerk in a government office, you would feel like slapping but would not since that would ensure your work never got done. Acharya is the pompous sort of person, so absolutely confident in his own theories that he cannot give space for a contradictory viewpoint. Yet, it is Ayyan you feel for. Stuck as he is in the bottom of the caste food-chain and trying to make up little subversive games to provide vent to his frustrations, he nevertheless has to face live with his station in life.

It is interesting to see a mainstream book that weaves the reality of India’s caste system into an entertaining fictional narrative. In my personal opinion though, it could have done even more.

Verdict - Read

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht - The book came much recommended in various forums and I promptly bought a copy (yes breaking my no buying books rule). The story is set in a Balkan country (read Yugoslavia) and jumps and back through the country's fractured history and how war impacts its people. The book jumps from history to allegory to folk tales and so on, making it a clever enough book though not quite ever making the point it sets out to make. 
The narrator is a young doctor, Natalia, whose grandfather has just died. Living with her grandparents and her mother, she grows up listening to the stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man. As she journeys to deliver medicines to a distant village and makes a side trip to collect her grandfather's belongings, she takes us through both stories.

The story is entertaining for most parts in its own steam, even if you lose the complex background sometimes.

Verdict - Dithering between Read and Read if you have the time.

While I was trying to figure out what to read next, I dipped into my reserve of the American Book of Essays series (which I have plugged in quite a few posts before) and spent several evenings engrossed in essays on how to do French cooking and what to do about a dog that is not endearingly mad but is aggressive enough to be a risk to everyone around it.

Any book recos welcome – particularly in non-fiction that is well written.