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Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 - The Year in Reading & the Best Books of the Year

So! Here we are, back to the Annual Megalomaniac Festival, starring yours truly as the emcee for the third year in a row – not that there aren’t any contenders for the position but hey, this is my moment & I say what I want.

Well, as the title may have suggested, this is about my reading exploits in the past year & boy, were there some to tell about. To start with, I took part in a couple of reading challenges – the Brunch Book Challenge (24 books or more in 2014) & the usual Goodreads Annual Reading Challenge. Yeah, the latter’s the one in which you set an impossibly low target for yourself & then pat your own back for accomplishing it well in time. (For the record, it was 200 days. The Brunch one was done in 100. But hey, who’s counting?)

I also attended three literature fests this year – KALAM (Kolkata Annual Literary Meet), Litomania (one on Indian popular fiction in my college campus) & the Times Literary Carnival (in Mumbai – best time I’ve had at a LitFest till date), besides finally making it to the Kolkata International Book Fair, the third largest in the world. Jolly good time that, but not so when it came to book prices. Still, one should go there only for the sheer scale of it – it’s simply overwhelming.

Then there was the small matter of participating in the #387ShortStory Challenge, which entailed reading a short story by a new author every day. Though it started last year in December, I valiantly carried on till mid-June before I ran out of stories. The guy who started it - @vivekisms – was still at it last time I checked his blog & since he’s awesome, I recommend you follow him if you love books. In the meantime, all that short fiction catapulted me back into the top 1% of readers on Pocket, so that’s another feather in my cap.

Feathers in my cap remind me – hell, my photo was published in HT Brunch too! They called me their ‘top reader’ & all in their Reading Special Issue, which was nice but the best part were the books they sent me over the year & now I’ve even made it to their top 24 readers of the year & I’m getting a reading hamper from them & I’m just so amazing – yeah, kinda makes you jealous, no?

Of course, all this self-aggrandizement would be incomplete without telling how I found a new literary fraternity in this wonderful book review blog called Between The Lines, run by my handler @bassyc. For those who wonder why being BTL is a great place to be, you can check out my Instagram feed (@thebongone).

Now that we are done with all the other stuff, let’s talk about the books, shall we? Well, unlike last year, I did not pick up a single graphic novel or novella to boost my reading stats so all I read were proper books. I’d say this was the year of non-fiction, which was mostly due to my endeavour to expand my horizons through my college library, which has a non-existent shelf titled ‘Fiction’. (Biggest mystery however is that how a copy of The Bourne Ultimatum found its way in there.) My pace too slowed down since term began in mid-August, as I managed about 4 books a month after that. Pathetic, I know.

Sure, there were some highlights – a couple of firsts, actually. I read a Bengali novel this year (yeah, could you please applaud a bit louder there?) called Chander Pahaar (Mountain of the Moon) by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, a classic by all means. And then there was a collection of poetry too, which made it to THE LIST & so I will talk about it in a while.

And the time is now! You can of course check out the previous specimens of my narcissistic tendencies on this blog itself, so spare me the trouble of any more links. And I won’t keep you waiting anymore – here you have my list of the ten best books I have read in 2014, in chronological order:

Beastly Tales from Here & There

Author: Vikram Seth

Publisher: Penguin Books India [Paperback]

First Published: 1991

Summary: From the impish to the brilliantly comic, Vikram Seth's animal fables in verse can (like Diwali sweets) be enjoyed by young and old alike. Familiar characters in a new and magical form, such as the greedy crocodile who was outwitted by the monkey or the steady tortoise who out-ran the hare, here take their place beside a newly minted gallery of characters and creatures who are quirky, comical and always fun. Of the ten tales told here, two come from India, two from China, two from Greece, two from Ukraine, and two, as the author puts it "came directly to me from the Land of Gup." This is a book that displays astonishing versatility of the poet who gave us The Golden Gate and All You Who Sleep Tonight. The flair and delight of Beastly Tales from Here and There is proof that Vikram Seth can try on most unusual clothes without in the least losing his unique poetic identity.

Review: I was attending my final event at KALAM & Vikram Seth read an entire poem from this collection - I instantly fell in love with it. Though he wrote this for children, I bet you won’t be able to resist the charm of this wonderful collection of poetry. Beauty lies in simplicity & this is a gem by all means.

For those interested, you can read my attempt to review this in verse.


Author: David Foenkinos [translated from the French by Bruce Benderson]

Publisher: Harper Perennial [eBook]

First Published: 2009

Summary: Natalie and Fran├žois are the perfect couple, and perfectly happy. But after Fran├žois dies suddenly, only seven years into their still blissful marriage, the widowed Natalie erects a fortress around her emotions into which no one can gain access. Until the most unlikely candidate appears: Markus, Natalie’s Swedish, geeky, and unassuming coworker.

Review: I don’t read a lot of romance but this one’s up there with the very best I’ve encountered. Quite a page-turner too - finished it within a day itself. This heart-warming tale of finding love in the unlikeliest of places will leave you enchanted. Perhaps the most enjoyable book I’ve read in 2014.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Author: Michael Lewis

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company [Paperback]

First Published: 2002

Summary: Billy Beane, general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, had a problem: how to win in the Major Leagues with a budget that's smaller than that of nearly every other team. Conventional wisdom long held that big name, highly athletic hitters and young pitchers with rocket arms were the ticket to success. But Beane and his staff, buoyed by massive amounts of carefully interpreted statistical data, believed that wins could be had by more affordable methods such as hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers who get lots of ground outs. Given this information and a tight budget, Beane defied tradition and his own scouting department to build winning teams of young affordable players and inexpensive castoff veterans.

Lewis was in the room with the A's top management as they spent the summer of 2002 adding and subtracting players and he provides outstanding play-by-play. In the June player draft, Beane acquired nearly every prospect he coveted (few of whom were coveted by other teams) and at the July trading deadline he engaged in a tense battle of nerves to acquire a lefty reliever. Besides being one of the most insider accounts ever written about baseball, Moneyball is populated with fascinating characters. We meet Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher who most teams project to be a 15th round draft pick (Beane takes him in the first). Sidearm pitcher Chad Bradford is plucked from the White Sox triple-A club to be a key set-up man and catcher Scott Hatteberg is rebuilt as a first baseman. But the most interesting character is Beane himself. A speedy athletic can't-miss prospect who somehow missed, Beane reinvents himself as a front-office guru, relying on players completely unlike, say, Billy Beane. Lewis, one of the top nonfiction writers of his era (Liar's Poker, The New New Thing), offers highly accessible explanations of baseball stats and his roadmap of Beane's economic approach makes Moneyball an appealing reading experience for business people and sports fans alike.

