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Archive for December, 2020

Well, it is Christmas time and what makes us happier than new books 😊 This year after resisting temptation for most of the year and buying books only occasionally, I couldn’t resist it anymore and the dam broke, and I went crazy 😁 I blame it on the holiday season – something in the air makes us let our guard down. This is the second part of the new book arrivals.

(1) The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – I got this as a present from one of my favourite friends. It looks very beautiful. I don’t know whether Laing focuses on the pain of loneliness or on the bliss of solitude. I hope it is the second one. I can’t wait to read it. I got a beautiful cat bookmark too 😊

(2) Two Brian Dillon books – I included Brian Dillon’s ‘Suppose a Sentence‘ in my previous post. Couldn’t resist featuring it here too. I also got his memoir ‘In the Dark Room‘ and his famous ‘Essayism‘ (not featured here, but in my Kindle)

(3) The Years by Annie Ernaux – I have wanted to get Ernaux’ memoir for a while. It is all the rage these days, and I can’t wait to read it. I’m happy that at the grand age of eighty, she has become a literary superstar.

(4) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis – This was an impulse buy. It looked funny and I couldn’t resist it. It will be my first Kingsley Amis book when I read it.

(5) Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann – More Thomas Mann 😊 This one is a fictionalized imagining of the grown-up Lotte going to meet Goethe. I can’t wait to read it.

(6) Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – After reading Edmund Blunden’s First World War memoir, I decided to get Graves’ more famous one. Just started it. It is wonderful.

(7) Night of the Restless Spirits by Sarbpreet Singh – This is a collection of stories set during the 1984 riots in Delhi. This is one of the most shameful, violent and tragic episodes in recent Indian history, and this book promises to be heartbreaking.

(8) Spirit of Cricket by Mike Brearley – Brearley’s newest book. He was one of the great cricket captains during his time, and is one of the finest cricket writers now. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t wait to read this.

(9) A Sound Mind by Paul Morley – This was highly recommended by Kaggsy (You can find her short review here and longer review here). I love books on classical music and this promises to be interesting. I am looking forward to long pleasurable hours of reading the book and listening to the classical music compositions that it recommends. I also went and got Morley’s memoir ‘The North‘ (on the Kindle, so not featured here).

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them? What books did you buy or did you get as presents for Christmas?

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In J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘, the narrator and one of the main characters are soldiers in the First World War, and that experience leaves a permanent impact on their psyche. After I read the book, I thought I’ll read a First World War memoir to understand this more and I picked up Edmund Blunden’sUndertones of War‘.

I discovered Edmund Blunden when I was in school. An excerpt from his book ‘Cricket Country‘ was one of the lessons in our English textbook. In that section, Blunden talks about the beauty of the English cricket season and mentions the great allrounder Frank Woolley. After I read that excerpt, I wanted to read the book. But I discovered that ‘Cricket Country’ was long out-of-print. Years later I searched for it in Gutenberg and at other places online and it was still not possible to find. But while looking for this, I discovered that Blunden has written a First World War memoir. I was amazed! I always thought that Blunden was a cricket writer. It turned out that he was a poet who fought in the First World War. Blunden’s cricket book is almost never mentioned anywhere and it seems to be just a footnote in his career. I am not giving up though – I’ll still keep looking for it.

On the book itself, ‘Undertones of War‘ is regarded as one of the great memoirs of the First World War. It has been compared to Robert Graves’Goodbye to All That‘. Blunden is frequently mentioned together with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon as the three poets who fought in the First World War and survived to tell the tale.

Blunden’s memoir is not long. The edition I have is 190 pages long. Blunden doesn’t beat around the bush and start the book from his childhood and describe his family to us. He just gets to the point and describes how he signs up and gets called up to serve in the army. This happens on the first page. The rest of the book is about his war experiences. The book ends with Blunden coming back home, and the war not being over yet.

So what do I think about the book? Blunden is a poet, and it shows in every page. If it is possible to describe something in plain language and describe the same in poetic language, Blunden almost always chooses the second option. So there are many beautiful sentences and descriptions in the book. Sometimes it feels like we are reading a Wordsworth poem. For example, these lines –

“I heard an evening robin in a hawthorn, and in trampled gardens among the language of war, as Milton calls it, there was the fairy, affectionate immortality of the yellow rose and blue-grey crocus.”

And these lines –

“The village was friendly, and near it lay the marshy land full of tall and whispering reeds, over which evening looked her last with an unusual sad beauty, well suiting one’s mood.”

Even when he describes the war, he describes it like this –

“On the blue and lulling mist of evening, proper to the nightingale, the sheepbell and falling waters, the strangest phenomena of fire inflicted themselves. The red sparks of German trench mortars described their seeming-slow arcs, shrapnel shells clanged in crimson, burning, momentary cloudlets, smoke billowed into a tidal wave, and the powdery glare of many a signal-light showed the rolling folds.”

