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I have had this book for a while, and as I am in a sports book reading spree now, I thought it was time to read it.

Denis Compton was one of the greatest English cricketers. He played between 1937 and 1957. He was one of the two important batsmen in the English test team of his time. (The other was Len Hutton.) Denis Compton also played football professionally. He played for Arsenal in the English league, and he also played for the England team during the war years. He was a rare bird that way, because he played two sports equally well and he also played them both professionally. He was a double international. Such a thing is next to impossible today. This book is his authorized biography.

This book is a traditional sports biography and so it is a treat to cricket and sports fans. It looks at Denis Compton’s cricket and football careers closely, though I would say that the cricket coverage is more. The book talks about his family background, how he was born in a blue collar family (his father was a painter, decorator and a fence-mender and later when things became hard, he became a lorry driver), how he played street cricket with his friends and honed his skills, how his sports masters in school recognized his talent and helped him by nurturing his natural style, his matches for his school, how he ended up playing county cricket for Middlesex and football for Arsenal, his important innings in big matches, how he ended up playing for England, how the war interrupted his career, how he accomplished some of his greatest sporting deeds after the war, his relationship with famous players including teammate Len Hutton, wicketkeeper and best friend Godfrey Evans, his Australian rival and great friend Keith Miller, the great Don Bradman himself, his captains Robins, Gubby Allen, Peter May and others. There is also something about his relationship with John Arlott, which didn’t really go that well. The book also covers something about his personal life, his marriages, his family, but these parts play second fiddle to the cricket. The latter part of the book talks about his post-retirement life, some of the controversies he was involved in, and how he continued to be popular among new generations of fans till his last days.

This is the first time I am reading so much about Denis Compton. From the descriptions in the book and the pictures in it, he seems to have been a person, who looked incredibly handsome like James Bond (as someone said, every boy wanted to be like him and every girl wanted to be with him), and who played like a combination of Sehwag (because of his rapid scoring, amazing hitting and unconventional shots), and Mike Hussey (because he was brilliant at farming the strike with tailenders and having unbelievable partnerships). Who is this guy? Why haven’t I seen him play? Why wasn’t he born in my generation? Or why wasn’t I born in his generation? Looking at his pictures, it is hard to believe that he was from a working class background and he left school when he was 14 years old. He looks like a dashing, debonair aristocrat who went to Oxford or Cambridge. I would have loved to watch him play. It would have been a great experience. In 1947, two years after the war got over, when England was in bad shape, he singlehandedly uplifted the morale of his country with his exquisite batting. That was the year which was his Annus Mirabilis – he made 3816 runs with 18 hundreds, a record which has still not been equalled. But it was not about the numbers but about the way he played, the style, the dash he showed on the cricket field, the joy he brought to spectators. The great Neville Cardus describes that beautiful summer thus :

“Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as I was in this heavenly summer when I went to Lord’s to see a pale-faced crowd existing on rations, the rocket bomb still in the years of most folk – see this worn, dowdy crowd watching Compton. The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all hearts at the sight of Compton in full sail…There were no rations in an innings by Compton.”

I wish I had been around in 1947, as a schoolboy, watching Compton bat at Lord’s. That would have been one of the great experiences in life.

The book describes his legendary partnerships with tailenders – it is a rare skill which only very few batsmen have. Compton seems to have had that talent in ample measure. I can’t remember anyone other than Mike Hussey playing so well with the tail. (Hussey was so great that he once inspired Glenn McGrath to hang around and make a half century. McGrath, though he was one of the greatest bowlers of alltime, was a genuine No.11 and a proper mug with the bat.) Compton seems to have been even better. Another thing that I loved about Compton was the way he did very well when his team faced extreme adversity. Batting brilliantly with the tail was one example of that. During the 1948 Ashes, when the Australian team just walked over England, Compton was the only (or one of the few) English batsmen to have shown resistance and who counterattacked. In one match, during that Ashes series, he got hit by a ball, had to go to the hospital and get stitches, after which he came back and made a big hundred. It was the stuff of legend. I had read about that Ashes series only from an Australian perspective, in Bradman’s autobiography ‘Farewell to Cricket‘. So it was nice to read the English perspective here. I was also very surprised to discover through the book that Compton and a few other batsmen of his time scored runs at an extremely rapid pace, sometimes – like a hundred runs in an hour. It almost looks like a T20 rate of scoring! We tend to believe that cricket at those times was played at a relaxed, languid pace, but the book shows that that is not always the case. Compton’s rivalry with Miller on the cricket field and their great friendship off it, is also so beautifully described in the book. Miller was my boyhood sporting hero, and it is so nice that these two great handsome, dashing stars were great friends too.

