Reader Interview of Anshuman (The Regular) @ BYOB Party in Sep, 2018

We spoke to Anshuman about his readerly experiences.

Tell us about your book journey.

I started young. Somewhere along the way, I started collecting comic books in Hindi and English. When it got too far, my parents had to put their foot down as too much reading was affecting my studies. At IIT Kharagpur, we had an immense library with some 25,000 books. I became addicted.  Now with office hours that drain my time, it is harder to read at the speed I once did. I’ve only managed to read two books since the last BYOB Party I attended.

Is technology helping when it comes to pursuing reading or is it a deterrent?

Kindle has helped me as I can carry it everywhere- at the office, the station, the airport…. Flipside- I’m uncomfortable with the format. I love the feel of the page much more.

What about the reading habits of your children? You had brought them here the last time.

My daughter especially loves listening to stories. I keep encouraging her to read every day. I try to stop my son now as he reads copiously and he has his lessons to focus on. Gaming has affected his reading but we keep strict curfew hours.

Are you into fiction and non-fiction?

Totally into fiction- especially historical fiction like Empire by Devi Yashodharan, Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin and Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita. Although I love facts and figures, my reading is more inclined toward story-telling.

What about internet reading or listening to podcasts? 

No way. No blogs, facebook. And though I have listened to podcasts, the tech-phobic reader in me doesn’t enjoy it.

Favorite book?

(Laughs) Never can be a favorite though I do keep going back to the Mahabharat in all its versions. LOTR, Asterix and Tin Tin are my comfort reads.

Thanks Anshuman. It was great talking to you!

Short Book Review: Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay

SBR: Those Days is the English translation of the Bengali historical fiction Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay. It is set in 19th century Bengal, and follows the lives of Bengal elites, acting as a faithful recorder of their customs and lifestyles, their often self-contradictory intellectual journeys, their patchy, fumbling attempts at reforms and also at reinventing or reimagining the past, and their fictionalized, but relatable lives rooted in historical understanding of the society. Many known historical characters like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Dwarkanath Tagore, Debendranath Tagore making an appearance in flesh and blood adds to the appeal. It is one of those rare historical fictions that get history as well as fiction right.

To read or not to read: Yes. It’s a fine specimen of good historical fiction.

Short Book Review: Kama’s Last Sutra by Trisha Das

SBR: Kama’s Last Sutra is an interesting experiment, where a 21st-century archeologist working in Khajuraho time travels to the 11th-century kingdom ruled by the king who had built what is supposedly the best-known temple today in Khajuraho. It is an interesting tale. Educating you on history, while entertaining you through its characters.

A few things didn’t work for me, however. One, its feminism was rather surfacy and showy.  Two, whatever our time-traveling character did in the story, it didn’t need a 21st-century character in the 11th century. A contemporary character could have done that. So, the time-travel is just a ploy to get to what the author really wanted to write about. I would have preferred it to be more integral to the story.

These and a few other things I noticed from time to time gave a very documentary-like feel to the book. That might be the result of the documentary film-making background of the writer. Documentary films are alright, but by the nature of the medium, they can’t be as nuanced and substantive as a book can be. I would have liked the story to make the best use of the medium it chose – that of a book.

To read or not to read: You can read for the history or for a hot modernish love story set in the 11th-century. But I am not asking you to leave anything else to grab this.

Short Book Review: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu

SBR: The Birth of the Maitreya is the English translation of a book by Bani Basu which is considered a modern Bengali classic. But I didn’t really like the book. I went through it because I want to learn more about the different period of India history, and I like historical fiction as a vehicle. Set in the time of Buddha and tracing the politics and intrigues of the different Indian kingdoms of the time, especially Bimbisara’s Magadha and Prasenjit’s Kosala with a dash of Takshashila and Avanti, the book’s canvas and the complexities it attempts of tackle are admirable. But the characters are confused mix of traits, motivations, and stages of mental development; and the descriptions of the courts, bazaars, people’s wealth and social settings appear to be an appeal to our fantasies more than an attempt to recreate realistic history. Modern concerns of nationalism, feminism, tribal issues, science have been unabashedly spouted by characters situated in a very different era. Discussion of timeless or contemporary issues through historical fiction is an admirable goal, but its execution is not easy and the attempt doesn’t succeed in the book.

To read or not to read: No. Unless, like me, you are also on a mission to read everything related to Indian history or historical fiction.

Mother and Daughter Writers and the Chola Empire @ BYOB Party in November 2017 (Part 3)

What’s wrong with Indian books written in English? There was a lot of discussion about how some writers do not pay enough respect to the language and how many publishers do not take enough effort to create good standards.

Anita Desai, however, is a writer who does not fall into this bracket at all. Sunny spoke about a classic by her called The Village by the Sea. The narrative is set in a village called Thul, some time in the 1980s and tells the tale of one family in particular. Desai visited this village long enough for her to be known as a regular. “This story doesn’t have a strong beginning, middle and end,” he said. “It just happens.”

