So, over the past week, I’ve been noticing that people on my friends list have been participating in what is known as the “10 books challenge” #10BooksChallenge over on Facebook. At first, I thought it was just another thing, where people (maybe one or two max) would share their list and that would be the end of it. You know, kind of like those forwards we used to get, like way back in the day when hotmail existed, and we’d end up forwarding the email to a bunch of people in our list and then just forget about it? Well, no, turns out that this wasn’t the case at all with this chain status; people — many people — are actually participating in this and tagging others to participate in it too. The best part: I am learning things about my friends that I didn’t know before, through the books that they’ve listed. It’s especially nice to see that so many of them are big readers — another fact that I didn’t know about a lot of my friends. So, it’s truly refreshing to wake up to a newsfeed filled with awesome book recommendations. And being someone who loves not only reading and collecting books, but also the smell and feel of them, it was indeed quite heavenly to witness that.
Anyway, initially, I wasn’t going to participate in this but because so many people are participating and nominating, which has created almost like a viral domino effect, I decided, ah why not? Also, eight people have tagged/nominated me to list my top 10 books already, so here’s more of a reason to share my list with you all, no? Oh, and rather than list them as my Facebook status, I have decided to blog about it. Why? Because it’s just that much more awesome. And, also, because I intend to give a brief description and background about why that particular book has been so close and significant to me — to my heart. So, if it were a status, it would be too long and then I’d feel bad about not having turned it into a blog, so, yes, on the blog it goes.
Without further ado, here you go, folks (the following books are in no particular order; they all hold equal value to me):
1) Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
I discovered this book by accident at the local library about 11 or 12 years ago. I lived walking distance from the library and I’d pretty much made it my second home. The librarians all knew me by name. I’d spend hours and hours sifting through the shelves, trying to get my hands on as many books as possible. Back then, I was big on reading novels (I still am, but I balance it out now by reading quite a bit of non-fiction too).
Anyway, when I first saw the cover of this book, I wasn’t impressed. Yes, I totally judged this book by its lame-o cover. The cover (if you haven’t seen it already) just had a picture of a white lab rat on it, with a faded blue background (see picture below).
However, I liked the synopsis written on the back cover and decided to give the book a read as I piled it up in the cart of dozen books that I’d planned to borrow that day from the library. That same night, out of all the books I’d borrowed, I ended up reading Flowers for Algernon and even though I had school the next day, I literally stayed up all night reading this book, my eyes, mind and heart drinking in each page hungrily, unable to put the book down.
This book, for lack of a better word, is absolutely, mind-bogglingly brilliant! It is all written in journal-form through the perspective of a person with an intellectual disability. What’s immensely interesting about this story is that the narrator, a man in his early or mid 30’s, undergoes an experimental surgery where scientists try to increase his intelligence through artificial means. He starts off with an IQ of 80 or 90, but as the journals progress, from initially being innocent and child-like with spelling and grammatical errors, we — the reader — start to notice the shift in his intelligence as soon as he undergoes the surgery. With each passing day, his intelligence increases and with it his writing and thought process — his ability to think — as well. By the end of the novel, his IQ has increased to a whopping 187 (or somewhere around that, don’t remember exactly), and it’s amazing how he begins to discover and realize how ignorant and naive he was about the people he knew and loved as well as his surroundings. From being happily ignorant he suddenly becomes too intelligent for his own good, and he falls into depression. He loses friends (who are fake anyway), family, and the world he knew as someone with an intellectual disability is no more; it becomes dark, bleak, and meaningless.
The reason this book is so important to me and why I recommend it to every single person I meet is because it hits very close to home. Very close. You see, my older brother, too, has an intellectual disability. It’s not as severe as others, but still. I see the way he goes about his life, always happy without a thought or worry ever crinkling his perfectly smooth forehead. I am a couple years younger than him, but I seem older than him. He has this amazing youthful aura about him that sometimes I wish I could live in his shoes for just one day and shut my mind off from all the stresses and worries of this horrific, cruel world we live in. I actually dedicated a poem to him a while a back. You are more than welcome to read it here.
2) The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra
This was another gem that I randomly picked up at the library about six or seven years ago, and the book haunted me long after I was done reading it. First off, from what I can remember, the novel is written beautifully. The first few pages read like gorgeous poetic prose. I remember that as soon as I started to read it, I was immensely hooked. The author, who is actually a male using a female pseudonym (for safety reasons I suppose), has a gift with words.
