Short Book Review: Poonachi, Or the Story of a Black Goat by Perumal Murugan

SBR: Having read and admired One Part Woman, I was looking forward to reading this “comeback” novel by Perumal Murugan. The most interesting part of Poonachi, Or the Story of a Black Goat, however, is its preface and not the actual content. The author’s frustration takes a witty turn in it when explains why he chose to write about a goat. The actual story itself seems to be concerned with too many things at once – poverty, authoritarian and paranoid regime, parental oppression, the lot of women in the society, agrarian distress, etc. A few more were left dangling some of which I could make out, others I couldn’t. The issues are all important, but they seem to be forced down the reader’s throat one after the other and I couldn’t quite connect with the story.  I am happy that the author has come back after the pathetic and dangerous controversy around One Part Woman had made him swear to never write again. But he appears to be in a hurry to write about everything to make up for the lost time.

To read or not to read: You can skip. Read One Part Woman, if you haven’t already. Perhaps other earlier books by the author would also be better picks than this one.

Short Book Review: B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton

B is for Burglar by Sue GraftonSBR: After starting the Alphabet series by Sue Grafton on a high note with the first book A is for Alibi, I didn’t enjoy the second book B is for Burglar that much. The mystery part of the story was entertaining enough. But since the story is written from the point of view of the detective-protagonist (a female private investigator Kinsey Millhone), mystery-solving proceeds at a realistic, slow pace. We face the drudgery of the job just like her, documenting all her jogs and runs along the way. Nothing else in the story enlivens the experience. We read detailed visual descriptions of what everyone in the book wore and what their hairstyles were like. But we don’t really see them, not in any interesting multi-dimensional form well-written characters should take, not even through the dialogs and conversations. We learn nothing new about the protagonist or any recurring character from the first book of the series. Overall, I found myself plodding through the book, which isn’t an experience I seek when I am reading mystery.

To read or not to read: The series has its share of fans, but I wouldn’t recommend it moving on the top of your TBR pile.

Short Book Review: Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. CoetzeeSBR: Before I ever read Waiting for the Barbarians, I had been exposed to so much admiration for it from many people whose recommendations I take seriously that now I feel annoyed at myself not really liking it. I also feel very lonely in my distaste for the book. Ah! It feels good to be able to say that out loud.
Coetzee’s prose is beautiful and the story is an important one. But what is the protagonist of Disgrace doing in this story? Why is this story being told from the point of view of a middle-aged man who is obsessed with his sexuality, who seems to secretly loathe himself for it, but who preys upon young women all the same, and then instead of dealing with his self-loathing, tries to philosophize about it pointlessly? He achieves nothing, he can achieve nothing in the story but for some reason, he is at the center of it. It is annoying that the most important observations of the story are being spouted from his mouth. It doesn’t help that female characters exist not to be fleshed out, but only to be used (by him!). My complaint is not that the protagonist is not likable. (Who wants a goody two shoes for a protagonist?) But that he has been indulged so much by the author in a story that doesn’t belong to him. All the torture meted out to him is purely wanton. And one wonders why would he be given so much attention even as a receptacle for the violence of his captors. In a messed up system they belong to, surely they have more cunning usage for their violence.
Dusklands was great, but after Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, I think I am done with Coetzee for a while. If I do pick up another book, I would need some serious assurance beforehand that it doesn’t have a self-loathing, middle-aged man philosophizing about his libido and getting off on being disgraced.
To read or not to read: Not on my recommendation. But it is an acclaimed book, so I won’t stop you from reading it!

Short Book Review: Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath

SBR: Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath is a book that can shake you to the core. Even if the situation of the poor and most vulnerable people in our country described there is not a surprise to you, reading the hopelessness of it all laid bare is a chilling experience.
For reading in 2018, this book is old. Published in 1996, it is essentially a collection of articles written during a journalism fellowship between 1993 and 1995. So, the data is old. Some of the developments people wished for (mid-day meals in schools, for example) are more widespread. But what is also unfortunately true is that the stories have not changed.
The one complaint I have is that the book is simply a bunch of newspapers articles collected and printed together. Some additional information has been provided by the author here and there. But there are lots of overlaps in the stories because multiple stories have been written from the same region. The book would have been much more concise, and still impactful if the content had been redone to avoid repetition and bring out the themes more lucidly for the reader. Right now, you are reading about the “third crop” or high productivity of the poorest region in Orissa multiple times and the task of connecting related information in different articles is left to you.
To read or not to read: Yes. Although if you are short on time, you needn’t read cover to cover. You can pick up a couple of stories from each section and get an excellent insight into what is really going on with the people we don’t see.