One more thing that I have to say about the book is that it is an admirer’s, a fan’s biography. It doesn’t necessarily try to provide a balanced view of things. It mostly describes things from Compton’s perspective. So if a critic or a fan says something critical about Compton, then the book describes why Compton might be right on the issue. Sometimes this is convincing. At other times it is not.

I loved Denis Compton’s biography. Tim Heald has written it beautifully in accessible prose, done his research well, and included beautiful anecdotes – some well known, and some lesser known – which are a delight to read. Heald even asks the question that I did – on why Compton was never knighted – and nearly finds the answer to that. This book takes us to that beautiful era between the ’30s and ’50s, when cricket was a more laidback and probably a more beautiful game, and keeps us there. I wish I had read this book when I was a teenager – Compton would have become my sporting hero then, alongwith Miller. If you are like me – that is, your favourite cricketers had retired before you were born – you will love this book. Or alternatively, if you love cricket history, you will love this book.

Have you read ‘Denis Compton : The Life of a Sporting Hero‘ by Tim Heald? What do you think about it?

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Ever since I discovered that David Foster Wallace’s tennis articles have been compiled into one book, I have wanted to read it. What more can one want – one of the great contemporary writers writing on one of my favourite sports? What can be better? I finally got the book a few days back and read it.

String Theory‘ is a compilation of David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis. It is a slim book at 138 pages. (If we include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s introduction, it is 145 pages.) The book has five essays. The first one ‘Derivative Sport at Tornado Alley‘ is autobiographical. In that essay David Foster Wallace writes about how he got into tennis, how he was good at it at the junior level, how the tornado weather of his hometown in Illinois influenced his tennis game, and how his game didn’t improve as he got older and how he moved away from tennis to mathematics and creative writing.

The second essay ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart‘ is about Tracy Austin’s memoir ‘Beyond Center Court‘. In this essay, Wallace reviews Austin’s memoir. He is not impressed by it – he calls it ‘this breathtakingly insipid autobiography’ and quotes excerpts from it to prove his point. If it had ended there, it would have been just a negative review of a ghosted autobiography. What makes the essay great is what Wallace does after that. He asks why a genius player like Tracy Austin – who won her first professional event when she was 14, won her first grand slam when she was 16, and was World No.1 when she was 17 – why a player like this who played sublime tennis, can’t reproduce those tennis skills on the written page. He investigates this and it is incredibly beautiful and insightful to read. On the whole, the essay is a negative review of a book, but it is one of the finest, most beautiful negative reviews of a book ever written. David Foster Wallace has elevated book reviewing to an art form here and I was so thrilled and so jealous to read it. I wish I could write like this.

The third essay ‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness‘ (in addition to having a long title, it was also the longest essay in the book, at around 45 pages) is about Michael Joyce, the tennis player. Michael Joyce was a tennis player who was active in the 1990s. He later became Maria Sharapova’s coach. David Foster Wallace goes to watch the Canadian Open and spends time with Michael Joyce and follows his progress closely through the draw. He offers his thoughts on Joyce’s game, how it compares with other top tennis professionals of that time, and investigates what is the difference between the game of a top 100 player like Joyce, another player who has to routinely play in the qualifiers to reach the main draw, and a top ranked player like Agassi or Sampras. When I was younger, I mostly followed only the top players, but as I have got older, my favourite players have tended to be those who are not really top-ranked – I have tended to support the journeyman / journeywoman player more. Whenever my favourite player upsets a seeded player, I am thrilled and it feels like Christmas for me. So, when I read this essay, it resonated with me deeply.

The fourth essay, ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S.Open‘ is about what the title says. It was interesting, but it read more like a journalistic piece for the newspaper.

The fifth and last essay in the collection, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not‘, is David Foster Wallace’s most famous essay on tennis. In it, he waxes eloquent on Roger Federer, the Swiss great, and investigates what are the roots of his genius. One would expect a fan’s raving account, but this essay is definitely not that – Wallace elevates the gushing essay to art form, and it ends with one of my most favourite lines in the book. The book has an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan which is a beautiful essay on its own right.

I loved ‘String Theory‘. I have read excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s works before, but this was the first time I was reading a full-fledged book. Wallace is a master in the art of essay writing. He weaves together a delightful sport with exquisite prose and creates a beautiful work of art. His writing style is natural and not contrived, the beautiful passages are not artificially sculpted but flow naturally. I think this is how intelligent, non-pretensive writing looks like. Reading the essays in the book gave me a lot of pleasure and delight. I read my favourite, beautiful passages again and again. The earlier essays in the book have minimal footnotes, but the later essays have lots of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes flow into more than half the page. If you find footnotes distracting, you will find those pages annoying, but if you are a footnote lover like me, you will love it. One of my friends said that she wished that David Foster Wallace had been around to comment on Roger Federer’s comeback during the 2017 Australian Open. That would have been a great essay. I also feel it would be interesting to read what he thought about Djokovic and Nadal. It is sad that we will never know.