The story, too, is deeply poignant and heart-wrenching. It takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the time when the Taliban were in power; it centers around two couples, one is a family of wealthy shopkeepers and the other is a prison-keeper, who’s struggling to keep his faith, while believing in the Taliban’s ideology of extremist Islam. The stories are all inter-woven where Islamic passion, the struggle for survival, and other social, moral and political issues come to life in this short but brilliant novel. Indeed there are very few novels which explores this region of the world, but it is the poetic and very unique literary style of Khadra that has made this book very near and special to my heart.
3) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
This book was recommended to me about six years ago by someone very near and dear to me; I thought it was a tough read, mostly because it is poorly written. (Dawkins is clearly not the best writer, in my opinion, despite his high intelligence. And he also sucks on social media; he lacks the ability to sound politically correct when it comes to very sensitive issues like abortion and rape. I don’t want to sound like a Dawkins apologist, but despite his many, many flaws, we can’t deny that he’s brilliant. I guess it’s true when they say that too much brilliance can drive a person mad. And, as of late, Dawkins has indeed gone mad. Heh.)
Anyway, I found this book extremely enlightening and thought-provoking. Dawkins presents some very valid points and great food for thought. We all don’t necessarily have to agree with everything he says in this book, but I love his emphasis on questioning and critically examining/analyzing each and everything that we read, come across, or are conditioned into believing since the time of birth. Blind belief is dangerous. Very dangerous. And I agree with that 200 percent.
4) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Ah, yes, good ‘ol Jane Eyre! This book and I go back — way back — when I still lived in the Middle East. Back then, I’d taken a keen interest in classic literature and because we were reading excerpts from stories like Huckleberry Finn at school, I decided to give Jane Eyre a shot.
At first, it took me a while to get through the book. I was about 12 when I first read it. I also have to admit that I didn’t appreciate the book when I read it the first time. However, a few years later — at about 18 — I decided to read it again, and I just absolutely loved it! I know for many, the story is nothing all too special; it doesn’t deal with anything significant or life-changing, but I like it for its sweetness. It’s basically about a “plain-looking” girl who has luck by her side. She is one of the very few girls who survives a deadly disease in the boarding school that she lives in; at 18, she lands a killer job as a governess for this very wealthy man and his 5-year-old daughter, teaching French; the wealthy man, though much older than she, ends up falling in love with her (we also later find out that he’s married already, but his wife is mad); and despite the hurdles along the way, she eventually ends up with him at the end and they live happily ever after.
I guess the reason this book is dear to me is because she and I go very far back. There is much history involved. And while it may not be an extra-ordinary novel, it’s definitely in my top 10 list.
5) A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
I was very lucky to discover this incredible book in my third year as an undergraduate student. It was actually one of the required readings for a course I was taking in political science. At first, I was a little put off by how huge the book was (it’s around 800 pages long). And, hence, I decided to put off reading it until a few days before my end-of-term essay on it was due. When I did get around to finally reading it, I regretted not having read it sooner. The book is absolutely marvelous! I actually managed to finish reading all 800 pages in three days! I couldn’t put it down. However, I must warn my readers that it is not an easy read, and by that I mean that it’s quite depressing as it paints a harsh reality of the social and political issues that exist in India even till this day.
Set in the 1970s, Mistry writes a complex tale that intertwines the lives of two poor tailors in search of a better life, a woman struggling to gain independence, and a student seeking fulfillment. His characters are fully realized, lifting off the page with tenderness and sometimes terrifying reality. And as you are reading each of their stories, you almost feel like you know them personally, as they struggle with the barriers of caste, religion and wealth. The characters each confront demons within themselves and within their neighbours, friends and family. And just when you think everything will be okay, that there will be some redemption, some kind of small hope, something horrible happens and shatters every inkling of hope you felt, leaving you weeping — desperately weeping — for the characters and their ill fates.
It’s been a decade since I first read this book and I still remember it so vividly, like as if I lived through these powerful characters and experienced everything that they’d experienced in the book. Definitely a haunting read that I will reminisce for many decades to come.
6) Slave by Mende Nazer
I bought this book at a book fair and didn’t get a chance to read it until two years later. It’s quite unfortunate that I buy so many incredible books at once, but don’t get a chance to read them right away, and hence miss out. And I am so glad I got around to reading this gem, albeit yet another painful read similar to A Fine Balance.
Anyway, I won’t go too much into detail explaining what this book is about, as I’ve actually already wrote a brief review on it on my blog here.
7) 1984 by George Orwell
I knew about this book way before I actually got a chance to read it. It’s funny because I would see this book lying around on our dining room table. My younger brother, who was in the eighth grade at the time, was actually reading it for his English class. Little did I know that there would come a time that I, too, would be reading, analyzing and writing essays on this novel. And that happened, several years later, when I took a course on dystopian literature in my last year as an undergraduate student. 1984 was one of the required readings in the course syllabus and because I have always been fascinated with dystopian themes and ideologies, it didn’t take me too long to read and finish the book.
