Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Are You Bookalicious?

Back after a long time, isn’t it? My classes don’t start till the end of the month, and I have some prep work for an upcoming research module. Besides, I’m catching up on my reading. Serious reading. It’s the way I used to read back in student days...during summer hols. Morning to really late into the night. I even manage to stir the rasam with a book wedged between my thumb and pinky – so far no major culinary disasters have taken place.  

That book tag in FB that everyone is snarling at could not have come at a better time. I caught on late – by then people were getting annoyed – how their timelines are being flooded by these pompous lists; how everyone is suddenly pretending to have eclectic taste in literature. Sheesh! So anyway, I sent the list only to the two people who’d tagged me. The list, as I understood, was supposed to be the ten books that came up in your mind at that instant...and not the ten books that made you look terribly intellectual to your ‘friends’.

It is rather telling – that the simple act of reading a book – one of the singular, most lonesome, quietest activities – even that has been turned into some kind of a showbiz. It was indeed very revealing to see that some of the FB folks who mostly put up lame, sorry-ass posters on ‘how to love yourself’ or ‘how to be strong’ were actually Kafka readers. Why, I even saw Dostoevsky thrown around by some who cannot figure out the plural from the possessive. Ah! They were being bookalicious (have I coined a new word?). You know...wanting to appear sexy by choice of books.

Now, coming to my list... it was interesting to see that despite having devoured many classics, the books that did stick to my mind were mostly pulp fiction, unknown authors of unknown crime books and a couple of the usual suspects. Later on, for want of better things to do, I analysed this impromptu list. I realised that these books bubbled up in my memory instantly because I could still remember how I felt when I’d read them.  Yup. Reading a book is an experience, not just an activity. For example, I have Bram Stoker’s Dracula on my list. Its mind-numbing brilliance aside, I have a strange memory associated with the book. I
Courtesy - eBay
bought my first copy when I was on a project in Texas. It was an anniversary edition – hard copy. There was no artwork on the jacket. The cover was plain, blood red. The title was printed in a small, gold coloured, slightly calligraphic script along with the ‘dracul’ symbol.  That’s it. It is, by far, the most beautiful book cover I’ve seen – captivating in its symbolic red.  I ran my palm over the smooth jacket and traced the embossed title...and I can still feel that touch.  That’s what I remember when someone says Dracula. That book cover first, and then the rest – the Harkers and Transylvania and the Count himself. The book cover was similar to the photo alongside. Unfortunately, I did not have space to carry the book in my I donated it to the local library. 

A couple of James Hadley Chase also appeared on my list. The epitome of pulp, yes? Here’s what I remember of Chase novels – the artwork on the cover. None of the photoshop crap we see today. It was proper artwork – as in someone sat and did those illustrations. The later editions worked with photographs. Without fail, almost all of them had provocatively attired women. Healthy women I must add! I guess if one picked up a Chase because the cover showed a stripper with a gun...well...the book would be a huge disappointment. Yup. No hanky-panky unlike Irving Wallace or Harold Robbins. Just plain vanilla good old crime story. And the titles. Always makes me chuckle -  "Miss Shumway waves a hand"; "Well now, my pretty"..."This way for a shroud"... :)  Most of the Chase novels I read as a teen were bought from second hand bookshops – so they had well-thumbed pages, and a slightly naphthalene smell.  Writing pulp in itself is an art. You can’t afford to ramble on, yet, you must spin a story that goes at breakneck speed. But, you must not lose grip on the characters – your readers must care about them. That’s a tall order, and not everyone can do it. I remember reading Not Safe to be Free during summer hols (that made to my list). It’s set in Cannes and opens up the world of Hollywood celebrities. Something exciting for a teen lolling in Malleswaram eating kodubale to read about, yes? The story is about the murder of a starlet – and the unlikely perp.

In fact, recently, Appa bought a stack of Chase novels – so that I am well-stocked when I visit him. These are new prints, so the book cover artwork is lost actually...but what bliss to read them! I read Come Easy – Go Easy during my last visit. Only three characters. Unputdownable. Chase gives a lesson in storytelling.

