Top 5 Literary Villains

Another booklover on Instagram prompted the thought of antagonists in literature. It’s the characters that drive us to hate and repugnance, the ones we gnash our teeth at when we read. I thought I’d compile my top 5.

In fifth spot – Joffrey Baratheon

Ah Joffrey, the first-born of the Baratheon clan, with a strong claim to the throne. All he had to do was to live his life, lead his subjects well, and not be a misogynist. These would probably have tilted popular opinion (ie the masses) in his favour somewhat, and prevented the disaster that ensued. Joffrey was vile and evil, and every scene he was part of made me so livid. Shoutout to Jack Gleeson, who did such a fantastic job portraying him on TV.

Source: Wikipedia

In fourth spot – Dolores Umbridge

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – I read when I was 13. As an angsty teenager, I was convinced that adults could be up to no good. Umbridge was a cloying character, like a horrible pill you had to swallow. Her actions were evil, but it was her delight at torturing students that set her as the true sociopath. I remember shaking the book with rage when she dismissed Prof Trelawney and her dialogues made me feel that no joy was left in the world. A brilliantly written character and also played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton.

Source: Warner Bros

In third spot – Uriah Heep

I had to read David Copperfield in school (Class 7, I was 11). I distinctly remember how relatable Heep was, with his unguence and sycophancy (also words I learnt that year). Heep was defrauding his employer – all the while being another one of the sickeningly cloying personalities. I am sure we have come across many such people in life, who are so fake you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. If you haven’t read this wonderful classic, then think of this character as Grima Wormtongue in GoT, who destroys King Theoden of Rohan by filling his head with nonsense.

Source: Wikipedia

In second spot – Mrs Danvers

It is impossible to read Rebecca and not be terrified of Mrs Danvers. The second Mrs De Winters is utterly traumatised by Mrs Danvers and everything she stands for. As I reader, I remember wondering if perhaps she was actually supernatural – a ghost or a witch. Her complete devotion and obsession with Rebecca becomes clearer as we progress through the plot, culminating in a truly unsettling scene in Rebecca’s bedchambers, which Mrs Danvers continued to preserve after her death. Terrifying.

Source: The Female Villains Wiki

In top spot – Captain Ahab

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite novels. I was 8 when I read the abridged version one summer. Over the years, I have re-read it many times. Captain Ahab is narcisstic, obsessed and the worst version of himself. But in his portrayal lies the seed that we have seen in so many male world leaders of late. Being in seats of absolute power, but using it only to drive authoritarian regimes of hate and divisiveness. Even if you ignore the political themes, Ahab’s single-minded focus on the whale is a wonderful piece of writing and a brilliant thing to lose yourself in, as a reader. My feelings for him are worse than anger, hate or repulsion – he makes me sick. And that’s what makes him my top antagonist!

Source: Wikipedia

Who’s your favourite? Tell me in the comments below!

Permanent Record

There are 3 things that I would like to explore in review of this book.

Edward Snowden book 'Permanent Record' with pothos plant
My pothos was looking particularly nice today

The first is the story.

This book is the autobiography of Edward Snowden, the 20-something man who shot to global fame when he exposed the mass scale surveillance that the US carries out on people through their devices. Every time we look at our phones, log on to a computer, swipe a credit card, we are tracked. And infinitesimally small pieces of information are stored about us. Over time, companies can build a fuller picture of our lives by stitching together this data. When you think of the billions of people and their daily activities, the mind is boggled by the amount of data that is added to data stores across the world every minute. The scale of the ‘privacy problem’ is massive, and leaking it caused the US goverment to start a manhunt for Snowden, who now lives in exile. This is a shared issue that affects all of us and the rules of the game are just being written.

The second is the book.

The book itself is a slow read. There are aspects of it which I found fascinating – like Snowden’s background and the episode about 9/11. It was incredible to read of his time at the CIA and the NSA and the inner workings. But most of all, it was interesting to understand the ethos of the ‘state’ and how we have arrived at mass surveillance being a blase affair. Equally, a number of other bits are slow going. Since the reader already knows what Snowden is going to do, I felt that there was a huge chunk of buildup that I wanted to skim read. When he actually makes the leak public, that’s when his story becomes extraordinary. But between that day and the final intercept in Russia is only a span of a few days, and makes for heady reading.

The final is the man.

It would be amiss to read an autobiography and not form an opinion on the protagonist. I felt that the detail of Snowden’s background added a lot of colour to his final actions. Somehow, it all just made sense, sort of like things do in hindsight. But regardless, it must have taken an immense amount of grit, courage and existentialism to have done what he did with the risks he took. He will live out his entire life in exile, although not alone (thankfully). What a huge sacrifice to make to bring about fundamental shift in thinking, global awareness, and policy changes. I have followed him on Twitter for years and I do truly admire him.

Girl, Woman, Other

During the height of the pandemic last year, I went through a phase of watching book talks, interviews and opera that was all put online through the generosity of arts organisations. It was during this time that I watched Evaristo being interviewed by Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival. By this point, this book had already won the Booker, George Floyd’s dying words had brought systemic rasicm to the forefront, and people were starting to understand ‘intersectionality.’

