Another Book Meme

Pal Amulya is full of book-related questions, and I can talk about books all the time. This is from a Facebook meme that involves naming 10 books that stayed with you. Shit like this is tough because number-bound lists suck yada yada and well okay, these are some books that I keep going back to. It is also a list that surprised me.

The rules are: No comics. Cool? Cool.

1. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo

I have talked about this book before. Instead of adding to the yakkery, allow me to point you to a painting. It’s an illustration of the Count done by artist Mead Schaeffer in the 1920s, one magnificent painting that arrests your attention. I was lucky enough to see it in person at the Weismann Museum at Pepperdine University, Malibu last year, and it gave me the fucking chills.

2. RK Narayan – Gods, Demons and Others


This was the cover to the version I bought


I was ten, and this was a book I had finished reading in a week, after buying it at the Guwahati Book Fair. A friend’s father borrowed it, and when he came home to return it, a month later, he was much surprised to know how fast I was done with the book. “Did you really read it?”, he asked. Smiling at my indignant yes, he opened the book and pointed to the first line in the introduction, which had the phrase ‘part and parcel of Indian life’. “What does “part and parcel” mean?”, he asked me. He was a little surprised at my answer, and accepted that I was not fibbing about the speed of my consumption.

But my mind was blown because, for the first time, I realized that the introduction to a book was not necessarily boring and that it should not be skipped over.

I pick this over the Mahabharata, because this was the first prose version of mythological stories I read. And it made me look for more. And also, stunning RK Laxman illustrations that made me wear out my black oil pastels trying to copy them.

(Oh, and I also found a first edition hardcover much later in life)

3. Mark Twain – Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

This is how we read books, once upon a deprived childhood. First, we read a chapter excerpt in an English textbook. Then we read an abridged S Chand version. Then we read other abridged versions, and finally graduated to reading the originals, the sequels and the spin-offs. I spent some time in my adolescence thinking about whether I would kiss Becky Thatcher if I was alone in the cave with her. (The answer is yes)

Little Women is perhaps my first feminist novel, even though I did not know it then. Sometimes I feel like the book is a bit too traditional, but then I reread it and – seriously, it’s so fucking progressive.

4. Stephen King – The Shining


When you are traveling with friends on a 2-day train journey, and find yourself sitting in the upper berth unable to breathe, occasionally shivering in the middle of July, and wanting to make sure that there are people around you every now and then, you are a very very bad traveler. Or you are reading this book you picked up on a whim from this pavement seller in Delhi. You don’t know it yet, but it will determine a lot of your tastes in the next decade. You will yearn to find terror in words, and you will realize that it takes a very special writer to produce works that inspire dread, and much later, you will discover his son, who does the same.

(The book is dedicated to “Joe Hill”. Hill’s book NOS4A2 features references to multiple King characters, including a fleeting mention of the True Knot, who appear as the antagonists in Doctor Sleep, the cool-but-somewhat-tepid sequel to Shining)

5. The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories – Edited by Stephen Jones


These “Mammoth” books proliferated in bookstores around India, and introduced me to a fair amount of new writers that I hadn’t heard of before. This particular volume contained a poem by Neil Gaiman, which made me look up and understand the difference between fixed verse forms, specifically sonnets and sestinae – memory fails me, but this was perhaps the first bit of non-comics Gaiman work I ever read. It had a story by Clive Barker, which pointed me to the wonderful Books of Blood. Brian Lumley’s contribution made me look up his Necroscope books. I had just read the original Dracula, and Stoker’s excised chapter ‘Dracula’s Guest’, included in this volume, made me feel like a happy child (which I was!). And finally, the novella ‘Red Reign’ by Kim Newman, which later became the Anno Dracula series, was my first introduction to a shared fictional universe. Good times!

6. Walter Moers – the Zamonia novels (13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear/The City of Dreaming Books/Rumo/Labyrinth/Alchemaster’s Apprentice)

I don’t talk about the books I like a lot. The cynical part of me worries that someone I recommend the books to will talk disparagingly of them, and then I will have two options: hate that person forever, or rethink my opinion of the book. Because obviously we cannot all be mature adults respecting each others’ opinions about the books we love, man. So yeah, Walter Moers. If you haven’t read these books, you are missing something. If you don’t like them, don’t tell me, because we are not meant to know each other.

Two regrets: I do not know German well enough to understand how good/bad the translations are, and I did not have an Awesome Uncle to present these books to me when I was younger. Had one existed, the world would have seen a version of me that had Optimus Yarnspinner tattoos and wrote bad Zamonia fan-fiction.

