My Best Books of the Decade

This was a post I was not going to write. But when a flurry of Best of the Decade write-ups began doing the rounds, it got me thinking on my reading over all these years.

And I must say, in this regard, the last decade has been nothing short of spectacular. So much so that the prior periods don’t even come close. Not by a long shot.

So what made this decade such an amazing one for my reading?

Well, I started following a lot of amazing fellow book bloggers, who introduced me to a whole range of excellent books out there. Most of these books were completely new to me. It also inspired to me to start a blog of my own, even though that was pretty much towards the end of this decade.

The online marketplace also changed the scenario dramatically. Making a note of the books that looked tempting was one thing. But being able to buy them online changed the game altogether for me, simply because most of these books were not stocked in bookshops I visited in Mumbai.

And then of course, I feasted upon releases and reissues by publishing imprints such as NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press, Penguin Modern Classics and some more. In the latter half of the decade especially, my reading widened to translated literature as well.

What I have done for this post is to select the top two books in each of the ten years. These were the best books I read that year (and not necessarily published that year).

So without much ado, I present to you My Best Books of the Decade…

2010

The Impostor – Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut was a big find for me in 2010 as I devoured three of his books in quick succession. I couldn’t really decide between The Impostor and In A Strange Room, but finally picked up the former. On any other day, that could very well change, which in a nutshell really means that both are great. Here I will focus on The Impostor though.

After being kicked out of his job in Johannesburg, Adam Napier moves into an abandoned dwelling on the dusty edge of a remote small town. It’s a ramshackle property lent to him by his brother, a crooked developer. The house is located in the Karoo, a kind of a semi-desert in South Africa, practically in the middle of nowhere, where the atmosphere is eerily still and ominous.

Adam, meanwhile, is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his house in the city. He has accepted that “disappointment is the dominant theme of his life.” And yet, he has ambitions to become a poet and hopes the solitude in this new environment will get his creative juices flowing.

One day, by chance, Adam meets Canning – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past. Canning immediately recognizes Adam as his childhood friend and greets him warmly, but Adam has no clue who he is. To make matters murkier, Adam is intrigued by Canning’s enigmatic and beautiful wife, Baby.

While The Impostor has all the delicious ingredients of a thriller, the novel is also a statement on the greed and corruption in South Africa post-apartheid. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing with not a word wasted. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel, which is both unsettling and gripping at the same time.

Any Human Heart –  William Boyd

Any Human Heart is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.

We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.

2011

Stoner – John Williams

Stoner sank without a trace when it was first published in 1965. But once NYRB Classics reissued it in 2003, ‘Stoner’ went on to become a cult classic. It is now also published by Vintage Books.

The protagonist in the novel is William Stoner, born in poverty to parents who are small farmers. They just about scrounge some money to pay for his education. But they make it clear that he needs to major in a degree related to agricultural sciences. So that he can put to use the knowledge gleaned in the farm when he takes over from his father.

Stoner starts out his education accordingly, but as the year progresses, he decides to switch to a completely different subject. Agriculture is not for him. He develops a passion for literature and language and chooses to become a professor in this field.

The book then is an account of both his professional and personal life. Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either.

Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.

Stoner, then, is by no means a flashy hero. But he leads a full life and that too with dignity. This is a beautifully rendered novel and John Williams’ sensitive writing makes the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary.

The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude was the first Patrick Hamilton novel that I read and I fell in love with it.

The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending. Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.

Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.

Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.

2012

Mrs Bridge – Evan S Connell

Mrs Bridge is a gorgeous novel told in 117 short vignettes. It is based in Kansas City and centres around a well to do family – Mr and Mrs Bridge and their three children. However, as the title of the novel suggests, the story is mostly from the perspective of the mother.

Mrs India Bridge is a housewife in Kansas City and much of the action and drama is of a domestic nature either at home or the social clubs of which she is a part of. Her husband, Walter Bridge, has a steady, well-paying job allowing the family to live in comfort, but he is away most of the time.

The novel has no plot as such. A lot of it revolves around the fears and anxieties of Mrs Bridge, which is conveyed to us through her actions, rather than being explicitly stated.  Mrs Bridge, then, addresses many themes such as the claustrophobia of domestic life where a housewife is waiting for something to happen, class differences, and the dynamics of family life in a smaller American city. It’s a stunning novel and its sequel Mr Bridge (told from the husband’s perspective) is just as good.

The Doctor’s Wife – Brian Moore

I have read only a couple of Brian Moores, but both have been brilliant – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Doctor’s Wife.

