10 globe-trotting books that influenced Anita Rau Badami

It may be an understatement to say that Anita Rau Badami loves to read. The author and visual artist didn't just check books out from the library as a teen - the librarian gave her exclusive access to the latest releases!

There's no doubt Anita's novel The Hero's Walk will be getting some love when actor Vinay Virmani champions it on Canada Reads next month. We asked her to spread the love around by telling us about 10 of her favourite books.

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THE CHILDHOOD FAVOURITE
My Family and Other Animals is the first in a trilogy of memoirs of the life of a 10-year-old British boy whose eccentric mother decides to move with her four children to Corfu. It combines wild-eyed humour with vivid, gorgeous descriptions of nature and was one of my favourites when I was a child. I think this was the book that first taught me about using details to make writing come alive. The Durrells were delightfully crazy and reminded me of various members of my own extended family. When I was not buried in a book, I pretended to be Gerald Durrell and wrote what I thought were funny stories about my siblings, or enthusiastically accompanied my mother, a biology major, on short hikes into the surrounding countryside, learning the names of various plants, making notes and drawings, and pressing samples in home-made newspaper books. I still refer to plants by their botanical names at the risk of sounding like a nerdy know-all.

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THE PASSIONATE CLASSIC
I've always been an intense reader, so thoroughly involved with the characters and incidents in a book that the rest of the world falls away from me. So it was with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which I read when I was 11 or 12. I was Jane Eyre, the sturdy, independent-minded orphan. I was willing to be orphaned and penniless and lovelorn just to be her. I loathed her nasty relatives, sobbed over the death of her poor consumptive friend Helen, hated and then fell violently in love with the dour Mr. Rochester. I felt a guilty satisfaction when poor, mad, imprisoned Mrs. Rochester died in the fire. I confess I changed my mind about Rochester and his tragic wife when I read, many years later, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Eyre, though, I still feel for her. 




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THE BOOK WITH UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS
For years I had mostly read books by British authors, which, while I devoured and loved them, depicted worlds unfamiliar to me. Anita Desai was among the first in a long list of Indian writers I became addicted to reading in my first year of university. Fire on the Mountain is about a woman who has deliberately cut herself off from the world and lives in isolation in a hill town in northern India. The other major character is the woman's granddaughter, an odd, slightly frightening little girl who brings about the shocking ending to the book. I was immediately seduced by Desai's spare, elegant writing style, her use of irony and sly wit, and her sharply etched characters who were not very nice or likeable but somehow managed to be sympathetic. Desai's economical deployment of words to create thoroughly imagined interior landscapes of complex people in very ordinary, familiar situations taught me much about writing. 


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THE NOVEL THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
For two years after Grade 10, I was at a boarding school. Every weekend, my grandfather, who was my local guardian, took me to his library, where the librarian had been persuaded to set aside all the latest novels for me to sign out first. Chinua Achebe's exquisite and heartbreaking novel Things Fall Apart was on one of those piles and the beginning of a new excitement - the ongoing journey into fiction from everywhere in the world. I was dazzled, moved, in pain by the time I finished this book. I read it again immediately to see how Achebe had managed to combine, with such disarming simplicity, a story so vast and magnificent, so wise and complicated, so full of folklore, mythology, humanity, sorrow and hope and everything that makes a book great. I continue to find new lessons in writing every single time I read this novel. 



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THE BOOK SHE WISHES SHE'D WRITTEN
Okay, I'll admit it. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie made me madly jealous, even though at that point in my life - I had just finished university - I had not written any books. I had never read anything like it, and yet it was in the kind of English that I knew and heard every day in India - wildly inventive, very funny, lunatic even, definitely not the Queen's English. It teemed with mythology and folklore and cultural allusions that I knew intimately, deep in my bones. It was a noisy book exactly like India, the country in which I lived then, teeming with people, sounds, sights, smells. It operated on so many levels - political, historical, mythological, metaphorical, real and unreal. I LOVE this book. It continues to be one that I read when I am in despair over my own writing, and that revives the enchantment of cooking up stories. I am still jealous I did not write it... 



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THE BOOK SHE READS AGAIN AND AGAIN
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul is another of those capacious novels that I adore and which I have re-read many times. Mohun Biswas, the hapless hero of this book, starts his existence under an inauspicious star and continues to bumble through life ineffectually and with increasing rage. He is trapped into marriage to a woman whose family is large, loud and all-encompassing and finally manages to get free of the family by constructing his own house. Never mind that the house is built by a shady crook, is in constant danger of disintegrating, has a staircase that leads nowhere. This is, again, a book that I go to for sustenance and support when I am toiling over my own writing. Everything about it sings - the effortless elegance of the language, the vivid, affectionately delineated characters, the combination of pathos and humour, the telling use of detail, it's all there. 


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THE BOOK THAT WAS A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Toni Morrison's Beloved had the same effect on me as Midnight's Children. I was left stunned and delighted and bruised by it and immediately had to read it again. There are so many layers at work here to make it amazing - the language, rich complicated characters, politics, history, exquisite descriptions that make the story cinematic. I felt this book in my gut... revelled in the beauty of the writing even as I recoiled in horror, felt terrified for the characters, mourned with them and felt gratefully delivered at the end. Reading this book was, without exaggeration, a religious experience for me - and this from a person who is definitely not religious.






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THE BOOK THAT MADE HER LAUGH TILL SHE CRIED
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was recommended to me by a friend at the United States Information Services library in Chennai, where I was living. At the time I don't think I had read anything by an American. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and couldn't stop reading. The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is a fat, lazy, noisy man who lives with his mother in blue-collar New Orleans. He disdains culture, mocks everything in prolonged bursts of invective and has a revolting, coronary-inducing diet of mostly hot dogs. It is very hard to write humour, and this is an entire 600 pages of hysterically funny, wild-eyed, inventive writing. It also manages to weave sardonic commentary on American society, manners, idiosyncrasies, politics, history, in short everything possible, all around one single gargantuan, no-good slob, his long-suffering mother and a couple of other unforgettable characters.


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THE "CHUNKY" BOOK THAT SUCKED HER IN
As you can see from this list so far, I am partial to chunky books. Zadie Smith's White Teeth is an effervescent, wonderfully funny novel about three families in contemporary London - Bangladeshi, Jamaican and Anglo-Saxon. I loved it for the writing, which was very, very clever and inventive. I loved it for the vast variety of characters and the immediacy of the description. The last third of the novel sagged a bit, in my humble opinion, but who cares. The rest of the novel sang. 









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THE CANADIAN NOVEL SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH
When I moved to Canada in 1995, I had never read any literature from this country. So the first thing I did was to make up for this huge lacuna in my reading life and was immediately captivated by the range and variety of voices from so many cultures. I read a short story by Carol Shields about an elderly woman mowing her lawn, which drew me to her other books and I was hooked. Her novel The Stone Diaries was an instant favourite. The writing is intense and detailed and takes us so deep into the interior life of the characters that, at one point, I wasn't entirely sure whether this was fiction at all. The smudging of the line between fact and fiction is accentuated by the inclusion of family photographs. The writing is crystalline and beautiful and probes deep into all corners of her characters' consciousness. 




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