Books of 2019 – Man at The Helm

Should I keep a count and rating of all books read?

May be I will start now for 2019, and keep updating this list as I go.

I thought about actually using my Goodreads account, but that felt too “social” and also may be a bit competitive. It would sure feel great to have a visual representation of all the books read in a particular year – what with the lovely pictures they assemble of all the book covers. It’s also a good resource for digging out reviews and making a decision on whether I want to read something or not (though I’ve realised my opinions are most aligned with British readers, so I read reviews over at amazon.co.uk before making book purchase decisions).

The cons of Goodreads, apart from the social aspect is that I don’t know how long Goodreads will last as a platform. My blog is here to stay and it’s much easier to access, search and find what I thought about something if it’s documented here.

And honestly I can’t be bothered to write my thoughts down on multiple platforms. Mainly because I’m doing this for my own record (of my thoughts) and not as a way to keep any kind of score.

Also, have you noticed how Kindle books are pretty much the same price as paperbacks  – and sometimes more expensive than paperbacks – these days? I read it’s due to the Agency model, where the publisher determines the price of e-books. With paperbacks, the publisher sells them to the retailer at wholesale prices, and then the retailer determines the final price. Due to this, the retailer is able to offer steep discounts on paperbacks, whereas Kindle books remain at their usual pricing (which is not cut throat, as publishers do not wish to push kindle books over paperbacks).

Now, my dilemma is whether to purchase kindle books or paperbacks for books that I’m not likely to re-read (which is 99% of books). I was all for kindle books for such reads because they were much cheaper (and that also offsets the cost of the Kindle device). But, when prices are the same (or similar, within Rs.100 of each other), I instinctively feel like purchasing the paperback, because I can keep the book in my shelf, share it, and generally the book becomes a collectible. Separately, I quite like the tactical aspect of holding a paperback, it’s smell, and the ability to flip through it quickly.

Paperbacks also means more space for books, but also that your books are safe from an event where the kindle become obsolete.

Decisions, decisions!

For now, let’s start with the book that I just finished (numbering and will continue to number in future posts).

1. Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe – 3.5/5

 It’s marketed as a comedy, but for the most part, I don’t understand why.

What kind of a person would consider the plight of three little children stuck with their toxic narcissistic mother, desperately trying to find ways to make her happy and get a “new man at the helm” (after their parents’ divorce), because British society of the 1970s tended to ostracise divorcee (women) FUNNY? The book is written from the perspective of young Lizzie Vogel (Nina Stibbe is said to have channeled her own childhood in this autobiographical novel).

I sincerely have more to say about the people who have reviewed this book and said they laughed out loud multiple times, than I do about the book.

My explanation for this misrepresentation is that Nina’s first book (Love, Nina) was actually very funny and humorous, and Nina was hailed as a comic writer. Her publisher might have wanted to continue pitching her work as being in the humour category, and hence put together a bunch of quotes from other eminent authors saying things like this book is “comedy gold”.

This book deals with a heartbreaking subject in a light and airy way. Light and airy not in an insulting way, but because it’s written from the perspective of a child who did not really fully understand why things were the way they were, what she deserves as a child, and how she’s been robbed of that. I loved that Nina maintained her voice and did not “enter” as an adult in the narrative.

While reading this book, I felt very fortunate to have had a fairly normal upbringing. It also threw light on the utterly unfair and bigoted treatment of divorcees (women only) in 1970’s rural England.

What warms your heart up in the book is the resourcefulness and solution oriented-ness of the children. And of course the story itself is warm and uplifting.

I liked that this book dealt with a serious and depressing subject in a way that was not gloomy or bleak. It was full of optimism, something that only a child’s perspective can lend.

This is why I like Nina Stibbe’s work. She deals with everyday things with a light hand, but without losing its depth, but also not be preying on the vulnerabilities of the reader with the intention of producing a tear jerker (which sadly many bestselling books are).

