The Reading List

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As a book lover, one of the things I have most longed for is a week long holiday from work and a list of excellent books to read without any interruptions and distractions. I had been craving for such a break for a long time and it only came about this week.

So, Christmas holidays are here and at the end of my last day at work, I dropped in to Stockholm’s biggest library, Stadsbibliotek, and spent about an hour searching for the list of books I was going to devour over the next couple of weeks. Or at least, I thought I would. But here was the problem: none of the books that I had on my Reading List A was to be found in the library. OK, so I had two reading lists prepared for this occasion – List A: books that I’ve been longing to read and now was the best time; and List B: books that can be listed as backup if List A was not possible. Here is a sample of what I was looking for:

List A:

  • The Idiot OR The Karamazov Brother – by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Honorable Schoolboy OR Smiley’s People – both by John Le Carre (Remember Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?)
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

List B:

  • Missing – Karin Alvtegen
  • In Cold Blood – by Truman Capote
  • Any books by PG Wodehouse.

There was also a Plan C, of course. Plan C was that in case I found nothing from my first two lists at the library, I would pick 3-4 fiction novels that appealed to me the most from what was available. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that I might have to fall back on Plan C – after all it was Stockholm’s biggest library – but I was nevertheless going to be mentally prepared.

‘Mentally prepared for not being able to find a good book to read from a big library?’ you might ask and it may sound a bit weird to the unfamiliar, but imagine a guy (that’s me) who stands for hours in front of his personal library back home in India, stocked with 300 books (about 15 of them are yet to be read), and is still unable to decide what to read. Yes, some of us bookworms get weird in this aspect of our lives.

So, back to picking the books. I immediately move to Section D to look for Dostoyesvsky’s books and there are none of them available. Damn! Now to Section L for Le Carre and the two books on my list are also not there. I do see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’ve already read that and, to my shame, not understood what happened in the story at all.

Nevermind! I move to T and even Tolstoy is out of stock. There goes List A into the dustbin. Out with List B. I move to Section A and look for Alvtegen and it is also missing. And there is nothing by Wodehouse that I haven’t already read so I am so frustrated now that I don’t even attempt to look for Capote.

It has been 15 minutes since I entered the library and I am already panicking. I can see my holidays going for a toss because now I don’t have any books to read. But I must persist and pick up something before I leave – that was plan C. I run over the list of authors I can think of. Jeffry Deaver – already read all of his books. I’ve heard of Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell.. oh Damn! Not those regular thriller fictions again.

It was a long battle in my mind but another 40 minutes have passed by and I have finally made up my decision. I have picked up The Nightmare by Lars Kepler, another thriller but at least the story is based in Stockholm so it will give me a peek into the city that I have recently moved to. And because my mind has stopped working completely, I also picked by The Sixth Man by David Baldacci and I have no idea why. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I am already thinking about the unread books I already have back at my apartment which I know I probably can fall back upon now: A couple of them by Wodehouse and one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Fast forward by a couple of hours and I am back at my apartment, holidays have started and I am already lying on my couch with a cup of hot tea and about to finish the 20th page of The Nightmare. It is a good thriller, but I feel more and more disappointed. The problem is, I’ve read so many thrillers in my lifetime that they all seem to be the same to me. Something to start with, a lot of twists and turns and I already know how stories unfold. Depending on how much you have progressed in the book, you can figure out whether the events that are unfolding right now are leading to the unraveling of the suspense or only thickening of the cloud around it. It gives me no high.

That is when I start thinking about the books that have ever given me a high. When I had read my first book, A Matter of Honor by Jeffrey Archer, it gave me a high because that was the first time I realized how books can engage you. But over the last few years only a very few books have really shaken me from inside and I start remembering them. I thought about Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and how deep the flaws of the protagonist ran. I was amazed by how sick he felt after committing a murder and how it changed him and everything around him. There was no mystery in that novel in the conventional way. The real mystery was in guess how much sicker he can get and how his life was going to deteriorate because of what he has done. It touched you like nothing else ever did before.