Review: I'm gonna paraphrase & repeat what Nick Hornby wrote in his review of this book in The Believer - I understood about one in every four words of this book. That is because I'm no baseball fan, though my only interaction with the sport has been the TV video game I used to play as a kid, besides the occasional movies like the one based on this book & the Clint Eastwood-starrer "Trouble with the Curve".

And yet I found it totally enthralling - for in between the baseball terminologies & stats that didn't matter that much to me lay an inspiring tale of how a few good men found an 'efficient' (mind you, that's the magic word) way to run a Major League Baseball club. It is the classic story of David versus Goliath, in which David might eventually lose but not before it has proved a point to the big boys - he is always in there with a fighting chance with his humble sling.

That is perhaps the hallmark of a great sports book - you might not know much about the sport or maybe even hate it, but the book succeeds in leaving a lasting impression on your mind. Needless to say, "Moneyball" is a wonderful, delightful read & highly recommended. Like Hornby states - if you love baseball, you will enjoy it four times more & probably explode when you're done. A must read for those who read sports literature.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson [transalted from the Swedish by Reg Keeland]

Publisher: Maclehose Press [Paperback]

First Published: 2005

Summary: A murder mystery, family saga, love story, and a tale of financial intrigue wrapped into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel. Harriet Vanger, scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pieced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.

Review: Honestly, I had absolutely no plans of reading this book in the near future. It so happens I had sneaked off to Flora Fountain (Mumbai's finest second-hand books market) to see if I could get hold of a copy of Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle". After a successful outing (and a lighter pocket), I happened to spot a copy of this book lying in front of a bookstore as I walked back, available for what seems a throwaway price in hindsight. Tempted, I bought it & immediately regretted it, unable to concentrate on reading Bolano anymore. Three days later, I was reading this & I was completely hooked. Kismet? I guess.

I had watched the movie before & I liked it so much that there have been repeat viewings, which meant I was quite familiar with the plot & the characters. Plus this being a possible murder mystery in one aspect, it meant I already knew 'whodunit'. Watching the movie first however has never been much of a hindrance, going by my experiences of reading "Life of Pi" or "Shutter Island" (both are favorites).

Coming to the book, it actually helps that the events of this book are set through a longer frame of time, allowing the tension to rise besides giving most of the Vanger family members (the female ones, especially) as well as Erika Berger flesh, blood & soul - the movie gave them short shrift for all I know. So overall, I'm pleased to say this is the best book I've encountered in the crime/mystery/noir genre since reading Tom Rob Smith's stunning debut novel "Child 44" a couple of years ago.

Kafka on the Shore

Author: Haruki Murakami [translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel]

Publisher: Vintage [Paperback]

First Published: 2002

Summary: Kafka on the Shore, a tour de force of metaphysical reality, is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. Their odyssey, as mysterious to them as it is to us, is enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing events. Cats and people carry on conversations, a ghostlike pimp employs a Hegel-quoting prostitute, a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War II, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky. There is a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and perpetrator a riddle—yet this, along with everything else, is eventually answered, just as the entwined destinies of Kafka and Nakata are gradually revealed, with one escaping his fate entirely and the other given a fresh start on his own.

Review: As a reader for the past 10 years or so, I've read a few books & I think it's natural that one begins to nurture certain conceptions about what a novel could be like at best. And then once in a while, I read something that seems to knock on my forehead & say - well mate, I think everything you've believed till now is wrong & so let me open your mind to all kinds of possibilities. Last year, it was David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" which did that to me. Now add "Kafka on the Shore" to this illustrious list.

I don't need to give you the summary in my own words, but I'll give you this - there is something extremely personal about reading "Kafka on the Shore". It so happens that when I expressed my desire to read Murakami for the first time on Twitter (in the quest of recommendations), one guy told me how he was at his wit's end after reading this book. Though I read two books by Murakami before I picked up this one, what he said was always at the back of my mind. When I was singing the praises of this book on Twitter once I was done, this guy asks me, "So, what was it about?" And then when I pondered how best I could present my thoughts, it struck me - there is no one except Murakami himself who could provide a perfect explanation to what this book is all about. His constant refusal to do so means everyone who reads & tries to make sense of it is totally on his/her own & till then, perhaps the best thing we can do to discover the ultimate truth would be to read this again & again & again.

"Kafka on the Shore" is lyrical, addictive, mind-boggling awesomeness. Read it to believe it. Highly recommended.

The Sceptical Patriot

Author: Sidin Vadukut

Publisher: Rupa Publications [Paperback]

First Published: 2014

Summary: India. A land where history, myth and email forwards have come together to create a sense of a glorious past that is awe-inspiring...and also kind of dubious. But that is what happens when your future is uncertain and your present is kind of shitty—it gets embellished until it becomes a totem of greatness and a portent of potential. Sidin Vadukut takes on a complete catalogue of ‘India's Greatest Hits’ and ventures to separate the wheat of fact from the chaff of legend. Did India really invent the zero? Has it truly never invaded a foreign country in over 1,000 years? Did Indians actually invent plastic surgery before those insufferable Europeans? The truth is more interesting—and complicated—than you think.

Review: "The Sceptical Patriot" is very much a book about bias - the biased selves we Indians tend to slip into every time someone famous or not-so-famous says about the supposed achievements of our country, depending on who it is & what has been said. And it is this very bias that often results in a sense of pride that is somewhat misplaced on many occasions - Sidin Vadukut's first work of non-fiction is an exploration into the validity of some of these very instances.

What distinguishes this book from any other book aiming to sift fact from fiction is the author's recounting of past experiences from his life to explain his interest in a particular legend. Or citing anecdotes & analogies to shed more light on his own approach - at times even to counter-question it.