I finished this book in about 4 days (I only read in the evenings after work) which means it was quite addictive once it got going. I’d recommend it to others but please don’t expect a to laugh out loud too much (and if you do, don’t tell me), the way your would in Love, Nina. Overall, it’s a lovely book which eventually warms your soul in a comforting way, and leaving you wanting to laugh a little and cry at the same time.

Next in this line of books is Paradise Lodge, but I think I’ll read some other things before that (considering how many unread books are lying in my shelves!).

Books of Late – E. M. Delafield, L. M. Montgomery, Cal Newport

I’m on a bit of a blogging roll here, and I want to keep up with the momentum (while it lasts).

I’ve been meaning to document a few of my recent leisure reads but each time I’d get to the appropriate “books read” part of a round up blog post, I was already too tired of writing, and would promise a future installment.

Also, these are books that have made some impression on me, and I want to remember them, so it makes sense to blog about them. I normally abandon books if they don’t grasp my interest by page 100.

Jane of Lantern Hill, Chronicles of Avonlea, Diary of a Provincial Lady
Jane of Lantern Hill, Chronicles of Avonlea and The Diary of a Provincial Lady (the framed postcard says “Travel is cheaper than therapy” (from an indie art store in Sri Lanka)

I so badly wanted to fall in raving, mad love with The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield. It sounded like something I would be thoroughly entertained by. I highly enjoy reading books set in this Edwardian-Victorian era. Also, I stumbled upon this book while looking up books that people who liked Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina: Despatches From Family Life would like. And I LOVED Love Nina. Had to read it in a single sitting with breaks for meals and sleep.

The subject matter of Provincial Lady is intriguing, and I feel it is enlightening in many aspects, but in terms of comic value, it simply has not delivered yet (which it has promised!! otherwise I would not expect it as a matter of right). The husband seems to be too mean a character to be found funny, and the provincial lady herself seems quite petty. Also, there is some dialogue in French with no English translation footnotes, which are hard to keep track of. I am halfway through the first book. I really want to like it, if not love it; and I’ll certainly persevere. BUT, persevere is really not a world I want to use while talking about leisure reads. They are supposed to be delightful escapes (hopefully dotted with insightful thoughts and HUMOUR, lots of humour).

Provincial Lady is now my 10 minute filler read for whenever I don’t have enough time to dive in, but want to be lightly entertained for a bit.

Now, coming to the two L. M. Montgomery books. I carried these two to Maldives with me, and my my, it was the perfect reading experience. Away on a secluded island, surrounded by heart-achingly beautiful nature, it was the perfect place to experience Maud’s descriptive deep dives. I loved Jane of Lantern Hill. It was a super quick, entertaining, engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable read which uplifts and soothes your soul. You feel for the poor lead character, starved of emotional connection, an underestimated and neglected soul. As with all of Maud’s work, it paints glorious pictures of her beloved Prince Edward Island, and takes her heroine through many adventures which you wish you had as a kid. It made me want to rewind my childhood and go live on a farm somewhere. It also made me want to always have a lovely table cloth and fresh cut flowers on my dining table. You’ll want to too, when you read the book!

Chronicles of Avonlea is a collection of short stories by L. M. Montgomery. Many of the stories feature Anne as a side character. Not as unputdownable as Maud’s novels, but still highly entertaining. They are all pretty much about similar themes, but with their own little subtle nuances. I’ve never been one to read short stories, but I thoroughly enjoyed this compilation. It also felt special to read this particular copy as it was printed before I was even born (bought it second (or whatever) hand on Amazon).

