Category: Books

Confessions of a book snob

Confessions of a book snob

The mind changers

It really is true that despite years of living with someone, despite spending each waking-sleeping moment with him-her, you don’t really get to know them.

And so it was with me. After years of thinking myself a liberal, only recently I realised I am a book snob.

But first I must present my defence.

I come from a generation when we had few distractions – no TVs, no computers, not even phones to chat away with friends and no friends other than school friends. School was a good 10 kms away which by the standards of those times was pretty much in the ‘jungle’. 

So what did we do in the long summer vacations, Christmas breaks and weekends? We read, my sister and I, and we bonded, perfectly.

The other thing was that we went to a school run by strict Irish nuns who set high reading standards. The books we got were screened, I am sure. We had ‘age appropriate’ cupboards neatly labelled with the class they were suited to. We weren’t allowed comics till after class VI, not even Amar Chitra Kathas. We HAD to choose one book of fiction, one biography and one Hindi book each week. We HAD to have a book mark and a book cover failing which we weren’t allowed a book. All wonderful habits, I might add. Habits I cherish and I’m very proud of. Habits I wish I was better at inculcating in my children.

And so I grew up on Enid Blyton, Louisa Alcott, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and then – Georgette Heyers and Victoria Holts.

Later, I spent years at the news desk meticulously changing ‘color’ to ‘colour’, correcting language, following the ‘right’ way and getting more and more set in that right way, more sure than ever that I KNEW what was best when it came to reading.

I lost touch with kids’ books till I had kids of my own some two decades later. What a rude shock that was. Wimpy Kid, I am not a Loser, Geronimo Stilton and Lord my God!! Captain Underpants! Peppered with pictures and illustrations, arrows and diagrams, doodles and drawings with coloured text jumping at you from unexpected places, with font that changed like a shape shifter – an unwarranted assault on my senses! What were these? Half-comic-half-book-half scribbled notes? Mongrelised reads, all.

I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comic and my heart broke a bit. When I spotted a Captain Underpants in my son’s hands I freaked. The spellings were blasphemous. How could I allow it?

I looked down upon them all. I pushed forward my favourites. Noddy, Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Amelia Jane. As if in retaliation, the children rejected the lot. Each of them. I was heartbroken and I gave up on my kids as non-readers.

And then, very recently, I stumbled upon this article that said to ‘Everyone Loves Reading – Just Find the Right Book’ written by Tanushree Singh. And I was forced to re-evaluate my attitude.

I wasn’t all wrong. However things have changed. 

Books are now not competing with other books. They are competing with television, the iPad, the PS-3 and the lure of friends at the door. They have to squeeze themselves between dance class and karate class, hold their own with Othello and Topple, fight off the Barbies and the Power rangers.

It cannot be easy.

What they need, desperately, are friends, friends not book racists, not heartless, judgmental critics. Friends, among parents, teachers and all sensible adults. Friends who would understand why they have had to change avatars, why they have to dress themselves up as graphic novels and comics. 

Besides, wasn’t Enid Blyton banned in schools in her time? Isn’t Roald Dahl irreverent and gory and yes, rude, in bits? Who’s to judge the good and the bad? By all means ban the obscene, ban the bad language, ban the overtly violent but stop there. Rather than choosing just the best, reject just the worst. Let more of them make the cut.

God knows our kids need them way more than they need our kids.

Starting a book club

Starting a book club

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, often something good stems from something not so good.

N plays every evening with a bunch of girls. Since it’s a mixed crowd across age groups, they often end up simply ‘hanging’ out much like teenagers : chatting, arguing and sometimes fighting, often ending in tears for at least one of them.

Many times I have tried to make peace but convincing a group of 11- 12 year olds to give up prejudices, however temporary, is hard. After N came home on two consecutive days crying since the girls had ‘boycotted’ her for some reason I decided to do something about it. In no way am I implying she’s always a victim. I am sure there are days she’s at the other end too.

I’ve often shared here, how I’ve been trying to get the kids to take to reading and also that that I’ve had little success.

I’d been toying with the idea of a book club for a long time and I thought it would be a great diversion for the girls. It would give them something constructive to think about and talk about. And so The Book Club was born and inaugurated this Saturday, without any fanfare, I might add!

Here’s the plan

1. The children meet each Saturday for an hour. They get a story to read which they have to finish till the next meeting.
2. Since none of them are into heavy reading, it shall be short stories first. If the story is too long it’ll be broken up into parts. Or we’ll take up excerpts.
3. When we meet the following Saturday we’ll talk about the book.
– one of the kids will do a short recap.
– we’ll pick some tricky words to talk about.
– pick some characters to discuss – their favourite ones, what they liked or didn’t like
– we’ll discuss alternative endings or anything else that takes our fancy
4. And – this one’s purely to keep the kids hooked – we’ll do an activity based on the book. It could be drawing a scene from the book, or acting out a sequence, or dressing up like the characters.
5. Oh and one last thing to keep the kids coming – there’ll be some snacks too!!

