Top Picks From Janaki Lenin's Bookshelf
Author-journalist, film-maker and founder of the Draco Books publishing company, Janaki Lenin specializes in writing about wildlife and conservation practices in India. She is the author of My Husband and Other Animals, A King Cobra’s Summer and her latest, Every Creature Has A Story
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, Everyman’s Library, ₹2,699
The sprawling saga of three generations of an Egyptian family living through the colonial period could have easily been set in India. It can be read as following in the grand old tradition of epic storytelling, of deception, oppression and conflict of breathtaking proportions. Or it could be read as a metaphor for the political turmoil destabilizing Egypt, then and now.
Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, Faber, ₹599
I identified with the author–narrator as he comes under the influence of Zorba, a larger-than-life character who ruminates about the big questions in life—war, religion, morality. It’s the great Greek tragedy given a modern twist.
Vernon God Little by D. B. C. Pierre, Faber, ₹500
The death penalty, paedophilia, school shootings and a corrupt justice system in the US make for a dark tale. But Pierre serves it with liberal lashings of satire delivered in a Texan drawl.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx, Scribner, ₹1,895
Partly an ecological saga, this book doesn’t get overpowering on the environmental message. Each situation is so extraordinarily detailed in lyrical prose that the images erupt with colour and smell.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Everyman, ₹599
When I first read it, I became obsessed with this haunting love story set against the devastation of war in the bleak deserts of North Africa and in the ruins of a hospital in Italy. The mysterious patient who can’t recall who he is, and the many flashbacks could have become a confusing mess in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ondaatje offers little scraps of the tale at a time and reels the reader into this masterfully told story.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Europa ₹999
Despite my initial assumption that I’d find the much-hyped book wanting, I was captivated by the stream-of-consciousness style narration of the stories of two teenaged Italian girls, who struggle with poverty, education and jealousy of each other.
Woodsmoke and Leafcups by Madhu Ramnath, Harper Litmus, ₹399
Neither romantic nor sentimental, this charming memoir of the author’s time living in Bastar portrays the Durwa community—foibles and all—with affection and sympathy. Offering an insightful glimpse into the lives of these forest people, who contend with the self-important lower-level officials of the state government machinery, as well as armed insurgents, this made me chuckle, grimace and root for the indigenous jungle-dwellers.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur, HarperCollins, ₹299
In this deceptively simple novella of a middle-class family, originally written in Kannada, not only is every character fully formed but the conflict between them emerges in just a few brief sentences. I was astonished by the author’s ability to pack so much in so few words.
Circe by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, ₹499
I expected only a retelling of a famous story—the adventures of the mortal hero Odysseus—from the perspective of a minor player. But the surprise in this extraordinary tale is a delightfully feminist goddess, who more than holds her own against the charisma of the popular hero and the patriarchal Greek gods of Mount Olympus.
Eyrie by Tim Winton, Picador, ₹899
Winton’s prose is spare and gritty, matching the setting of this novel. A former hotshot environmental activist, awash with self-pity and drugs, a woman from his past with problems far more dire and her silent and withdrawn grandson are each memorable characters.