The Bookseller of Kabul … a review

This book is written by a Norwegian journalist, Anne Seierstad, who lived and worked in Kabul with a bookseller’s family post 9/11. The Afghan bookseller, whose family we delve into in the pages of this book is a bit of rebel, who has been saving Afghanistan’s books from the Soviets, the Americans, the Taliban, and war in general. He is a man with a mission to save the history of his country.

I must confess, I wasn’t as impressed with this book as I had hoped I’d be. It is a nice enough read, but there is nothing particularly hard hitting about it. When books are written by journalists, my expectations on how much a book is going to move me is higher. Additionally, the author is a bit judgemental about how downtrodden Afghan women’s lives are. The condition of women is not great in those parts of the world, but it wasn’t that which came out. It was more around how families are structured, how people marry one another, how they dress etc. And a lot of that is just peoples’ culture and their own personal choices. I have sympathy for the author because it must have been an incredible culture shock being a Scandinavian woman in Afghanistan.

Having said all that, the book does provide an intimate portrayal of families and their dynamics, their hopes and dreams, their funerals and celebrations. The writing is easygoing and I particularly enjoyed the adventures of the humble bookseller, whose simple mission becomes the David to the Goliath of macro forces that impinge upon his country, his faith and his people.

A nice read. I am giving my copy away, so if you want me to post it to you, do let me know.

Shuggie Bain … a review

Scottish-American Douglas Stuart’s debut novel won the Booker Prize last year. In Scotland, it was all over the news. The Glasgow boy had brought it home. I received the beautiful Picador hardback copy in my Christmas pile last year, and have just finished reading it. The novel is set in 1980s Glasgow, and though the protagonist is the ‘no’ quite right‘ young Shuggie, the heroine really is his mother, Agnes Bain.

Living and existing at the intersection of poverty, violence, and alcoholism, there is no hope for Agnes from the very beginning. It is this finality that looms like a dark shadow throughout the book. Agnes moves from man to man, with her three children in tow behind her. She cannot keep a steady relationship, has no regular income, and goes from the squalor of council flats to her parents and back to flats again. No matter what she will do and what choices she will make, her addiction will not go away and leave her in peace.

There is something to be said about book like these, where the suffering seems interminable and unending. Agnes has no agency, and little Shuggie, is left to pick up the pieces as his siblings leave. I have been volunteering with a UK charity called Our Time,’ which provides support to children acting as carers for parents who live with mental health issues. And through their work, I have realised that there are 3 million children like Shuggie, who live in a cycle of hopelessness and pressure. This is poignant when he says, ‘It was clear now: nobody would get to be made brand new.’

Stuart’s prose is as you’d expect from an international prize winner, it is unapologetic, deliberate and authentic. He states the situation as is, he depicts the violence and addiction as is. And although it makes for really difficult reading, it holds a mirror up to society to reflect on the lives of the ‘have-nots.’ My close friend M worked all her life in social care in Glasgow council and some of the things she’s witnessed are not for the faint of stomach. There is nothing poetic about this rawness. And if you are moved, perhaps you’ll consider donating to ‘Our Time. They are a wonderful team who do great work.

As for the book, I do recommend it. Read it at your own peril in this already trying times. And remember to pause where you need to come up for air.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World … a review

My friend sent me this book because she thought I’d enjoy it. I really did. I haven’t read a Turkish author since Pamuk, and this book by Elif Shafak thoroughly hit the spot. This novel is the story of Tequila Leila, and how she came to be dying in a dumpster in Istanbul. The circumstances that led her there form her final memories that last 10 minutes and 38 seconds while her mind processes the highlights of her life before shutting down.

It takes courageous storytelling to give readers the ending upfront. In the first couple of pages, we know our protagonist dies at the end. This hook then leads into the whole flashback. As Shafak weaves the parable of Leila’s life, we are taken on a journey of discovery. Turkish culture, foods, families come to life. But more universal emotions are drawn out too, unrequited love, friendships and society’s treatment of the ‘unmentionables’. Shafak’s writing is deliberate and has no excesses. Her words are free-flowing, but at the same time, there is thorough discipline and structure in her chapters. Take, for instance, the beauty of this quote

Grief is a swallow,” he said. “One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.

elif shafak

The latter is probably the backbone of this book. When Leila eventually rebels against her family and becomes a sex worker (no spoilers here, we find this out pretty quickly), readers see how she navigates life. She collects a motley crowd of people around her, including a trans lady, a gay man, and a Communist. This group of her people band together to protect themselves from the treatment that the ‘mainstream’ metes out to them. This book holds a mirror to society, unabashedly.