String Theory‘ is one of the finest books written on tennis or on any sport. Tennis is famous for ghosted autobiographies that famous players come out with, which sell like hot cakes. That is the single, most popular genre in tennis writing. Occasionally, there might be a big tennis book, which has a lot of pictures, or a book which talks about one of the famous matches. Books like David Foster Wallace’s, are rare. I haven’t seen one before. So I am very happy and glad that this exists. I wish Wallace had written more tennis essays. I wish this book was 500 pages long. But we have to take what we get. And I will take this.

If you are a tennis fan, or even an essay fan, this book is a must read.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Beauty of Sport

“Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we…revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or the best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful : Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man…Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.”

What Might Have Been

“The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art – what the tragic-savvy Greeks would have called her technē, the state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves – was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit. This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.”

On Michael Joyce

“If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn’t. And television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do – how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man, who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies.”

“Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and his self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art – something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.”

On Beauty in Sport

“Beauty is not a goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex and cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

On Roger Federer

“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform – and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

Have you read David Foster Wallace’sString Theory‘? What do you think about it?

When I went to the bookshop a couple of weeks back and saw Mike Brearley’s newest book ‘On Cricket‘, I was very excited! The release of any new book by Brearley is an event and I couldn’t wait to read it. I dropped whatever I was reading then and started reading Brearley’s book. I didn’t want to rush and read it slowly, savouring every word and sentence, and reached the last page yesterday.

I am sure cricket fans here would have heard of Mike Brearley, but if you haven’t, here is a little bit about him. Brearley was one of the greatest English test captains. He made his debut for England when he was around 34 years old, and it happened probably by good fortune. He became the captain probably after a year, because of more good fortune and historical accidents – like the Kerry Packer series. But his real self flowered when he became captain. He was a brilliant leader, he knew how to inspire the team, he was wonderful strategically and tactically, and it all came together for him. After a wonderful stint as captain, he retired. England started a new Ashes series in 1981 against Australia and they were in a disastrous position, with their present captain Ian Botham having a bad year as captain, and during mid series, the selectors requested Brearley to come back and lead the team. He came back to just lead the team. He stood in the slips while fielding, he batted at No.9 or 10, and just captained.

(Brearley’s test batting average was 22.88. There is nothing much to say about it other than that there was no way he could have been picked for any international cricket team, as a batsman, with that batting average. One of the great things about Brearley is that he pokes fun at himself about it. There is a passage in the book which goes like this – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 😁)

Now back to the story of the 1981 Ashes. Brearley turned the series around with his amazing leadership, inspired Botham to get back his magical game, and won the series 3-1 for England. He then promptly went back and retired from the game. It is a story as fantastic as the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus, who had retired and was working as a farmer in his small farm when his country went into deep crisis because of enemy invasions. The people prayed to him to come back from retirement, and he did, and led his country’s army and defeated his country’s enemies. But once it was all done and dusted, when his fame and authority were at their highest, he handed over the reigns of the country to the civilian authorities and went back to his small farm and continued with his farming. It is a story which gives me goosebumps everytime I think about it. Brearley’s story during the 1981 Ashes is the sporting equivalent of that. After retiring from the game, Brearley became a psychoanalyst. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy‘, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest books on cricket captaincy or even leadership ever written. He also wrote the occasional cricket article for the newspaper. Now in the last two years, after a long hiatus, he has published two books in succession. It feels like Christmas.

On Cricket‘ is mostly a collection of short essays and articles that Brearley wrote across the years and some he wrote especially for this volume. I think half of the articles are modified versions of already published articles and half of them are new. The book is divided into many parts. The first part is very autobiographical and in that part Brearley talks about how he got into cricket during his childhood and how his father, being a club cricketer himself, inducted him into the game. He also talks about two of his favourite players Len Hutton and Denis Compton. If you like cricket history, especially post-Second World War cricket history, these two chapters are an absolute delight to read. There is a section on the Ashes (there is a good discussion of Douglas Jardine and the Bodyline series in one of the chapters), there is another where Brearley talks about his cricketing heroes (there are some usual suspects and there are some lesser known legends), there are two sections on cricket controversies, covering cricket and race, and cheating and corruption (the Basil d’Oliveira affair is covered in reasonable detail, there are also pieces which talk about the Zimbabwe affair involving Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, and another about how Frank Worrell became the first black captain of the West Indies), there is a section on the innovations which have happened in cricket (including thing like reverse swing and switch hits), there is a section on Indian batsmanship which will delight Indian cricket fans (Brearley reveals here that his wife is Indian, which is so cool). There is a section on commentators which is very beautiful – there are chapters which talk about the marvellous John Arlott, the great Harold Pinter, the wonderful Ian Chappell, and there is an overall chapter which discusses C.L.R.James’ famous question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?‘ There is a section on wicketkeepers and I was so happy to read that because there were chapters on two of my favourite keepers, Rod Marsh and Alan Knott. I wish Brearley had compared them both and revealed who he thought was the better among the two. Many former cricketers have said that Alan Knott was the greatest keeper ever, but Rod Marsh has the better keeping record in terms of catches and stumpings. Brearley praises them both, though I think he leans more towards one of them. I won’t tell you which one ☺️