Then I think about Love in the Time of Cholera. I don’t know how others feel about it because I never look up the reviews of a book I’ve read because my opinion and my feelings for it are enough and do not need to be spoilt. But was this book something special! The protagonist Florentino Ariza is a young man madly in love with Fermina Daza who has turned him down but he waits for over half a century to win her over again. The feelings depicted in the book are unmatched and I cannot think of any other romantic novel – though I hate to call it just a novel – that has even come anywhere close to it. This stuff is special. If you haven’t read it yet, read it today.

Anyway, as I reach page 40 or so in the novel that I was currently reading, my mind wanders to Sherlock Holmes. Ah, unarguably the best I have ever read and reread and then again some more. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading Holmes and will even be reading it when I turn 50 or 60.

And so is the case with the Jeeves and Wooster series of books (again I refrain from calling them novels in the traditional sense) by P.G. Wodehouse. Have I ever cherished a fictional character more than I’ve cherished Bertie Wooster? No, and I probably never will. Someone had sometime quoted that Wodehouse is ‘..the ultimate in comfort reading because nothing bad ever happens in P.G. Wodehouse land… For as long as I am immersed in a P.G. Wodehouse  book, it’s possible to keep the real world at bay and live in a far, far nicer, funnier one where happy endings are the order of the day.’ I possibly cannot say anything that explains it better that this quote.

And so, the list is long but there was one book that still has me stumped. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre is the book that I took a really long time to read and is perhaps the only book at the end of which I confessed to myself that I did not understand what the hell had happened and where the story had been going. Immediately after finishing the book, I could not even explain to my wife what I had read. What was so wrong about it? Or was it me who, despite all my experience in reading for the last 15 years, is still not good enough? The problem, as I can only remember it, was that the story kept swinging wildly from present to past and the author did not make it very obvious which scene was played when and how one got there. I think the ambiguity made me lose track of what I was reading but I kept going on and on, hoping that sometime later in the book it will become clearer. But that was a mistake on my part. It never did and the story ended with me hanging clueless about what happened.

I started surfing the internet in a bid to find a post that would finally explain to me, in detail, what happened in the story and if there was anyone else who did not get it when they read it. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that many other readers of this book admitted the same disappointment as me and so did even people who had watched the movie. And it always came down to the same reason: the story kept swinging from present to past without warning.

But this book taught me a very valuable lesson. Not all books will be run-of-the-mill thrillers-or-suspense where the author does the bulk of the work in making things clear for the reader. No, By Gosh! as Bertie Wooster would have exclaimed. I realize that what I really wanted to read was something where the author doesn’t spoon feed me but challenges me to understand what he is saying. A book doesn’t have to reach out to you, sometimes, you need to reach inside it and find things out. That is what happened when I read the likes of Holmes, Wodehouse, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Albert Camus and others. What they write is only a part of it. What you get out of understanding them is the real joy of reading.

I hope you have found your favorite books to read this winter. Happy Holidays!

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The phobia of reading Romance

There is something weird about reading novels on romance because I have never been able to read one. Yes, Love Story by Eric Segal is something almost everyone has read and so have I, but I must declare, with humbleness, that that is where my affair with the genre ends (so far as reading books is concerned).

I’ve bought and read hundreds of books in my life – philosophy, biographies, crime, drama, humor, etc. – but I have never been able to pick up another book on romance. I’ve heard a lot about authors who write very good romance and I’ve also considered getting my hands on Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, but something doesn’t click. Trust me, I am not against the concept of romance, and like everyone else, I do aspire for it in the same way, but there is something about these books that makes me keep away from reading them.

After years and years, I finally own The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks – a book that is only about 180 pages. I’ve had it with me for over 2 months and yet I am unable to finish it.

What is this phobia then? Is it the fear of loss or the possibility of happiness that they might falsely promise?