We’ll have a few rules

… For what’s a club without rules?
1. Read the book before you come to the meeting
2. No interruptions. Raise your hand if you do have to interrupt.
3. Listen to each speaker
4. Address the group not individuals.
5. Be polite
6. Any problem? Suggestions. Do discuss. 
(I find the stories too long, too short, too simple, too tough. 
I have exams I will not be able to read the story.)
7. If you cannot come to a meeting let us know in advance.

So this Saturday we had our first meeting

Since it was the first class and the kids hadn’t been given a story I asked them to draw a scene from their favourite story and let the others guess what it was. We had a Mermaid, a Rapunzel, a Cinderella, A Red Riding Hood, an Alice in Wonderland and even a Supandi.
Then I gave them the story for the next week. A simple one called ‘The Dragon Rock’ (I have to keep H enthused also, you see). Since we had time I got each of the kids to read a paragraph from the story. They had so much fun that we might make book reading a regular feature.
I am keeping it an open exercise as of now because I don’t know what the kids will like. I don’t even know if they’ll keep coming but I sure as hell am going to try.


On next week’s agenda a craft activity : Making a dragon
and a brand new story.

Now here’s where I need your help… 

This is a first for me and I’m pretty much on my own so I’m hoping you guys can be my sounding board. 
1. If you have any tips about book clubs do let me know.

2. If you can think of book related activities drop me a line.

3. If you know of any short stories that would appeal to the age group of 6-12 ping me please, specially ones from other cultures – Chinese folk tales or Russian stories. I’m leaving out Panchatantra and other Indian stories since the kids might have read them and the novelty factor is essential to keep them hooked. Links would be hugely appreciated since I can print out the stories.
Z is for Zadie Smith

Z is for Zadie Smith

Born 1975
From the age of 5 to 15 Zadie Smith wanted to be an actress. She was pretty good at tap dancing and dreamt of starring in a musical. By the time she was in her mid teens she realised there were hardly any musicals being made and decided to part with that dream. And then writing happened.

She was born in London to a British father and Jamaican mother who migrated to Britain in 1969. She was christened Sadie Smith. At 14 she changed her name to Zadie. Interestingly a love for music runs in the family as two of her younger brothers are rappers.

Her debut

… was the stuff of fairy tales. At the University while studying English Literature she published a few short stories for a collection of new student writing called Mays Anthology. A publisher read those stories and offered her a contract for her first book, which made her go in search of a literary agent. Seems like a dream debut, doesn’t it? 
On the basis of a partial manuscript her book was auctioned among publishers. During her final year at Cambridge she finished her book, White Teeth. It was an runaway success. So overwhelmed was she that she went into a writer’s block. “I think (the success of this book is) a surprise which will last me my whole life,” she said in an interview. Her second book Autograph Man also proved to be a success.

White Teeth 

…began as a short story except it was hardly short, more of a Novella. And so she decided to expand it into a full sized novel. It spans three generations telling the story of two friends, World War II veterans Archie and Samad. It follows their lives and then of their children who pick varied paths in life. It touches upon issues of immigrants, war, religion and friendship. I liked the way the book jumps back and forth between England, Jamaica and Bangladesh bringing it all alive through vibrant descriptions.

On writing

…. Smith has rather interesting views. First, she doesn’t believe in creative writing classes. She dismisses them as ‘support groups for writers who find writing therapeutic’.  And writing’s no therapy, she feels. She advises extensive reading as the best way to become a writer. “The more people you read the better writer you become,” she says.
She likes to write in ‘any small room with no natural lighting’. She’s quite the rule breaker when it comes to a writing regime. Some days she writes all day and some days she cannot get beyond two hours. She hates being told about successful authors who follow specific regimes. 

Isn’t that heartening? Perhaps it IS okay to do things your own way and follow no one at all. So it doesn’t matter that Enid Blyton wrote 10,000 words a day in her ‘red’ room, or that Ian Fleming needed to get away to Jamaica each year to get that novel done, or that Dahl moved to his tiny shed away from the house. All one needs to do to become a writer is do things her own way and write from the heart.


And finally that’s The End! The April A to Z Challenge ends today and I really have no idea what I’ll do with myself. Looking forward to visiting all you lovely people now.

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.

Y is for Yiyun Li

Y is for Yiyun Li

Born 1972

Though born a Chinese, English is her chosen language of expression. Yiyun Li was born in Beijing China. As a student of Immunology she moved to America for further studies in 1996 intending to become a researcher just like her parents wanted her to. She had never written anything and writing was far from her mind. 