Laced with the trademark wit & humour of the bestselling Dork Trilogy and the much-loved Cubiclenama columns, it is a funny, enjoyable & sensible - if somewhat superficial - book on the Indian outlook towards pop-history. If you're looking for a read that will engage & enlighten your mind, your search ends here.

A Fine Balance

Author: Rohinton Mistry

Publisher: Faber & Faber [Paperback]

First Published: 1995

Summary: The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers - a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village - will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

Review: “But rest assured: This tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.”

Words fail me when I try to write about this. Few have written about Bombay & the Emergency era like Mistry has in what is possibly his finest work. Just read it.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Author: John le Carre

Publisher: Penguin Books [Paperback]

First Published: 1974

Summary: The man he knew as "Control" is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the Circus. But George Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement—especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence. Relying only on his wits and a small, loyal cadre, Smiley recognizes the hand of Karla—his Moscow Centre nemesis—and sets a trap to catch the traitor.

Review: There have been few books I had wanted to read so desperately as this one. I had watched Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation & even the BBC series starring the legendary Alec McGuiness as Smiley & yet this book did not fail to surprise me as I reached its conclusion. Easily one of John le Carre’s finest Cold War-era works ever.

Alone in Berlin                                                                     

Author: Hans Fallada [translated from the German by Michael Hoffman]

Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics [Paperback]

First Published: 1946

Summary: This masterpiece - by a heroic best-selling writer who saw his life crumble when he wouldn't join the Nazi Party - is based on a true story.

It presents a richly detailed portrait of life in Berlin under the Nazis and tells the sweeping saga of one working-class couple who decides to take a stand when their only son is killed at the front. With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbours and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.

In the end, it's more than an edge-of-your-seat thriller, more than a moving romance, even more than literature of the highest order-it's a deeply stirring story of two people standing up for what's right, and each other.

Review: Brilliant, vivid & heart-wrenching portrait of wartime Germany through the eyes of a middle-aged couple trying to honour their dead son’s memory. Highly recommended.

The Upside of Irrationality

Author: Dan Ariely

Publisher: HarperCollins [Paperback]

First Published: 2010

Summary: In his groundbreaking book Predictably Irrational, social scientist Dan Ariely revealed the multiple biases that lead us into making unwise decisions. Now, in The Upside of Irrationality, he exposes the surprising negative and positive effects irrationality can have on our lives. Focusing on our behaviors at work and in relationships, he offers new insights and eye-opening truths about what really motivates us on the job, how one unwise action can become a long-term habit, how we learn to love the ones we're with, and more.

Drawing on the same experimental methods that made Predictably Irrational one of the most talked-about bestsellers of the past few years, Ariely uses data from his own original and entertaining experiments to draw arresting conclusions about how and why we behave the way we do. From our office attitudes, to our romantic relationships, to our search for purpose in life, Ariely explains how to break through our negative patterns of thought and behavior to make better decisions. The Upside of Irrationality will change the way we see ourselves at work and at home and cast our irrational behaviors in a more nuanced light.

Review: Remains one of the most insightful, deftly-written & undeniably brilliant books I’ve come across this year. This is the kind of book that causes a paradigm shift in the way you look at the world & I cannot recommend it highly enough.

So there we have it – the ten best books I have read all year. But like every other time, the best-of list is never enough, is it? Here are some more books that deserve a special mention –

The Siege by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

A top-notch work of investigative reportage into how 26/11 unfolded.

Ghalib Danger by Neeraj Pandey

A proper Bollywood-style thriller by one of the most promising & original storytellers in contemporary Hindi cinema.

The Great Unknown by Sankar [translated from the Bengali by Soma Das]

Chowringhee” might be the writer’s most renowned work but the first book in the Shankar trilogy captivated me far more.

The Stand by Stephen King

Would’ve made the top ten list if not for its rather unconvincing ending. Still, King’s magnum opus.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

A David versus Goliath tale in the backdrop of Wall Street.

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

An exquisite page-turner & a fine introduction to ace lawyer Mickey Haller.

Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa by Damodar Mauzo [translated from the Konkani by Xavier Cota]

A beautiful collection of short fiction that deserves a wider readership than it probably will get.

And that’s it! Thank you for bearing with me all this while & I hope you enjoy all these books as much as I did, if not more. Here’s to hoping that 2015 will be a much more fruitful year in terms of reading – for the joys of literature lie in reading not more but better books.

Happy Reading! And a Happy New Year!

That’s All, Folks!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Short Story Gone Long: Kafka on the Floor

Note: Before you start to read this story, let me say what follows is an act of self-indulgence. Like my previous attempt at writing fiction, this is long. As in, looooooooonnnnnnng. Some of it is autobiographical, some of it is made up & some of it is a mix of both. That being said, the idea behind it was deliberately given free rein & so maybe the length got a bit out of hand. But I've tried to put a bit of heart into this & I hope you find it too.

First there was just me. And then there was Kafka.

Maa has never been much of an animal lover, but she does love birds. I know that for a fact because since the time I was a kid, I was used to hearing my name called out from the balcony just when I was about to lose myself in a book. Now it so happens that this banyan tree right across the yard was the abode of many birds, such as black and white cormorants (two different species of the same bird, mind you), cranes, the common ones like crows, magpies, nightingales and mynahs as also the occasional screeching-but-never-too-visible parrot. At first, it felt irritating to be made to rush from one end of the flat to another just to 'appreciate the gifts of nature' but over time I have come to develop a grudging affection for the flying species.

This balcony is also the site of another of Maa's passions - gardening. Incidentally, this was exactly where we made the acquaintance of Kafka.

To water her plants everyday, she filled this small bucket and poured water onto those green beings and whatever was left of it after they had had their fill, she poured it into this small plastic bowl which was occasionally used to keep those tiny crystals of manure she bought from the nursery.

So one fine day, I remember hearing the sound of footsteps getting louder as if coming towards my room (the kind when someone's walking quickly and trying not to make a lot of noise) and before I could turn my head to see who or what it was, Maa comes rushing in & says, "Get up, quick! I have something to show you. The other balcony, now!"

I hurry behind her and just when I'm about to walk into the balcony past her standing near the doorway,, she grabbed my hand and pulled me back before whispering into my ears, "Look at the bowl!"

