the wonderful world of veena.

19 June 2011

personal book list.

Jane and I were chatting last night about books, and I mentioned the list of 100 books everyone should read that bbc had published a few years ago.  We were discussing some of the books that we didn't really feel should be on the list, as well as others we thought were quite influential for each of us.  She told me I should make my own list of 100 books.  Now, I'm not sure if I have 100 that I can come up with, but I'm definitely going to give it the old college try.  I thought instead of listing all of them at once, I'll do a list of 5 each week, with a few lines [or paragraphs, in a few cases] about why I loved each book or what my memories are of reading that particular book.

This list is in no particular order, as on any given day I might feel one is more significant than another.  This is just the order that they are popping into my head.

Without further ado:

1. Shantaram [Gregory David Roberts].  It took me a long time to convince myself I could tackle the nearly 900-page behemoth that is this book, but once I read the opening paragraph, I couldn't stop.
The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air.  I could smell it before I saw or heard anything of India, even as I walked along the umbilical corridor that connected the plane to the airport. ... I know now that it's the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love.  It's the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilisations in resurrection and decay.  It's the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood-metal smell of machines.  It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats.  It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage.  It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers. ... But whenever I return to Bombay, now, it's my first sense of the city - that smell, above all things - that welcomes me and tells me I've come home.
 My most distinct memory of coming to India as a child is that initial smell of Bombay.  It's something I will never forget.  When I read these words, I could smell Bombay again, and I was hooked.

My brother read my copy a few years after I did, and he was always commenting on the difference in the passages he and I each found significant.  I read this after my initial 6-month stay in Bangalore, so I highlighted many of the passages about discovering India and getting to know India in its most basic and simple terms.  When he read it, he highlighted the passages about relationships and about picking yourself up and dusting yourself off.  We each had our own interpretations of it, and it touched us both in different - yet equally poignant - ways.

2. The Namesake [Jhumpa Lahiri].  This was a book my brother recommended to me, rather than the other way around.  For some reason I waited a few years to read it, and I'm glad I did.  Reading this story as a 20-something affected me in much different ways than it would have had I read it as a teenager.  Having those few extra years under my belt allowed me to experience the story and interpret it in a different light than if I had read it earlier.  Jhumpa Lahiri continues to be one of my favourite storytellers.  She manages to capture what it's like to grow up as a child of Indians in the US - desperately trying to fit in and keep up while also trying to maintain as much of your culture as possible - as well as what it must be like for recent immigrants to navigate a new world while at the same time trying to figure out the best way to raise a family in an unknown environment.

3. Beach Music [Pat Conroy].  This was the first nearly 900-pager that I read, and it was another one that I couldn't put down once I started.  It's both beautiful and tragic at the same time, which is not something that many writers can pull off simultaneously.  I've read almost all of Pat Conroy's books, and I always find that I am drawn in by his characters - they have layers and depths that you don't necessarily find in other books.  I've been wanting to re-read Beach Music for a while now, to see how different it is after nearly 8 years.  I have unfortunately given away both of my copies, so I'll have to see if I can find a used copy once I get back to the States.  I can't wait to dive back into it.

4. What is the What [Dave Eggers with Valentino Achak Deng].  This is the book that made me want to work in a refugee camp in Africa.  It is the true story of Deng's experience as a Lost Boy in Sudan - he was separated from his family as a small boy and joined a group of Lost Boys that walked across Sudan and first into Ethiopia and finally into Kenya.  He was one of the lucky ones who managed to survive and was chosen to come to the US as part of the Lost Boys Foundation.  The book goes back and forth between his experiences as a boy and his current experience trying to survive in Atlanta.  Eggers did not receive any royalties from the book; instead, all proceeds from its sale directly benefit the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.  That's something I can get on board with.

5. Three Cups of Tea [Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin].  I know there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this book in recent months, with Mortenson being accused of sensationalising many of the stories as well as taking credit for schools that were not built by his organisation.  I know this.  But for me, this was still an amazing book.  And Mortenson has still dedicated his life to building schools and educating girl children in Pakistan.  That takes balls.  So as far as I am concerned, if even half of the information in his book is true, I still think he's done a great job.

That's my list for today.  I'll be back with another 5 once I'm back from Mysore and Coorg next week.

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