7. George Orwell – 1984


Before this current wave of young adult literature drenched in dystopian futures and all-pervading governmental control, there was Oceania and Winston Smith and Big Brother. It is strange how this book written in the middle of the last century hit on every aspect of modern life that makes us nervous in 2014. I love going back to it, and sometimes I worry that the future is already happening.

8. David Fisher, Anthony Reed – The Proudest Day / Dominique Lapierre, Larry Collins – Freedom at Midnight / Ramachandra Guha – India After Gandhi

These were the books that made recent Indian history interesting to me. History taught in our schools comes to a miraculous end in 1947. The British rule is essentially an Us vs Them saga where They were bad and We were good. These books un-deify the valorous and make them human, and give multiple hues to people who were just names and statistics.

(Also, the section about the first elections in independent India makes me cry, every single time)

9. CD Payne – Youth in Revolt (and its sequels)


This is a California book, and occasionally it becomes a Europe book. Every now and then, I look past the zany antics of Nick Twisp and his crew and contemplate their milieu, the small-town lives of the characters. I read about Nick’s Berkeley catastrophe while passing through Berkeley. Years later, I stayed in a motel in Ukiah while driving north, and it was only later that I realized excitedly that Sheeni grew up in that town. To me, Nick Twisp is the post-modern version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn combined, and unlike most books whose sequels let you down, these just make you fall in love with the characters even more.

10. Jaron Lanier – Who Owns the Future?


A book that made me question a lot of opinions that I had about the digital economy, particularly piracy and the culture of sharing. These are opinions that I thought were fairly obvious and set in stone, but Lanier’s arguments systematically decimates them and makes me feel like a fool. The book is quotable beyond belief, and has given me one of my favorite words: antinembosian, which means ‘before the cloud’. It is also the reason I would rather write this on my own blog, than on Facebook.


The Count, in his own words

Yes, Monsieur. I am one of those exceptional beings and I believe that, before today, no man has found himself in a position similar to my own. The kingdoms of kings are confined, either by mountains or rivers, or by a change in customs or by a difference of language; but my kingdom is as great as the world, because I am neither Italian, nor French, nor Hindu, nor American, nor a Spaniard; I am a cosmopolitan. No country can claim to be my birthplace. God alone knows in what region I shall die.

I adopt every custom, I speak every tongue. You think I am French, is that not so? Because I speak French as fluently and as perfectly as you do. Well, now. Ali, my Nubian, thinks me an Arab. Bertuccio, my steward, takes me for a Roman. Haydée, my slave, believes I am Greek. In this way, you see, being of no country, asking for the protection of no government and acknowledging no man as my brother, I am not restrained or hampered by a single one of the scruples that tie the hands of the powerful or the obstacles that block the path of the weak. I have only two enemies: I shall not say two conquerors, because with persistence I can make them bow to my will: they are distance and time. The third and most awful is my condition as a mortal man. Only that can halt me on the path I have chosen before I have reached my appointed goal. Everything else is planned for. I have foreseen all those things that men call the vagaries of fate: ruin, change and chance. If some of them might injure me, none could defeat me. Unless I die, I shall always be what I am. This is why I am telling you things that you have never heard, even from the mouths of kings, because kings need you and other men fear you.

This is what I imagine what Edmond Dantes would look like, if there was any justice in this world.

Books, Myself

Book Meme, a few more questions answered

The first part is here. These questions come from a comment that Amulya left on the post.

1. What was the last book you gifted someone?

I’ll go with three – I gave Craig Thompson’s Habibi to a friend on her birthday last year. I was surprised to find out that she had not read any of Thompson’s books, and I sort of knew she would love it. She did. So did her mom.

I gave another friend Blankets. That was because I met her in winter, and Blankets is a perfect winter book. I believe she liked it as well, though she was a little depressed.

I am supposed to send out a signed copy of Grant Morrison’s Super Gods this week, for a friend, but I have a bad feeling he may not receive it in time, so I may have to find another way to send it.

2. Conversely, what was the last book you were gifted?

On my birthday, I received a book called Erotic Comics Vol 2, by Tim Pilcher and a Romanian graphic novel called Year of the Pioneer, by Andreea Chirica. Also, the first three volumes of XIII, a graphic novel, The City of Shifting Waters by Mezieres/Christin and The Yellow M by Edgar P Jacobs.

(That’s five.)

(But let me talk about one of them.)

The book on Erotic Comics, I first saw it, the same copy, in Carturesti, Iulius Mall, Cluj in 2009. I flipped through it, wanted to buy it, but I was out of luggage space and did not want to spend any more money either. Saw it again in 2010, but I was on a book-buying hiatus. Carturesti was closed when I went there in early 2011. My friends bought it for me because they know me and were fairly sure I would like it – they were right. And I know it’s the same copy because the people at the store high-fived each other when somebody finally bought the dang thing instead of flipping through the pages. Life works in strange and mysterious ways.