1984 is quite a chilling story about the destruction of humanity. What’s even more scary is that this book was written in 1949, yet Orwell was able to clearly predict a society that was slowly deteriorating, where language was being cut in half (like how nowadays we see people using language where “you” becomes “u”), and where we are constantly being watched and followed everywhere we go by government forces similar to the whole “Big brother is watching” concept that Orwell had created in his novel. At one point, in the midst of reading the novel, I couldn’t help wonder whether Orwell was psychic, and whether he was able to see into the future. Some of the stuff he describes in his novel are creepily spot on, considering that those things didn’t even exist back in 1949. No doubt, Orwell was a genius and 1984 is a brilliant piece of literary work that will always be in my top ten book list.
8) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
A really good and close friend of mine recommended this book to me about seven years ago. I ended up buying it at one of those hole-in-the-wall bookstores in downtown. This book, like Flowers for Algernon, also holds a very special place in my heart. The book is told through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy with a supposed intellectual disability (Autism/Asperger’s syndrome). This book is quite unique as it is part story and part primarily observations.
The story basically explores the isolated world of an adolescent child, beginning with a disturbing stabbing of the neighbour’s dog. The book then follows the boy’s adventures as he attempts to solve the murder of the dog. The most amazing thing about this book is that the reader gets a deep, intimate look into the mind of the narrator as he relays them; it’s as if his mind is like a camera, recording things and events as they occur. And though the narrator’s cognitions are often interesting and amusing, they are sometimes not. Nevertheless, observations and actions are balanced out so as to provide the reader with an entertaining story while at the same time providing a terrific insight into what life might be like for someone who has autism. Definitely a brilliant read and one that also hits very close to home for me.
9) The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
There is just so much to learn from this book. So, so much. I learned about Anne Frank in history class when I was in the 11th grade, back in high school, and curious to learn and know more about her, I decided to read her diary that I borrowed from the local library near my house. I finished reading her story in a day and a half, tears streaming down my face by the end of it.
Anne Frank was only 13 years old when she was forced to go into hiding with her family for two years, during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The diary reads like any normal 13-year-old’s diary, which was quite shocking, considering the horrific circumstances. Largely so, Anne’s diary is a story about herself, a developing, maturing teenager, and the people she interacts with on a daily basis. Her diary is full of so much hope, so many humorous episodes and so much wit and wisdom. It’s like as if she is talking to you, relaying the day’s events to you over a nice, hot cup of chai. Anne is so adorable in her journal entries that you can almost hear her voice — hear the excitement in it.
In a nutshell, the diary is so beautifully written and with such freshness and vitality that the words practically leap off the pages. One almost forgets that Frank is in hiding and is struggling to survive. It is just a really superb read and one of my most favourite books of all time.
10) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale was on the same course syllabus of my Dystopian Literature course as 1984 by George Orwell. (Till date, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Not only did I discover some of the greatest reads ever written, but the class itself was also so very intellectually stimulating.) The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed another very fascinating dystopian piece of literary that blows you away with its sheer brilliance.
Imagine a world not too far into the future which consists of low birth rates, oppressed women, religions, wars and censorship of thought and freedoms. Sound scary? Well, this is exactly what The Handmaid’s Tale is all about — a tale of Offred(“Of” and “Fred” are separate words meaning that the woman belongs to a man named Fred; the women in this world have no names because they all belong to men, so they are instead referred to as “OfRichard” or “OfBrian,” etc.), who happens to be one of the few handmaids in the world. A handmaid is a woman who is used as a tool for the leaders (who are men, obviously) of the world in order to procreate. They get to choose women (handmaids) to procreate with; it’s almost like a system where women are pretty much known to be baby-making machines.
Further, Atwood brilliantly describes a world that is full of fear and oppression, which is easily portrayed through the narrative of the protagonist Offred. With her harrowing words, Offred describes the people, places, and her thoughts very vividly. She speaks to the readers personally about her contact with a secret underground organization, her past, the events leading up to the present, her secret affair, and so much more.
All I can say is that this book holds you in a grip of anticipation and mystery as to how the set of events will unfold. What’s frightening is that many of the rules and events of this dystopian world that Atwood is describing is not too far from the reality in which we currently know and perhaps even live in. Not far at all. And that makes it more frightening than ever: the fact that a dystopian world of this sort actually exists and we are more than living it.