Best Books Of 2013

It has been an interesting year as far as books are concerned. Since I began formally recording what I read only in May, I cannot give the exact number of books that I read this year. I estimate it to be around 45. This year I read the kind of books that I didn’t normally read, and that has been very gratifying. The following is a list of the best ones.

1. Chokher Bali – Rabindranath Tagore

I read Rabindranath Tagore’s works for the first time this year; Chokher Bali (A Grain of Sand in the Eye) and a collection of short stories. I have to say that I greatly enjoy his writings. All the idiosyncrasies of his time and his world are so deftly described in his stories. The characters are extremely well-etched and all their complex emotions are presented with ease.

chokher bali radha chakravarty - Google SearchComing back to Chokher Bali, Tagore addressed many issues. Adultery, a widow’s dissatisfaction with a life doomed to perpetual loneliness, the subtle ways in which Binodini manipulates Mahendra and Asha; it was all presented so poetically. It was sorrowful to see that despite being bold enough to rebel against the norms meant for widows, Binodini ultimately decides to walk away from Bihari, the person who loves her and wants to marry her. Tagore himself said that he regretted the ending. But perhaps that was the way Binodini redeemed herself; by allowing herself to have a little pride left.

Asha’s progress from a shy, young bride to a woman matured by circumstances was very beautiful to see. Her plainness made her endearing, because there were probably so many women like her. I especially loved the scene of her turning point; her distress on seeing her house in chaos without her mother-in-law. Sure, I don’t agree with many of the choices that she made, especially her decision to take back her husband after he fell in love with another woman. But I have to concede because it was a different time; the book was written more than a century ago.

Radha Chakravarty’s translation was simple and easy to read. A beautiful and sad book.

2. My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper

This is one of the very few books that made me cry, literally. The biggest reason that I enjoyed this book was that everyone was right from their own perspective. I especially loved Sara’s conflicts regarding motherhood and the choices that she had to make for her children. The following quote says it all.

‘You think you can lay it all out in words, black-and-white, as if it’s that easy. But you only represent one of my daughters, Mr. Alexander, and only in this courtroom. I represent both of them equally, everywhere, every place. I love both of them equally, everywhere, every place.’

So many of life’s actual situations are like that, aren’t they? Where you can’t distinguish where the lines blur.

The book wasn’t perfect though. The clichéd love story between the lawyer and the guardian ad litem could have been completely avoided. It didn’t add anything to the story. Parts involving Jesse as the typical problem child also were a bit dragged. But regardless, it is definitely a book that I would recommend.

3. Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

Cover of "Interpreter of Maladies"

I began my reading life with short story collections; fairy tales, moral stories, Aesop’s fables. I discovered novels and the short stories lost their charm for a number of years. I think it was partly because at that time, I was given certain short story collections that I did not enjoy at all. Even when the stories were good, it seemed to me that as soon as I began warming up to the characters, the story ended. I did feel somewhat like that reading Interpreter Of Maladies, but I’m glad that I finished reading it at the insistence of a blogger friend.

I’ve got relatives who are immigrants; NRIs. They come here every couple of years, stay for a month or slightly more. They want to go back to their lives after that. I can understand that. I’m sure that people get used to new places and new people after some time. This is the time of globalisation and there are people who have lived in various countries. I find that a little scary, to be honest. It’s not like I don’t want to go out and explore the world; I do. But then, I want to come back home. Is it easy to make a home in a place that’s so different from what you know?

I think every person, who is contemplating migrating should read at least one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. She captures the nuances of relationships between people from both the worlds so beautifully. There’s longing for home mingled with the desire to make a new life in a new country. I especially loved the last story. All the hesitations of a new marriage, coupled with the efforts to adjust to a new country; it was very touching to read.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Dystopian fiction always leaves you asking for something more; a proper closure of sorts. By definition, the story and the conflicts often remain unresolved. You read the entire novel yearning for a near-miracle. That was my feeling when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.

