Monday, November 13, 2006

James and James

So India is planning a Manned Spaceflight program. Coincidentally, this news came at just the time I was finishing a magnificent book, "Space", by James Michener, in which he writes about America's space mission. The key word in the plans about India's space mission is, to do it "ahead of China". And the keyword in America's space program was to put a man on the moon "ahead of Russia", who had already sent a man to space. Interesting!

I have gushed about James Michener earlier in these pages. But that will not stop me from gushing again.

Michener's books are unique. He chooses a subject, does extensive research on it, and then writes a story about it. The result? You get all the information about that subject, in the form of a gripping story.

All books I had read so far involved countries. For example, in Hawaii, Michener traces the history of Hawaii right from its formation, to the first dwellers, through the centuries to the present. His facts are correct, historical details are factual. But he makes a story out of it. Instead of telling you, "Hawaii's first inhabitants were people of blah-blah origin", he brings to life a family, with its own joys and sorrows, and makes that family migrate to Hawaii. He writes about the family, its experience and travails, and then moves a century forward and writes about the grandson of the family he had talked about previously. He traces the developments of the habits and culture of Hawaii through these jumps in time. Sometimes, in the regular dealings of these people, he pops in a real historical character, like a scientist, or a national leader, and gives him a role too in the story. So it hits you from time to time, that what you are reading might be a fictitious story, but somewhere, such a thing must surely have happened to somebody.

So ultimately what you are reading is a engrossing story about one or two families. But what you are absorbing is the entire history and culture of Hawaii. I mean, could it get better?

Another mind-blowing book is The Source, which creates the same magic with the land of Israel. Hawaii and Source are my favourites, but the others are no less magnificent. Covenant(About S.Africa), Poland, etc. There are a lot more short stories which I haven't read yet, and some books like Caravans(about Afghanistan) and Sayonara(about Japan), which are short novels that just give you a story, but Michener doesn't miss sprinkling it with large doses of culture and history.

Space is the first "non-country-centric" kind of book I read - it traces the beginnings of interest in Space missions, starting from the Second World War. It tells you everything that you need to know about what goes into a Space Mission, by means of stories of half a dozen exceptional men. Wow, what a book!

You come out of reading any book of his, with a sense of fulfilment.

The other James couldn't be more different. James Herriot. The much-loved author who wrote about his hysterically funny experiences as a countryside veterinarian.

The first book of his that I read was his first book, If Only They Could Talk, and he had me hooked right from page one. This book is about the first year of his veterinary practice, and he starts the book with how he has been called in the middle of the night to attend to a cow which has been in labour for a long time, but hasn't delivered the calf yet. So, says Herriott, he was knee-deep in cow muck, in the dirty shed in the middle of the cold night, with his entire arm inside the cow, trying to feel the calf, and then he thinks of the picture in his course books, which dealt with calving, and wonders at how different the picture was. He says, in his own words -

"The didn't say anything about this in the (course) book, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.

My mind went back to that picture in the obstetrics book. A cow standing in the middle of a gleaming floor while a sleek veterinary surgeon in a spotless parturition overall inserted his arm to a polite distance. He was relaxed and smiling, the farmer and his helpers were smiling, even the cow was smiling.

Ah, such joy!

The feeling you get after reading James Herriot is one of "Nirmal Anand" (Pure Joy) (Now which movie is this phrase from?)

While Michener needs to be read with concentration, and can get heavy at times (Pleasantly heavy - never a dull moment), Herriot gives you hours of laughter. Herriott's books are probably the only ones that have made me put the book down and clutch my stomach and laugh. And while I would recommend Michener only to the "Vidya Arthis" (those who seek knowledge), I would recommend Herriot to everybody looking for some hours of pleasant reading - yes, even you, who says "Ohhhh I can't read even one page of a novel". Because it is light, it is fun, and you require no effort at all. And it is always lovely to read an affectionate account of those loveable creatures that we call animals.

So, whenever anybody asks me who my fave novelist is, it is quite simple for me to answer. "James, and James"!


Shyam said...

Yep, James Michener is terrific... Have you read any Arthur Hailey, Shruthi? In a more commercialised way, he is cast in the same mould. I loved his books too, although they're not classed as literary gems! :)

Shruthi said...

Shyam, Oh yes! I have read almost all of Arthur Hailey's books. He fascinated me the same way in the beginning - as you say, same mould - lighter and more easily digestible writing. But fantastic nevertheless!

Viky said...

Spell Check Alert: "If ONLY they could talk".

I enjoy Arthur Hailey too, for the details he puts into his novels - Airport, and Hotel, for example.

The way your blog reads, lagta hai Michener Hailey ka baap niklega.

Sigma said...

A lovely post, and very well written one. Since I love reading too, I enjoyed your analysis.
I haven't read any of Michener's books, but going by your post, it seems they'll be wonderful. Specially if you say they compare better to Hailey. I have read quite a few of Hailey's novels, like Hotel, Wheels, and Moneychangers, and I liked the manner he has put in factual research.
I have had a chance to read a few articles by Herriot (RD once used to publish his stories quite often), and liked the amusing way he describes his life in the country. But do you know Herriot is a pseudonym(at least to the best of my knowledge).
And that phrase "nirmal anand" brought a smile on my face. (the movie name was Khoobsurat, cast included Rekha, Rakesh Roshan,Ashok Kumar etc).

