Friday, August 13, 2010

The art of choosing...a book

If you haven't read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's thought provoking and hugely successful book, The Art of Choosing, then I would highly recommend it (if you're into non-fiction trendspotting books), Of course I speak only from the experience of having read a good review in nothing less than the New York Times and having watched a TED Talk. But the review, combined with an interview of the charming woman, made the book sound very promising...and soon enough, it seems to reached the front display in Indian bookstores as well.

But this was not what I was looking for as I browsed my way through a Landmark store this afternoon. I was in search of the perfect gift for a friend who is currently into Indian writing in English.  No dearth of books in this genre, you would think, rightly, in fact a plethora of choices. What used to be a short dusty shelf of books by a handful of authors has now grown to an entire section in the bookstore, with women writers dominating the colourful spines. Writers in translation, chick-lit from a variety of perspectives and age ranges, right from college romances to older women in search of themselves, more serious investigations into life and learning and loss, and a whole variety of other themes. "Preferably stories set in pre-Independence India," she had said, "and maybe, southern India?"

Having recently been introduced to Usha K R's writing through an evocatively titled story, "A Girl and a River", I thought a book by her might do the trick and satisfy my choosy friend. I chanced upon her latest title, "Monkey Man", also, like the former, set in her home city of Bangalore but in more contemporary times, exploring issues that force consideration following the rapid modernisation that has transformed the city. My friend Mahrookh had enormously enjoyed "A Girl and a River", a story about a childhood lost to family tempers amid the political turmoil of the early twentieth century, so the author seemed to be a safe bet. This, along with Ali Sethi's "The Wish Maker" rounded off the purchases...well, almost. I also ended up buying two more books, for myself--"Blindness" by Jose Saramago, of whose writing I have heard so much, and a random pick, "The Yacoubian Building", an urban tale by an Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswamy, a first-time read for me.

It's always exciting to discover a writer that has not come to you by recommendation or by fame, but instead has lain quietly waiting to be read, the book selling purely on the strength of the cover blurb and a certain "atmosphere" conveyed by the cover design. You might pick up the book with a little bit of trepidation, but something tells you--maybe it is the font of the title, or the colours used on the jacket, or the grammatical structure of the opening line--that it is going to be a good read.

While I do often file away notes from the Hindu Literary Review or the NYT Review of Books about "must reads", I usually end up buying the unknown, the unrecommended, the less recognised titles--and then, a few months later, I find these names on the fame list. At this point I must confess I do feel a certain vindication for having "found" the author on my own!

So then, how does one go about choosing a book--for oneself or for another? If you want to go beyond the usual suspects and find that something different, then you do have to spend some time picking things off the shelf, smelling them, noting the nuances of the typography of title and text, letting the sound of the first few lines (and then a few here and there sampled from the inner pages) play in your inner ear, and waiting a moment or two to see if the story feels like it is going to "catch" a hook in your brain.  And most times, it works. Well, it's worked for me. That's how I "found" Boman Desai's "Memory of Elephants" and Ursula Le Guin's "Changing Planes". And a host of others who will no doubt find a space on this blog.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reading in the car

One of the advantages of being driven is that I have more time to read. Now, having earlier been torn between giving up control of the wheel and having a little more time to think, stare out the window and actually see what is going on instead of being disturbed by the aggressive hoardings that have colonised our skyline,  I find that the time gained has its uses. Significantly, I am catching up on my reading. This serves two purposes. One, instead of getting tense and irritable over what seems to me like reckless driving, I distract myself with a book or newspaper. Two, I am able to read uninterruptedly, and the time I have at my disposal is increasing by the day, as the Hyderabad traffic reaches new levels of congestion.

I've taken to leaving a couple of books in the car--just in case--apart from carrying one in my bag. The one I carry in my bag is the more serious, long-haul book, while those left in the car tend to be the "dip into" variety or non-fiction that can be read in bits and pieces. Having just finished an emotionally draining novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, I have now moved to one of the books that's been sitting in the backseat pouch for a while. Margaret Atwood's "Moral Disorder". Atwood is one of my favourite writers. I discovered her only a few years ago, and am amazed at how prolific she is (my daughter tells me that there have been others more prolific--Alexander McCall Smith, for instance, who rises at 3 a.m. to begin writing!) and at the range of her writing.

I encountered Atwood first in a dusty, old edition of "The Handmaid's Tale", a dark and disturbing view of a dystopic future in which reproductive rights and rights of association are nonexistent. I moved on to "The Robber Bride", also somewhat dark but not without touches of humour. There are many other titles sitting on my shelves waiting to be read, but for now let me talk about the two that have been consumed in the car. These are two volumes of short stories: "Wilderness Tips" and "Moral Disorder". I finished the first a while ago, and am about half way through the second. But it's the sort of book where I have to stop now and then in sheer amazement at her felicity of expression and the way in which she is able to capture a moment, look deeply into it, and emerge with sharp insights into human nature. In doing so she presents us with aspects of her characters and their lives that bear so much resemblance to our own meanderings through life, in a way that we are moved to both laugh and cry over them.

"Wilderness Tips" is a collection of stories with a shared theme--everyday decisions, everyday events that forever change us or define who we become. So there is Lois (Death by Landscape) who wanders into the woods out of camp, with a friend, and returns alone, her companion having gone into the trees and disappeared. And Susanna, who danced on a soapbox to win the smiles and approval of her uncles, and grew up to forever seek the same approval from other avuncular figures in her personal and professional life.  The book is about the "single instance that shapes a whole life", as the book jacket says. "Moral Disorder" is different; it follows the confusions of a single character from adolescence through womanhood, stopping along the way to peer into instances that make her life. As a teenager poring over Browning's "The Last Duchess" (a poem many of us may have encountered in English literature classes), she comes to realise that every door one walks through is a pathway to the afterlife. And as an older woman driving to see her mother, she discovers a new kinship with a kid sister who tormented her as a child. It's funny, sad, and above all, insightful.

Atwood's prose is simple and no-nonsense, the simplicity of her writing makes the truths she presents that much more forceful.

I suppose that is what a gifted writer is able to do. Make us stop and look at ourselves in the pages of a book, and find answers to the small and large questions we have in life through the stories they tell. Whether it is on an adventure or in meditation, through the pages of a novel or in the frame of a painting, what we are looking for is a glimmer of the self.

Losing control of the wheel is not so bad, after all. The books make up for it. I'm waiting to get back into the passenger seat and reopen that book. And to smile at the moral disorder that I see in my own life!