This book deals with the lives of 12 black women and the stories of their lives. Some of them are related to another, while others are not. But regardless, each woman’s story completes a full arc. We start somewhere in the middle, getting acquainted to them only in the throes of their lives, and then a backstory unfolds. Evaristo’s prose gives these women depth and layers, and the readers are invited to partake in their most intimate thoughts.

Personally, there have been more Booker-winning-books that I have disliked than liked. However, I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. The characters felt both distant and familiar. And the combination of their identities, sexualities, ambitions and religions made for a heady concoction that never bored.

As with all books that have a plethora of characters, it is natural to side with one. And for me that was Penelope. For some reason, her story intrigued me, and I sympathised with her poor life choices and the suffering that resulted from it. You’ll have to read the book to really find your own favourite character, and until then, I’d recommend you watch the interview video too.

Women Hold up Half the Sky

Only 21 women hold the position of Head of state out of 193 countries. In total, only 60 women have ever held the position worldwide. Data shows consistently that women in leadership positions fare better, build more sustainable societies and are more decisive. And yet, due to societal frameworks, few women are afforded the privilege. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is one such woman.

I have been in the same room as her multiple times, but I have met her only twice. It so happened that they were both within a span of three weeks. When I ran into her the second time, she knew exactly who I was, commented on it, and remarked on where we’d met three weeks ago. Coming from a head of state who had met hundreds of people in the interim, I was amazed at her memory recall, her sharpness, and her intelligence. I do not agree with everything that her party stands for, but as a leader, I admire her immensely.

This book collects some of her speeches in office since she has come to power. Their gamut is massive – ranging from climate, to gender equity, to the betterment of remote communities, and the vagaries of politics. There are some political anchors in the book, like the historic SNP win in 2016 and the disastrous Brexit vote. Her commentary on these was nice to reread, since I heard the speeches live when she delivered them.

But most others were delivered in various conferences and fora worldwide. And reading those, as we went through a heatwave, brought to sharp focus the portrait of a lady. Sturgeon speaks honestly, she is intelligent enough to author most of what she talks. As a result, the reader sees everything she stands for, the society she seeks to build, and the principles of state she cares about.

Scotland is not without its problems. It mirrors a lot of the issues felt widely around the western world. But despite that, what it has, is a leader at its helm that genuinely cares about the people she is elected to serve. She does not display hubris, arrogance or the pig-headedness that we have seen so often from male leaders in recent times. She might run a small country, but her thoughts and words span large and global. She is just like the country she represents, whose contributions to the societal fabric of the world is disproportionately large compared to its size. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in wide ranging socio-economic-political issues.

5 Books to Read this Summer – 2021

Let’s be honest. Despite the progress with vaccinations, this year too feels like last year in terms of travel. Some of us have also had to deal with difficult personal and professional challenges. The pandemic makes the days blur. Despite all this, I still find reading the best form of escapism. I have read some wonderful books in the last few months. Although, I have been moving from Scotland to England, and I have been busy.

To share my joys, I thought I’d compile some summer reads here for you all –

5 summer reads - 2021
5 summer reads – 2021
  1. The Unremembered Places – Patrick Baker

This is one of the finest pieces of travel lit I have read in a long time. Baker’s prose is evocative and atmospheric. He writes about the remote and forgotten places in my dear country Scotland. And every chapter will take you on a journey through the pages ad reams of time. I found myself thinking about this book long after I had finished reading it. And I can also see myself re-reading it a number of times. If you want to switch off from the world and are happy when your mind is wandering, do read this.

2. Things I have Withheld – Kei Miller

This is for non-fiction lovers. It is also a book I’d recommend if you want to learn more and participate in the race discourse. Through a collection of essays, Miller explores what it is like to navigate the world as a black man. But it is not just another book on the subject. Miller’s work is unique in that he writes about the things he has stopped himself or been stopped from saying. And there is a lot of that. Race is a topic of nuance, and this is a book that respects that and does not shy away from it.

3. Empty Nest – Carol Ann Duffy

If you cannot concentrate on reading for too long as the stresses of the pandemic are too high, then I recommend this slim volume of poetry. Duffy’s seletion includes poems from a wide range of poets, who all explore the concept of their children leaving. It is, however, a very emotional read. If, like me, you have been forcibly separated from your family during the last 15 months, then this is a book that you will be phoning them about. It is as immense as it is small.

4. The Oak Papers – James Canton

For nature loves, this is a thoroughly delightful and unique read. Canton celebrates the oak tree, one that is central to the British isles. And he does so by picking a particular one dear to him and visiting it for a whole year, through all the seasons. What comes out is a wonderful read about the healing power of trees, the sense of entwinement with the natural world, and some introspection. Recommended read for a sunny afternoon in the park.

5. The Good Neighbours – Nina Allan

If, by some magic, you are travelling, then this is a book for you to take on holiday. Set on the Isle of Bute and with its murder mystery backdrop, this is a great read. The female protagonist is easy to relate to and her seach for the truth amongst the horrors in her past will keep you hooked. You can dive in and out of this, you can read and move on, or you can linger. Your choice!

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.