Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Review: Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

One of the joys of visiting the parental home is the opportunity to raid the parental bookshelf. Usually I either come away with four-five books in my arms or just give up after an hour of browsing. Too many books, too little time during the visit. 

But this time around, I had barely started digging when I found what I immediately knew to be treasure. I hadn’t even heard about the book before, but its gorgeous cover would have drawn me in anywhere. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan, it said. I decided to forgive the rather pedestrian title and read on.

Reader, it really WAS treasure I had discovered. Lucy Mangan writes about a bunch of books she read and enjoyed as a child in England in the seventies and eighties. That sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? Why would anybody want to read about books that somebody else read thirty years ago, especially when they haven’t even heard of many of the said books?

But Bookworm wasn’t boring at all. Initially, I thought I was enjoying the book so much because of Mangan’s chatty tone and bookish insights. She places the books in context, with stories about the authors and how they came to write that particular book. She is quite funny too - I laughed out aloud several times while reading (startling my family in the process).

But it is much more than that. The book was enjoyable because, as a fellow bookworm who also spent most of her childhood with her nose in books, I completely understood where she was coming from. The actual names of the books don’t matter at all. She’s writing less about the books themselves and more about the pleasure she found in them, the worlds they took her to, the myriad ways they opened her mind. 

“Do we ever manage again to commit ourselves as wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously as we do to the books we read when young? I doubt it,” she says.

Along the way, she also detours into associated areas such as the history of picture books (not even two centuries old, did you know?) and why re-reading is so important for children. 

I admit that, as a reader, I was probably a better fit than usual for this book. The first chapter is an evocative mix of the author’s early memories of being read to by her father, and her own recent experience of reading to her five-year-old son. Since I’m in a similar stage myself right now (my son is almost four and LOVES being read to), I couldn't have NOT enjoyed it. 

Of course, we Indians have a slight advantage in reading this book; thanks to our colonial hangover, many of us have grown up reading books that an Irish girl in London read in the seventies (most notably Enid Blyton books). And of course she mentions many books that have been considered classics for decades now (Alice in Wonderland, The Railway Children, Anne of Green Gables, etc). All of this doesn’t make for much racial diversity, of course - a charge she herself freely admits.

If I have one quibble, it is that she doesn’t write at all about the new books and authors that she and her son must surely be discovering together now. What about Julia Donaldson, I ask. Or Oliver Jeffers? Surely they deserved at least a mention? But no, she sticks firmly to her own childhood. 

I can’t think of a book that I’ve read with so much enjoyment in the recent past. My enjoyment partly had to do with the fact that I knew nothing about the book before reading it, which is rare in the age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews. It felt strange, as if I was heading off on one of the adventures that Mangan's childhood heroes and heroines go on. I didn’t want to ruin the experience, so I deliberately decided not to visit Goodreads to read reviews or even see its rating. I peeked after finishing the book, and I’m glad to note that its rating is currently 4.12. I’m planning to bump it up a bit with my five-star review. :)
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Friday, December 21, 2018

The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Siddharth Singh's The Great Smog of India manages to both scare the hell out of the reader and give hope where none used to exist.

We all read the newspaper reports about the pollution levels in Delhi of course, but the consequences of those pollution levels on individual health (and therefore on India's health systems and its productivity as an economy) aren't quite so evident on a day-to-day basis.

This is what TGSoI does well. It begins by summarizing the impact of the pollution levels. Then it delves deep into each of the causes of the rise in pollution each winter, whether it's industrial pollution or vehicular emissions or the burning of agricultural residue or Delhi's geographical situation or the unique administrative hassles of Delhi as a city, state and capital.

The chapter on crop burning is done particularly well; it makes it crystal clear why the farmers of Punjab and Haryana have no option but to burn the crop residue every year, and why it's a comparatively recent phenomenon. I was surprised to learn that solutions to the crop burning issue do actually exist. The reason they are not being implemented is lack of finances, combined of course with lack of political focus.

The book makes for grim reading. The problem seems insurmountable, its causes so numerous and varied and its consequences impacting so many people. Most importantly, the solution would require many widely different sections of people, not necessarily in political alignment with each other, to act in concert.

Despite this, the author manages to end on a hopeful note. If London can escape the pollution-linked smog caused by coal, and if China can reduce its deadly pollution levels by switching from coal to cleaner fuels, surely there's no reason we can't either.

This book is essential reading for anybody living in Delhi or its surrounding areas. The only problem is that you'll want to run away from home after reading the very first chapter!
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