Blunden describes nature poetically at every opportunity he gets. This book has been described as an extended pastoral elegy in prose, and that is what it is.

There are, of course, descriptions of war, and shells exploding, and people getting killed, but those descriptions are not graphic or gruesome but brief, unlike war memoirs which might be written today.

Blunden also has a wonderful sense of humour and that peeks out at many places in the book. For example in this sentence –

“The weather had turned heavy and musty, the pre-ordained weather of British operations.”

And this sentence –

“No protection against anything more violent than a tennis-ball was easily discernible along that village street…Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the ‘Live and Let Live’ principle, one of the soundest elements in trench war.”

I laughed when I read that 😁

Blunden also describes incidents in the book, which can only be called dark humour of the Kafkaesque variety (or the Coen brothers’ variety). I don’t want to mention them here and spoil the surprise for you. I’ll just say that they are funny, but also tragic. Blunden also describes many of the people he worked with during the war and some of them are fascinating. My two favourites were Corporal Worley and Colonel Harrison. A couple of dogs also make their appearance in the story at different times, one of whom is adopted by the army and another who is adopted by Blunden.

When he ends the book, Blunden calls himself ‘a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat.‘ It made me smile. I couldn’t resist comparing Blunden with Pierre from ‘War and Peace‘ – both nice people, both fight in a war, both have a dog, both are harmless young shepherds.

Undertones of War‘ is like no other war memoir I’ve read. It is beautiful and poetic, it demands attention and involvement, and it bestows rich rewards if one reads it slowly while savouring and lingering on its beautiful sentences. The book also has a forty-page poetry section in the end, which has poems which cover some of the same themes and sometimes events described in the book. I didn’t read that part, but have saved it for a rainy day.

I loved ‘Undertones of War‘. I am glad I read it finally. Now I want to read Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That‘ and compare it with this. And I’ll continue my search for that elusive pearl, Blunden’s ‘Cricket Country‘.

Have you read ‘Undertones of War‘? What do you think about it?

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I saw Kaggsy post about this, and then I saw Lisa and Juliana also post about it, and I thought it would be fun to participate 😊 So here goes.

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. (Links in the titles will take you to my reviews where they exist)

In high school I was : A Simple Heart (Gustave Flaubert)

People might be surprised by : The Small Pleasures of Life (Philippe Delerm)

I will never be : Uncle Vanya (Anton Chekhov)

My life in lockdown was like : A Month in the Country (J.L.Carr)

My fantasy job is : South of the Border, West of the Sun (Haruki Murakami)

At the end of a long day I need : A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees (Yoshida Kenko)

I hate being : The Upstairs Wife (Rafia Zakaria)

Wish I had : The Hapless Teacher’s Handbook (Phil Ball)

My family reunions are : Japanese Fairy Tales (Lafcadio Hearn)

At a party you’d find me with : Difficult Women (Helen Lewis)

I’ve never been to : The Nakano Thrift Shop (Hiromi Kawakami)

A happy day includes : The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima)

Motto I live by : This is Paradise (Kristiana Kahakauwila)

On my bucket list is : The Flight of Icarus (Raymond Queneau)

In my next life, I want to have : A Dream of Red Mansions (Cao Xueqin)

Now, it’s your turn! Do join in and share how your life in books looked like in 2020!

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I discovered Ramachandra Guha’s new book ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ when I was browsing a few days back. The subtitle of the book read ‘A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind‘. I thought I’ll get it for my dad, as Guha writes about cricketers from the ’70s and sometimes goes back to old times, the cricketers whom my dad is fond off. But when the book arrived, I read the blurb and the first page, and before long I was deep into the book. I immersed myself into the book, for the past few days, and when I came up for breath after I finished the book, it was the wee hours of today morning.

The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ starts as a cricketing memoir. Guha talks about how he started watching cricket, when he started playing, his school and college cricketing days. At some point the books paints a wider canvas as Guha talks about cricket history, his favourite cricketers, the cricketers he has met, about the matches he has watched. Then he comes down to almost today, and spends some time on his brief stint as a cricket administrator and the interesting things that happened and the controversies that ensued.

If you are into cricket books, you know exactly what this is – memoir, cricket history and culture, descriptions and anecdotes of great players and favourite players from school, club, state and national teams, commentary on contemporary cricketing issues – this is exactly what C.L.R.James writes about in his masterpiece ‘Beyond a Boundary‘. Many Indian cricket writers, especially the good ones, are obsessed with C.L.R.James’ book. Some of them have tried writing their own versions of it. Rajan Bala did, Mukul Kesavan did. This is Guha’s version, his nod to the master. Most of the other books are interesting reads, but that’s it. But Guha’s book, it is better than that. It is amazing. Every page is beautiful. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure. I even took delight in finding mistakes in a couple of cricket statistics that Guha quotes 😁 The chapter on Sachin Tendulkar dragged on a bit, but outside of that, the book was beautiful and perfect.