I keep reading educational, interesting non-fiction and spiritual material almost always. One non-fiction book which I recently read (on my Kindle, and hence no picture) and found valuable was Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you’re finding it hard to focus, it’s a good book to get ideas on techniques for getting that focus back into your work life. The method of working prescribed by Cal is my natural way of doing things. But, it’s always interesting to read another person’s take on “how to do life” (and work!!). The most interesting parts of the book were about case studies and anecdotes about how other people use this sort of principle to order their work life. Loved it and it was a good stimulus to think about my own routines and habits (current and over the years)

“Perfect Happiness” and Imperfect Peace

A couple of hours ago I had finished reading Liz Rosenberg’s biography of the beloved L.M. Montgomery, titled “House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery. I finished it in pretty much a single sitting. Monday saw me deep dive into all things Prince Edward Island. Tuesday, I read (and re-read) numerous articles on Maud, and ordered this book on Amazon. Wednesday the book arrives. It’s Thursday afternoon now.

The last line in the book is a poignant sentence from her once private (now widely published and read (with her consent)) journals:

Perfect happiness I have never had – never will have… yet there have been, after all, many wonderful and exquisite hours in my life.”

Through out the biography, I kept wondering what it was that made Maud the way she was. The way she lived in two extremes – in her own mind. Why couldn’t she focus more on the splendid things in her life? Why did she find herself fixating on things that were beyond her control? Why did she never grow out of the anxiety caused by the pressure of living under a constant doom of “what will people think?” which was ingrained in her early childhood? Why did she not have much emotional growth personally?

Maud had faced early loss and abandonment in her life. She felt socially and emotionally stunted in her early years (until the age of 15 or so). However, she still had all of the material comforts any child of that time could have needed. She also went on to have a lovely sprint as a student, and then a teacher. She kept meeting with stiff resistance from her patriarchal grandfather, but she had some silent support from her grandmother. A lot of her decisions have baffled me, though. And I was also surprised to find so much focus on things she lacked – even when she did not really lack much. Through out each stage of her life, she had at least one close confidante and supporter, and often more. She was surrounded by friends and cousins. She had an active social life. She was fairly rewarded for her early short story writing career. She received instant success with her novels. When her grandmother died, she was a financially independent woman – something which was rare and unheard of in rural Canada of that time. She had many, MANY good things going for her.

It is also possible that just like her heroines, she romanticised pain and suffering. That could be one potential explanation for her fixation on melancholy. She also romanticised the idea of loss. Even though she promised to be a “messenger of optimism and sunshine” (which most certainly has been) to her audience, it seems she was not able to converse to her own self in that same vein. She also found the most depressing things to manically obsesses about – like the two World Wars. Of course, through all of this, she managed to escape into her literary worlds and spun tales of effortless joy and hope for her audience. But, dear Maud, why didn’t you create such worlds in your own daily life? Why didn’t you use your imagination create a sense of loveliness in your own actual life?

This biography has left me with more questions than answers. I must read her actual journals, and try to see if I can make any sense of it. Of course, I am fully prepared to not receive answers to my questions even then.

Just as I thought it was a good time to take a break from Maud (now that this book had come to an end), I watched a bit of Masterchef Australia over lunch. Then, I indulged in 10 minutes of Instagram scrolling, where I came across this news headline:

Saravana Bhawan founder Rajagopal, facing life term for murder, dies.” – 18th July 2019

Really? I know nothing about this person. But, I imagined the founder of a wildly successful food chain to have some peace in his life. And peaceful people don’t kill other people.

It seems like the Universe is sending a definite messages across.

Fame & fortune and happiness & peace are two different things. They are not mutually exclusive, but the former does not guarantee the latter.

May Round Up – RBC, Summer Drinks, Promotion, Furniture, Fani, Vacation Planning & more

Again, a mixed bag post:

  1. Ramiz Baba Challenge 5 (IPL 2019) (“RBC“) concluded on 12th May, with a much anticipated Motabhai (Mumbai Indians) victory over Dhoni’s team (Chennai Super Kings). We watched it with friends, and even after having gone Mumbai 90% as my prediction for the night, I ended up rooting for CSK as I thought a CSK win might still benefit me (on account of the predictions those around me on Leaderboard, who had even higher %% than 90%). Ultimately, despite an MI win, I pretty much stayed where I was due to MATHS. I ended up earning as many points with a 90 as others did with 95 or even 100 as I’d played fewer games (taken more leaves), and that meant more movement with a smaller match score (it’s complicated, but not that much) (those who have played this will understand).
  2. RBC took up a lot of my mindspace from end of March to early May. It not only provided tons of entertainment, but I also ended up learning a thing or two about T20 cricket, the various IPL teams, local players, international players, etc. I can’t say I would’ve learnt any of this had it not been for my involvement in RBC (and TRUST ME, RBC sucks you in). It was actually really nice to have something specific planned for every single evening (i.e. watching and obsessing over the match). It filled up a lot of time that I didn’t realise earlier needed filling. Being a part of RBC also made me feel like a part of a friendly & engaged community. It was SUCH a fun experience and I was REALLY sad when it ended. Luckily, we have the ICC Cricket World Cup coming up end of this month so here’s to RBC Season 6!!
  3. Almost forgot to mention, but I ended up Rank 9 out of 67 total players (not all played actively) (but that’s not to say that they did not play WELL; in fact many players who did not play actively at all but only played their defaults ended up well above many who did in fact play very enthusiastically and made active choices for each match). I was overall happy with finishing 9th (as a first time who did not know anything much about cricket or IPL or current players), but it’s of course a lie to say that I didn’t care about the rank 😛
  4. I was perhaps most happy about finishing above the husband (“Y“) (who finished at 10). Hoping this will shut him up about sports&maths and my lack of knowledge about the same for a bit (hasn’t happened so far, the shutting up ie :D)
  5. Yes, much of the last few weeks was all about the RBC, and seriously, even 5 long posts about it will not cover the happy influence it has had on me.
  6. Summer is well and truly here, and I have discovered my favourite summer drinks to be: home made aam panna, jal jeera (Catch jaljeera powder works just fine), fresh chaas from home made dahi, mango milk share made with just alphonso mangoes and milk (sheer bliss).
  7. Y has received a much anticipated promotion at work, which has led to many celebratory outings and meals!
  8. We have FINALLY replaced our sink-y sofas with new, firm sofas! One is a lovely L shaped sofa which is basically a three seater and a chaise lounge (my new spot) put together. The other is a chesterfield-esque arm chair from Gulmohar Lane, which honestly was such a HUGE disappointment. They basically sent a defective piece, and then made it impossible for me to return it (I might write in detail about this later, as I was really excited about this piece, but sadly, it was a major disappointment). Suffice to say I will never be ordering from Gulmohar Lane again, and I don’t recommend it as they do not understand their customer’s basic needs at all. It’s a pity really, because they do have some lovely designs.
  9. A huge cyclone hit my home state and particularly my hometown of Bhubaneswar early in May – Cyclone Fani. It was much worse than anticipated by the people, but was properly accounted for by the government. I couldn’t get in touch with my family for about 2 whole days after the cyclone made landfall because of the extensive damage done to the electricity & telecom infrastructure. It was rather nerve wrecking. I did manage to piece together vital information from my friend T who kept me posted as soon as she got network, Instagram posts from people there (some who had small moments of access managed to post online), and other people I know from there who happened to have a bit of network now and then.  It’s been about two weeks now, and they have regular electricity back (came back only after about 8-10 days!!!) (but they managed in the interim as their apartment complex had a diesel generator which operated every other hour or so), but network is still patchy and unreliable at best. We have still not been able to video chat, although regular phone calls are working alright and whatsapp is also working fine.
  10. Y and I have FINALLY booked our summer vacation (a short 5 day trip to the Maldives in June). Yeayyyyy!!! A week is all that Y could manage in leave at this point, and I’m not grumpy about it at all. This is a pretty last minute trip, and planning any thing longer than 5-6 days this close is NOT my scene (I love planning every little detail months in advance, yes). After an all-consuming three days of endless research, obsessive review reading, photo to photo comparison across TripAdvisor Instagram Facebook (user generated content is the most authentic!), we have finally decided on Vilamendhoo Island Resort & Spa. I will keep you posted on how it fares.
  11. I also realised I BADLY need out of town breaks (preferably nature breaks) every couple of months or at least once in three months. It’s a must to refill the tank, and refuel creative energies. When one is constant creating all kinds of work, and content-y things (for work), it can be quite draining, and a break is quite necessary to sustain momentum. By the time we go for this Maldives vacation, it will have been 7 full months since my last break).
  12. May 2019 was also the month of the last few Game of Thrones episodes. Like most other people who have read, watched and loved the series, I too was disappointed by the gaping holes in the writing this season. I could finally like the second half of the last episode (after hating on an entire season), because I could accept those endings as things GRRM must have come up with and communicated with the writers. BUT the writers used those ends, but did not link from where the source material left off with the endings in a proper way AT ALL. The only good thing about this terrible writing is that I did not really feel sad about GOT ending. I was quite indifferent today when I watched the last last episode!
  13. I have ordered a new Katie Daisy Planner for 2019-2020 from bookdepository.com. It was supposed to have shipped on May 15th, but it hasn’t still shipped and now I’m in a conundrum about whether to cancel it, and order on Amazon.com (and pay higher shipping), or just wait for BD to get its act together.
  14. I also ordered some lovely stationery from a chinese shop on Etsy, but that also hasn’t yet arrived (some not so great luck with international stationery shipping of late).
  15. But, on the bright side, I have snagged a few second hand books from Amazon which arrived in great condition: Emma Block’s book on watercolors looks lovely on my shelves (and it does not feel like a second hand copy at all in that it is in perfect/ unused condition),  Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (which is just such a delight, please look it up), Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea. I’m still deciding which book(s) to carry with me for the holiday, and I’m really drawn towards LMM because of all the endless nature scenes in her work which I find most refreshing. Also, I’m making a conscious choice of turning into a hoarder rather than ordering kindle books (where possible), because I find it most cumbersome to “flip through” a kindle book while re-reading. I might donate some of my not-favourites later for space reasons, but until then I will keep adding. I also love the tactile feel of holding a real paperback (can’t say I love the feeling of holding a big, heavy hardback), and writing my name on the first page (I ALWAYS write my name, and the month I read/ started reading it in), dog-earing the pages as my own bookmark, marking and underlining non-fiction and other such simple pleasures which only a paperback affords.
  16. Potential new neighbours might take a long time to move in, because they are getting extensive renovation work done (pretty much gutted the whole house). Let’s see.