Just Write!

writingOne of the biggest problems I face when about to begin my next book is that I need to have the plot, the sub-plots, characters, etc. all figured out already. I need to know how my story is to be setup and how it is going to progress and my mind keeps wandering from the start to the finish. But since not everything is figured out yet, I start feeling as if I’ve not thought through it sufficiently and thus am unable to start. This further makes me feel as if my imagination is just not good enough to be a writer and I end up shelving that book even without having written a single word. I know it’s crazy!

But, the desire does not die away and after some time, I am back with my pen and paper thinking about some other plot which I can perhaps develop a little better. But that too often meets the same fate. I spend so much time thinking about the book but never much in actually writing it down.

The solution to this problem? Just write!

I discovered this last night. Struggling with the same problem for about an hour, I finally decided to try a different approach. I told myself that I will not worry about the book or its plot or characters. I decided that I will simply write a scene that I would love to see in any of my books and not think about what has happened before it or what will happen afterwards in the story. I didn’t even name the central character, I just called him (or her) ABCD. So, I began by writing a thrilling chase sequence in about 200 words only. It was extremely short but when I finished it, I realized that I could think of one scene each before and after the present and connect them together. I feel if I try this approach and keep going one scene at a time, I might end up inventing more about the story than I could with a pen and paper and just hoping for the perfect idea.

And in case I get stuck anywhere yet again, I can simply close this story and start writing a totally independent scene just like I did above. I might, for instance, start writing a horror scene and think only about that scene and nothing else.

What I found when I followed this strategy is that even if I had no plot in mind while starting to write, it does surprisingly gives me many better and smaller ideas that I can use to develop bigger ones in the future. Also, the fact that I am able to write down the scenes that I someday want to see in my books takes away the pressure of those ideas remaining in my head and haunting me to be written down. Completion of even a 200-word scene makes me feel a lot more positive and I can finally stop feeling stuck and start exploring more than that single scene.

I guess what I am trying to say is, the more you write the more it starts to get you. Writing is like a habit. Sometimes, it will come to you automatically but for that to happen, you need to start now. I am not a professional writer but an amateur but I recognize that the only way for me to have ideas is to write down whatever comes to my mind and not worry about the end result. As it is, writing one short scene is much better that writing no big ones. (Maybe that is why my first two publications have both been very short stories.)

And once you write that short scene, it makes you feel much better and more confident. Try it.

How do you deal with not having a completely figured out plot? Do you also give up or try something else?

Books I Read Last Week – Part 1 (Aug 6-12, 2012)

Last week has been miserable in terms of the amount of reading I’ve done. It has also been the first (extended) week of my blogging here so I guess I am dividing time between blogging and reading. Further, I’ve been very busy at work and at home as well, due to which I couldn’t concentrate on reading much.

But this is what I read last week:

1. Joy in the Morning
by: P.G. Wodehouse
Literature and Fiction / Humor
Status: Half Read, Still Reading

As I am a big admirer of books by Wodehouse, it is quite difficult for me to not read one of his classics. This week, I’ve started reading Joy in the Morning, another classic novel from the Jeeves and Wooster series. Till now, Bertie Wooster has refused Boko and Nobby to cooperate in their second scheme to sacrifice him for making poor old Boko look good in Uncle Percy’s eyes. At the same time, young boy scout Edwin has burnt down an entire house as a result of his act of kindness. Sadly, I haven’t been able to finish this during the week but I plan to keep this as my target in the coming week.

This book also belongs to the series of the Books I Like to Read Before I Sleep which is another blogs posting of mine.

2. Billions and Billions – Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
by: Carl Sagan
Science / Astronomy / Philosophy
Status: Half Read, Still Reading

Being a staunch admirer of everything that the great Carl Sagan has ever written, it is truly amazing to read his books like Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, The Demon Haunted World, etc. This week, I’ve started reading Billions and Billions chapter-by-chapter. My intention is not to read the entire book at once because most of the chapters are dealing with different topics so it is possible to read each chapter even after some gap of time. Till now, I’ve read Dr. Sagan’s musings on how, in human history, the significance of numbers has increased and Millions led to Billions led to Trillions. I especially enjoyed Sagan’s light-hearted commentary on observing how people all over the media were increasingly attributing the phrase “Bbillions and Bbillions” to him, despite him having never uttered it even once in his popular television series: Cosmos.
Overall, An excellent read.