One of the last sections in the book is about cricket and aesthetics. In my opinion it is the most beautiful section in the book and the section which is the most accessible to a reader who is not a cricket fan. There are two chapters in this section. In the first one, Brearley describes how cricket is the art of the masses. The second chapter is a conversation between Brearley and the art critic David Sylvester in which they compare cricket to art. This is the longest chapter in the book and probably the most beautiful. I think it is a must read for any reader who contemplates on beauty whether in its static or kinetic form.

I was so thrilled to read Brearley’s ‘On Cricket’. It is a pleasure to read for any Brearley fan and any cricket fan who likes intelligent writing. There are chapters in it which are fairly straightforward – like those in which Brearley raves about his favourite players. There are other chapters which bring cricket, art, philosophy, literature, beauty, music and psychoanalysis together and weave them into one beautiful whole. These chapters have passages which we will rarely find in a cricket book, passages like this –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

And this –

“When I hear the first movement of Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat, with its lyrical sweetness interspersed with growling rumbles from the lower depths, I think of John (Arlott).”

Mike Brearley says in his introduction to the book – “If a sufficient number of people enjoy the book, and if I live long enough, there may even be a sequel. You may take this as a warning or a promise.” I hope and pray that there is a sequel. Mike will be 77 this year (I can’t believe how fast the years pass), but I hope he lives long and writes not one but more sequels to this book. Mike Brearley is one of the greatest cricket writers in the last 50 years. I think he belongs up there with some of my other favourites, David Frith, Gideon Haigh, John Major (Yes! The former British Prime Minister wrote a cricket book! It is beautiful!), Ed Smith. He has a unique way of offering commentary on the overall state of the game which is very insightful, wise, aesthetic and a pleasure to read. I think the only contemporary cricket writer who can come close to him is Ed Smith. I hope more readers read this book and fall in love with it like I did.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Discipline Vs Flair

“We (all) need both discipline and flair.
We need to practise, to be trained, to think clearly, not to let ourselves off the hook into dishonesty and self-delusion. We need to learn from mistakes, keep control of our recklessness, rein in some of our emotions. We need to be realistic. Yet it is not realism to deny a further fact of human experience : that we also need to give up our desire to control everything; that we have to let go of our attachment to the will, and allow spontaneity, freedom and flair their place. We have to trust the parts of our minds over which we have no immediate control. Provided we have a sound basis of discipline and an ability to monitor what we produce, we need something other than, wider than, deeper than, discipline and convention.”

The Meaning of Life

“We are confronted in life by the reality that we are specks of dust in the vast aeons of space and time; that when we die we go (I believe) into nothingness; that our importance in the long run is nil; that we live always in the brink of ‘death’s dateless night’. But we believe that at the same time, or in the same breath, there are things (if one is lucky) that make life fascinating and well worth living. Literature, love, family closeness, art – all these and others may do so. Even sport quickens the apprehension, lifts the spirits, engages and challenges the whole being physically, psychologically, emotionally.
And cricket – a rare team game each of whose dramatic moments is a contest between individual protagonists, the only game that goes on seven hours a day for the best part of a week, and at the end of which neither side may be much nearer winning or losing than they were five days before – cricket has (for me) the capacity to enthrall, bore, enchant and also evoke argument to a greater extent than any other.”

The Essence of Sport

“…it is of the essence of sport that, unlike much music and theatre, the course and outcome are not ordained before the event, however predictable it might be that the favourite will win. The drama of sport lies partly in the way things turn out on the day. There is always the chance of a shock result. The result is not, then, ‘fixed’ in the other sense; that is, there is no script or score (as in theatre or music) : cricket matches are open to the vagaries of form, morale and luck. In normal circumstances we naturally take it as given that both sides are striving to succeed.”

On Beauty in Sport

“It is a nice question how far beauty lies in the outcome of an action. Is salvation achieved by works or by faith, by successful actions in the world, or by right attitudes? When David Gower, the languid genius of left-handed batsmanship, caressed the balls through the covers with effortless ease, and impeccable timing and placement, was his stroke any different from the one where the ball deviated a few centimetres, found the edge, and was caught at slip? Had elegant beauty degenerated into a careless waft? Would we have been right to bemoan and castigate his ‘carelessness’, his not going on? Yet both strokes were identical, both balls pitched in the same place, at the same speed, perhaps from the same bowler. Had these unpredictable centimetres turned virtue into vice, beauty into ugliness (the ‘waft’)? If we ignored the fate of the ball, we have exactly the same movements of the batsman. Phidias could have constructed his sculpture on the basis of either.”

