These are the books I read in June, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, classics and memoir. All were very good, but my favourites were the Edith Wharton and Sigrid Nunez. Here is a brief look at the books…

TIESDomenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

 The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. 

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children. 

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time.

OLD NEW YORKEdith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. 

All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

THE FRIENDSigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

The friend’s third wife does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. In a nutshell, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

NO PRESENTS PLEASE: MUMBAI STORIES – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Published by Tilted Axis Press, No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai. These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

THE RED PARTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A TRIAL – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. Even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. But maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

A MONTH IN SIENAHisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s fascination with the Sienese School of painting can be traced back to when the author was nineteen years old. It was 1990 and he had lost his father that year. Hisham’s father was living in exile in Cairo, and suddenly one afternoon, was kidnapped and flown back to Libya. He never met his father after that.

A year later Hisham started visiting the National Gallery and became absorbed with a slew of Sienese paintings. He could not really figure out why, but one can assume that being lost in these paintings offered some sort of a refuge and a way to think about the world around him.

Decades later, with no idea of his father’s whereabouts or even if he was alive, Hisham decides to finally visit Siena, the birthplace of the paintings that captured his imagination. As he visits art galleries, museums, chapels, and the city square, Hisham reflects on the big questions of loss, grief, faith, violence, the purpose of art and its relationship with life.

He forges new friendships, is touched by the hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, and grapples with the concept of faith and how it was severely tested in the Middle Ages when the Black Death swept across most of Europe and the Middle East, ravaging the countries and reducing their populations by almost half.

Matar’s writing is understated and elegant, as he beautifully articulates his thoughts on a variety of topics. His exploration of Siena evokes nostalgia for what makes Europe so unique – abundance of art museums, pretty squares and the luxury of sitting at a pavement cafe in the summer sun savouring a glass of wine. Reading A Month in Siena really felt like armchair travelling to my favourite continent…at a time when overseas trips seem pretty nigh impossible.

That was it for June. July is turning out to be a tough month because of a personal emergency, and my reading has taken a big hit. But as and when I’m finding the time, I am alternating between Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles.

8 thoughts on “A Month of Reading – June 2021

  1. What a lovely reading month you’ve had, with so many books so exactly to my taste. We’ve discussed Wharton in a previous post; what’s to say except — she’s the greatest (or, well, pretty close! My ultimate is her bud, Henry James). I was so inspired by reading about Old New York I started reading Wharton’s The Reef last night (I’ve read it, but so many years ago it doesn’t count). We’ll see how it goes (I’m fairly distracted right now).
    I’m very fond of the Sienese school of painting (Washington’s National Gallery has a pretty good collection of it) and I’ve had a copy of Matar’s A Month in Siena for some time now (unread, I’m afraid). I don’t read many memoirs but I’m going to make an effort to get to this one towards the end of the year.
    I have a copy of Starnone’s Trick, which I picked up a month ago. I’ve not read any of his novels, but your short review of Ties makes me eager to do so.
    I also read and reviewed a Nunez novel at the end of May, The Last of Her Kind; a much earlier effort than The Friend. It was my first Nunez and I was totally wowed by it — she’s such a fantastic writer! Everyone seems to agree that The Friend, however, is her best work so far, so I really must give it a try.
    Mumbai Stories sounds quite interesting. I’ve always wanted to visit that city and thought by now I’d have a reasonably good chance of doing so. Sigh. . . . oh, well. At least I can read about it.
    Hopefully your emergency will resolve itself with minimal fuss and pain. Even if your reading falls a bit short in July, you’ve two wonderful choices. I plan on reaing The Promise myself (I like Galgut’s work) and I’ve also had Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicle on my list for years. Can’t wait to see your take on both!

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    1. Thank you, Janakay:) It’s great to know our reading tastes are so similar. Completely agree there’s no one quite like Wharton. I read The Reef many years ago. I remember liking it, but it’s not in the same league as her top three New York society novels. But that’s fine, I always say that any Wharton is certainly worth reading. I am afraid I have always been daunted by Henry James’ books. I did read The Portrait of a Lady in college, but maybe I would have appreciated it better now. What other books of his would you recommend?

      Thank you for the Nunez recommendation. She has been a terrific discovery to me and I was wondering where to go next so will try The Last of Her Kind.

      Damon Galgut is one of my favourite authors. I am only around 60 pages into The Promise but it’s excellent so far. And the Howard has been great too, very immersive.

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  2. A banner month! I already enjoyed your full review of Old New York but now you’ve made me want to read Ties… The Friend sounds good too, but I think I’d have to be in the right mood. I’m more of a cat person these days 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Laura😊 Ties is pretty good and I really liked The Friend, but yes I know what you mean about being in the right mood. I always thought I was a dog person, but I have begun to love cats too in the last few years.

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