What about next week?

I plan to finish Joy in the Morning and Read Billions… a little more. Would you like to recommend me a nice book?

OverBOOKed

Too Many Options?

I am a voracious reader. And a compulsive-obsessive book collector. For me, genre is not and has never been a barrier. Science, Philosophy, History, Politics, Literature & Fiction, Biographies, Psychology, you name the genre and I have read something related.

So, it is imperative for me to carry a book wherever I go. Whether I am going to office in the morning, or visiting friends and relatives over the weekends or simply out for break, I always need to carry a book with me. I am building my personal space for books, a mini-library if you may. As of now, it contains over 130 books (as of last official count), all of which I have bought in the last 2 years. That basically means 1.3 books a week. And most importantly, each of those titles has been purchased after careful deliberation on my part.

That is not to say that I am reading a lot of books in practice or that I must be a speed reader. No, I am hardly able to cover a book in less than 2 weeks and there is a very bad reason for it. I don’t seem to have the time for it. When I am travelling to office every morning, I read for about half an hour. Then I start to feel sick because of reading in a moving car (does that to me a lot). In the evening, I reach home quite late and it is only when I get into bed that I continue the book. Needless to say the tiredness of the entire day gets the better of me and every night I fall asleep with the book still held open in my hands. Yes, every single night. Next morning, the cycle continues.

Weekends are when I really cherish the idea of reading a lot. I have mostly been able to pick up a book and, provided there are no distractions, have been able to enjoy my reading quite a lot. On the whole, I think I have read at least 110 of those 130, but having 20 unread books can sometimes be very troublesome. Let me explain.

I sometimes get into a phase, in which I have termed myself as being ‘Overbooked’. It is a state in which I am eager to start/continue reading a book but I am unable to decide which one. For instance, should I read ‘The Republic’ by Plato that I bought a long time back and really want to get through, or should I pick up from where I left off with my PG Wodehouse collection? Things get complicated when, simultaneously, it occurs to me that I have recently bought Sam Harris’s ‘The Moral Landscape’ but deep within my heart, I really now need to read Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Hitch-22’, an autobiography that I have secured in a plastic bag since last 2 yrs for the fear of it catching even a mote of dust. I could even read up the 2nd volume of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, titled ‘The Fry Chronicles’. But, Truth be told, there is no greater masterpiece like the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ collection that I have. So, basically, I am spoilt for choices.

Sometimes, this phase can get really frustrating and absorbing, with the result that I spend most of my energy in this futile attempt at decision-making and end up reading nothing at all. But I often wonder why this happens to me and it might make you wonder if I am simply a spendthrift who keeps buying books by the dozen but does not care to read them.

But it’s not that I don’t care, for I purchase every single title after very careful deliberations and am very touchy about the condition of each book in my collection. I take care to even wash my hands before I take out some of the special books form my library. It is just that I do feel spoilt for choices and with the kind of affection I have for my books, it is somewhat like having many girlfriends, all of them being equally amazing (well, not really), but you can’t spend time with all of them together. I know I could have used a better analogy and this one might make me sound like a nerd or a geek who really doesn’t understand the difference between women and books, but I hope you will not judge me on this because I do understand the difference and never mix the two.

Has this ever happened to you, being spoilt for choices and feeling actually frustrated about it? If yes, I would love to know what you do in such a situation. How do you come out of such a dilemma when you are spoilt for choices? Please share your experiences with me.

My Attempts to Read That First Novel

During my school days, I remember, a lot of other kids used to pass time reading some books while travelling in the school bus or while bunking classes. At that time, I was not introduced to reading as a hobby and so obviously I found it a little mysterious how some of them could actually read books which were over a 100 pages thick. Don’t take me wrong, I did do a lot of reading of my own, but it was always comics and never any serious reading like novels. And it is also not that I don’t consider reading comics as requiring an equal zeal, but reading novels was something different for me. Something unattainable.

