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.


Youth In Revolt

The best book I read last year was Youth in Revolt by CD Payne. I had never heard of CD Payne in my life and I probably never would, had it not been for the US trip. I was bonding with Joel, a colleague who was reading Palahniuk’s Rant during lunchtime and who, when I mentioned I was reading the same book, took me to his cubicle and showed me his current read-list – a huge bunch of novels including Gaiman’s Stardust and King’s Lisey’s Story. We talked about writers we like, and suggested quite a few books to each other, and the name CD Payne came up then. The next day, Joel got me a bunch of Stephen King movie video cassettes, a video cassette player for me to hook up in my hotel room, and Youth in Revolt.

This is how the book begins:

WEDNESDAY, July 18 – My name is Nick. Someday, if I grow up to become a gangster, perhaps I will be known as Nick the Prick. This may cause some embarassment for my family, but when your don gives you your mafia sobriquet you don’t ask questions.

…. My last name, which I loathe, is Twisp. Even John Wayne on a horse would look effeminate pronouncing that name. As soon as I turn 21 I’m going to jettison it for something a bit more macho. Right now, I am leaning toward Dillinger. “Nick Dillinger”. I think that strikes just the right note of hirsute virility.

I was sold, right then and there. Nick Twisp was the nineties, American version of Adrian Mole – and unlike the latter’s exploits, which become exceedingly moribund and forced as the series progressed, Youth in Revolt ups the ante as we go further down the tunnel of horror and rapidly escalating absurdity that is Nick’s life. Every time I turned the page, the thought that came to mind was “Oh dear, he is not about to do that, is he?” and then realise that yes, Nick Twisp just burnt down half of Berkeley, yes, he’s just managed to prolong his virginity by a couple of years; oh yes, it does look like he’s going to bonk his best friend’s mother; oh, no, he’s planning to go back to school like this???

While Nick may be your archetypal geek-hero who’s the self-proclaimed ruler of all that he surveys, he’s as much a survivor ( like his creator, who had to go through a great deal to get the books published), the kind of person who not only refuses to play by the rules, but takes the rulebook, shits on it, and then makes his best friend pay for a peek at the hardened crust. (The scatalogical humour is just metaphor, so chill.) CD Payne makes his characters just the right amount of approachable and unfathomable, there are times when I do not know whether to be exasperated at Nick and his indefatigable attitude or just egg him on mentally. It was a treat reading about characters who, albeit in a fictional world, occupy the same area you do. I finished the book over Caltrain and BART rides ( coincidentally in sections of the book where Nick and Sheena are riding on the BART), deadline-ridden nights, and finally, during a car journey to LA – and then suddenly, deadlines whizzed past ( do deadlines become livelines once they are done with? Ghostlines if they are not met? ) and I had more free time on my hands, and I read one sequel (out of three) and the spinoff Cut to the Twisp in a week, and suddenly it was time to leave the US. Horror of horrors, the books were not available anywhere in the local bookstores, even though CD Payne was a Bay Area writer! Joel told me he had ordered the books directly from the writer’s website and that copies were available on Amazon, but there was no way I could get them in three days, especially when the next two days were Saturday and Sunday. Had to ditch the idea of getting the books, add them to the Wish-list and come back to India.

Fast forward seven months. tandavdancer was in town for the New Year, and one of the entries on his Hyderabad tour guide was to carpet-bomb as many second-hand bookstores as possible with his philanthropic presence. Now let me tell you something about the state of the used-book affairs here in Hyderabad. In a word, depressing. For quite some time, the collection of books has been stagnating – in a given book-sale, I would have to wade through piles of Terry McMillan’s Waiting To Exhale and Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood. Both are books against which I have no personal enmity, but I cannot but help considering them the poster-children of Dead Bestseller Syndrome, trillions of copies of over-stock being shipped from Canada, Australia, the USA and the UK just because exporters there thought us third-worlders would find the books inspirational or something. Add to this the fact that one rarely finds the titles one wants, the ratio of investment to return is pitiably low, hours of browsing miles of Dead Bestsellers often yielding one decent book, or maybe nothing at all. Another important factor probably would be that I am trying very hard to buy`books that I would want to read immediately, not stock them up until I complete a run or until a trilogy finishes or I get the first book someday. ( I did the last with the Illuminatus trilogy, and when I found the first book after a couple of years of owning the second and third books, I realised that maybe I didn’t want to read the series after all).

Having been completely vexed by this turn of events, I chose, sometime in the middle of last year, to stop going to second-hand bookstores here altogether. Maybe an extreme step, but people close to me will tell you how prone I am to indulge in practices that are Spartan. Uh, madness, I mean. I stopped altogether, which meant no visits to the Sunday market, no periodic dropping-in on MR or Best or Frankfurt ( that’s the bookstore, not the city), and even completely ignoring the outlet that had opened up right opposite my office, in ( what I thought was )a somewhat bizarre display of temptation and show-me-your-jalwa-type competition from the United Booksellers Association of Hyderabad.

So, on the first day of the year, when my friend wanted to visit the bookshops here, I accompanied him to the bookstall right opposite the office. It was about fifteen minutes away from where I stay, and from what I’ve heard, had a decent collection. The first thing my eyes focussed on when we entered the place was a pristine copy of Howard Chaykin/Mike Mignola’s adaptation of Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. This Fritz Leiber fantasy series, adapted by the duo sometime in the nineties and was brought back into print by Dark Horse pretty recently in a trade paperback collection, and, you guessed it right, was pretty high on my wish-list. Mignola’s style had just begun to change in this period, it was in that transitional phase between his early superheroic style and the later-day chunky blacks and whites that would define Hellboy. Bookstore: One, Beatzo: Zero ( or -400, which was the sum of money I was out of )

Emboldened a little, we decided to go downtown ( or is that uptown? )where the bulk of the shops were. On an impulse, I eschewed the Abids outlet in favour of the one on Liberty crossroads, it was operated from out of a cellar and was, especially when there was a powercut, scary enough to make a non-claustrophobic individual like me gasp and cry uncle.

While we were going around, I bemoaned the distressing lack of selection among the titles and was just about to suggest leaving when…there it was. Youth in Revolt by CD Payne, piled under a mountain of romance novels, and I swear I saw a Waiting to Exhale in that same pile. A hardcover Doubleday first edition copy, and priced at 50 Rs! tandavdancer bears witness to this – I nearly wept with joy at the miraculous operations of Hyderabad bookstores. My faith was renewed, hallelujah!

Of course, this happy circumstance was followed by my discovery of the second volume of the Myth Adventures compendium by Robert Asprin and a couple of Flashman books, which my friend happily added to his pile. By the time it was evening, I had further widened the rip in my resolve by dropping in on the Drongo Warehouse, and picking up Adrian Tomine’s Summer Blonde, Rick Veitch’s Maximortal and Hellblazer: Rare Cuts, the only Hellblazer TPB I didn’t have.

All this on the first day of the year. Not bad. And Joel didn’t even know there was a hardcover copy of Youth in Revolt, bwahahaha.