I hugely enjoyed writing the post on My 20s in Books. And so decided to follow it up with this one. I do like the idea of allowing books to define the years passed. It is true that I find my moods reflected in my reading choices. I find too that the shifts in my reading coincide with changes in my life – both big and small. In this list are books and authors who kept me company in my 30s.
By the time I entered my 30s, I was already a big fan of Harry Potter. I’d read the first of the series about a week before the first Potter movie was out, unwilling to watch it without reading the book first. And boy, was I hooked. This was also a period when I worked as a children’s librarian. I was spoilt for choice because the whole genre just took off after Potter. There were so many, so many books to read. (And I have been permanently spoilt by the large print.) I was checking out titles like, Have a Hot Time, Hades and Phone Home, Persephone. Oh, there was such variety. The lightness in the writing, the irreverence…books I’ll never forget are Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce where a little boy in a far-flung Irish town finds himself being introduced to the classical painters – Michelangelo, Raphael, DaVinci – all because he had named his chickens after the Ninjas! Then there was Criss Cross, a brilliant coming-of-age summer novel that I loved for its craftsmanship And that superb, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that had judges wondering if they should award author-illustrator Brian Selznick for his writing or for his art. What an achievement! And then I stumbled upon the Alex Rider series, where young Alex helps the MI6 solve their more challenging cases.
With it, came a return to spy novels, whodunnits and crime fiction. And what a treat lay in store for me. My favorites have to be Steig Larsson and his Lisbeth Salander books, and Robert Galbraith (I know, I know, that’s JK Rowling!) with the Cormoran Strike series. They are such delicious reads. I find great pleasure in these long, deep, and supremely entertaining stories. They remind me a bit of the other popular novel from yore that I adore – Great Expectations.
In my 30s I also shed so much of that existential angst that rode my 20s with me. I didn’t battle large ambitions any more, preferring instead to dig deeper in the world I had chosen for myself – writing, books, husband, dog, baby, a few friends, some family.
To relax and unwind, I chose Alexander McCall Smith and his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It spoke of another way of life, and was my reminder of what’s really important. I liked Mma Ramotswe. Like her, I too put a pot on the kettle – not bush tea – when I needed to think. I liked her approach to life and its problems. But mostly, I liked being able to escape into Botswana and solve some problems whenever reality got the better of me.
My choice of reading also brought a continental shift in my preferences. I was choosing more European and British authors, in place of Americans, who dominated my reading in the 20s. I suspect this was because I found them less intense but complex enough to keep me riveted. I was happy to regain my humor, to laugh at life’s absurdities. For this, I have to thank the discovery of Marina Lewycka and all her books – A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, Two Caravans, We Are Made of Glue (my favourite), Of Various Pets Dead and Alive and The Lubetkin Legacy. I often Google her, to see if she’s got a book in the works. And I wait patiently for the next one.
Of course, comic fiction couldn’t have got a better addition than Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. In it, 20th century has been revisited and made sense of, better than any history book I’ve read. It led me to Peter Hoeg whose book, The Elephant Keeper’s Children I hugely enjoyed. Nordic comic fiction seemed as good as their crime, slightly off-centre without losing the plot. (While I’m at it, I also recommend two movies from these parts – Kitchen Stories and Elling). But my absolute favorite in this genre has to be Barney’s Version by Mordechai Richler. It’s been made into a movie but read the book first.
While lines blurred in my 30s between books for children and adults, they also did between fiction and non-fiction. I was writing non-fiction and enjoying books in the genre that had a strong narrative style. Like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations.
While I chose contemporary Indian non-fiction, in fiction, I was discovering another generation of Indian authors – Raja Rao, Ashapurna Devi, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Saadat Hasan Manto… Except Raja Rao, the others I read in translations. And in their books, I found something irresistible, something that touched me deeply, that I readily responded to. Raja Rao’s Kanthapura was a revelation, a lesson on writing in English like an Indian, infusing, as the author himself says, ‘the tempo of Indian life into English expression’. Listen to this, from his introduction to Kanthapura, explaining the language of the book:
“We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous ‘ats’ and ‘ons’ to bother us – we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought.”
It is with this understanding that I read translations of Indian authors. As I write this, I am beginning to understand why I am drawn to them. I like the lack of pretension, the ease in narrating the story… I like too that they wrote for a reason, whether it was to speak for the people, to articulate the mood of the times, to express a desire, that compulsion to write…What it was certainly not, was an indulgence. I like to believe it was the pursuit of art for the right reasons.
And so I end my 30s, with a mixed bag of books as markers or milestones, of crisscrossing genres, and where seemingly random choices proved significant. A case of life imitating books imitating life.