Short Book Review: The Last Question and The Last Answer by Issac Asimov

The Last Question by Issac AsimovSBR: The Last Question and The Last Answer by Issac Asimov are two short stories, not full-length books. I am not a science fiction reader and these were recommended to me by a friend and her science fiction loving Mom. I have to admit that I am not the right person to review the genre and to top that Asimov is Asimov! But even as a non-reader of the genre, I enjoyed the stories.
To read or not to read: Yes. You have, perhaps, already read them if you are a science fiction reader. If not, why not take a peep into the world through these stories?

Short Book Review: A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

A is for Alibi by Sue GraftonSBR: Sue Grafton is famous for her “alphabet series” of detective novels. But I got introduced to her only with the news of her death last year (because of which the “Z” novel of the series will never be written now). A is for Alibi is, predictably, the first one of the series. The protagonist of the series is a female private detective, which is refreshing for the genre. The story is fairly interesting and has enough deaths and twists and turns to keep you interested. Some plot points are unbelievable (like the initial conviction for the murder being investigated), but I don’t bother much with them. This is a genre I read for entertainment. I would have liked to know a bit more about our good detective though. There was very little in this one. But I am hoping that more about the character will be revealed in the other books of the series.
To read or not to read: Yes, if you are looking for an entertaining read and detective fiction is your genre.

Short Book Review: Post Mortem by Peter Terrin

Post Mortem by Peter TerrinSBR: When a writer decides to write a novel about a writer who, in turn, writes a novel about a writer, it shouldn’t be surprising that you get a book with rich, imaginative language, but self-indulgent content. There is a father struggling with a sad tragedy in his beloved daughter’s life. But if the reader was supposed to feel connected, that just doesn’t happen. There are a novelist and a biographer with their own journeys, but in the end, I felt like I didn’t care for any of it. It’s not about not liking the characters, it’s about feeling rather indifferent towards them and bored with their story.
Peter Terrin is a Belgian writer. Post Mortem was originally written in Dutch. The English translation is pretty good.
To read or not to read: No. Unless you like navel-gazing novels.

Short Book Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace ThackeraySBR: In the second decade of the twenty-first century, sitting in the thoroughly modern Indian city of Bangalore, the cares and concerns and games of British elites and social climbers of the early nineteenth century, even in their earnest, read like satire. Vanity Fair happens to be a satirical look at that society written in the middle of that century itself. Hence, reading it is not particularly an eye-opener. But it is a reminder of how we also live in our own Vanity Fair. The fashions and languages and vogues may change, but Vanity Fair remains. It is a well-known and acclaimed classic and justifiably so. Be warned, though, it is fairly long (and was originally published as a serial).
To read or not to read: Yes, if you are a reader of classics. Otherwise, don’t bother pushing it on the top of your to-read list. You can peruse it at your leisure if you so fancy!

Short Book Review: An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

An Infamous Army by Georgette HeyerSBR: I landed on An Infamous Army while searching for more books based in Belgium. Since it is described as a Historical Romance set in the days leading up to and during the battle of Waterloo, it seemed like the perfect light read to get a hang of the history of the time. In reality, though, there is little romance in the book. It does have a lot of history, well-researched and very detailed. The account of military strategies, war actions, battle formations, and real people and events are so detailed that I couldn’t make any head or tail of any of it! Although I could make very little use of it, those details are the real beauty of the book.
To read or not to read: Not for romance. And history is not for the light-hearted dabblers in the subject either. If you are deep into military strategies, tactics, and history, however, you should lap it up.

Short Book Review: On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika UnigweSBR: I found On Black Sisters’ Street while looking for books based in Belgium. The book is based more in Africa though. We see Belgium as the book’s African women do. These women are trying to negotiate their lives as illegal immigrants involved in sex work. What is interesting is that the book isn’t trying to arouse your pity for them. They are very often helpless and penniless. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency. They do, and they exercise it even in choosing the sex work. The writing itself is not particularly memorable, however. The chronological back and forth seems random, and the mystery being built up through the book turns out to be the most predictable thing ever.
To read or not to read: If you want to explore the subjects of human trafficking or prostitution then go ahead and read. Otherwise, the answer is not a resounding yes. It can be skipped.