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford – Review type thing

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford - Review 2

BlogOwner (“BO“) is making her way through Nancy Mitford’s 8 novels, first of which is Highland Fling, which BO has just finished reading.

Published in 1931, Highland Fling is her (Nancy Mitford’s) debut novel, and unfortunately it does somewhat feel that way – a first “attempt” of sorts. Normally she (BO) abandons a book if it doesn’t engage her within the first 100 pages (her 100 Page Rule) (because, sorry, but decisions on sunk cost are not being made here). However, this book turned out to be educational in some ways, so she carried along.

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford - Review 1Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford - Review 3

BO had been reading up about the Mitford sisters for a while, and wanted to dig into some of Nancy Mitford’s beloved works like The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. However, it was quite hard to find well priced paperbacks in the Indian market. Nancy is not one of those ubiquitous English authors here, so well, one had to look. Finally, she stumbled into an omnibus publication!!! All 8 Nancy Mitford novels, published in one paperback volume, for under Rs. 1000? Yes, please.

As expected, of course, the volume is quite unwieldy, and does not make for a good travel companion (which is a shame, because these books are perfect for entertaining, holiday reading). Also, the type is pretty small, with very tight line spacing. One can safely assume 1 page of the omnibus would translate into 1.8 – 2 pages of a modern paperback. However, all of this was expected from a volume which comes with eight, EIGHT novels in one value-for-money volume.

