A Month of Reading – September 2022

September was an excellent reading month in terms of quality. I managed six books in all – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a biography, a short story collection, a Booker Prize longlisted title, and of course, the eighth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – The Trap – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

THE PACHINKO PARLOUR by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. For Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. 

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way.

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families. Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. 

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style. The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative chap, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, and immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. That’s the basic set-up but as the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds, while at the same time a sense of claustrophobia sharpens as some sinister happenings begin to come to the fore.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz  

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The novel is made up of four sections each providing a different point of view – the first section called “Bonds” is a novel written by a forgotten author Harold Vanner thatnarrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world. The second section is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, and it quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself. The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally, and she is hell bent on discovering the truth about Mildred Bevel, while in fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

While Trust, in a way, is a commentary on the excesses of Wall Street, itis really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

THE TRAP (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

The Trap is the eighth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, afterPointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights.

In The Trap, we once again see Miriam in a different environment. While the last four books saw her lodging at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street with a room of her own, in The Trap we see Miriam change her lodgings and share a room with a woman called Selina Holland. Given Miriam’s penchant for independence and solitude, it is perhaps a surprise that she has taken this step, but as readers we accept and go along because Richardson chooses not to provide an explanation.

At first, Miriam is excited at this prospect of a big change in her circumstances…

Left to herself, she would now go out, not only for tea but for the whole evening, into a world renewed. There would be one of those incidents that punctually present themselves at such moments, a link in the chain of life as it appears only when one is cut off from fixed circumstances. She would come home lost and refreshed. Laze through Sunday morning. Roam about the rooms amongst things askew as though thrown up by an earthquake, their exposed strata storied with memory and promise. There would be indelible hours of reading and dreaming, of harvesting the lively thought that comes when one is neither here nor there, but poised in bright light between a life ended and a life not yet begun. The blissful state would last until dusk deepened towards evening and would leave her filled with a fresh realisation of the wonder of being alive and in the midst of life, and with strength to welcome the week slowly turning its unknown bright face towards her through the London night.

In the previous novels, while we see Miriam’s resolve to stay true to her wish to be on her own (her rejection of Shatov’s proposal was partly influenced by this), we also see her social circle expand, and one gets the sense that there is a conflict within her – while she is prefers being alone, she is not completely averse to company.

At first, the two women eagerly set up the room they are to share with their furnishings. It’s a new experience for Miriam, but that novelty rapidly wears off as differences between the two start creeping up. First, Miriam quickly learns that her love for reading does not find much resonance with Selina. But much to Miriam’s dismay, Selina also has strong negative opinions on Donizetti’s, Miriam’s favourite café, which had always been a refuge and a haven during her time in London. 

As the novel progresses, Miriam sees the real William Butler Yeats in a room across the road, and also frets about meeting the landlord to pay the rent, feeling claustrophobic when she is compelled to chat with his mother. Then there’s another neighbour Miriam and Selina gossip about – Mr Perrance, a sculptor, prone to causing a disturbance regularly, amplified by his heavy drinking and verbal brawls with his wife. Miriam also becomes increasingly unhappy with the dinginess of their room made all the more palpable when the Brooms pay her a visit. The Brooms are reserved in their opinion, but Miriam is more than thankful to take them out to tea.

Ultimately, Miriam and Selina have a huge argument which only reinforces the failure of Miriam’s social experiment with hints provided to the reader that this is not an arrangement Miriam is likely to continue.

That’s it for September. October has started on a slow note where I’m taking my time to read A Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff and O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker both of which I’m really enjoying. I do intend to also read the ninth and tenth books from the Pilgrimage series – Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

The Pachinko Parlour – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Elisa Shua Dusapin’s enigmatic and mysterious Winter in Sokcho was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2020, so another novel from her was certainly exciting news, and now I’m glad to say that The Pachinko Parlour is also excellent.

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. However, since they are Zainichi Koreans, the grandparents were given the license to run a pachinko parlour, a kind of a casino where the mode of exchange relies on barter and not currency, lending the novel its name (“Pachinko isn’t seen as gambling because the balls are exchanged for sweets, toilet paper, bottles of water, toothpaste”).

They’d heard rumours of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in terms of entertainment in those pot-war days: no cinema, no theatre. The black market was everywhere, with cigarettes the most prized commodity. Koreans were locked out of the Japanese labour market by virtue of their nationality. So, they invented a game: vertical tray, metal balls, a lever. And cigarettes in exchange for balls.

Claire, meanwhile, has grown up in Switzerland, occasionally visiting Japan to meet her grandparents. Claire’s parents lead busy lives and are never around – the father is a sought after musician constantly on tour accompanied by Claire’s mother, and the communication between mother and daughter is often through emails.