Turns out Shafak is a fantastic speaker too. I watched this TED Talk of hers and was thoroughly mesmerised. There is a special place in my heart for intelligent women who use their positions to raise awareness and make a difference to the causes they support. I will be reading more of her books for sure, and this one might just be the find of the quarter for me.

A Suitable Boy … a review

I’d heard so much about this book for a long time. But I’d never come across it. Last year, however, it was being talked about a lot when the BBC drama was released. Eventually, I got round to reading it. At 1544 pages, it is one of the longest books I’ve read, and it took me well over 2 months to finish it.

Set in 1950s newly independent India, this novel by Vikram Seth centres around young Lata, and her mother’s ambition to find her a suitable boy to marry. Longer novels tend to begin slow, as there is a lot of time to set situations up. Not so with this book. Seth uses the first 200 pages to introduce the reader to a raft of characters – Lata’s family, their extended relations, and all of her suitors and their families too. The result is a complex and intricate set of lives in the towns of Brahmpur, Cawnpore, Calcutta and others. Normally, I find such books hard to read, but this one draws the reader in with its wonderful detailing of events, places and things.

There was one overarching concept that bothered me. I found it difficult to stomach how ‘modern-day’ the behaviours of the women were. My grandmother grew up in the most progressive state of India in the 1950s. And in those days, young unmarried women could not dream of travelling 1500km by train alone, going on boat rides with boys, and walking back home after ‘tawaiaff’ performances alone. All this and more in Lata’s life, and that too in the most regressive and conservative region of India. One could argue that it is because her father is dead, and she is free from familial patriarchy. But she has her grandfather, brother-in-law etc in the same town. So that level of freedom is just made up.

Apart from this, the book is wonderfully written and the story told beautifully. Jane Austen could have learnt a million lessons from Rupa Mehra before she wrote her Mrs Bennett, but I’ll let that slide for now. Anyway, I’d recommend this book as a lingering long lockdown read. Enjoy!

10 years of BookMark

Photo: Tills Bookshop, Edinburgh

A wee celebration is in order as my blog is 10 years old. I remember setting it up on a cold Delhi winter morning. I wrote about the book I had just finished re-reading at the time – Lolita. My writing was a lot less nuanced then, and I had a certain stubbornness of opinion that comes with youth.

Since then, life has taken me on some of the most delightful adventures with books, writing, critiquing, and bookshops. I am proud of myself for having made time (through some very busy years) to write a post or two about the books devoured through the years. Through that process, my writing has improved, as has my tolerance and open-mindedness about the world. Reading is such a fundamental part of who I have always been.

Thank you to all the authors, friends, subscribers, and strangers from the web – for your indulgence, challenges, and words of reflection through the years.

Probably a good time to add – for smaller byte-sized reflections on books and reading, follow me on Instagram (@cup.and.chaucer)

The magic never ends. Cheers to CupAndChaucer.

The Salt Path … a review

It gives me a lot of pleasure reading books about travel while we are in lockdown. My family is the third generation of travellers, and we have been much deprived during Covid. This part-memoir, part-travel-guide book is about a couple’s immense misfortune, that leads to the loss of their entire lives’ savings, including their home.

Then Moth, the husband, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Ray, his wife and the author, then pack their rucksacks and set off to walk the south-west coast of England. This of course, is the famous part that juts out into the Atlantic as Land’s end. They walk from Minehead to Poole, whilst camping wild. The description of the natural world is beautiful. Raynor Winn may have lost everything in life, but has a beautiful gift of words. Page after page is filled with the vastness and immenseness of the coast brought to life. As their homelessness endures, we also see the attitudes of everyday people as well.

But as they walk, will they figure out what’s next? With two children at University, their home gone, and a debilitating disease that makes Moth weaker each day, is there any point in their future at all? These questions are answered against the backdrop of cliffs that form the southern boundary of our island in the ocean. A beautiful read.

A Friendship in Letters … a review

Last review of the year. I hope you have a fine end to this year, wherever you are reading from.

My first fascination with literary friendships began with the knowledge of one between Tagore and Yeats, two stalwarts of their time. Since then, I have tried to read correspondences between authors where I can. And this book was on my wishlist too. The nice thing about sharing wishlists for Christmas is that one doesn’t know which book one is going to get. And so on Christmas morning, I was delighted with this waiting for me from my friend Cl.