And then I saw it. A crow perched on the marble slab of the balcony wall with its back towards us, plucking some water out of the bowl with a quick nip (or dip, whatever it did with its beak) and then raising its head as if looking at the sky, as the water slipped down its throat into his bowels.

Now imagine my predicament at that very moment - I had been made to get up to come watch a crow quenching its thirst just as Jane Eyre was about to go on that walk with Mr. Rochester and romantic tensions between the two were simmering like anything. Disappointed big time, I walked back to my book without offering any comment, fearing saying what I really felt would provoke an unnecessary argument and hurt her feelings. Unaware of this, she followed me into my room and said, "It would be quite nice if birds come to our balcony like that, wouldn't it? Like people feeding the pigeons." I nodded of sorts and eager to get back to Jane Eyre I remarked, "Maybe he could be your version of Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey or my version of Speedy."

Before I proceed with the story, a bit of digression into the lives of Kakeshwar and Speedy. Both happen to be fictional characters and unconsciously the reason for the affection Maa and I have for crows. Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey, in Maa's words, is the "clever, calculating and cunning crow" from the Bengali short story "Hajabarala", Sukumar Ray's classic tale filled with absurdist humour. (Maa always seemed to used those three adjectives to describe KK. I learnt much later in school it was a figure of speech. Which one? Go figure.) And Speedy is the protagonist of Ruskin Bond's short story "A Crow For All Seasons", a hilarious one about a crow who lives on a tree at the edge of an Anglo-Indian family's house.

Getting back to the story, Maa decided to keep two bowls filled with water instead of one, perhaps to attract more crows to our balcony. The next day, however, we had no crows in our balcony. Unfortunately for Maa, I thought, she might have overestimated the crow's intellect based on her experiences with fiction.

But the day after, it was there again. I was going to the balcony when I saw it standing on the marble slab, having a drink. And the crow is a pretty fearless creature - it was aware of my presence (it seemed to look at me, so) and it didn't even blink an eye and fly (atleast I thought so) through the grill until I had gotten really close to it.

I went into the kitchen to find Maa and tell her about the crow. Her face seemed to light up as she heard this and she replied, "Well, we better choose a name for him now that he's started to come regularly." Seriously? It had not been two days in a row that the crow had been coming and here we are, deciding to have a name for him. Maa relented a bit but was in no way affected by what I felt. She said, "Well, if he comes tomorrow to drink water from the bowl, we will do the naamkaran. What say?" Fine, I said. So be it.

I wondered if Maa would place a third bowl of water alongside the two already there, as an extra incentive of sorts. It also made me wonder why she was doing all this for the sake of some crow who happened to drop in twice to have a sip. Now that I think about it, I was a bit too young to understand the phenomenon of 'bringing out the child in someone'. How could a child bring out a child in himself, after all? But now that I have grown up a bit, I have learnt is that whenever you see an otherwise perfectly normal adult doing something out of the ordinary, we should not judge them for it and instead just let them be, soaking in some unadulterated happiness in the unusually dull lives they often lead.

Coming back to the crow, I don't know why but I was half-hoping it would come the next day, maybe to liven things up a bit. But the whole day passed, we waited and it didn't seem to come. And then, as the sun was about to set upon this part of the world, surprise - it was back. As if he had heeded what Maa had said earlier and raised the suspense quotient a bit before making his appearance and cawing, "Yo buggers, here I am, eh? Cheerio."

Thanks to the crow's dramatic last-minute cameo that evening, I had to half-heartedly take part in the enticing activity of naming the crow. Maa wanted to name it KK (in short for you-know-what) and I too made a show of being interested, turning down her suggestion out of hand. I didn't want to call him Speedy since the crow obviously had none of Speedy's awesomeness, atleast until that point. I thought of the Thirsty Crow - the one from the age-old fable - but calling it Thirsty seemed inconvenient and I didn't dare to suggest it. Too bad I didn't have an internet connection back then, otherwise I would have just turned to Google. Not that crow names are similar to baby names, anyway.

And the solution was found in - guess what - fiction. At that time, I was reading this really weird book by some Japanese author with a fancy name which had a teenager running away from home, talking cats, fish raining out of the sky and what not. Now there was this bit in which the teenager I mentioned renames himself as Kafka, who I remember reading as some weird European guy who wrote weird stories. All in all, Kafka also means 'crow' in Czech (atleast the book claimed that) and I told Maa about this, who seemed happy enough to see I was interested. So that's how the crow came to be called Kafka.

The odd thing is that both Maa and I here assumed that the crow was male. How does one tell, anyway? And given how things are in today's world, would that be termed sexist?

By the time the crow dropping in for his daily fill everyday, I once found one of those tiny marble balls on the way back from school and not knowing where to put it, I dropped it into one of the water-filled bowls and forgot all about it till that evening, only to discover that the ball had vanished. I asked Maa if she had seen it but she claimed to have no knowledge of it and even admonished me for picking up things off the road just like that. I was about to don Sherlock's hat to investigate the Case of the Missing Marble when Maa suggested, "Maybe the crow took it." How was that possible, I asked. He was there in the afternoon and she saw him, she said. As if she recognized him, I mildly sneered not knowing what to say. But she did, she would tell me some other day when I was not being upset. What nonsense, I thought. But whatever had happened with Kafka so far, everything had felt quite extraordinary.

The following day, I come home from school only to find my marble ball, but in the other bowl - not the one I had dropped it into the day before. I put it back where I had originally put it, thinking if Kafka would be interested in playing games. But nothing actually happened and the ball remained right there. Maa proposed a theory that Kafka might have thought it to be something edible but having found it hard to crack, had been honest enough to return it the next day. She thinks as if I'm still as gullible as a four-year-old, I thought. However, for want of a better theory, the case was closed.