But for Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. Claire’s efforts to discuss the details of their journey meet with a certain modicum of resistance, her grandparents skirt the issue and the discussion inevitably gets postponed.

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. Cooped up in the basement room, the narrow slit window offering a view of the streets and people hurrying off somewhere, Claire’s isolation and tedium is only heightened in the sweltering apartment.

Noises drift in from the street. Car exhausts, heels on the tarmac, and all night long, the sandwich-board woman’s monotonous chant, relayed on playback through a loudspeaker.

The window is at street height. Lying on the ground, I can see people’s legs as they hurry past, heading for the narrow streets of Uguisudani, where the love hotels are.

On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way. Mieko’s family life is also weighed down with problems – Henriette and Mieko reside in a makeshift apartment in an abandoned hotel due to be redeveloped soon, their burden amplified by an aura of uncertainty, their lives in a state of flux.

Mieko’s insistence on being taken to see the pachinko parlour is as palpable as Claire’s desire to push her grandparents towards revisiting Korea, but will both succeed in getting what they want?

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families.

For instance, Claire is not alone per se. She has her grandparents for company, she keeps in touch with her parents and back home in Switzerland she appears to be in a steady relationship with Mathieu, who is very encouraging of her attempts to reunite her grandparents with their homeland. And yet, one gets the sense that she is adrift and lonely. Physically her boyfriend is far away, she rarely sees her parents given their hectic touring schedules and her relationship with her grandparents often seems tenuous; language, particularly being an issue. Mieko is a lonely child too as is Henriette; the two are often not on the same wavelength, but Mieko becomes attached to Claire, a kinship however precarious.

The theme of identity, uprootedness and living in exile is particularly heightened in Claire and her grandparents’ circumstances. Having never been to Korea, Claire can’t speak Korean. She is fluent in French but can’t converse with her grandparents in that language. Japanese seems the obvious choice but not an option.

We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.

The grandparents are isolated as well since they largely keep to themselves. Their existence does not extend beyond the pachinko parlour and they haven’t entirely embraced Japan despite being residents in the country for many years.  

They don’t socialise at all with the other Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community: exiles, people who came, as my grandparents did, to escape the Korean war, and others, who were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Pachinko Parlour is also about how past histories, both public and deeply personal, can define our lives. In Claire’s case, her grandparents’ displacement fuelled by war has led to subsequent generations losing touch with their roots. Mieko’s case is more personal and something of an enigma; an absent father has thrown her family life into turmoil with mother and daughter staring at an unreliable future imbibed with a feeling of all they have lost.

Dusapin is great at capturing the fraught mental and emotional states of her characters, their impression of being either stuck or at the cusp of a momentous change. The sense of place that was so evocative in Winter in Sokcho vividly comes alive in The Pachinko Parlour too – the oppressive heat of summer in Tokyo (“The city is suffused with light, Mount Fuji drained of colour. The sun’s last rays filter through the spaces between buildings”), the smoky haze suspended like a curtain over the city’s skyscrapers, muggy rains, the lethargy and disorientation that seeps into Claire who is sort of caught in a no-man’s land mentally.

Food, such a vital feature in Winter in Sokcho, is also symbolic in The Pachinko Parlour, in the way it subtly depicts a certain emotion or the frailty of her characters’ minds. For instance, the kwabaegi (a twisted doughnut) signifies the bond between Claire and Mieko; the pile of bento boxes or takeaway meals piling up outside their home distresses Claire because it indicates the deteriorating health of her grandmother who in the past was instrumental in teaching Claire traditional home cooked Korean dishes. On Claire’s infrequent visits to Mieko’s home, Henriette serves her elaborately prepared crabs and oysters because it conjures up images of a life she once shared with her now absent husband.

I thought back to the hours we used to spend together cooking, making pancakes, soups and stews: eomuk and soegogi-jin, kimchi and miyeok-guk; and sweet dishes like honey ice cream and hotteok.

Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

Space Invaders – Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

It was the release of Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone by Daunt Books that first put me onto Nona Fernández and I’m so glad to have discovered her. Space Invaders has also been published by Graywolf Press in the US, and boy it’s impressive.

Early on, in this gem of a novella by Fernández, one of the characters called Riquelme is in Estrella Gonzalez’ house playing Space Invaders, both children completely engrossed in this video game.

The green glow-in-the-dark bullets of the earthlings’ cannons scudded up the screen until they hit some alien. The little Martians descended in blocks, in perfect formation, shooting their projectiles, waving their octopus or squid tentacles, but Gonzalez and Riquelme had superpowers, and the aliens always ended up exploding.

Riquelme is the only one from the group of children, around which this novel centers, to have visited Gonzalez’ house and he remembers hours after hours of playing Space Invaders with Estrella, this vivid recollection now the only point of connect between the two.