The story is pretty horrific, but unfortunately, that is the reality of a certain section of women in the world, though maybe not to the extent shown in the book. For every atrocity I read, I was thankful for the choices that I’m allowed to make. My only problem was that Offred was an unreliable narrator. That makes sense since she was a prisoner,  but at some points, I just didn’t want to let it go; I wanted to know. I wanted to know more about her daughter, her husband Luke, and frankly it was maddening to never know.

I enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s style of writing, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books.

5. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

This was a disturbing book. It is impossible to discuss this book without spoiling it, so don’t read ahead if you’re planning to read the book.

gone girl book - Google SearchIn the first part we get to read Amy’s diary interleaved with Nick’s current reality. It was most perturbing  to read how much differently can two people think about the same relationship. It unnerved me to wonder whether that’s true for all relationships to some extent.

In the second part, we come to know that Amy’s diary was, in fact, fabricated. In reality, she was psychotic and crazy. She planned her own murder in order to frame Nick. Her original plan was to actually kill herself but she changed her mind later.

The genius of the book came into play when I thought back to all the crazy things that Amy did to frame Nick. The hidden meanings in the clues of the treasure hunt were especially chilling when re-read after knowing the reality.

It was a fast-paced book, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes reading psychological thrillers and doesn’t mind the foul language and explicit scenes.

Have you read any of these books? What was your experience?

Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life by Robert Spaethling

As a music lover, I suppose I’ve been too confined to one genre of music. The Hindi music is so vast that I never ventured outside. I’ll have to admit that present day English pop is something that I’ve never enjoyed. It focuses too much on the rhythms, while I enjoy soulful tunes. This is exactly the reason why I greatly enjoy Madan Mohan’s music; it has great melody and meaningful lyrics (although that’s not his contribution).

I’ve read indirectly of the great music legend, of course. “I swear it on Mozart’s head” was Ruth’s refrain in The Morning Gift. If you’ve ever read Eva Ibbotson’s works, you would know how much she focuses on music and the musical city of Vienna recurs in almost all of her books.

So, when I saw Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life by Robert Spaethling in our Resource Centre, I was just slightly intrigued. I’ve never been one to read biographies, and especially not about people that I have little or no knowledge of. But then again, I have a penchant for letters, and the title compelled me to pick it up.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's compositions charact...

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

What better than to hear things from the horse’s mouth! Even autobiographies tend to take on shades and hues; nobody is able to give a completely honest picture of one’s own life. Letters and diaries, on the other hand, are written without reserve, and are much more closer to the real person.

I didn’t have the chance to finish the entire book. I just read the first part : The Early Years (1769 – 1776).

That was the period when a young Wolfgang Mozart made various journeys to Italy, Vienna and Munich on account of his music. He was accompanied by his father Leopold. The letters are mostly addressed to his sister Nannerl and a few to his mother. It is evident that he was extremely fond of his sister and the two shared a very comfortable relationship.

The “wunderkind” was mischievous like any other child of his age. We have a tendency to disregard the childhoods of famed people. Forget them, it’s difficult to imagine anyone as a child if you know of them only as adults. Mozart was unapologetic about describing the inadequacies of other people, be it musicians or Royalty.

What pleased me the most was that Mozart appeared to be humble, and almost unaware of his genius. He referred to his successful operas in almost an offhand manner. Most of his conversations about music were practical; about writing the notes, copying papers and so on.

Being famous to the degree he was, Mozart’s letters, no doubt, generated a lot of scandal when published. Several biographers have attempted to tone down the language (which included a lot of profanities in German, Latin, Italian and French). This particular collection of letters, however, retains its original form. He played a lot of word games as well, which made for a colourful read.

Here are a few gems from his letters.

