Sunday, March 13, 2016

Photo Essay: Books by Weight

The auditorium at Sundarbai Hall near Churchgate Station in downtown Mumbai, a popular venue for exhibitions, is so vast that you can browse through stuff and exercise your legs at the same time. If it’s a book exhibition then you end up walking around even more, because once in you don’t want out. Seldom is exercise so enjoyable. It’s a pleasant workout for mind and body. And it beats loitering inside a mall and buying things you don’t really need.

© Butterfly Books
Last week, my wife and I went to the Books by Weight exhibition at Sundarbai. Yes, the same one I visit twice a year. We spent nearly three hours browsing and reading. Eventually, we bought a few books.

Once inside we went our separate ways, our taste in books pulling us in different directions. Since we follow the British pedestrian and motoring system, I started with the children’s section on the extreme left and slowly made my way to the extreme right, through eight uniform rows of books covering a wide range of topics including education, history, cooking, medicine, photography, biographies, reference, management, and architecture and interiors. I then retraced my steps, going back to where I started.

Paperback and hardback fiction sat tightly, sweating it out—cover to cover, spine to spine, back to back—on two neat rows, each nearly twice the length of a bowling alley. I had to frequently sidestep the cartons of books on the floor, two of which contained science fiction and legal thrillers—where Isaac Asimov and John Grisham discussed storytelling over warm beer. 

I noticed that contemporary authors—Michael Connelly, James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Jeffrey Deaver, Bill Bryson, Joanna Trollope, Ian Rankin, Anna Smith, Peter James, Donna Leon, and Dale Brown, among many others—were flying off the display tables. Those who were buying books knew their authors well.

At one point I was tempted to pick up a few hardbacks of two of my favourite authors, Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) and Alistair MacLean, for old times' sake. But then, I saw that most of these were Book Club editions, and not first editions as I thought.

I observed other people browsing and the choices they made
. One bespectacled gentleman in the fiction row was peering at a handwritten list of books and then peering at the titles. I looked down at his wheeled-basket and saw Wilbur Smith and Robin Cook having a tete-a-tete. These were bestselling authors I read in my teens. If you are Indian you’d still be reading bestsellers from the seventies and eighties. I hope he got lucky with his bucket list of books.

Butterfly Books, which owns and runs the million-odd Books by Weight, sells by the kilo. Paperbacks cost Rs.100 a kg and those are the ones I usually buy—I get as many as seven for the price of a dollar and half. Hardbacks, not that many.

This time, though, I picked up a hardback—a first edition of a most interesting book about detectives. You will have to wait until I finish reading and posting a review. I promise to do that soon and lay your suspense to rest.

For now, I will leave you with delectable scenes from the book exhibition where I could have done a Julie Andrews and sung, “I could have browsed all night.”


© Photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Monday, March 07, 2016

Never judge a book by its cover

Here's why.

This afternoon, I visited the Books by Weight exhibition where they—you guessed it—sell books by weight. How else? There I came across a hardback with an uninspiring but intriguing title. And now I'm kicking myself for not picking it up.

The book was A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005), a 336-page novel by Marina Lewycka, who, I read later, was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, after World War II.

I did not read the back of the book at the time. I weighed the book in my hand, looked at the cover, raised my eyebrows and nodded my head, so to speak, and put it back in its place.

This is what the award-winning debut novel was all about.

"Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.

"Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must (set) aside a lifetime of feuding to save their émigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth.

"But the sisters' campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe's darkest history and sends them back to roots they'd much rather forget..."

See what I meant. I'm sure you feel like kicking me too.

This "hilarious" book has over 300 reviews on Amazon. I read and liked quite a few of them including this little piece by Georgie.

"The deceptively light tone has baffled some reviewers into believing this is not a good book, but if you look at what it actually tells you about the famine and war in Ukraine, you'll find the whole of human tragedy is there. If you prefer to feel like you're reading an annotated text book then perhaps this is not for you. This is how Eastern Europeans deal with the deep betrayals they have dealt with in living memory - cry about it, laugh about it, grow some vegetables and get on with it. This, I assume, is why the author has chosen to deal with the topic in this faux-comic way. It's a lovely, touching read with well-realised characters."

So now you know what I missed.
Never judge a book by its cover

Coming up: Pictures from Books by Weight, now more or less an annual feature on my blog.