Sport and Life

“Sport and art have something else in common. They are set aside from the absolute necessities, the bare necessities of life. And they have a frame around them. The painting with its frame, or the cricket ground with its boundary, or the boxing ring, or whatever. They are framed and set off from ordinary life. This wouldn’t be true of everything, of architecture for instance, but it’s true of many forms of art and sport. And yet within that frame, there’s a possibility of finding many of the qualities in life that we admire or lack in concentrated form. What fascinates us is a moral dimension, in a broad sense of ‘moral’ : the dimension of the revelation of human qualities.”

Have you read Mike Brearley’sOn Cricket‘? What do you think about it? Have you read any other Mike Brearley book?

I got ‘Elevation‘ by Stephen King as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I read it yesterday in one breath.

The story told in ‘Elevation‘ goes like this. Scott is a website designer. One day he discovers that he is losing weight constantly. And the surprising thing is that it doesn’t show in his physical appearance, because he looks the same as always, with a mild paunch. The second even more surprising thing is that even if he wears heavy clothes and boots, the scales show the same weight as when he is naked. This clearly is not a simple, straightforward health condition. He gets a health checkup done, without mentioning the problem to the doctor. The doctor says his health is perfect. Then he talks to his friend Bob who is a retired doctor and tells him the truth. Bob is surprised because he hasn’t seen anything like this before in his life. Bob advises Scott to get further tests, but Scott refuses, because he feels that he will be regarded as a crazy person or he will be treated like a lab animal. Both of them decide to keep an eye on Scott’s weight. Though Scott is losing weight, he feels very energetic. He finds that very odd. Scott’s neighbors are Deirdre and Missy, a lesbian couple. They own a Mexican restaurant in town. The people in the town are still conservative and they keep Deirdre and Missy as arm’s length and mock them behind their backs. Missy takes it in her stride, but Deirdre is not happy with things. Scott has an interaction with Deirdre but it doesn’t go well, as she regards him with suspicion too. Then there is a 10K run in the town. Deirdre is the best runner in town and she is expected to win. Scott registers himself for the event, because of his new-found energy. How these three strands come together – Scott’s strange health issue, the relationship between Scott and Deirdre and Missy and the two ladies and the whole town, and what happens at the 10K run and after – forms the rest of the story.

Elevation‘ is a very un-Stephen King book. The first thing is that it is 132 pages long. It is not one of those epic 1000+ page Stephen King books. The second thing is that, in most Stephen King books, the story happens in a small town in Maine, and some strange stuff happens (which is the case here too) and at some point, someone take a huge knife and plunges it down someone else’s chest. There is none of that here. Here, it is like, Stephen King decides to turn Paulo Coelho or Richard Bach or Antoine de St.Exupery, and gives us a beautiful, inspiring fable, with strange happenings. Of course, the comparison is not perfect, because it is still a Stephen King story and so it has the regular King-esque elements that King’s fans look forward to.

I have read very few Stephen King books because of their enormous size. If I remember right, I have read only three – ‘The Talisman‘ (which he wrote with Peter Straub), ‘Rose Madder‘ and ‘On Writing‘. The first one is a regular King chunkster, but the other two are smaller. I mostly watch film and TV adaptations of Stephen King books, because that is more easier (I have seen atleast 14 film and TV adaptations – I just counted). But I have always been a big fan of his storytelling skills and admire him hugely because he has survived the hit that happened when the Cold War ended, when most of the writers who were popular during the Cold War suddenly disappeared overnight -writers like Irving Wallace and Harold Robbins and Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins and Hammond Innes and Len Deighton and others. Stephen King has survived that and has stayed relevant and thrived. His ‘On Writing‘ brought him a new generation of fans and those fans who never read horror fiction before started reading his works. In recent times, King seems to have moved away from horror fiction and has started writing crime fiction. And now this ‘Elevation‘ has happened. It is neither horror nor crime, but it is about strange happenings, and about friendship and about community. It is beautiful, inspiring, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. I loved it.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“You could feel weight, yes – when you were carrying too much, it made you ploddy – but wasn’t it, like time, basically just a human construct? Hands on a clock, numbers on a bathroom scale, weren’t they only ways of trying to measure invisible forces that had visible effects? A feeble effort to corral some greater reality beyond what mere humans thought of as reality?”

“An idea came to him then, the way his coolest ideas sometimes did : almost completely formed, needing nothing but a few tweaks and a little polish. Cool ideas weren’t necessarily good ideas, of course, but he intended to follow up on this one and find out.”