My favourite chapters were the early ones which were autobiographical and the chapter on Guha’s favourite Pakistani cricketers. There is a long section in it on Javed Miandad, which I loved, and which made me smile. Guha also describes a anecdote in which he has a beautiful long conversation with a Pakistani cricket fan in Copenhagen (of all places). That was one of my favourite parts of the book. I also loved the parts of the book in which Guha talks about cricketers from a bygone era who had retired before I was born. I was delighted when I read a section dedicated to Keith Miller, one of my favourites. There was also one on Vijay Hazare which was very beautiful.

In the last chapter of the book, in which Guha gives a nod to philosopher William James by calling it ‘Varieties of Cricketing Chauvinism‘ (William James wrote a book called ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’), he says this –

“There are two fundamental axes of cricketing chauvinism : of nation and of generation. Every cricket fan almost without exception is born with them, and most cricket fans never outgrow them.”

I smiled when I read that. It is a beautiful chapter on being a cricket fan and of outgrowing this chauvinism and I felt that Guha’s own experience mirrored mine.

I loved ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title. It could have been better. Guha has written four cricket books and edited a fifth one, and surprisingly this is the first cricket book of his that I have read. I don’t know how this compares to his masterpiece ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field‘, because I haven’t read that yet, but when I compare this to other cricket books I’ve read, I can say that this is one of my favourites. Cricket has a rich body of literature compared to other sports, and cricket books have been around for more than a century and a half, longer than any other sport. Guha’s newest book is a beautiful new addition to this vast, rich ocean. The master, C.L.R.James, would have been proud.

Guha’s last cricket book came out in 2004. After a long hiatus he has published his new one. I hope this is not his swansong and there is more left in the tank.

Have you read ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘ recently when I read a quote from it. I got the book a few days back and finished reading it just now.

In ‘A Month in the Country‘, the narrator, Tom Birkin, goes to a village in the English countryside. The time is the summer after the First World War. Birkin has been hired to restore a centuries old wall painting, which has been painted over across the years. In the village, he meets different kinds of people, most of them friendly and warm. He also meets Moon, who has been hired to find a grave of an old ancestor of an important family. Like Birkin, Moon had also been a soldier in the recent war and had gone through some terrible experiences. The two strike an easy friendship. What happens as Birkin uncovers the wall painting, and the experiences he goes through during the summer form the rest of the story.

A Month in the Country‘ is a beautiful love letter to a time gone by, when horses were still used for transport, when there were villages whose residents hadn’t travelled more than a few miles from their home. It is beautiful and charming but also poignant and haunting. It was like reading one of Wordsworth’s poems. It made me remember a French novel I read a few years back called ‘The Lost Estate‘ by Alain-Fournier, which had a very different story, but which was haunting in a similar way. When I read this passage towards the end of the book – “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass” – I cried.

A Month in the Country‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I am so happy that I discovered J.L.Carr. He has written eight novels, all of them slim works like this one, one of which is intriguingly titled ‘A Day in Summer‘. I want to read them all.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Ah, those days…for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

Have you read ‘A Month in the Country‘? What do you think about it?

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It is Christmas season and I decided to splurge on books 😁 These are not exactly Christmas reading (another reason to buy more books, of the Christmas-y type, soon – Yay!), but I was very excited when I got them today.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque – I loved Remarque’s classic war novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘ and his novel on the Second World War, ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die‘. Most of his novels are on a war theme, but they are all beautiful. ‘Arch of Triumph’ was recommended to me by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and I can’t wait to read it. I wish they had retained the original title though – ‘Arc de Triomphe‘ sounds better, much better.

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann – I am reading Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘. Mann’s long sentences are beautifully sculpted, they are from a different, more beautiful literary era, and they are an absolute pleasure to read. ‘Buddenbrooks‘ is his first novel. The edition I got is 850 pages long – longer than ‘The Magic Mountain’ (who writes a first novel which is 850 pages long??) – but the font is big and I am so tempted to get started immediately.

Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann – This was recommended to me by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’. The first sentence itself is vintage Mann, long and sizzling and a beautiful work of art. Looking forward to reading it soon.

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon – I have wanted to read Brian Dillon’s books for a while. I thought I’ll start with this. Dillon loves words and sentences and essays and sharing his love for these beautiful things, and this book promises to be a delightful reading experience. Kaggsy from ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’ wrote a beautiful review of this book, which I loved. You can find her review here.

A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr – A month back, I hadn’t heard of J.L.Carr. Then I discovered this book. It is slim at less than a hundred pages, and it promises to be beautiful. It is amazing how we have never heard of a writer and one day we discover that writer by accident, and we wonder why we haven’t read their beautiful works before.

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them?

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