As much as Maa seemed to love Kafka, things were not rosy all the time. Two instances come to mind here when Maa got really pissed at that crow of ours. The first time was when I came home to see Maa sitting, looking a bit sad, a bit angry. I asked her what the matter was and I could see she was seething as she said, "That crow! I give that darned creature enough water to drink and he goes on to destroy another bird's nest." What had actually transpired was that the crow had actually ransacked a tailor bird's nest on the almond tree that grows a few feet away from our balcony in search of eggs and Maa had even tried to stop the crow from doing so by throwing stones at it even as the helpless tailor-bird could only sound a never-ending distress call on a distant branch. I tried to imagine what it would look like Maa stoning a crow she seemed to love only till yesterday when she said, "Enough of that crow. No more water for him from now on." How do you even know it was him, I queried. Pat came the retort, "I don't know how my son turned out to be like this? You see, but you do not observe. Can't you see that streak of grey right at the top of his black head? Like the one Aamir did in that film in which he was bald. See for yourself if that crow comes again. Not that I am gonna be good to him anymore."

For the next couple of days, Kafka came, Kafka saw, but Kafka did not conquer. But I did manage to see what I wanted to - Kafka did have a bit of the Ghajini-hairstyle on his head. The lonely marble ball lay in the middle of the empty bowl, as if it were the only remains of a dried-up oasis. On the third day, however, I saw Maa filling those two bowls, pouring water from the bucket. So you do have a heart, I attempted a wise crack at the situation. She turned towards me and her grim face instantly made me want to take my words back, but all she said was "Nature is harsh. Doesn't mean we have to be as well all the time." It took me some time to register what she had said that day.

The other time didn't escalate to proportions like the time before, but Kafka had probably decided he felt at home enough to shit on the floor of the balcony. The first time he did it, Maa grudgingly let it pass. But when Kafka emptied his bowels again on the floor in a couple of days, Maa went back to her boycott of the water bowl. This time, it lasted just one day. Kafka never shit on the floor again for what seemed a long time.

Days passed. And then arrived that one time, which was the defining moment of my relation with Kafka. He was perched on the balcony grill - half his body inside, half of it outside - and having his fill when I decided to have some fun. I had this bottle of water fitted with a spray on top of it, the kind you see on Colin Spray bottles. As he was absorbed in his drink, I appeared suddenly in the doorway (like those good ol' Bollywood villains) and sprayed water right into his face. And what played out in the next few seconds still seem as if it were right out of some movie scene, everything in slow motion.

Startled, Kafka tried to escape but in his bid to do so, he struck the back of his head against a part of the metal grill and I thought I heard something crack and he fell straight down into the ground. For a few moments, I stood right where I was, dumbstruck. Then the real world came rushing back to me and I rushed to the grill, trying to see the fallen crow. Nothing. Maa not being at home, I rushed down from our first floor flat to the spot where his fall should've been broken by the concrete surface. No sign was visible, it being a hard surface.

I was never much of a biology person but as I stood there below, I remembered studying that birds did not have anything in their bodies that resembled a vertebrae. Or did they? No, they didn't. And then when I looked up at my balcony, I saw a crow on a branch of the almond tree out of the corner of my eye. Surely that was not Kafka? There was only one way to find out. And so to get a better view of that head, I ran back to my balcony.

But it was gone by the time I got up there. Had I really heard that cracking noise, or had it been a figment of my imagination, thanks to pop culture? Was Kafka really gone?

A week passed and there had been no sign of Kafka yet. I had not dared to tell her what I had done fearing her reaction wouldn't exactly help matters, but she didn't really look that upset when I asked her about him a couple of days after the incident. "It's a bird after all, it might have gone off somewhere," was all she said.

I was reading in the room adjoining the balcony when I thought I heard something hit the grill - a flap of wings perhaps? I went into the balcony and everything seemed in its place except...the marble ball. It was no longer in the bowl it had been for an eternity. It was instead in the other bowl. And then I heard him.

It had come from the upper echelons of the almond tree, I was sure. I went up to the balcony wall and craned my neck as much as I could to see the top when I realised there was something beneath my right foot. Looking down, I saw thin strands of a sticky white liquid with a black not-so-solid substance clinging to my heel. That goddamned bird, I thought.

As I walked to the bathroom on mostly one leg trying to avoid leaving footprints of bird shit on the clean floor, I couldn't help but allow myself a big, wide, foolish grin on my face. Had it really been Kafka's call? Or had I imagined it all? I didn't care anymore.

For that one moment, there was just me. And there was Kafka on the Floor.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - The Year in Reading and the Best Books I've Read this Year

Alright, it's the festive season and this is the time of the year I assume this air of self-importance & write about the best books I read in the year, just like what I did in the dying hours of New Year's Eve, 2012. If you were kind enough to read my list from last year, thank you. For those who didn't, well, please do & note that the books in the list were not exactly published in 2012 but they were read by yours truly in that year, so they made their way onto it. I'll be doing the same for this year's list as well, but since I accomplished my best-ever yearly haul till date (90 to be exact), I will feel criminal if I had to restrict the list to just 10 books. So to make it a bit poetic, the list will comprise the 13 best books I read in 2013. (13 - 2013, see?)

Before I start on the list, let's take stock of what I set out to do in terms of reading at the start of 2013 & what I eventually ended up doing. I read quite a bit of sports literature in 2012 but the focus this year was primarily on fiction, the sports books' count being a meagre 5 out of 90. I have to admit that figure includes short novellas (Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Stephen King's Throttle & Nick Hornby's Everyone's Reading Bastard! among others) as well as graphic novels (Herge's Tintin & Mark Millar's Kick-Ass) but everyone needs a break at times from serious literature & if you think I was slacking a bit, I wasn't. Here's the proof -

Yeah, the actual amount exceeds even that since these stats arrived in my mailbox in mid-December & I've continued to read long-form pieces on Pocket. Though I haven't read The Great Gatsby yet. Yeah, shame on me. Next year, definitely.

Thanks to the Goodreads Reading Challenge, I backed myself to pick up writers I'd never read before - some of them being Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Orhan Pamuk & Chuck Palahniuk. My initial target was set at 50, but I completed that in just over six months which induced me to raise it to 75 & that was accomplished by the end of October as well. So thank you Goodreads & everyone present on my friends list there, for you have been very helpful through your recommendations, reviews & discussions.

I also finally bought a tablet computer (which is no big deal though I'll try to make it sound like that) in June & that has given me access to hundreds of books I only imagined I would buy someday. That's right - I perhaps bought around 200 books (from used-book stores) in the period from September 2012 to June 2013 but my crazy buying habits declined considerably after the purchase of a tab. That being said, I still feel the buzz when I walk into a bookstore that I'd probably never feel when I browse through the Aldiko app shelves on my tablet.