3. What is your constant go-to book? Either as a fix/soul recharge?

I’ve found that I end up reading Preacher and Sandman very frequently, maybe once a year or so. Preacher reads like a beautiful love story with dollops of anti-religion and profanity thrown in. Sandman reminds me every single time that I have so much to read, and much to learn.

The Count of Monte Cristo, because the most perfect story about revenge makes for a dish that never gets cold.

The Mahabharata, in different forms, versions and retellings. Hard to believe how timeless this book is, and how fresh it always feels with every reading.

4. Name one, just one.. Okay, three books that made you tear up.

Ashok Banker’s writing makes me want to tear up his books, but I guess that’s not what you’re referring to. Heh.

Ok fine. A lot of books make me tear up, actually. Why, just reading Hunger Games the other day brought me on the verge of tears at one specific point. Off the top of my head: Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The ending of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Garth Ennis’s Hitman and Koike/Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub. One specific chapter in the seventh Harry Potter book. A stupid coming-of-age book called Summer of 42 by Herman Raucher. Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs made me weep bitter tears at age 14, and just thinking about it makes me melancholy now. This is Too Much Information, I am sorry.

5. What is the most embarrassing book you are in possession of?

A first edition hardcover of Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. It’s embarrassing because I paid a shitload of money to buy it when it came out, thinking that it will be a “collector’s item”. 350 Rs, I think, an insane amount of money for someone in Class 10, and I still cringe at the number of excuses I gave myself when coughing up the money at the counter.

I did not even like reading the fucking thing.

6. Say there was only one library that existed in the world, with every single book ever written – and it burnt down, which three books would you save for mankind?

Ugh. I should not answer this. My brain shuts down with scenarios like this, and I cannot think of the answers right away. Even if I answer them now, somehow, tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and curse myself for not choosing that instead of this. Also, I have a feeling that I will select these books based on the assumption that I have to decide what knowledge has to be carried forward in a world sans learning, and I am not sure if that was your intent.

But ok, I will play.

The collected works of William Shakespeare. Such a world will need entertainment, comedies, drama, dramedies, tearjerkers. No one better than the Bard.

A Science book. The Origin of Species, off the top of my head, just because it has a lot of answers that can bitch-slap religious nutjobs.

A book about books. Maybe Chip Kidd’s Volume One, which makes you ache inside and long to touch a physical book.

For the record, I hate this question.

7. Ever made friends in a bookshop?

Yes. A specific one that has lasted – I saw a guy in Best Book Stall, Hyderabad who had a pile of comics to sell. Asian-looking, brusque, speaking Hyderabadi Hindi like a pro. At one point, Ahmed sir, the proprietor just stood aside and let the two of us decide which ones I was buying directly off him, and which ones he would ultimately put for display eventually. The guy turned out to be the owner of the most famous Chinese restaurant in Hyderabad, Blue Diamond (if you’re ever in Hyderabad, take an auto, say ‘Blue Diamond, Basheer Bagh, near Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium’. Try the Cantonese chicken soup. The Bhutan chicken. Chicken, bamboo shoots and mushroom noodles. And tell Chun that Satya says hi, and that I’ve got some things he may get later this year). I was a semi-starving student back then, and went to the restaurant a few weekends later. He took me to his room upstairs, where I stood gasping at a pile of comics scattered around tables and shelves. He brought me some dumplings and noodles and let me be for a few hours. We occasionally call each other from random bookshops in different parts of the world and crow about new acquisitions. We are like that only.

7. a) The most interesting conversation you’ve had in a bookshop?

The one with Ahmed sir, where we talked about my buying 90 years of bound Punch magazines. It took him about 30-odd minutes to convince me that I should not pay him my money. He talked about some of his other regular customers, and how he does not want me to end up like them, buying books just to own them. Sometimes, I think he knew me better than my friends did.

8. If you witness someone else reading a book, what habit of theirs is likely to piss you off?

Seeing someone reading a book without any discernible reactions, especially when I know it’s supposed to make you laugh or react in some way. My bad habit is that if I see the person reading a book I know, I keep asking “where are you now?” and “what do you think?”. It’s almost like I take their reaction to it personally. Stupid.

9. What was the most bizarre dream you had after reading a book?

I dreamt something really terrifying after reading From Hell the first time. I do not want to remember what I saw in my dream, but it was to do with entrails, Ganesha, living cities and a coach following me through cobbled streets. Brrr.