“It was what Milly had called the following wind, and what pros like McComb no doubt called the runner’s high. Scott preferred that. He remembered that day in his yard, flexing his knees, leaping, and catching the branch of the tree. He remembered running up and down the bandstand steps. He remembered dancing across the kitchen floor as Stevie Wonder sang ‘Superstition’. This was the same. Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go further still.”

Have you read Stephen King’sElevation‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Stephen King novel?

This is the fourth book I read from the iconic ones which reinterpreted the Batman myth. This one is a 46-page book about how the Joker came to be. It is regarded as one of the great watershed books in the Batman universe. It describes how the Joker was a normal person, a common man, and how people and circumstances and society made him what he came to be. It tries to show that the line separating sanity and insanity is very thin. This book is less about Batman and more about the Joker. There is nothing much that I would like to say about the book – it is slim and so you should read it and discover its secrets yourself. I will sing some praises though. Here they come.

The Killing Joke‘ is written by Alan Moore. So the book is as unconventional as they come and very different from other Batman books. The artwork by Brian Bolland is stunning. I think this is the most beautiful artwork out of all the recent Batman books I have read. The other artists I am comparing Brian Bolland to, are Tim Sale (‘The Long Halloween‘), Frank Miller (‘The Dark Knight Returns‘) and David Mazzucchelli (‘Year One‘). I liked them all, but Brian Bolland’s art was the most beautiful. Tim Sale is probably my next favourite, followed by David Mazzucchelli, with Frank Miller bringing up the rear (Sorry Frank!). I will keep an eye for more Brian Bolland illustrated books. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the book by Tim Sale, who describes the impact the book had on him and other readers when it first came out. There is an afterword by Brian Bolland, the man himself, in which he describes how the book came into being. I loved reading these two great artists’ thoughts.

I think ‘The Killing Joke‘ might be my alltime favourite Batman book, because of the stunning artwork and for the amazing stuff that the Joker says. He almost becomes Nietzsche when he speaks those insightful lines. I have shared some pages so that you can get a feel for them. (I am not sure, but there might be some spoilers. So please be forewarned.) ‘The Long Halloween‘ will probably come in second and on a good day, might give ‘The Killing Joke‘ a run for its money.

Have you read ‘The Killing Joke‘? What do you think about it?

My journey into Batman folklore continues. The third consecutive Batman book that I read was ‘The Dark Knight Returns‘. Frank Miller’s reimagining of the Batman myth created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1986 and is regarded as an iconic book now.

In the story told in the book, Batman has retired and is fifty years old now. Harvey Dent and the Joker are in an asylum now. Selina Kyle is running an escort service. Jim Gordon is nearing retirement from the police service. A new wave of crime hits Gotham City. A new gang of people are doing bad things. Batman comes back from retirement and tries to protect the city. But the public is divided – some people feel that Batman is good for the city while others feel that he is a criminal himself for taking the law into his own hands. Jim Gordon is on Batman’s side. But the incoming Police Commissioner Ellen Yindel wants to arrest Batman. Before long, Harvey Dent and the Joker are out of the asylum and back to their nasty tricks. There is also some tension between the two superpowers of the Cold War era. And things start going bad for everyone.

I found ‘The Dark Knight Returns‘ quite interesting. It is an iconic book because it took a superhero comic and made it into a comic for grownups. It is sometimes dark, it is more violent than classic Batman comics, it offers commentary on the society and the politics and international affairs, which were all new at that time. There is even a nuclear bomb exploding, a 9/11 type plane crashing into a skyscraper, a nuclear winter, an imagination of the scenario in which the Cuban Missile Crisis situation is not defused but explodes. These are fascinating things. It is almost epic in scope. The other superhero Superman makes an appearance at one point in the story and there are some interesting scenes between the two gentlemen. In one scene, Bruce Wayne even takes a dig at Clark Kent. There are some stylish scenes and cool dialogues in the book. (I am sharing a few below.) The underlying theme – Bruce Wayne coming back from retirement and becoming Batman again to fight crime – reminds one of the Roman general Cincinnatus, who came back from his life as a farmer and took charge of the army and defeated the enemies and then handed over authority and went back to his farm. Or it is probably more closer to Michael Kohlhaas taking on the establishment and fighting for the common man in Heinrich von Kleist’s eponymous novella. It is inspiring and we can’t stop backing the aging Batman. These were all good things in the book. I liked the book for these things. But I didn’t really love the book and I am not able to rave about it, because there were too many things stuffed into it and I really hated Superman being part of the story. Batman and Superman are two very different people and they don’t belong in the same story, in my opinion. But I enjoyed the stylish scenes and would love to explore more of Frank Miller’s work, especially, his noir series, ‘Sin City‘, because his cool style will really work there. The ending of the story is very fascinating and must have been very unusual for its time.