Having laid her paws on this little (only metaphorically) volume, BO decided to read them in order of publication.

First up, was Highland Fling. Most of the humour felt a little forced, and too cutting – you will understand when you read it. The story doesn’t quite go anywhere (which is usually not a problem for BO when the narrative is strong). You keep waiting for something to happen, but nothing much really does.

The characters are strong and well developed, and it gives a little glimpse into the world of the aristocratic society of pre-Second-World-War Britain. There are interesting observations to be made, and BO found it rather educational (as she is not a British lady from that era, or any era). Fans of Downton Abbey will appreciate it, although of course, that was set in the Edwardian era, it is interesting to note the difference in sentiments between generations.

There were some “darker” themes explored with regard to war, particularly the views of the two generations in the book towards it. BO has been reading some other books set in that time frame (Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery – which had to do with the First World War), so it was particularly engaging for her. It’s also quite fascinating in context of the events of the past couple of months here in India – where much discussion about war has taken place.

Coming back to Highland Fling, BO wouldn’t really recommend it to others, EXCEPT if they exhibit a particular interest in that period in Britain, or they are a completist.

Here’s hoping Christmas Pudding (the next in line) is better 🙂

p.s.: The cover of this omnibus is lovely.

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe – Review type thing

Love Nina by Nina Stibbe Book Review Despatches from Family Life

Happy to report that Blogowner (“BO“) finished this little gem a couple of weeks back – Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe – and can’t wait to get into more of Nina’s writing. It’s a collection of letters that Nina wrote to her sister back in the 1980s when she was nannying for Mary Kay Wilmers of London Review of Books fame.

It’s interesting to note how she came about to publish these letters. Turns out she read out one of these at a party to honour Mary Kay, and MK being the literary type, there were many publisher types present. One of them reached out to Nina about the possibility of publishing the letters, to which MK said no the first time around. After a couple of years, she (Nina) was asked again, and this time MK agreed. So. Thank you MK!!

BO loves reading things about the mundane things in people’s lives, nuances in relationships, things that one often only reports to confidantes they speak to on a daily basis – particularly (read: only) when they are narrated with a sense of humour. Nina’s letters to her sister are very much of this nature. Nothing much really happens, except all the little things that pepper their daily lives with much humour every now and then.

The main topics that Nina talks about are – the family that she lives with, relationships with her neighbours and things they do together, some cooking adventures, her reading, lots of observations on people who visit the family, and so on. Basically daily life type things. Note that many of her neighbours are famous British literary & film types (such as Alan Bennett). Nothing earth shattering. Nothing shocking. Just pure entertainment.

BO is quite inspired by Nina’s healthy social life with her neighbours, seeing that BO has been making attempts to get to know her own neighbours (in a totally non-creepy way).

While midway through this book, BO went ahead and ordered Nina’s first work of fiction (Man at The Helm), although it’s supposed to be quite autobiographical. She also discovered several other authors while spiralling in this British-funny-writing rabbit hole. Turns out, she really loves the British, except the colonisation bit.

Love, Nina is supposed to be all non-fiction, with very little tweaking, but these letters have so many hilarious bits that BO was quite envious of Nina leading such a life full of funny episodes.

In one of her letters she says:

“There’s always a lot of autobiography in fiction and fiction in autobiography. It has to be that way otherwise they’d be unreadable (except by the author).” (page 238)

BO quite agrees with this assessment. Also something that should be taken note of while reading this Blog (autobiographical).

This book is a little treasure trove of funny anecdotes, and stories – with lots of interesting (very real) characters. She (BO) didn’t want these letters to stop.

Does Nina Stibbe write a blog?

p.s..: Please leave behind recommendations for books written by authors with a sense of humour. Much obliged.

p.p.s.: Apparently there is a BBC Miniseries based on Love, Nina. (note to self: Get hold of it.)