Kasturi spoke about a book by Anita Desai’s daughter, Kiran Desai who won the Booker Prize. She was rereading The Inheritance of Loss and after a good six years, her perspective of the book has changed. The story is set in Kalimpong at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. A retired judge returns here and must face the demons he thought he had left behind. Desai deals with geography, history and characterization in a stylized way. It is slow-paced compared to the crime thrillers that were discussed at the party but it was delightful, a distinct Indian voice.

Anshuman is a history buff and was pleasantly surprised by Devi Yeshodharan’s Empire that tells the little-known story of the Chola Empire, a South Indian kingdom that held sway over South East Asia at one time. The story is told through the eyes of a Greek protagonist, a young woman. Other prominent works of historical fiction in India include the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. There were some mentions of books by Ashwin Sanghvi and Amish Tripathi as well.

Short Book Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus by Sarah DunantSBR: The prolog, along with the first sentence of the first chapter, seems to give away the story of this historical novel. But The Birth of Venus becomes interesting towards the middle before turning disappointing again in the last few pages. However, the recreation of the madness and ecstasy of Renaissance Florence, a city bubbling with art and masterful human creations, is admirable; and that kept me reading through the book.
To read or not to read: Yes, for the historical setting, even though the fiction falters.

Risky Summits and Maps of Africa @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 2)

dead-mountainIt was Sumit’s first time to any book-related group and he made his entry with a non-fiction New York bestseller called Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar. The story is set in 1959. Nine experienced hikers mysteriously die in the Ural mountains in Russia. Their story has been documented. So there are diary entries, photographs, government case files, and interviews. “Those nine people turned into nine distinct persons. I connected with the hikers and felt for them. I didn’t want them to die in the end,”  Sumit said. The mystery  of their death remains unsolved.

“Literature humanizes people beyond your circle of experience,” Jaya said. “This makes a good case for historical fiction as it gives history a different persepctive.”

In the context of stories being more poignant than statistics, Anurag spoke about A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. The story begins in 1976 before the Jamaican general election. Bob Marley and his family were wounded by assassins. James traces the lives of the murderers and tells the story of Jamaica simultaneously. He uses a large canvas and multiple points of view to paint a richer tale of the past.

the-poisonwood-bibleApurba is a fan of historical fiction too and spoke about her favorite books including Gone with the Wind and the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. She was reluctant to start The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver but she is glad she read it as it is the kind of book that stays with the reader a long time after it is read.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story where the wife and four daughters of the Price family are the narrators, each chapter being alternately told by on of the five narrators. Nathan Price is a fierce, evangelical Baptist. When he moves with his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959, they are uprooted, shocked and transformed. Apurba speaks of an instance when the stubborn Price wishes to continue with baptisms but is faced by logistical problems like crocodiles in the river.

Conversation veered to the function of historical fiction in throwing light on ways of life and times entirely foreign to readers. For Apurba, Kingsolver provided a very different view of Africa as compared to the ideas of Africa narrated by writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

History could be made richer by historical fiction. Do you agree or disagree? More books discussed in part 3.


Short Book Review: The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg

The Girl From KrakowSBR: The Girl from Krakow is yet another second world war book, but sets itself apart because of its Eastern European setting. There is history in the book and there is philosophy, apart from the fiction. History appears to be good. Philosophy is something I identify with, but the craft of fiction writing falters. Hence you have the same philosophy being spouted by too many unrelated characters as if the author can’t stop himself from pushing it down your throat. So despite identifying with it, after a while I could not stand it. The fiction is too fanciful at times, too many convenient coincidences happen. The language is also awkward in places, perhaps because the author is not a native English speaker.
To read or not to read: Yes – for the history and philosophy, not for the fiction.

Short Book Review: Gods, Kings & Slaves – The Siege of Madurai by R Venkatesh

Gods, Kings & SlavesSBR: Gods, Kings & Slaves is one of those books that had great potential, but it fell far short of it because the very first draft was published where severe rewriting and editing was needed. The characters are inconsistent, narrative jumpy, language awkward and even wrong due to the incorrect usage of words and phrases apart from bad sentence construction.
The book is set in the time of the rise of Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s famous general, who attacked the Pandyan empire’s heart in Madurai. It follows the lives of Malik Kafur and Vira Pandyan until they collide. But apart from the interesting historical context, the book falls flat.
To read or not to read: No. Unless you are keen on reading up just anything about the period in the history that this book covers.

Short Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn GirlSBR: The Other Boleyn Girl is another of those best-selling books that should not be read. It is historically inaccurate, the characters who are known to be vibrant, complex and multi-dimensional have been reduced to the single dimension of black and white and the author’s attempt to show Mary Boleyn as an innocent woman victimized by her family and Anne Boleyn as a vicious, revengeful shrew are pathetic. Deviating from historical facts is fine in a work of historical fiction, but those deviations should serve the story. That doesn’t happen here. The idea of seeing Tudor history from Mary Boleyn’s point of view is an interesting premise too. But the story ends up reading like a shallow historical romance. The characters of Mary and Anne Boleyn from the book could easily be adapted for a contemporary Hindi soap opera, where the ambitious woman can only be a vamp and the simpering doormat gets the heroine’s crown. That should tell you how flat the characters and the book are. The writing craft has nothing to redeem the pointless story.
To read or not to read: No. Please don’t.
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