Sheila Redden is a quiet, thirty-seven-year old doctor’s wife and is on a holiday in the French Riviera. It’s where she and her husband had their honeymoon twenty years ago, and she is looking to recreate some of that magic. Sheila’s husband is delayed because of his work, but Sheila heads to France anyway.

Little does she suspect that after a chance encounter in Paris she will end up spending her holiday with a man she has only just met, an American ten years her junior.

Four weeks later, Sheila is nowhere to be found. Own Deane, her brother, follows her steps to Paris in the hopes of shedding light on her disappearance. But will Sheila ever reappear?

The Doctor’s Wife is a gripping, poignant read. As ever, Brian Moore is brilliant in his portrayal of women when faced with an internal crisis.

2013

My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes

This is the first Alfred Hayes I read (a fab one), and a good reminder that I need to read his other two books too.

As per the blurb on Goodreads…My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood, where the tonic for anonymity is fame and you’re only as real as your image. At a party, the narrator, a screenwriter, rescues a young woman who staggers with drunken determination into the Pacific. He is living far from his wife in New York and long ago shed any illusions about the value of his work. He just wants to be left alone. And yet without really meaning to, he gets involved with the young woman, who has, it seems, no illusions about love, especially with married men. She’s a survivor, even if her beauty is a little battered from years of not quite making it in the pictures. She’s just like him, he thinks, and as their casual relationship takes on an increasingly troubled and destructive intensity, it seems that might just be true, only not in the way he supposes.

Hayes is great at conveying the desperation in this relationship and the trappings of Hollywood. A stunning, stunning book.

The Ripley Novels – Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith was a real find this decade. I began with the novel she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. And having loved that one, went on to devour the next two books in the Ripley series – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game.

Tom Ripley is a murderer and a psychopath. But what is so fascinating about Highsmith’s storytelling is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for him. There is great psychological depth in her characters and an overall feeling of delicious dread and unease all due to the sheer quality of her writing, which is stylish and compulsively readable.

Also, while the Ripley Novels are a great place to start if you have not read her before, her non-Ripley books are equally brilliant. Those which I would particularly recommend are The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary and This Sweet Sickness.

2014

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is a wonderful, heartbreaking read. A slim novel, the story is a portrayal of the first heady days of romance to the bitter reality of the protagonist’s husband having an affair. While this is a theme done to death in countless novels, where Offill excels is in the narrative technique. The story is told to us in scraps and fragments, which taken together form a very powerful whole.

Offill is also brilliant at depicting the early days of motherhood – the mundaneness of looking after the baby’s needs interspersed with moments of unrequited and unquestionable love for the child. The novel also examines the role of women – Can they be mothers and have a fulfilling career at the same time?

For instance, in the novel, the protagonist in particular wanted to be an ‘art monster.’

‘Women almost never become art monsters, because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’

Offill’s writing is fresh and raw and tugs at the heartstrings.

Traveller of the Century – Andres Neuman

What a fabulous book this turned out to be.  Here’s the central premise of the novel…

Searching for an inn, the enigmatic traveler Hans stops in a small city on the border between Saxony and Prussia. The next morning, Hans meets an old organ-grinder in the market square and immediately finds himself tangled in an intense debate—on identity and what it is that defines us—from which he cannot break free.

Indefinitely stuck in Wandernburg until his debate with the organ-grinder is concluded, he begins to meet the various characters who populate the town, including a young freethinker named Sophie. Though she is engaged to be married, Sophie and Hans begin a relationship that defies contemporary mores about female sexuality and what can and cannot be said about it.

Traveller of the Century then is a wonderfully intellectual novel, brimming with ideas and discussions on art, philosophy, literature and love. Very immersive reading!

2015

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

I keep harping about how amazing The Vegetarian is. And this is another chance for me to do so.

One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), The Vegetarian is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

First published in 1899, The Awakening is a remarkable book and is widely seen as a landmark of early feminism.

Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother with a comfortable home and a conservative husband. But marriage with its insistence on social conventions distresses her and so does motherhood with its relentless demands. She yearns for independence and a creative life of her own.

And then one day she meets Robert Lebrun and succumbs to his devotion. It also unleashes a desire in her to discard social mores much to the alarm of her husband and pursue her passion for art. What will be the consequences of these actions for her and those around her?

The novel was considered radical in its time and sent shockwaves through American society and a lot of its themes resonate even today.