I don’t know anything new, except that Herr Gelehrt, the poet from Leipzig, died and after his deathe has written no more poetrie. (p. 7)

I kiss mama’s hand, and to my sister I send a smacker of a kiss and remains the same old – but who? – the same old buffoon. (p.9)

Write to me and don’t be so lazy. Otherwise, I shall have to give you a thrashing. What fun! I’ll break your head. (p.16)

The dances are miserably pompous[…]in the opera house, he always stands on a little stool so that he appears taller than the queen. (p.16)

We have the honor of being aquainted with a certain Domenican who is said to be holy. I myself am not convinced of it, becaus he often consumes for breakfast a cup of ciocolata, right after a big glas of strong spanish wine,[…] a whole plate full of birds, two full saucers of milk with lemon. Maybe there is some kind of plan behind it all, but I don’t think so, because for one thing it’s just too much, and for another, he takes quite a few morsels with him for an afternoon snack. (p.20)

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

This. This one I read till two-thirty in the morning. This one I read (and finished) even as I was unwell. I had seen some nice reviews and thought it would be a good idea to order it. I don’t normally do that. Normally, I just walk into a bookstore and pick books up on a whim. I’ve found great books that way. But this one. I just felt I wanted to get it. And it was fun. I guess…

Izzy Spellman is 28, single, and works for Spellman Investigations, a family-run private detective agency. She

Cover of "The Spellman Files"

might have a chequered past littered with romantic mistakes-but at least she is good at her job. Invading people’s privacy comes naturally. To the whole family. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; sabotage a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail and wiretap a Spellman.

But when Izzy’s parents hire her 14 -year-old sister to discover the identity of her new boyfriend, Izzy snaps. She wants out. Her parents make her a deal: solve one last case and her employment contract with Spellman Inc. Will be terminated. Trouble is, the Snow case is decades old, ice-cold, and more twisted than a pretzel…

The reason for the “I guess” is this; I wasn’t really sure I liked Izzy. Ok, she is hilarious in her straight faced humour. She has her good moments of being the Big Sister. She is a good private investigator; passionate about her job even if she has no choice of having any other career. And she is realistic about her expectations of having a “normal” life, if a bit cynical about them. But she herself is a pretty big part of the “Dysfunctional” in her family. Rae merely follows her footsteps. I think a lot could have been avoided if Izzy hadn’t been a rebel in the first place. Having said that, this book really isn’t about full-dimensional characters or realistic situations or relatable relationships. It’s not literature. This book is about having a good time with it. And so I did.

The story is spunky, the characters are funny, the dialogue is sharp. Of all the characters, I liked Rae the most. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say that even though Izzy is the narrator, the story revolves around Rae for the most part. Completing her first surveillance job at the age of six, Rae is good at what she does, even if she is addicted to it. Rae and Uncle Ray’s battle is one of the best parts of the story. I immensely enjoyed her discourses in front of Milo the barman (Rae is fourteen). And behind all her cold-blooded negotiating and rule-breaking, sugar addiction and “recreational surveillance”(following complete strangers), blackmailing and grudge-holding, (I know the list of shortcomings may already be too long for any redemption) she is essentially a good person. In her own way, of course.

The other characters in the story are amusing as well. Mr. And Mrs. Spellman are controlling to the core; we’re talking forced dates with lawyers and interrogation dinners with boyfriends. They bug Izzy no end. Yep, the pun is totally intended. David Spellman, her brother, PI since the age of fourteen but out of the family business now, is a ruthless lawyer, negotiating money with his youngest sister. Uncle Ray, health-food addict turned alcoholic gambler, who claims that healthy living gave him cancer(!), has his own issues and runs away frequently on what the family calls “Lost Weekends”. All of them fight for personal privacy. None of them is able to give privacy to other family members.

Enter Daniel Castillo. Handsome dentist and tennis player. Belonging to a family of private investigators isn’t what Izzy calls normal, and it’s easier to tell Daniel that she is, in fact, a teacher. Laughs are assured, as Izzy first tries to hide him from her family, and then hide her family from him.

The Snow case isn’t your typical heart-accelerating mystery, but it’s not predictable either. Mystery lovers may not enjoy it as much. I did have some thrills at a few points, but that may be because of reading it in the middle of the night. Another mystery is disappearance of Rae, which is where the story starts.

