I had a good December in terms of reading and managed to finish five books. I also started Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, most of which will definitely spill over to next month, so hopefully it’s a book that will feature in my January 2022 post. Anyway, of the five books this month, my favourites were Small Things Like These, Nightmare Alley and Suite for Barbara Loden.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first two books you can click on the links, while there are a couple of reviews I plan to put up in January.


Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.

This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding. 

During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.

The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.

Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Lindsay Gresham

This book had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…

Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.

The first chapter is striking where our protagonist Stan Carlisle, a magician at the carny show, is mesmerized by the geek in the enclosure, a man who has sunk to the lowest of depths, is akin to a beast biting the heads of chicken. Carlisle subsequently learns that he is a man-made geek, a drunk who can be manipulated by the lure of the bottle. Meanwhile, Stan, an ambitious man, wants to rake in moolah, and we subsequently follow his journey from his days at the carny to becoming a preacher and plunging headlong into full-blown spiritualism where he latches on to wealthy, gullible clients as prey. Until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.

Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical. It’s a terrific novel and highly recommended.

FATALE by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Chaos runs supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim, stylish novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. We are introduced to the quintessential femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, a highly trained killer who has left a trail of bodies behind her, mostly of the wealthy and privileged set. Aimee is now on her way to a town called Bleville, particularly heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhoods. Once ensconced in that wealthy set, Aimee sets about putting her plan in motion of extracting money, but a baron with Marxist tendencies veers her from her path.

In terms of themes, Fatale, can be looked upon as a statement on the dark, dirty side of capitalism, and an indictment of status and class privileges. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing, atleast in the two noir books I’ve read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad.

NECKLACE/CHOKER by Jana Bodnárová (tr. Jonathan Gresty)

Necklace/Choker by Jana Bodnárová is among the first titles released from Seagull Books’ newly created Slovak List, one of the books I purchased from its recently concluded excellent Winter Sale.

It’s a book about memories, nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished, the debilitating impact of war on ordinary citizens, the power of art as a means of protest and how it can be snuffed out by totalitarian regimes.

When the book opens, we are introduced to Sara who has returned after a longtime to her hometown in Slovakia, to the bungalow which belonged to her father, the renowned painter Imro. Sara’s return is solely to wrap things up, hand over the bungalow to the municipal authorities to convert it into a museum. In this project, she is joined by her friend Iboja, a woman some years elder, and who lived across from Sara and her family when they were both children.

As Sara and Iboja spend an evening at the bungalow quaffing wine, relishing food and enjoying the beautiful night in the garden, they begin to reminisce about the past, about their parents and their own personal lives. In that sense, through their flashbacks, we are presented in a way a brief history of Slovakia right from the glorious pre-war days, to the terrifying life under the Nazis, the brutal impact of the World War to be followed by the cruelty of Soviet rule.

Through Sara, we learn about her father Imro, his Jewish heritage, his passion for painting, how Imro’s parents find it difficult to adapt to the harsh realities of Nazis and the war, followed by his marriage to Sara’s mother and the birth of Sara.

Through Iboja, we learn about her grandparents. How her grandfather ran Hotel Aurora, a classy, beautiful hotel filled with wealthy, stylish patrons, smoky jazz evenings, music, gaiety and laughter. How he and Imro’s father were good friends and his fondness for Imro. But the brutality of war and the massive scale of political upheavals take its toll on running the hotel, it becomes increasingly clear that things will never go back to what it was once.

Despite its ambitious scope, Necklace/Choker is a quiet, elegantly written novel. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it effectively conveyed the uniqueness of Slovakia, somehow I felt a sense of place was missing.

SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN by Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon)

Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is part of a triptych of books that include Exposition and The White Dress. The book is based on the actress Barbara Loden and the only film she directed Wanda. Before embarking on the book, I decided to watch Wanda first and was pretty struck by its subject matter. Wanda is a woman completely adrift and rootless. She has abandoned her husband and kids, has been kicked out of her job at a sewing factory (she is too slow), and is now homeless and practically penniless. The only real thing she clings on too is her prized possession – a white handbag. As she aimlessly roams the streets of Pennsylvania, she runs into the robber Mr Dennis and for the rest of the film hangs on to him, even agreeing to become his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery.

Loden’s inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article she read which reported on the arrest and sentencing of a woman for being an accomplice in a failed bank robbery. Her partner having been shot at the scene of crime, this woman is pronounced guilty and actually expresses relief for being locked away, and this fact plants a seed of an idea in Loden’s mind.  

Meanwhile, Léger’s mandate from her editor is to prepare a short encyclopedic entry on Loden but Leger can’t bring herself to commit to such a narrow task. She desires to research deeply on Loden, on Wanda, on how bits of Loden’s life and Wanda’s circumstances are intertwined. It also explains why Loden cast herself as Wanda in the film, because, in many ways, she was Wanda.

Suite for Barbara Loden, then, is a hybrid book, a wonderful amalgam of film appreciation, biography and memoir. Indeed, just as the creation and filming of Wanda was part of Loden’s vision to express a part of herself, so is Suite for Barbara Loden a vehicle for Léger to examine her own motives which include her relationship with her mother who finds herself abandoned by an abusive husband. In short, this is a wonderful book on what drives us to make art, on being a woman, on relationships and the desire to be accepted.

That’s it for December. I had an excellent reading year and last week released My Best Books of 2021 with a total of 21 books. I loved them all and would heartily recommend them. Hoping for an equally amazing 2022 bookwise and everything else!


One thought on “A Month of Reading – December 2021

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