After reading three consecutive Batmans I am getting Batman fatigue now. I have one more book left and once I get through that, I will go back to reading books that no one else reads and normal service will resume in these parts.

Have you read ‘The Dark Knight Returns‘? What do you think about it?

2018 – My Year of Reading

2018 was a wonderful reading year for me. Though, in a general way, I felt that I read less, and I had multiple reading slumps through the year, when I look at my reading list now, I feel that it was a spectacular year. I wanted to read around 70 books and I read 71. It was way more than what I had read the previous year or in recent years. I also read some thick chunksters which I had wanted to read for a long time. Most important of these was ‘Collected Fictions‘ by Jorge Luis Borges, which I had wanted to read for a very long time. I am glad that I am finally able to cross it off my list. I also read a significant number of Kindle books, which was a new experience for me. At one point, I think I read 10 straight Kindle books. Every year, I make a list of my favourite books. I love most of the books I read and so it is always a struggle to leave out books which I loved. So, this year, instead of making a favourites list, I decided to just share my reading list from 2018, with a brief description of each book. If a particular book didn’t work for me, I have mentioned that.

So, here is my reading list from last year.

Reading List

Fiction

Literary Fiction

(1) The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig – Stefan Zweig is one of favourite authors and I was so happy to read all his novellas together.

(2) Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi – One of the great works of the twentieth century which deserves to be more famous. Firdaus is one of the most haunting characters in literature.

(3) The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa – A beautiful, charming ode to food.

(4) Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – A beautiful love story, Goethe style.

(5) And the Ocean was Our Sky by Patrick Ness and Rovina Cai – A retelling of the Moby Dick legend from the whale’s perspective. The whale is called Bathsheba. And she is awesome.

(6) Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neumann – A beautiful road novel about family and love.

(7) In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González – A beautiful novel by a Columbian writer who is not called Marquez.

(8) The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – Krauss’ finest novel probably. This sentence from it – “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – is probably one of the most famous sentences in contemporary fiction.

(9) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Atwood’s masterpiece. Tells you what ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum‘ means.

(10) Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan – A beautiful haunting novel about love and revenge. A beautiful discovery for me, thanks to fellow raccoon, Renuka.

(11) Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park – A road novel about love and family set across a snowy landscape.

(12) Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – An insightful, powerful novel about the African-American condition. Who can resist this title?

(13) The Last Days by Laurent Seksik – A novel which describes the last days of Stefan Zweig. So moving and haunting.

(14) A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – A beautiful novel about growing up in Switzerland.

(15) Manju by M.T.Vasudevan Nair – A beautiful novel about life and love and being a single woman.

(16) The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov – An interesting literary thriller. I can’t remember how it ended! Need to read it again.

(17) The Brother by Rein Raud – A revenge thriller. My first Estonian book.

(18) Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner – My first Faulkner. Didn’t go well because it was written in stream-of-consciousness style. One of my friends says that Faulkner is the greatest American writer of the 20th century. Another friend says that Faulkner is one of her favourite writers. I admire them both. So I am hoping to read more Faulkner this year. Hoping that my next Faulkner goes better.

Historical Fiction

(19) Exit Lady Masham by Louis Auchincloss – A beautiful historical novel about how the queen’s maid becomes the most powerful person in the kingdom. An interesting account of a fascinating period in English history.

(20) Beaten by a Beard and other stories by Nandini Sen Gupta – A unique book because it is a collection of historical short stories. All of them are based on real events which are not so well known. A brilliant work.

Short Stories

(21) The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig – Brilliant collection, which is also chunksterish. Loved every page.

(22) The Stories of Ray Bradbury – I finally read this after getting it years back. Such a brilliant collection which showcases Bradbury’s storytelling skills.

(23) Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges – Finally got to read the Master’s complete fiction. So brilliant.

(24) The First Person and other stories by Ali Smith – My first Ali Smith book and I loved it. Can’t wait to read more of her works.

(25) My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead : Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro edited by Jeffrey Eugenides – A wonderful collection of love stories. Some of the stories didn’t work for me but the others were amazing.

(26) The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North edited by Sjon and Ted Hodgkinson – A collection of Scandinavian short stories. Beautiful collection and a gorgeous edition.

(27) When Women Speak Up : A Women’s Web Collection of Inspiring Stories edited by Sandhya Renukamba and Aparna Vedapuri Singh – An beautiful collection of stories by women writers. So wonderful and inspiring.

(28) A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales by Ruth Calderon – A collection of stories from the Talmud narrated both in their original form and in a contemporary form. Very fascinating.

(29) Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson – A collection of stories about Australia’s bushfire. Very haunting.

