I’ve loved reading since I can remember. I started off with Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, reading Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley University (or was it college) as my guilty treat. I then evolved to the ‘trashy novels’; Mills & Boon. I don’t know how much of a contribution these had on my vocabulary or my literary sense but they definitely embellished my imagination. I read these voraciously, making my way every Sunday to ‘Itwaar Bazaar’, to comb through dog-earned, oxidised, well-worn books, sprinkled with dust, lying on rickety old carts, attended by surprisingly well-read vendors. The moment he would notice my affinity for books with covers featuring long haired muscular Thor lookalikes passionately squeezing the dainty, almost anorexic arms of a golden haired damsel in distressed, he would dig out more and place them in front of me. I was a regular customer and I happily walked back to the car, laden with 20+ books, a trail of dust marking my exit.
But then when I turned 16, I knew it was time to a) mature my reading style/genre b) impress my very well-versed father. Yes, when I was 16, I really did want to join the ranks of the literary fanatics (as fufu as it sounds), the ones that could pull a quote by their old friend ‘Wilde’, the ones that could boast a library filled with the greats. So I picked up a book gifted by my dad, ‘Love in the times of Cholera‘ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I can truly say, I’ve never looked back. The book was a beast to get through. The words baffled me, the style intrigued me, the allegory was foreign to me and the writing intimidated me. I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t stop feeling frustrated. But I trudged along and in a few weeks of back and forth, reading one chapter and re-reading it again, I was done. And I was a fan. I knew that now, there would never be another I respected more than him and I realised how much I had missed out in my previous 16 years. This started my search for writers like Marquez and since then I’ve come a bit further, but when it comes to reading, I feel like I’m still lacking. But I guess that’s how we all feel right?
I just thought I would share my search, my finds and some humble thoughts about who I’ve found and who I admire.
The first book I read by him was My Name is Red, and I had heard it’s quite complex. Whoever said that was right! It was quite a feat to complete but left me feeling quite accomplished and lost (like there goes another book, now my search begins again). The book was split in chapters written entirely by different characters. So it shuffled between these characters and at the crux of it was a murder mystery as all the characters tried to figure out who the murderer was. The style is beautiful and the mastery is clearly evident in his writing. But what made this book unforgettable was the picture he painted of Istanbul in the sixteenth century and the miniature artists that were celebrated in that time. My knowledge of both had been quite limited but through his book Pamuk gave me a glimpse into the nitty-gritty of daily life in that era and the beauty of that style of art.
This opened up the door to his other works, like Museum of Innocence and Snow. Both were good, but I can say, Red was by far his best, at least for me.
He was introduced to me by a cousin who had figured that I was becoming fixated on this genre. The first book I read by him was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was quite unfamiliar with Czech culture, art or even the country itself, but I got a great introduction. This is an existentialist novel, focusing on the notion of ‘heaviness’ vs. ‘lightness’. It also highlights the path we choose in life and how once it’s taken, can never be compared to an alternate life, if another path had been chosen.
The book was heavy but inspiring and I must say, not the easiest for an 18 year old, but again, it left me feeling very ‘complete.’ Since then, I’ve explored many books from him and I must say, his writing, even if it is daunting and complex, it very satisfying. He’s not just a read, he’s an experience.
She was a complex creature and the only book of hers that I’ve read is The Bell Jar. A loose autobiography, it follows the story of a young woman who is trying to find her own in a world that she finds strange. She stands out like a sore thumb yet makes an effort to integrate, losing a part of her soul as she makes more and more of an effort. Parts of this book were jarring (no pun intended) and depressing. She manages to convey the feeling of being trapped in a bell jar where the air that circulates around you becomes void of oxygen, making it harder to breathe. One can detect her descent into depression as she tries to carve her place in a world that’s moving too fast for her. It was a great read but putting it down gave me a sense of relief just left me feeling uneasy. Especially the bits when you end up relating to her and her struggle. But I highly recommend it.
Now for a bit of a Middle Eastern flavour. I discovered him through his book titled Samarkand. It is fiction but loosely based on the travels, life and love of Omar Khayyam, and set in the 11th Century. It takes you through the journey which lead to the creation of the ‘Rubbaiyat‘ but it is beautifully crafted and gives one an insight about the time. I had never read the poetry before but after this novel I was definitely intrigued. Maalouf’s style isn’t complicated but it is succinct and the verses flow very beautifully into each other. His description of the Samarkand court and the love between a poet and Omar Khayyam paints a picture so vivid, it was very hard to put the book down. I have attempted to read Leo Africanus since then but haven’t been able to get through it. But I still consider him one of the literary greats in my opinion.
A recent discovery for me was this author’s book titled, Garden of Evening Mists. Parts of the novel are set during World War II and parts are post it, in Malaya. It traces the journey of a Chinese woman who is held in captivity in a Japanese camp during the war. Post war, she meets a Japanese artist who designs gardens and most of the tale is their relationship, set in the tumultuous and tension filled environment of a country nursing its wounds. I was fascinated by this book because it opened up yet another world for me, as I was only aware of the Far East from friends and of course my brief visits to it. But the history and culture was foreign to me. The writing is simple and easy to get through but the content is gripping and I guarantee, it’s a quick read. Must check out, if you are looking to expand your horizons.
These are just some of the highlights of my literary past that I could muster for now. Reading has always been my escape, and I hope books and authors like this can continue to come my way.
If you have any suggestions, please do send them over! Nothing makes me happier than to pick up a book and dive in. It’s more interesting than real life anyways, isn’t it?