Monday, October 31, 2016

Books I read in October (and the last week of September)

This month had a vacation, so I got lots of reading done. Much of it was frivolous.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

A Harry Potteresque fantasy but with more interesting protagonists (gasp, my blasphemy!) A school of magic, a "chosen" hero, a supervillain, a rival in school, a smart girl best friend, a love interest that slowly devolves into a love triangle, it's got it all. A thousand times more fun than the Cursed Child.

Lockwood and Co.: Four books in the series by Jonathan Stroud

Another fantasy YA series by this author, this one lacks the brilliance and depth -- particularly the class consciousness and social commentary -- of Bartimaeus. However, it's a fun set of books. Our very young protagonist, Lucy, and her team (Lockwood and George; the three of them form the firm Lockwood and Co.) find and eliminate ghosts. The characterisation is a bit lazy (Lucy is Kitty from Bartimaeus, Lockwood is a nicer Nathaniel -- or Nathaniel who had a loving family and is therefore less screwed up, George and another character make up Bartimaeus), and there seems to be little personal growth: the main characters behave and speak much the same as they did in the first book (even though they were tweens in the first book and should have changed a lot by now). But hey, girl who fights ghosts and has no personal demons (these belong to the eponymous Lockwood), fights with swords, and is brilliant at what she does. Also, as the series is for children, the ghosts aren't scary (I can't read actual horror). If you are interested, start with the first book.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The announcement of Roy's second novel and some related tweets praising this one made me want to reread it. This time (my fourth read, probably), I really slowed down (I read really fast and often skim through and miss stuff). This time, I noticed how outrightly feminist the novel is. I also noticed how very fatphobic and generally appearance-focused it is. Good people are beautiful. Bad people are ugly. It's actually that simplistic. 
If I hadn't already become disillusioned by Roy earlier this year, this reread would have brought me there. Not saying I didn't enjoy the book: the prose is luminous, the story is gripping. The book's condemnation of casteism is also more outright than I remembered. But apart from the odd fixation on conventional good looks, the novel does fridge the Dalit character. What's probably worse is that he doesn't seem like a real person: he is actually perfect, a god. A hot body, intelligence and social consciousness, bravery and defiance but not rudeness, perfect patience with children and the ability to keep them amused and happy, and of course, love for his oppressors (or at least their daughter/sister and grandchildren/niece and nephew). Does a Dalit have to be perfect for an upper caste character to fall in lust with him, and for her children to make friends with him?

And while I still appreciated these lines, which seared into my brain when I read the novel the first time -- "The Love Laws. Which dictate who is to be loved. And by whom. And how much." -- the repetition of them made it seem like Roy was explicitly drawing an equivalence between intercaste relationships and incest. And while I don't have a moral objection to incest, this seems to be grossly trivializing Dalit rights.

Company for Henry; Carry on, Jeeves; and The Man with Two Left Feet by PG Wodehouse

All three are regular Wodehouse. I've even read Carry on, Jeeves before. It's okay, if you like this sort of thing. (Damn, I find it hard to do a Wodehouse voice.) It's quite cheap on the Kindle right now. I quite liked Company for Henry, but my favorite Wodehouse will always be Jill the Reckless, which is a very unWodehouse-y Wodehouse. The Man with Two Left Feet is a collection of unrelated short stories. They are all predictable, if you've read Wodehouse (or any short stories, really). I got this for free, otherwise it would have not seemed worth it. (Get the Kindle version for free.)

Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation by David Crystal

I had wanted to read this book since I read this review in the Guardian. It's part treatise, part history, part anecdotes, part humor, part textbook. What I liked most is the author's open-minded approach, his attitude that punctuation cannot be always uniform and rigid; that local and individual idiosyncrasies are to be expected, and even welcomed. It lacks the self-righteous tone of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and in fact, quotes and argues with that famous book on punctuation), and I found some of the passages about how a particular mark evolved a bit boring (but it's probably of interest to someone who's interested in that kind of thing), but it was mostly a very enjoyable book.

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand

I can't believe I've never read Mulk Raj Anand before. Our school books had insipid RK Narayan (sorry, Narayan fans) and fun Ruskin Bond, but no Anand. Yet Untouchable was poignant, haunting, so vivid I could picture every scene. It's a critical look at caste from the perspective of a young "untouchable" boy, as much novella as propaganda (of the right sort). My only quibble is that it ended rather flatly, with an uncritical admiration for Gandhi, whose record on caste is after all, hardly the best. Perhaps that's because the author himself is, I believe, upper caste. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it. (Next up, I'm reading Anand's Coolie.)

I have been reading this book off and on since I bought it a few months ago. I hadn't read much Parker before, and notwithstanding "portable" in the name, this is a big collection of her work: stories, essays, poems, criticism. It's a great way to sample her scintillating writing. (If you want my copy and are in Bombay or Delhi, let me know.)

Promethea by Alan Moore

A graphic novel about a mythical being who lives in the land of imagination and embodies herself in humans if someone imagines her strongly enough. The edition I read was a compilation of #1-6, so now I need to hunt down the rest. Oh yeah, I liked it. What's interesting is it's based on a bunch of different stories and poems over the years: a character with the same name and somewhat similar characteristics keeps appearing through fiction. That part is true: and this series of stories posits that's because Promethea herself exists and wants to come back. Also, other strong mythical beings don't want her around and try to kill her. Mostly fun, though I found myself more interested in the mortals who "host" Promethea: especially the "new" Promethea, Sophie Bangs, than in the magical mythical creature.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

I'm a huge fan of JK Rowling's Cormoran Strike books. This is the third in the series, and I reread it recently because I wanted something light and comforting (and if you don't think I'm weird enough, this book is about a serial killer who keeps body parts as mementos and there are also a couple of paedophiles hanging around). I didn't much love the second book in the series (Memento Mori), but in this, Rowling had returned to form. I love the hero, disabled fat veteran Cormoran Strike, who loves his dead mother without idealizing her. I especially love the also-hero, Robin Elacott, who is blonde and pretty but always wanted to be a detective and will not allow anything to stand in her way. I also felt Rowling did pretty realistic portrayals of victims of abuse and rape. Anyway, I still love this book (even though the second read is not nearly as fun as the first) and I can't believe she's postponed writing the next one to work on that Cursed Child.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

This is the first time I read this classic science fiction novel for children, the first of four in the series. I had read so much praise of this book and I was rather disappointed. I love the ten-year-old heroine, Meg, but none of the other characters seem three-dimensional, the story ended rather quickly with the big danger resolving itself with abrupt ease, and I found all the religion (Christianity) rather annoying. On the other hand, we have a girl heroine who's a mathematical prodigy and boys who are good at empathy and communication, so good job busting gender stereotypes.

Fifteen books! What have you been reading?

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