Enough of the digression, though 'The Year in Reading' is clearly mentioned before 'The Best Books I've read' in the title of the post itself. Let me proceed with my list of the 13 books I felt were the best ones I've read in 2013. Every book on the list possibly has its merits & limitations, so the order I'm sticking with is chronological i.e. the order in which I read them this year. Here you go -

Animal Farm

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Rupa Classics Library [Paperback]

First Published: 1945

Summary: Manor Farm is like any other English farm, except for a drunken owner, Mr Jones, incompetent workers and oppressed animals. Fed up with the ignorance of their human masters, the animals rise up in rebellion and take over the farm. Led by intellectually superior pigs like Snowball and Napolean, the animals vow to take charge of their destiny and remove the inequities of their lives. But as time passes, they realize that things aren't happening quite as expected...

Animal Farm is, on one level, a simple story about barnyard animals. On a much deeper level, it is a savage political satire on corrupted ideals, misdirected revolutions and class conflict - themes as valid today as they were sixty years ago.

Review: I remember reading it in the college library the day after I returned from our college trip to Hyderabad. I finished it under two hours & by the end, my mind was blown. On the face of it, it looks like one of Aesop's Fables but it's actually a hard-hitting work of political satire in which Orwell criticizes Stalin's highly-flawed Communist philosophy & tears it apart to shreds through dexterous use of allegory. One runs out of words admiring the way Orwell does it. 'Animal Farm' is a masterpiece of English literature & The Economist was not much off the mark in its praise - "Some classics are more equal than others."

The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes

Publisher: Jonathan Cape [Hardcover]

First Published: 2011

Summary: Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers.

Review: I was bit unhappy with trying to make sense of the ending of this aptly-named Booker Prize-winning novel, but I love how the story unfolds - the now-sixty-something narrator Tony Webster first gives us a version of his side of events (as in whatever he manages to infer from memory) & tells us about his school life, friends - in particular Adrian Finn (the most pivotal character in this book) & his romantic forays during his youth. Just when you start drawing out your conclusions about the characters' personalities, a letter arrives out of nowhere & sets wheels in motion, of which nothing good can ever come out. As the letter manages to refurbish Tony Webster's memories about his relationship with Veronica among other events, the true nature of every character is revealed as the novel progresses there onward.

Where this novel's brilliance is most evident is how it manages to tell a rather long story in 150 odd pages. In fact, you never get the feeling that it's such a short read. All in all, 'The Sense of an Ending' by Julian Barnes is a must read for fans of literary fiction & those who are looking to grab a slice of life's innumerable tragicomedies. Highly recommended.

Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel

Publisher: Canongate [Paperback]

First Published: 2001

Summary: After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbling on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orangutan... and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.

The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary works of fiction in recent years.

Review: I'm not an atheist. I'm not agnostic. I'm not deeply religious. And I'm not much of a spiritual person either. But when I consider this book as a work of literature, I'm lost for words. This book is essentially a fantasy novel, but there are so many other elements in this novel. There's science fiction. There is magical realism. There's fable & there's allegory. There is spiritualism & there is religion too - two concepts which are separated from one another by a marginally thin line. When all these elements are combined together - you either get an incredible mess of philosophical shit that would be hardly understood by anyone, or you get an extraordinary tale of adventure, survival & courage in the face of adversity. And the latter is what Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel 'Life of Pi' exactly is.

It doesn't matter whether you've watched Ang Lee's excellent movie adaptation. It's not very dissimilar, but I still reckon you read this book just because it's such a fantastic story on so many levels. Highly recommended & a must read for readers across all genres.

Look at the Birdie

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Publisher: Vintage Originals [Paperback]

First Published: 2009

Summary: Look at the Birdie is a surprising and often hilarious collection of stories set in post-war America, a world of squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town Lotharios.

Though written early in his career and never published before, these stories showcase all Vonnegut's trademark skills - a deep sense of humanity, a sharp eye for the absurd and humour in the most unlikely of places.

Review: The stories in this compilation dabble in a variety of genres - ranging from sci-fi to romance to whodunit to allegory to Depression-era coming-of-age tales to life's tragicomedies. There is a maverick inventor who creates a billion-dollar talking machine that delves into the darkest recesses of one's mind ('Confido') & then they are tiny beings who fly around in a spaceship that looks like a paper knife ('The Nice Little People'). You have a dull, boring PR officer whose bright new assistant gives him love & his life back ('FUBAR'), a squabbling couple who have lost love on account of one spouse finding fame ('Shout About It from the Housetops') & then you see two naive rich love birds having their first brush against poverty in the Depression era ('King and Queen of the Universe').

There are two tales of crime & mystery too - 'Ed Luby's Key Club' moves at the blistering pace of a thriller while 'The Honor of the Newsboy' is a classic whodunit. And let's not forget the one from which the compilation gets its title, where a once-upon-a-time quack finds a new way to make his living. My personal favourite, however, has to be 'The Petrified Ants' - all I can say that for me, it's somewhat of a crossover short story equivalent of George Orwell's two greatest works. I'm not kidding.

In each of the stories here, you find that touch of humanity in the narrative, the raw emotions, the deep understanding of how people react to different situations & Vonnegut's uncanny ability to find humour in the unlikeliest of places. The storytelling is simplistic & straightforward but yet so good & pleasant to read. Highly recommended for those who enjoy short stories & fans of the author, for it does provide valuable insight into the making of one of America's greatest post-war writers.

City of Thieves

Author: David Benioff

Publisher: Sceptre [Paperback]

First Published: 2008

Summary: In the coldest winter in history, in a starving city under siege, two prisoners are thrown together on a desperate adventure.

Lev, a shy, chess-loving teenager and Kolya, a charismatic chancer.

They are given one week to complete an extraordinary mission: to scout the ravaged countryside and find a dozen eggs.

Or come back empty-handed, and die.

Review: I really didn't think I could be shocked by anything in Stalinist Russia after 'Child 44', but I was wrong. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible. A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing Lothario with the gifts of a conman.

Set in the backdrop of the siege of Leningrad during WWII, 'City of Thieves' is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men. It is a mix of all the right ingredients in just the right amounts & you're never bored or distracted once you're into it. A terrific & brilliant book - an absolute page-turner from start to end.