Contemporary Fiction

(30) The Day Money Died by Percy Wadiwala – A novel about demonetization. Very stylish and charming.

Romance

(31) Undying Affinity by Sara Naveed – Sara Naveed is sometimes described as the Romance Queen of Pakistan and this novel shows why. Very charming and romantic novel with stylish and cool characters.

Young Adult

(32) In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner – A novel about art and love and depression, it is beautiful, dark and intense. Gae Polisner moves outside of her earlier sunny young adult landscape and enters a dark, intense, almost Tabitha Suzuma-ish territory with this book. Can’t wait to find out whether her next book will continue to explore this new landscape. This book also has these beautiful lines – “We can only make ourselves happy. We can’t save others. We can love others. But we can only save ourselves.

Science Fiction

(33) The Stone Gods by Jeannette Winterson – My first Winterson. It was good, but not necessarily amazing, though there was a mind blowing surprise in the end. Need to read more Winterson.

Fantasy / Fairy Tales

(34) Unfairy Tales by T.F.Carthick (Karthik Lakshminarayanan) – One of my favourite retelling of fairytales. Very unique, unconventional and charming.

Inspirational Fiction

(35) Out of My Mind : The Discovery of Saunders-Vixen by Richard Bach – Read a Bach book after a long time. It was inspiring. Made me want to take flying lessons. I even started doing research online on flying schools 😁

Plays

(36) The Collected Plays of Sujatha – Beautiful collection of plays by this master. This is the first time I am reading his plays and they were brilliant.

Poetry

(37) Ask Me : 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford – One of my favourite discoveries last year. Stafford’s poems are so beautiful.

Crime Fiction

(38) Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter – My first Inspector Morse novel. Very interesting.

(39) Agatha Christie : Shocking Real Murders Behind Her Classic Mysteries – An illustrated book which is a must read for every Agatha Christie fan.

(40) Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson – An old classic. It had an interesting premise, but it didn’t work for me.

Graphic Novels

(41) Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel and Manu Larcenet – A dark, bleak book with brilliant, haunting artwork. One of my alltime favourite graphic novels.

(42) Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi – A new discovery for me. A collection of Manga short stories that offer commentary on the human condition. Very fascinating and insightful. I want to read more of Tatsumi’s works.

(43) Chi’s Sweet Home, Volume 1 by Kanata Konami – A charming story about a stray kitten which is adopted by a family.

(44) Illegal by Eoin Colfer – Colfer’s experiment into new territory. Very beautiful.

(45) Amla Mater by Devi Menon – A charming novel about being Indian.

Comics

(46) Asterix (the first six volumes) by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo – My structured exploration of the Asterix canon. Charming experience for me.

(47) XIII (the first six volumes) by Jean Van Hamme and William Vance – The first part ‘The Day of the Black Sun‘ is one of the most gripping and haunting graphic novels of all time. But the story dips after a while and by the end of volume 5, the writers are really scraping the barrel. There are atleast 12 more volumes left. Need to find out how they are. But that first volume – that is one of the greatest stories ever written.

Children’s Literature

(48) One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll : A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice by Kathleen Krull and Júlia Sardà – A charming book and a must read for Lewis Carroll fans.

Nonfiction

Memoir / Journal

(49) Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton – A beautiful, meditative, contemplative journal. One of my favourite discoveries of the year.

(50) Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier – A haunting, heartbreaking memoir about the author’s mother’s descent into dementia.

(51) The Wine Lover’s Daughter : A Memoir by Anne Fadiman – Anne Fadiman’s charming memoir of her dad.

(52) Adrift : A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldman Ashcraft – An inspiring story about how a woman is lost at sea and how she survives that.

(53) Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann – A description of a particular summer when a few Austrian and German writers get together.

(54) Stranger on the Square by Arthur and Cynthia Koestler – Koestler’s last book. Interesting.

Sport

(55) Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – A great love letter to football. Must read for every football fan.

(56) What We Think About When We Think About Football by Simon Critchley – An intellectual look at football. Not as good as ‘Fever Pitch’ but still very interesting.

Essays

(57) The Cockleshell by Robert Lynd – I finally read a complete collection of Robert Lynd’s essays. Infinitely charming.

(58) Upstream : Selected Essays by Mary Oliver – My favourite poet’s essay collection. She shows that she can write prose as well as she writes poetry.

Wildlife

(59) Lions : A Portrait of the Animal World by Lee Server – My favourite big cat described in all its glory with breathtaking photos.

(60) The Sting of the Wild by Justin O’Schmidt – A beautiful description of stinging insects and one of my favourite books about the animal kingdom.

Current Affairs

(61) Fire and Fury : Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff – Interesting book, but with new things happening everyday, this book has aged fast.

Have you read any of these books? How was your reading year in 2018?