Shruthi said...

Viky, Ha ha, thanks for the correction.
Viky, each time I read Michener or Hailey, I wish that I had the ability to bring out a book at least 1 pc as good.... sigh... Baap nikalna toh door ki baat hai :(

Sigma, thanks a lot, glad you enjoyed it! Do try Michener, I am sure you will enjoy it.
Yes, you are right, Herriot is a pseudonym, his real name is James Alfred Wight.
Ahhh Khoobsurat, thanks! I knew it had to be a Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie ;)

Viky said...

Shru, my dear, I hate to tell you this.

I meant to say - the way your blog reads, lagta hai Michener "Hailey ka baap" niklega.

Inder said...

hmmm... michener sounds like 'masterji' type of author giving loads of information. i don't think i am smart enough to understand him. the herriot guy sounds more like my type. just found that his 'every living thing' is available in the library. i'll swap it with 'three men in a boat' that leaves me clueless for most of the parts...

Amodini said...

Don't about Michener (haven't read his stuff) but I am a big fan of James Herriot. I've read all his stuff in the local library, own a few, and also love the BBC TV series based on his books.

Shruthi said...

Viky, ha ha!! That was funny :) But why "hate to tell you this"? :-?
Phew... the written word can be quite dangerous ;)

Inder, Michener is not that heavy either.... if you can, try out one of his short stories and see :) And you won't be disappointed with Herriot!

Amodini, Ohh I have heard of the BBc series, but have never watched it! I am sure that will be fun!

Viky said...

Sumne chamak ;)

Quizman said...

Hi Shruti,

Off-sopic - ultra running related.

I saw your posts on my blog. Some blogs of other Indian ultrarunners:
1, 2, 3

Samyuktha said...

Hey Shruthi
If Only was my first James Herriot book too, and i totally agre with you on what a fabulous author he is! I haven't read Michener yet, but your blog has inspired me to try it out:)
And lastly, Nirmal Anand is fromt he movie Khoobsurat, with Rekha and Rakesh Roshan...

Saltwater Blues said...

The last Michener book I read was Caravans ... on Afganisthan, and I loved it. Quite unbelievable the amount of research that went into his books.

Anonymous said...

Funnily enf, havent read any of Michener myself..should get a copy of 'Hawaii' or 'Source', and get introducd, I guess. If he's anything like Hailey, as Shyam seems to be suggesting, I would probably enjoy his stuff a great deal. I like almost everything by Hailey (hated his last book 'Detective'; nowhere in the class of other writers of the genre, say a Michael Connelly).

The 'other' James (Herriot) is a long-time favourite. I first read him when I was in my teens; was a birthday gift, 4 of his books as a collection. Outstanding, to say the least.

Shruthi said...

Viky, :D

Quizman, Hey, thanks!

Samyuktha, good to see you here :) I'm sure you'll like Michener.

SWB, lovely, right? Evokes such beautiful images of that fated land! Yeah... the research... is unimaginable.

Ranjit Nair, yup, same category as Hailey, but much more in detail. You'll like it!
And a set of Herriot books for a young person - such a lovely, thoughtful gift!

Anonymous said...

While on "J', you may also include Jim Corbett to the reading list.

I once incurred the wrath of my cousin,who had come all the way from Bangalore(when I was on training in Dehradun),because,I continued reading the 'Man Eating Leopards of Kumaon' even after he had landed.

'My India' is a 'must read'. All other books of his are also eminently readable.

I read James Herriot(Not his real name) after being introduced by 'Readers Digest'. Delectable humour.

Continuing on "J", You can also include Jerome Klapka Jerome's "Three men in a Boat",a hilarious writing. British Council had this book.


rajeev said...


read this post long back, and smiled right through it- you picked two of my favs!
Well, reason I am commenting after so long is entirely different. I want some advice- my son, 9, has exhausted the books i had wanted him to read- Roald Dahl, most of Blyton, quite a few of the children's classics (like black beauty, swiss family robinson ....), Harry potter. I have no clue what so ever , what I could recommend next. He picks up some randon stuff from library- but i can see he would love to get his hands on something comparable to Dahl.
I would appreciate any ideas - authors, books ....

And btw, what did you do to your aunt?? She has been so quiet after the visit. I do miss her musings.

rajeev said...

i loved the RD condensed version of this book:

maybe you would like it too.

Shruthi said...

TSSM, Yeah Jim Corbett is good - and in the same genre, have you read Kenneth Anderson? Haven't read Jerome K Jerome, though I have heard a lot about him - will try it out.

Rajeev, my reply on your blog :) Will get back to you!

The Mad Momma said...

Love, love, love Michener. Enjoyed the Source and wanted to sleep with it under my pillow... it does call for a lot of concentration and i managed to stick to it while going through a c-sec and then a newborn baby because it was THAT ENGROSSING. Will now look for Herriott on your recco.

rajeev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rajeev said...

Hi Shruthi,

I recently read a book that made me skip office for day to finish it - The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
If you haven't read it already, do get it.

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