Psycho by Robert Bloch made it to my list. It’s probably because my jaw fell when I saw the book. Alfred Hitchcock gave Norman Bates a face, a voice, flesh and blood. Bates is in the top ‘villain’ list of this century. So I imagined the book to be ...well...1000 pages or so. Nope. Psycho is a very slim 190-200 pages. First written in the late 1950s, the book does not dwell on pop psychology. It just gets down to business. The narration is stark, and that means the reader’s imagination is exercise
d to the maximum to create the terror. The famous ‘shower scene’ is hardly a couple of sentences. But yeah, you do hear the screaming violins in your head. Beneath all that starkness, you get to peel the layers of complexity and sickness of the human brain. Oedipus complex is a thread running through, never overt (unlike King’s more explicit portrayal in Mr Mercedes), never on the surface, yet bubbling up now and then, discomforting you...making you squirm. In those 190 odd pages, Bloch manages to create the first psychopath of modern crime literature, a character that will surface in your head in the least expected moment.

You may not have heard of William Katz either. I have read only one book of his. Some twenty-five years ago. And I can never, ever forget the sheer thrill of reading that library co
py. It was a novel called ‘Surprise Party’. It’s what one would rate as “f*ckin A”. A wife plans a surprise party for her husband’s birthday (or is it anniversary...can't remember). She wants to invite his school mates as a surprise. She gets in touch with his school. No records of her husband. She gets in touch with uni, college...same story. Has she married some kind of a secret agent? Who the hell is her husband who has no past? Makes you gnaw your knuckles, yes? Imagine spending quiet summer afternoons reading this.

This weekend I met a friend after 12 years. She was passing through London to celebrate her 60th. We had a wonderful day together. I wondered what it is that bonded us – two women from different generations, different cultures (aside from the fact that Jennifer is great fun, kind, sensitive and very giving)? I think I got my answer when I went to pick her up from the hotel. I was late, and she was seated in the lobby in calm repose, reading a book. Yup – that’s a kindred spirit right there. We are a world-wide community I suppose. Us book-carriers. There’s always a book in our huge handbags. Have to wait? Like for the bus, the train, the airport, the boyfriend, the husband? No problem. Let’s quickly see if the serial killer has struck again.  Or, if we are unable to open the books, we stand with a blank expression, staring at nothing – because we are thinking - why is Mrs Littlewood having an affair with the plumber? Can’t she see he’s going to kill her? Yup. While travelling, we don’t want to read about immigrants’ identity know the protagonist is in Weston-Super-Mare eating fish n’ chips and reminiscing about macher jhol his great-grandmum used to make back in Burdwan. Oh no. We want to read about a guy who can shake the system. Take on the White House. Knows all the crafty secrets of CIA. Who’s been in ‘Nam and Afghanistan and what have you. Who’s a killing machine but really, a nice gentleman. We Want Jack Reacher...bas! Yeah, in her two-three weeks trip, Jennifer has finished five Reacher novels.

Guess we are not bookilicious. Nope. We don’t read to ‘build an image’. We read to quench a thirst. That's the bond. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the body found in Bath...

© Sumana Khan - 2014


  1. I absolutely loved this post for two reasons. Firstly, for the fact that as a published author you chose to discuss your first love which was pulp fiction and not the highbrow Tolstoys or Murakamis of the world as the rest of Facebook did, and secondly, you also managed to rekindle my interest in pulp fiction authors whom I had almost forgotten like James Hadley Chase and William Katz.

  2. and I forgot to mention Lawrence Sanders..The 1st Deadly Sin. outstanding crime fiction.

  3. I found the annoyance to be a trifle amusing actually! But, if people are actually going around quoting Kafka then I am truly surprised! I tried to read Kafka 203 times but I just couldn't wrap my head around his stories..what does he MEAN?!! LOL!
    So, my list mainly consisted of books from my childhood, including Calvin and Hobbes, Herriot and Wodehouse! Because, I like staying light, thank you very much! :D