Stevenson and Barrie – both young Scotsmen, alumni of the University of Edinburgh, and writers of novels for children. They struck up an unusual friendship in that they never met in person. Stevenson had moved to Samoa for health reasons, and Barrie never managed to leave his elderly mother to go visit him. And of course, Stevenson died at 44, so there wasn’t enough time.

But this meant that their friendship developed through these letters – 16 of which have been included in this volume by Michael Shaw. In it, they talk about their works, characters, and the lives they were leading. Barrie was enamoured by Stevenson – not only did he borrow names and mannerisms from the latter’s characters; but he also devised ingenious ways in which their characters might be family to one another. He was also effusive in his praise (and his love) for Stevenson’s literary genius.

Their real-life families feature too. Stevenson’s entire household is part of some letters and Barrie sometimes writes a line or two to each, individually. Barrie, in turn, writed about his mother and also his famous cricket team ‘Allahakbarries.’ This, of course, was the team that included literary greats like Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne amongst others.

Reading all of this provides the background to the thinking behind some of my all-time favourite characters in literature. And this is a well-written and beautifully presented work.

Lemon Grove … a review

I am reading ‘A Suitable Boy’. At 1500 pages, it is a veritable tome of a book and I don’t think I have read anything since LOTR that’s as long. Anyway, I had to take a break at about halfway point, to read something else. And I picked this book up from our shared shelf downstairs.

It is set in Deia, a village on the Isle of Majorca, which I have visited and I love. A couple holidays there every year, but this time, they are accompanied by their daughter and her partner. For some reason, this boy doesn’t sit very well with the parents; in particular, the mother. As the ‘plot’ moves on, this turn more edgy and eventually the daughter disappears.

This book is meant to be a holiday read. But I doubt it’s even worth reading then. There is a lot of sexual tension between the mother and the teenage-boyfriend but it just feels unnecessary. The woman is happily married and there is no real motivation for her to stray. And there wasn’t enough written about Deia for it to be a nice trip down memory lane for me.

I certainly got my break from the other book. But I wouldn’t recommend this one. There is also no lemon grove, in case you were wondering why it was called that.

A Necessary Evil … a review

This book is the second in the Wyndham-Banerjee series of crime novels set in British India. I chanced upon one of the 4 books and so I have not been reading these in order. Also, the library seems to have very few copies of each of the 4 books and so I couldn’t line them up properly. But that’s no issue because the books can be read standalone.

I must confess, I am now an Abir Mukherjee fan. First of all, the setting of the books is unique. Our lead DI Wyndham is of the Imperial Police force in Calcutta, the second-city of the British empire. His sidekick is local policeman Surendranath Banerjee, appropriated as ‘Surrender-Not’. Their combination is brilliant and nuanced, as Wyndham would be lost without Banerjee’s local knowledge. Second, in this book, we travel to Sambalpore in Orissa at the murder of its prince. As a Scottish-Bengali like Mukherjee himself, who grew up in Orissa, the references to local folklore and customs was too close for me (and I loved it)!

Third, every DI has a darker side; and Wyndham is no exception. As he battles wuth the trauma of his past, his need for love, and his addiction, many shades of his character are revealed. He reminds me of Perez from the Shetland series, and I really like his character. Finally, the cast is varied and interesting. There are Brits, princes, kings and eunuchs – and all of them have a very specific part to play in this novel to uncover the plot behind the Sambalpori prince’s murder. A fine book, a very enjoyable read.

Commonplace Notebooks

Along with being a lover of books, I am a big fan of stationery. I still take notes in notebooks, still write thoughts down, make lists, and write letters. To me, writing is committing to memory, and the physical act of writing is important to me. Plus, I have noticed, people love receiving real letters.

There are many notebook brands I love. But my most interesting possession is my ‘Commonplace Notebook.’ A Scottish brand Waverley, make these wrapped with Kinloch Anderson tartan. Of course, it doesn’t get more Scottish than this. The one I own is the Mackay Ancient tartan, and I do love it because it is similar to the tartan I identify with.

Commonplacing was most popular amongst thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. These notebooks were used to jot down thoughts and ideas. The flap at the back was used for storing scraps. Greats who were known to Commonplace were David Hume, Adam Smith, Rabbie Burns and Virginia Woolf.

I use this notebook for the work I do with another wonderful Scottish organisation – Scottish Book Trust. All my meeting notes and reflections go in here. And the size of it means that it fits into a small purse or a large pocket, which is great. I do love this notebook, and must think of buying a larger one.

Do you have a notebook favourite?