2016

The Blue Room – Hanne Orstavik

Just a few weeks before I talked about how Hanne Orstavik is a writer to watch out for when I wrote about her superb novella, Love. But what made me want to read Love in the first place? It was because of how brilliant her earlier novel The Blue Room was.

Johanne is a young woman in her twenties who lives in Oslo with her mother. When she falls in love with Ivar, she finally feels ready to leave home. The couple plan a trip to America. But on the morning of her departure, Johanne wakes up to find the door of her room locked.

Has her mother locked the door? Why? It’s Johanne who is the narrator of the story. But how reliable is she?

The Blue Room is an excellent portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, one where the mother seems to be overprotective. It’s a novel dripping with uneasiness, something that is the trademark of Orstavik’s writing as was amply visible in Love too.

Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion

Play It as It Lays begins with an internal monologue by Maria Wyeth, who is in her early thirties and in a psychiatric institution. The only thing keeping her going is her daughter Kate. Maria is not keen on going over her past, a topic that the psychiatrists are interested in exploring. But we do learn of what went on before, and this is narrated to the reader in short, sharp chapters that make up the rest of the novel.

A not so happy account of Hollywood ensues and Maria’s journey oscillates between highs and lows, as she hurtles towards a statis in her acting career and a collapse of her personal life.

Maria begins to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. She plunges into long nights of compulsive driving, wandering Southern California’s freeways, through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with actors and ex-lovers before being finally institutionalized.

Didion’s evocation of 1960s Los Angeles and Hollywood is brilliant – a mix of glamour and grimness. But what stands out is the quality of her writing. It is intense yet detached, and endlessly fascinating.

2017

Compass – Mathias Enard

Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.

This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.

Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt immensely from each other. Compass is erudite yet accessible and abounds in cultural references as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Agatha Christie, Mahler, Don Quixote, Kafka, Beethoven, Layla & Majnun.

It is a paean to the Orient, an ode to Otherness, and Enard’s passion for the Middle East shines through in this brilliant novel. 

Solar Bones – Mike McCormack

Solar Bones is a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

The novel opens with the sound of the Angelus bell. Marcus Conway hears this bell as he enters his home and realizes it is empty with none of his family members around.

Marcus Conway uses this moment to reflect on his entire life, the moments of happiness interspersed with many trials and tribulations. We learn that Marcus is a civil engineer responsible in a small way for the building of roads, bridges, buildings during the boom time in Ireland, now all of it having gone bust.

Marcus also recalls his marriage, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and then her debilitating illness, which almost destroys her. He also thinks back on his relationship with his son who is in Australia trying to figure what to do with his life next. And with his daughter, who is a budding artist and holds her first solo exhibition with a painting medium that shocks him. But more often than not Marcus ruminates on the pressures of his job, and the corruption of highly placed officials in his field.

The narrative style is unusual and innovative, quite poetic infact. This is no linear narrative though as Marcus reflects on many things, not necessarily in any particular order. This then is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned.

2018

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

Josipovici’s novel begins on a quiet note in Paris and then moves on to become darker and unsettling. In just 100 pages, we are introduced to three stories across three time spans in three places (London, Paris, Wales), all involving the protagonist who is a translator and good at his work. Our narrator ruminates on the art of translation, makes frequent references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – and because of Josipovici’s masterful storytelling skills, it all feels seamless and lucid without ever coming across as either complex or knotty.  But the best thing about this book is how wonderfully ambiguous it is making it open to multiple interpretations.

Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”

Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.

2019

The Neapolitan Quartet – Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

The Copenhagen Trilogy – Tove Ditlevsen

It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. 

ChildhoodYouthDependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.

One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

That’s it from me. 20 fab books. Looking forward to another super decade of reading beginning tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Cheers,

Radhika 

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room is one of my favourite Peirene novellas so far (the other Peirene favourite is The Looking Glass Sisters).

The Blue Room was among the top books I read in 2016. So when I learnt that Archipelago Books has released another of Ørstavik’s titles called Love, I knew I had to read it.

And what an excellent and dark little gem it turned out to be. Ørstavik clearly has the skill to bring out the uncanny in ordinary, everyday life.

Archipelago Books Edition. Cover Art by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter.

Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so.

He goes out for a walk to sell a bunch of raffle tickets for his sports club.

He (Jon) feels a draft now that he’s standing still. It’s from the front door. They should have it insulated, with weather stripping and draft excluders like he’s seen in other houses. He sticks his water pistol in his back pocket and puts on a different woolly hat. Vibeke needs to be on her own so that she can get things ready. If he’s out while she’s baking the cake it’ll be more of a surprise, he thinks to himself. He goes out. Reaching the road, he wishes he’d put his mittens on., but he won’t go back.

Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. Vibeke is a single mother and has managed to secure a job in an arts council in which she seems to have settled in well.

But Vibeke is in her own world. On that particular night, she chooses to go the library to collect some more books and also hopefully meet the engineer who had been flirting with her at work. But things don’t go as per plan. The library is closed and given that she took so much trouble to dress up, Vibeke wanders into the village fair.

For the rest of the evening, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

That is the central set up of this novella.

It also makes Ørstavik’s storytelling technique unique and interesting. Given that each is on his/her own trip in the icy cold weather, the narrative keeps shifting between Vibeke and Jon and this happens in a series of alternate paragraphs rather than chapters.  This is done quite seamlessly and in the blink of an eye. So for instance, the reader will move on to the first few lines of a paragraph thinking that he/she is still reading about Vibeke, when the narrative has already switched to Jon’s.

Ørstavik also infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son.

What makes it disconcerting for the reader is the ease with which Vibeke and Jon interact with strangers. Throughout the evening, Vibeke is in the company of a man called Tom, who works at the fair, and who Vibeke has met for the first time. When an old neighbour agrees to buy all the raffle tickets from Jon and tells him to go down with him to the basement, Jon willingly does so.

So much so that at one point in the novella, there’s a conversation that Jon has with another unknown woman…

‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with stranges?’

She rummages on as she speaks.

‘Why not?’

‘Not everyone’s as nice as me.’

She looks at him and smiles again. Her teeth are really quite small. He gets an urge to feel his own and compare.

‘My mom says everyone’s good on the inside.’

Love then is a novella that explores how both of the central characters are on a quest for intimate and deeper relationships. And yet paradoxically, they are not able to closely bond with each other. Jon, obviously, is seeking a loving connection with Vibeke, his mother. Vibeke is affectionate towards Jon, but its apparent she’s lonely.

She (Vibeke) reaches out and smoothes her hand over his (Jon’s) head.

‘Have you made any friends yet?’

His hair is fine and soft.

‘Jon,’ she says. ‘Dearest Jon.’

She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink.

For instance, Vibeke has hopes that her first encounter with Tom will slowly evolve into a more meaningful relationship. Jon keeps erroneously thinking that his mother is planning a surprise birthday for him, with a model train set as a gift, so he stays out for most of the evening with the fervent hope that Vibeke plans everything well.

What’s more, the lack of communication between mother and son is quite telling even on a basic level. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

And to top it all, the ending comes as quite a shocker!

As mentioned earlier, Hanne Ørstavik first came to my attention with her novel The Blue Room. That one explored the troubled relationship between mother and daughter, but interestingly the mother in that book was overprotective.  

Clearly, based on both these novellas alone, Ørstavik has perfected the art of making the stories of imperfect mothers absorbing and riveting.

My Best Books of 2019

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.

On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.

Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.

All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.

Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:

One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).

So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…

(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).

The Best of 2019: The Winners

2019: Books of the Year

The Neapolitan NovelsElena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

Childhood, Youth, DependencyTove Ditlevsen

It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.

One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant TrilogyOlivia Manning

Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.

The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. 

While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

The Driver’s Seat Muriel Spark

2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).

Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.

This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!

Good BehaviourMolly Keane

Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. 

At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.

This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.

Vertigo & GhostFiona Benson

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!

The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.

Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!

Slow Days, Fast CompanyEve Babitz

When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.

I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.

I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.

The Juniper TreeBarbara Comyns

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.

Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.

Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.

The German Room Carla Maliandi

In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.

Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.

Fish SoupMargarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontElizabeth Taylor

There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.

The Man Who Saw EverythingDeborah Levy

I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.

I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.

In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.

Conversations with FriendsSally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!

The Ten Loves of Mr NishinoHiromi Kawakami

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…

That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.

Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!

2019: A Year of Reading in Pictures

This is more of a post to capture all of the books I read this year…in pictures.

In that sense, it is different from my Best of 2019 list (which I intend to release by mid-December), for which I will pick up the cream of the books from this lot.

It’s an attempt to try a different kind of a post, more so because I love to photograph books as much as I love reading them.

Throughout the year, on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, I had been posting books I read and enjoyed at the end of every month. And so I thought why not collate all this, and put it up on my blog?

So without further ado, click on each picture for a clearer view of the books…

What’s missing is December, which I will add at the end of the month. Also, by then I would have released my Best of 2019 books list.

Happy reading!