Space Invaders is a video game whose goal is to defeat wave after wave of descending aliens with a horizontally moving laser to earn as many points as possible. Launched in the 1970s, it became a cultural phenomenon; quickly becoming one of the most influential video games of all time.

Using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernandez brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. These shards of memories that pierce their consciousness are often slippery, the lines between fact and fiction blurred, but they conjure up an evocative image of troubled childhood in an increasingly complex adult world, a world far out of the reach of children and which they couldn’t comprehend at the time. The atmosphere of menace and lurking danger is palpable; an uneasiness that seeps into their bones that they can’t quite put a name to.  

They vividly remember rigid school assemblies (“We spread out, each of us resting a right arm on the shoulder of the classmate ahead to mark the perfect distance between us”), and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor (“Year after year I take part in this perpetual disaster, that it seems, will never end”).

Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). The way each of her classmates remember her is also unique to each – Acosta dreams about her hair pulled back in two long braids, Zuniga sees “her face framed by long, thick black hair”, Fuenzalida doesn’t care much for physical traits but is captivated by Estrella’s voice, because Fuenzalida believes that “in dreams voices are like fingerprints.” Maldonado dreams about letters, an exchange of correspondence with Estrella where the latter displays a different personality unlike her usual quiet self, and last but not the least is Riquelme, the only classmate to have stepped inside Estrella’s home and who dreams of “spare hands” which morph into nightmares. These hands are nothing but green prostheses worn by Estrella’s father after losing his real hands in an accident.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the orthopedic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts. Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien.

As if a tensed childhood wasn’t enough, as the children grow up they are thrown headlong into the murky realm of politics, even if it’s a path they would otherwise not have chosen given a choice. But what does “going into politics” really mean? What does it mean to be in the resistance?

Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naïve, we leaped onto the deck of the first enemy ship in a first and final attempt doomed to failure.

Pinochet’s regime was the epitome of cruel military dictatorships marked by repeated violations of human rights as citizens – particularly those opposing the regime – mysteriously disappeared, were tortured or executed (“Coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them”). The US’ alleged support to the government is also subtly alluded to, particularly exemplified by the Red Chevy (another cultural reference) driven by Estrella’s nebulous uncle Claudio.

Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps us in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape. Whether we were there or not is no longer clear.

While the content of Space Invaders is an amalgam of dreams and fragments, what also makes this novella so novel is its structure and voice. Fernández fashions her novella into four sections which she calls First Life, Second Life, Third Life and Game Over – in tandem with the rules of the actual game where the players are given three lives to shoot the aliens before they reach the screen edge. And then, like in Greek plays, the narrative voice is first person plural where this close-knit circle of friends forms the chorus that builds up into a crescendo; individual first person narratives sometimes materializing from these collective voices.

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of what childhood means during a particularly brutal regime, the loss of innocence it entails; of events which are buried deep into the recesses of the mind but not entirely forgotten, and how these memories resurface later in our adult lives in all their imperfection as we try to ascribe some meaning to them. Life under dictatorship like the Space Invaders is a game but atleast the video game has straightforward rules that the children understand, unlike real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable (“We are the most important piece in the game, but we still don’t know what game it is”).

My Best Books of 2021

2021 turned out to be another excellent year of reading. Just like last year, I decided not to restrict the list to any specific number given that I had read 75 plus books.

Of the 21 books that made the cut, seven are translated works covering 6 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 19:2). This list is a mix of fiction by 20th century women writers, new books published this year, translated literature, novellas, a short story collection, a memoir and an essay collection. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2021, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

A WREATH OF ROSES by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality. A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

SATURDAY LUNCH WITH THE BROWNINGS by Penelope Mortimer

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly penned tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life. A woman and her five year-old son are locked out of a farmhouse in a remote French countryside, a seemingly innocuous family lunch swiftly culminates in a dramatic confrontation, a young woman on the brink of a miscarriage gradually reveals her true intentions. This is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.

MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it. The book charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion. Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and without mincing on details.

I IS ANOTHER by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship and picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique. The book is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

FUNNY WEATHER: ART IN AN EMERGENCY by Olivia Laing

A wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.

OLD NEW YORK by Edith 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.

NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience. These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories.

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else. Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

THE LIGHT YEARS & THE REST OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

‘The Cazalet Chronicles’, comprising five books (represented in the picture above by the first book The Light Years), is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.

Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature. 

REAL ESTATE by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality. When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own. The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths. Intelligent and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy. These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other. The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. 

CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

It crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.

MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant and through her eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche. The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if she is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

THE PROMISE by Damon Galgut

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes – racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era – explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I am happy this book won the Booker Prize.

ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body. Elena, a woman in her sixties, suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements. However, the real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita who was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide, but Elena is convinced it is murder.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

JANE AND PRUDENCE by Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London.

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2022 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

A Month of Reading – September 2021

I am very late in publishing this post, I had written it a while back but strangely forgot to put it up. But better late than never especially since September was such an excellent month of reading. I really enjoyed all the eight books I read that month, and I am also glad that I could read that many, because October in terms of the number of books read has been quite poor so far for many reasons. Interestingly, out of the five books in translation, four turned out to be French. Anyway, if I had to pick up favourites they would be the Fosse, Levy, Bennett and Ernaux.

You can take a look at my full length reviews for each of them by clicking on the titles. So, without further ado, here are the books…

CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.

HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.

Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship.  She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant. Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.

The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.

Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.

REAL ESTATE by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy, the third and final volume of her triumphant “Living Autobiography’ series, a book that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality.

When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own.

A quest that fires up her imagination, her real estate fantasies come in various striking avatars. Maybe a grand old house with an egg shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden. At times, she dreams that this property is well endowed with fountains, wells and majestic stairways, at other times she longs for it to be close to either a river or the sea.

The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths. Intelligent and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

I IS ANOTHER by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship and picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. Thus, as a new day dawns, and despite how exhausted he is, Asle is all set to make yet another trip to Bjorgvin to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery and while there also check up on his namesake who is in the hospital in a terrible state.

This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales. This flurry of flashbacks filter through his mind’s eye, when Asle drives to Bjorgvin in icy, cold weather, the snowflakes falling in heaps and bounds on the windshield of his car, and later when he is lying on the bench at home or staring out to the sea.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative thsat is utterly unique. The book is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-d’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. 

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

WINTER FLOWERS by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

Winter Flowers is a poignant, sensitively written tale on the devastating consequences of war and myriad forms of loss left in its wake.

Set during the closing stages of the First World War, the novel charts the story of Toussaint Caillet, his wife Jeanne and their young daughter Léo who Toussaint hasn’t seen growing up. While Toussaint, like all men mobilized for the war, is away on the frontlines, Jeanne, like all women, is home managing day to day life and hoping fervently for the safe return of her husband. Toussaint does return home, but his face is deeply disfigured and he is mentally scarred reduced to a state of silence, a new normal that Jeanne struggles to accept.

Intertwined with this main storyline is that of Sidonie, Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, both women finding mutual support and companionship in each other. When Sidonie’s only son and sole family is killed, the grief she experiences is unimaginable. Winter Flowers, then, is a poignant, profound meditation on grief and how can one possibly measure loss. It’s a quiet, devastating novella that sensitively depicts the heavy burden of war, how debilitating it is psychologically not just on the men but also on the women who are left behind.

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (BWWAY) was released with the kind of fanfare that was not surprising. Indeed, the previous two novels were also hyped so much that it put me off reading them as soon as they were published. But I ended up liking both the books very much. And felt the same way about her latest offering.

At the heart of BWWAY are four characters – Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon, all somewhere in their late twenties, early thirties. Alice, a successful novelist with two books and wealth under her belt (shades of Rooney herself, maybe) has camped at a rambling home in a seaside town some miles away from Dublin. Part of the reason is to get away from the limelight as she has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. There she strikes up a seemingly casual relationship with Felix, who works in a warehouse, and invites him to accompany her on her book tour in Rome. The beginning of their acquaintance is tentative, class definitely plays a big role in how their relationship subsequently pans out.

Meanwhile, Alice’s best friend, Eileen, an editor at a literary magazine, is trying to find her bearings after the end of a serious relationship. She finds solace in her friendship with Simon, who is a deeply religious man. Eileen has known Simon since childhood, she once harboured romantic feelings for him and even now probably does. Simon himself is involved with another woman, and yet he and Eileen on some level connect again.

For the bulk of the novel, the chapters alternate between letters that Eileen and Alice write to each other, and the relationship dynamics between the two couples. These letters are both personal and political – both Eileen and Alice keep each abreast of what’s happening in their personal lives but they also have discourses on the state of the world they inhabit, on fame, climate change anxiety, class distinction and relationships. The other chapters are more intimate as they dwell on actual interactions between Alice and Felix, Eileen and Simon as they must navigate through a complex web of communication, love and sex.

Rooney, as usual, is great at depicting the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of her characters – all the four are deeply flawed – as they struggle to express their thoughts and communicate their innermost feelings.

So, that’s it for September. October started off well but I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to. I finished Marking Time, the second book in the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’, which was also excellent like the first, and was also impressed by the deeply unsettling novella The Victorian Chaise-longue. As I write this, I am well into the third Cazalet book, Confusion, and enjoying it immensely.