I liked the way this book is written. The chapters are mini-stories in themselves and the story moves backwards and forward. And yet, everything is catalogued; Izzy’s Ex-Boyfriends, her redemption, the Lost Weekends, the “unpunished crimes”, the Spellman Wars. More than anything, I loved the witty dialogues and the fast-pace of the story.

Did I like the book? Yes. Will I read more books in the Spellman series? Probably. Looking forward to it.

For One More Day by Mitch Albom

Before I delve into what I want to say about the book, I have to confess something. I’ve read a lot of books; I’ve been reading since as long as I can remember. Therefore, I thought that “reviewing” books would be a piece of cake. I thought there’s only so many things that I could say about a book. Turns out I was wrong. I love reading books, I love discussing them with anyone who cares to listen (read: very few people), but I can’t review them in the sense that the word “review” is used. I spent a long time thinking about what I should and shouldn’t write, how much I should give away, whether I should or should not criticize. I tried adopting a particular style of reviewing; basically, I just made myself write in a most non-me way. And I just wasn’t happy reading it. Finally, I just decided to go with the flow. I talked about the points that I felt about, not the points which would necessarily make a balanced review. This isn’t about creating a perfect book review, it’s about what I love in the books that I read. So, here goes.

Cover of "For One More Day"

Charley Benetto is a broken man, his life destroyed by alcohol and regret. He loses his job. He leaves his family. He hits rock bottom after discovering that he won’t be invited to his only daughter’s wedding. And he decides to take his own life.

Charley takes a midnight ride to his small hometown: his final journey. But as he staggers into his old house, he makes an astonishing discovery. His mother – who died eight years earlier – is there, and welcomes Charley home as if nothing had ever happened.

What follows is the one seemingly ordinary day so many of use yearn for: a chance to make good with a lost parent, to explain the family secrets and to seek forgiveness.

The book is typical of Mitch Albom, sweet and sad at the same time.

Throughout his childhood, Charley is constantly asked to choose between his parents, and he chooses the one whom he’s afraid of losing; his father. Or at least, he yearns to gain acceptance from his emotionally distant father, who is interested only in Charley’s career as a baseball player. His mother, on the other hand, values education more, and is thrilled to see him going to college.

I could say that this book touched me emotionally. Sure, I loved some parts of the book. I really admired Chick’s mother, Pauline (or Posey, as she was nicknamed)and her sunny disposition. I admired her strength in bringing up her children alone and the way she fights the stigma associated with being a divorced woman.

But somewhere down the line, the book felt as if it was preaching to me. I prefer reading about people who pick up the pieces of their lives on their own. Of course, it doesn’t mean that taking help is wrong. It’s just that I have trouble believing in life-altering surreal experiences. Maybe sometimes, knowing about past secrets can make you realise the value of your present life. But I didn’t find Chick to be the kind of man who had the strength to do that. I really couldn’t connect to him. The book presented a very simplified version of right and wrong.

The secondary ideas of the book resonated better with me. The way in which the society looked at divorce and divorcees, especially the women, ringed true. I appreciated Posey, who refused to be shown any pity. The incident when she disposed the food “handed out” to them by nuns stands as stark example.

I wonder whether the situation has changed for divorcees. In India, especially, divorce is still a dirty word, and the blame falls on women nearly in all the cases. Retaining the sanctity of marriage is considered to be the responsibility of the woman alone. They are supposed to “make it work” whatever the situation is.

Among all, one issue troubled me the most. Pauline, a nurse, was fired from her job, because she complained against sexual harassment. The reason stated was that she was young, pretty, single and therefore, a distraction to male doctors; the same reasons for which she was harassed in the first place. It implies that the only reason that she hadn’t been sexually harassed before was the fact that she was married, as the other two reasons, “young and pretty” , applied to her before the divorce too. It implies that women always need to be defined in context to a man who will “protect” them. I can’t begin to tell how much that bothers me.

For One More Day isn’t going to be a favourite. It is not the first book that talks about the unfairness of the society towards divorce and women. And yet, I find myself appreciating the book for raising these issues.

And a really small thing; I loved that she wrote little notes to her son (because I’m a note-writer myself!).