Norwegian Wood

Author: Haruki Murakami [translated by Jay Rubin]

Publisher: The Harvill Press [eBook]

First Published: 1987

Summary: Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.

Review: Perhaps the novel that I connected with the most on an intimate & extremely personal level. That perhaps explains why I failed to write a review for the book on Goodreads at the time & am still unable to. Laced with Murakami's beautiful & surrealistic writing, this is a heartwarming tale of love, loss & life. If you're looking to pick up Murakami for the first time in 2014, this is probably the best place to start.

Em and The Big Hoom

Author: Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Aleph [Paperback]

First Published: 2012

Summary: In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, Imelda Mendes – Em to her children – holds her family in thrall with her flamboyance, her compelling imagination, her unspoken love, her sometimes cruel candour. Through this, her husband, to whom she was once ‘buttercup’, her son and daughter learn to cope with her mania and her frequent wish to die.

A searing, and at times darkly funny, study of mental illness, Jerry Pinto's first novel is also a deeply moving story about love and family relationships.

Review: Jerry Pinto took twenty-five odd years to write his debut novel but when he finally managed to finish it, you can only stare in amazement (after you've read it, of course) at his marvellous achievement. Writing a book about mental illness is pretty much equivalent to walking a tightrope, but Pinto infuses this story with just the right doses of humour, love, frustration, sorrow & nostalgia. Winner of the Hindu Literary Prize & the Crossword Book Award for Fiction, this is a gem of a book & I highly recommend it for its sensitive handling of a difficult subject.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Pocket Books [Paperback]

First Published: 2000

Summary: "Long live the King" hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 -- and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, "On Writing" will empower and entertain everyone who reads it -- fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Review: Part memoir & part writing manual, Stephen King gives us a modern classic of sorts in 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft'. Having been touted by fans & critics alike as the undisputed king of storytelling, King starts off by explaining the reason behind writing this book in the first place. He then moves on to telling us about his journey towards becoming the writer he is today - his childhood, inspirations from pop culture in his adolescent years & the struggling phase of his career as he barely managed to make ends meet. In 'Toolbox' & 'On Writing', King lists down the essentials one would require to become a successful writer as far as popular fiction is concerned. He covers aspects like vocabulary, grammar, dialogue, narrative pace among others while illustrating the points he makes with the help of numerous excerpts from his own works as well as those of others. In the final third of this book (On Living), King narrates the near-fatal road accident he suffered in agonizing detail & how writing eventually helped him recover both physically & mentally.

Recommended for those who love to read, highly recommended for those who intend to pursue a career in writing & a must read for those who wish to discover the love of doing both.

Shalimar the Clown

Author: Salman Rushdie

Publisher: Vintage [Paperback]

First Published: 2005

Summary: Los Angeles, 1991. Maximilian Ophuls ius knifed to death on the doorstep of his illegitimate daughter India, slaughtered by his Kashmiri driver, a mysterious figure who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. The dead man is a World War II resistance hero, a man of formidable intellectual ability and much erotic appeal, a former United States ambassador to India, and subsequently America's counter-terrorism chief. The murder looks at first like a political assassination but turns out to be passionately personal.

This is the story of Max, his killer, and his daughter - and of a fourth character, the woman who links them all. The story of a deep love gone fatally wrong, destroyed by a shallow affair, it is an epic narrative that moves from California to France, England, and above all, Kashmir: a ruined paradise, not so much lost as smashed.

Review: I've been a reader for some time now & I've read a few good books but none of them have made me realise the power of fiction. Until I picked up 'Shalimar the Clown'. By all means, Salman Rushdie is no mean writer. What he does is that he weaves an epic narrative that transcends time, space as well as continents as we follow the lives & fortunes of the major players of this tale.

We see ourselves transported back in the past, to a time when Kashmir was still what the Great Mughal emperor Jehangir pronounced as 'Paradise on Earth'. We're then whooshed away to Europe, where bloodshed & strife is rife in the midst of World War II, as a young Max Ophuls establishes his reputation as a master forger in the Resistance against the Nazi forces & through his acts of daring and espionage, he is elevated to hero-like status. There is Shalimar the Clown, who ditches his vocation of a public performer & turns to terrorism to avenge the betrayal of the love of his life. And there is that woman - the Woman - a free-thinking spirit feeling trapped in a closely-knit community, who wishes to fly away to distant lands & like the legendary Anarkali who desires the forbidden love of a prince. Finally, an integral part of the story despite technically being a sub-plot in itself - Kashmir. Being of Kashmiri descent himself, the issue of Kashmir is obviously close to Rushdie's heart & as we watch the paradise turn into living hell for its residents as Kashmir is hammered & smashed by militants as well as that uniformed military force that calls itself the Indian Army, whose actions are no less questionable than those of the extremist groups.

'Shalimar the Clown' by Salman Rushdie is undoubtedly an important book & I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to understand the Kashmir issue. A must read for fans of literary fiction & should you decide to read this, be prepared to be mesmerized by one of the most sublime storytellers of our times.

The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Knopf [eBook]

First Published: 2013

Summary: Born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other in the Calcutta neighborhood where they grow up.  But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead. It is the 1960s, and Udayan—charismatic and impulsive—finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty; he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he goes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind—including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Masterly suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland is a work of great beauty and complex emotion; an engrossing family saga and a story steeped in history that spans generations and geographies with seamless authenticity. It is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.

Review: 'The Lowland' resonated with me far more than some works of fiction I've rated five out of five stars before. Maybe because I'm a Probashi Bengali (expatriate Bong) myself & I can empathise with the kind of emotions some of the main characters of this book go through as the plot progresses. Like 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami, I was able to relate to the characters much better because of the phases of life they happen to be in, which perhaps struck a chord.

'The Lowland' by Jhumpa Lahiri certainly makes for a compelling read. Highly recommended if you wish to experience the work of a writer unafraid of exploring complex relationships of blood & bond, creating difficult situations & indulging in moral dilemmas.

