Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review of Reviews in 2012

2012 turned out to be a fecund year, for both reading and writing reviews. A goal that came to mind only in the closing months of the year - to write 52 reviews, one for each week of the year - was accomplished, albeit with some effort and a little bit of cheating - some of the books I reviewed were children's books, and some less than thirty pages long. But a review is a review is a review. I don't expect every year to be so fertile, either in terms of reading, or writing reviews - a book a week is a pace difficult to maintain. Even this year, some of the reviews actually took more time to write than it took to read the entire book itself! Surely an admission of incompetence on my part. But, if I were to say a couple of things in my defence - rereading several portions of the book when writing a review only made me appreciate those books more, and secondly, I am not a professional reviewer, nor a full-time reviewer. The philosophy behind writing reviews was to keep my reading honest - if I could not write a review of the book that I liked, then most likely I had not paid enough attention while reading the book. The negative reviews were the ones that took more time to write, and more attention, because the burden was that much greater when criticising than when praising. Weekend nights were the most obvious time when these reviews were written, which was good in a way, because it kept me away from the television and the fake outrage of compromised journalists interspersed with the coldly calculative attempts of advertisers at making me feel inferior so I would go out and buy their wares. So, on to a review of the reviews in the year that was.

To say 2012 was an epic year for me as far as reading goes would be to abuse a pun, especially if you consider that I got started on reading a translation of the epic, Mahabharata, in its unabridged form. I read five volumes (I, II, III, IV, V) of Bibek Debroy's translation of the Mahabharata, and as the year ends, I look forward to the sixth volume. I was hooked with the first volume itself, and the tale only got better with the subsequent volumes. A stupendous effort - the translated work - that requires inestimable energy and patience. There were several other books on Hindu mythology that I read along the way, including 7 Secrets of Vishnu, by Devdutt Pattanaik. Bali and the Ocean of Milk, by Nilanjan P Choudhury was an exceptionally well-written and well-crafted book that deserved far greater attention and success than it actually got. Prince of Ayodhya, by Ashok Banker is a fine start to the Ramayana if you are looking for a modern, highly dramatized retelling of the epic. Valmiki's Ramayana, Translated by Arshia Sattar however is the book to read if you are interested in an abridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Ramayana. The last review, the 52nd, that I wrote, is of Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, by Amruta Patil, an absolutely stupendous graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. 2012 was evidently a year when I read several books on India - religious, mythological, and otherwise, and the very first I reviewed, India's Culture and India's Future, by Michael Danino, deserves to be read by every Indian, or, as I said - by the confused Indian and the misinformed rest.

Although After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, by Lesley Hazleton drips with overwrought sentimentality at points, it is nonetheless a short and compelling read on the Shia-Sunni split in Islam. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, by Christopher Hitchens was a heretical read, in a manner of speaking - an expose of sorts of the Mother herself. Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips, on the other hand, is a passionate and at times shrill cry against the author's perceived radicalization of the city of London. Ignore some of the hyperbole and the book makes for disturbing reading. Again, it has an Indian context that Indians would do well to not ignore. As the state of India careened towards a total lack of governance and chaos, lurching from one scandal to another, The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie was an eloquent reminder of the adage, "history repeats itself - first as a tragedy, then as a farce." Durbar, by Tavleen Singh took the reader through a specific period in Indian history - 1975 to 1991, and the increasing clout of the courtiers of the royal family of India - the Gandhis, and their and their masters' role in almost every single blunder in that period. Across the border, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, by Tariq Ali provided a caustic account of the foibles of the country's - Pakistan - leaders, both political and military.

As the Internet and social media invade our private and personal lives more and more, I was glad that I read at least two excellent books on the topic: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, by Eli Pariser and The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. The standout in this category remains The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, that I read in 2011. There are at least three more on my reading list, but I am most likely not going to get to them in the remaining five days of this year.

Both Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl and Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Paul Offit were illuminating reads, "Unnatural Selection" in particular leaves you disturbed at the callous manner in which both Western and Indian governments came to advocate female foeticide, call it sex-selective abortions if you will, as a means of population control. "Deadly Choices" should be read by, or read out, to everyone who thinks that there is any alternative to vaccination in protecting our children from preventable and fatal diseases. How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough on the other hand gives a short if somewhat light on details take on what it is that children need and what they need to avoid to succeed in life.

Lastly, the year was not all about serious, non-fiction, or mythological reading. Apart from several children's books that I read, and Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard AtwaterSleep, Big Bear, Sleep, by Maureen Wright, Will HillenbrandThe Paper Bag Princess, by Robert N. MunschGood Ol Charlie Brown, How I Hate Him! , by Charles M Schulz are some that I could heartily recommend, The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho  was a good though somewhat overrated book. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson is a classic, while the much known The Camel Club, by David Baldacci is good, till the climax, when it sort of falls apart. John Grisham made a return to form with The Litigators, and The Reversal, by Michael Connelly provided a slight change from his usual thrillers. Some of the short stories in Time Stops at Shamli, by Ruskin Bond are a delight to read, and the title story is perhaps one of the best I have read in a long, long time.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.