Writing happened quite by chance

During her days in America she attended an evening community writing class. She followed it up with more classes. Meanwhile she wrote some short stories. One of her stories, Immortality, was read by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Alen Mc Pherson. He was so excited he tracked Li down through a friend and sent a message saying she must continue too write. That made up her mind for her. A writer she did become.

Short stories and more..

Yiyun Li draws her subjects from China. Most of her stories are about small powerless people. Perhaps that’s why they are often cynical, tragic and frustrating. Her first book, which includes the story, Immortality, was a short story collection titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. I like her stories but more than that I like the glimpse of China she offers. Bits of history, the mood of the people, life under a dictatorship – all of that woven together in heat rending tales. Her writing is richly sprinkled with Chinese mythology and Chinese proverbs that she translates into English lending it a quaint quality.

The novel

Set in the 1970s The Vagrants is her debut novel. It opens with the gruesome hanging of a young woman and goes on to explore how different people in the city react to it. This one is no cheerful read, nor is it for those with weak stomachs. You despair as you find the eyes of dictatorship everywhere, corrupting everything and everyone, allowing for no escape. It reminded me a bit of George Orwell’s 1984. This one however is way more gruesome and graphic in gory detail. Not really my kind of book.

In China..

…Li refuses to release her books. They have been translated into over 20 languages but not in her native Mandarin. In a number if interviews she has said she feels China is not ready for her books just as much a she is not ready for them to be read in her country of birth.
Talking about whether her books represent China and its way of life she says, “It’s never my job to explain China.. We never ask an American writer to represent America or a British writer to represent Britain.” Yet it seems unavoidable that her characters are taken to depict China. Reminds me how Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth has come to represent China of another age.


And finally it’s time for the last post tomorrow. This last author, is half British, half Jamaican and aspired to be an actress before the literary world beckoned.

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.

X is for eXophoric

X is for eXophoric

It’s X day and I’m late. But today I bring on not one but three eXophoric authors. That is, multilingual authors who grew up speaking one language yet chose to write in another. India has lots of authors who write in English, so it really doesn’t seem like such a big deal. However the authors I have picked for today have not just written in their adopted language but have crafted works that have gone onto become Internationally loved.

Ha Jin (Born February 1956)

From a young teen who didn’t know a word of English to teaching it as a professor in an English speaking country and becoming an award winning author.. how’s that for progress? As a young boy Ha Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army. By the time he was 17 he was teaching himself the high-school course. In his late teens he joined an English Learner’s Programme only because he wanted to read, in original, Friedrich Engels’ book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844′. At the University he was assigned English as a major despite it being his last choice. Later he went on to study in America and stayed on after the Tienanmen Massacre. His books ‘Waiting’ and ‘War Trash’ won various awards.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

He was a true multilinguist. Born an Irishman he is one of the most famous novelist, poet, playwrite and theatre director. He had degrees in French and Italian. His works, at least initially were very strongly influenced by friend and fellow Irishman James Joyce who was similarly qualified and equally well-known. Beckett is known for his black comedy and a rather tragic take on human nature. He began writing in English. After the Second World War he switched to French. He said French allowed him to write in much simpler form and let him ‘escape the habits’ of English writing. His French works are thus rather minimalistic. In 1956 he returned to English and then on wrote his works in both languages. He translated his own works too. He is perhaps the only author whose entire works exist in two languages and also one who wrote simultaneously in two languages. Each time he translated his works, he revised them. What an interesting read it would be if one were to compare the same works in the two different languages!

Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1954)

He was Polish by birth and couldn’t even speak English fluently till his late twenties and even then with a strong Polish accent (which is why he could never take on teaching assignments). It was his third language after Polish and French. Conrad never finished school however he left with a knowledge of Latin, German and Greek along with Polish and French. He was fluent in the the latter two. He picked up English while working aboard a British ship from his shipmates. He was hired to take a steamship to Africa and was so appalled by the horrors inflicted by colonial rule that he felt he had to write about them and the fictional account turned into a book – Heart of Darkness. His works offer glimpses of French, Polish and Russian literature. He once commented, “English is so plastic – if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist.”

Isn’t that just the opposite of what Beckett said? And this is what I find so very interesting about authors. I love the way they perceive languages, the way they find their comfortable linguistic corners and come with startling works.

Personally, since I do not know French, I would go with Conrad. Living in India learning English has come to me quite as naturally as Hindi, my mother tongue and our national language. It is indeed one of the most pliant languages, absorbing diverse slangs, adapting multilingual words making them it’s own and allowing people world over to make it their own too. And so we have American English, British English and Australian English. Back home in India we have Hinglish, Punglish and scores of South Indian versions.


Tomorrow I bring for you another Exophoric author from China. Her books are rather dark, even gory yet the glimpse of China they offer is priceless. Stay tuned.


This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.