Finally, when I was in class 10, one of my uncles visited us and when he went back, he incidentally forgot his Jeffrey Archer novel called “A Matter of Honor.” This was the first novel ever to lie around in my home in my memory and a few weeks passed and it kept calling to me. Many times, I would pick it up, check out its pages and cover and then put it down again, not sure what would happened if I opened it, until a day arrived when I could just not resist anymore.

I cannot forget this book ever because of the number of time I tried to read it and failed. I clearly remember the first time I started reading it, I went on for 5-6 pages before putting it down. Why? Because I just couldn’t understand anything. Few days later, I tried again and almost reached the end of the first chapter. Still nothing. So I quit again. I think I tried a few more times and the only thing I remember even now from that first chapter was the name Romanov and I guess some terms related to Russia. I guess it was just too much and the information was too new for me to understand. Finally, one time I decided to read on after reaching the end of Chapter 1 onto Chapter 2. I really compelled my self to continue reading even if it did not make sense and see what happens. And as I read more and more I started to understand what was happening and it turned out that I was actually enjoying it a lot. It grew upon me with such pace that I could not sleep at nights because I was so engaged in it and it took me a few days to finish my reading. (Come on guys, it was my first book).

I think that book changed my life because it encouraged me to read more and more. Starting with other books of Archer and then going on to read Sydney Sheldon and others, reading quickly became a habit that I haven’t been able to give up even 13 years after that first novel. Today, not a days passes without me reading at least a few pages from one of the hundreds of books that I own and keep in my bedroom.

Now that I think about it, I was very fortunate that my uncle forgot that book at my home. And I feel it was really good that I did not give up on that book despite failing to so many times in my attempts to understand what reading was all about.

Today, reading is my life’s greatest passion, a sort of obsession, and I am happy that I got into it and it will always be something that I can never give up.

Books I Like to Read before I Sleep – Part 1

It is absolutely essential for me to read a few pages of a nice book just before I go to sleep. This really has to be the last thing I do at the end of the day simply because it is such a calming influence on my mind. To be engaged with a light hearted stress busting book just before sleeping is an excellent idea and needless to say there would be many others echoing my thoughts on this.

This is the first part of a series of blogs that I will write and in each I will talk about a specific book or series of books that I love to read especially before I go to sleep. Daily!

P.G. Wodehouse: Any of the 14 Jeeves and Wooster Novels

In my opinion, there has not and will never be anyone to match the sense of humor and writing style of the great P.G. Wodehouse. I cannot list any one of his Jeeves and Wooster novels here because I think all of them are equally magnificent. It is splendid to read the mis-adventures of Bertie Wooster What Ho!-ing all over London trying to help his friends and relatives but invariably getting sucked into one hilarious problem after another himself until the genius Jeeves comes to the young master’s rescue. Accompanied by bigger idiots but extremely likeable Bingo Little, Tuppy and Gussey, not to forget the wrath of Aunts Dahlia and Agatha, this splendid writing is really hard to put down. Ever since I read the first novel by Wodehouse, I have started to collect all of his works and it truly is a great collection.

One of my fellow bookworm friends once said that she did not get into Wodehouse novels because she had the impression that it is something that school-going kids are supposed to read. But I vehemently disagree. The writings of Wodehouse are timeless, ageless and fit for reading by people of all ages, classes, shapes and sizes.

As Bertie Wooster once commented:
“We Woosters do not lightly forget. At least, we do – some things – appointments, and people’s birthdays, and letters to post, and all that – but not an absolutely bally insult like the above.”

As Stephen Fry, who has played the character of Jeeves on the television adaptation of these novels, has often said about the works of Wodehouse:

“You don’t analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor.”

My advice is to start with “The Inimitable Jeeves.” then “Carry On, Jeeves” and if you really get into the craze, continue with the rest of the series.

Do you agree with my analysis?

To read more about P.G. Wodehouse, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._G._Wodehouse

The complete list of Jeeves and Wooster Novels, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._G._Wodehouse_bibliography#Jeeves

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