The Great Indian Novel

Author: Shashi Tharoor

Publisher: Penguin [Paperback]

First Published: 1989

Summary: In his award-winning, internationally acclaimed debut novel, Shashi Tharoor has masterfully recast the 2,000 year-old epic, The Mahabharata, with fictional but highly recognizable events and characters from twentieth-century Indian politics. Chronicling the Indian struggle for freedom and independence from Great Britain, Tharoor directs his hilarious satire as much against Indian foibles as the bumbling of the British rulers.

Review: Shashi Tharoor's debut work of fiction is essentially a retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata, but it falls in the realm of political satire by drawing parallels with major events in India's political history during the freedom movement as well as in the post-independence era.

The author deserves to be applauded for deciding to reinterpret & present Indian history in a different light and his courage (yes, in a country where many people seem to lack a sense of humour when it comes to 'culture') in assuming an irreverent attitude towards some of India's greatest political leaders throughout the narrative. Also, credit must go to Tharoor for making brilliant use of prose as well as verse as a literary device, which pays homage to the epic itself. Tharoor also indulges in exploring the relevance of the Hindu concepts of dharma & karma in today's world, questions the writing of our official history books & leaves the small matter of the motto 'Satyamev Jayate' (Truth Alone Triumphs) open to discussion.

'The Great Indian Novel' is without doubt a great Indian novel & I'm certainly in agreement with those critics who have hailed this book as arguably one of the finest works of fiction as far as post-modern Indian literature is concerned. A must read for every Indian who doesn’t mind having a laugh at those we usually revere.

A Most Wanted Man

Author: John le Carre

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton [Paperback]

First Published: 2008

Summary: A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse around his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa.

Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client's survival becomes more important to her than her own career. In pursuit of Issa's mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Freres, a failing British bank based in Hamburg.

A triangle of impossible loves is born.

Meanwhile, scenting a pure kill in the so-called War on Terror, the spies of three nations converge upon the innocents.

Poignant, compassionate, peopled with characters the reader never wants to let go, A Most Wanted Man is alive with humour, yet prickles with tension until the last heart-stopping page. It is also a work of deep humanity, and uncommon relevance to our times.

Review: I still haven't figured out what it is that makes me like John le Carre's works. I mean, he's the only one among my favourite authors whose books are more than often overflowing with excruciating & tireless amount of detail & the writing verging on being boring & tedious at times. And yet, when I get to the end of it, it all seems worth the effort. And then Le Carre surprises me by something like 'A Most Wanted Man', that seems to carry none of the aforementioned traits.

'A Most Wanted Man' is in line with the trend of Le Carre's pessimism & sense of doom regarding the West (esp. the Bush-Blair era) that has been ongoing since the brilliant 'The Constant Gardener' & continued in the tragicomic 'Absolute Friends'. In fact, one could say it surpasses both works on that count, for one feels engulfed by this sense of sadness on finishing this book. Brimming with tension till the final page, this is a book that only reaffirms that even in the post-Cold War era, John le Carre's ability to write books that are deeply relevant with the times is unparalleled.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Author: Eduardo Galeano [translated by Mark Fried]

Publisher: Byliner Classics [eBook]

First Published: 1995 [updated in 2013]

Summary: Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow has established itself over the last decade as one of the most celebrated books on the world’s greatest and most popular game. Readers all over the world have been drawn to the hundreds of magical stories that Galeano conjures and to his confession, "Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

In this new edition, which encompasses Galeano’s reflections on the 2010 World Cup, tragedy spins a continuous thread through these pages - remember Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender, whose own goal lost his country a game in the 1994 World Cup and was subsequently gunned down in Medellin? - but where there is shadow there is also the bright sunlight of joy and beauty, of the Italian striker whose shorts in the run up to a penalty kick in the 1938 World Cup fell down around his knees   he pulled them back up, and with the goalkeeper and stadium in pleats of laughter, scored the goal that saw Italy to the final. Galeano concludes that "soccer is a pleasure that hurts, and the music of a victory that gets the dead dancing is akin to the clamorous silence of an empty stadium, where one defeated fan, unable to move, sits in the middle of the immense stands, alone."

Review: I'm still to write a review for this on Goodreads, but I can safely say this is arguably one of the most compelling books ever written on the Beautiful Game. Eduardo Galeano's riveting commentary on the history and politics of soccer discusses everything from the leveling of the Twin Towers to the death of the sole survivor of that extraordinary match between British and German soldiers in 1915, robotic soccer in Japan, the mass-production of the game as a sign of the decline of civilization, the amazing success of Senegal and Turkey in recent World Cups, and how Nike beat Adidas.

And there we are done with CJ's Thirteen, but that cannot be all, can it? I would feel criminal if some more were not given their due, for they too did not fail to delight me. Here are some more worthy of a mention -

Complicity by Iain Banks

A roller-coaster ride involving murder, sex & dark secrets buried in a forgettable past.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

If anyone can make suicide a laughing matter, it's got to be Hornby.

Enigma by Robert Harris

A WWII spy thriller set in the backdrop of Bletchley Park, the hub of English code-breakers.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Not your classical whodunit murder mystery.

One Day by David Nicholls

The most heartwarming romantic novel I've read this year.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Transcends genre & time in the most surrealistic manner literature could have imagined.

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. A Bollywood-ish masala thriller with high-tension courtroom drama.

Provided You Don't Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton

A extremely enjoyable & insightful memoir of the legendary Brian Clough by his one-time closest media-confidante.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

A fun-filled, rollicking time-travel saga in which the protagonist attempts to prevent the JFK assassination.

My Autobiography by Alex Ferguson

Come on, it's Sir Alex Ferguson. How can he be not on the list?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

For the sheer magnitude & extra-ordinariness of it. A profound tribute to human willpower.

And finally, we come to the books I reviewed on request this year & the best book would be anointed as the 'Discovery of the Year' (we're getting used to fancy names by now). There were three serious contenders for the prize - A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, The Hangman's Replacement by Taona Dumisani & The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman. And the winner is -

Yes, it's Aroon Raman's debut novel that takes the honours!

And that's it for this super-long post. Pray forgive yours truly for being a bit cocky & probably irritating the heck out of you (in case you sincerely read the whole of it instead of just skimming over the titles) coz you don't carry along any grudges into the New Year, do you?

That's all Folks!

Here's wishing you, dear Reader, a very Happy New Year 2014. Happy Reading!