Some Favourite Book Series

Given time constraints, I am increasingly drawn these days to shorter books. Yet occasionally in the past, a brilliant series came along, longer books that required commitment, but so good that one could just sink into them.

So, without much ado, these are some of my favourite book series that made for a truly wonderful reading experience.

THE BALKAN TRILOGY & THE LEVANT TRILOGY by Olivia Manning

Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies – at the core a brilliant portrayal of a marriage against the backdrop of war – helped me navigate some challenging times in 2019.

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 with their marriage a focal point of these books, 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 CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet Chronicles, comprising five books, 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. 

THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

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 by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

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. 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 SEPTOLOGY SERIES by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

This is a bit of a cheat because I’ve yet to read the third (A New Name), but I loved the first two so much (The Other Name and I is Another), it’s safe to say I’ll feel the same way about the third. The Septology Series is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship. Among other things, the striking feature of these books 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. A hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, these novels are simply exquisite.

THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS by Edward St Aubyn

These five Patrick Melrose novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk & At Last), penned by Edward St Aubyn, easily rank among my favourite books of all time. The central character Patrick Melrose is an upper class anti-hero, troubled and vulnerable. The subject matter is quite dark (abuse, drug addiction and so on).

These themes have been done to death in countless other books and films. And yet, Aubyn manages to make these novels quite special. What makes them stand out is the liberal dose of caustic wit and black humour sprinkled throughout. Plus, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the prose is pristine.

THE RIPLEY NOVELS by Patricia Highsmith

These are the novels that ignited my love for Patricia Highsmith – the utterly compelling sociopath Tom Ripley and Highsmith’s uncanny ability to make the reader root for him. These books (The Talented Mr Ripley, Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game) showcase her signature themes – identity, morality and obsession – to brilliant effect.  

Meanwhile, are there any series that you rate highly? I would love to know.

A Month of Reading – June 2021

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.

Ties – Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

I became aware of Domenico Starnone a few years ago when I heard that his novels were being translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories I had loved many years ago, and whose latest novel Whereabouts is most likely to feature among my favourite novels this year. Wanting to finally read him, I picked out Ties, a novel which I thought was brutal but also impressive.

In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes.

Thus begins 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.

We learn that Aldo, the husband, has given vague reasons for suddenly leaving for another woman – he feels trapped, desires freedom and the option of living life on his own terms. The defined boundaries of marriage and fatherhood are tying him down leaving no room to breathe. Vanda, however, is buying none of this nonsense, and rants at him in her writings. She accuses him of being a weak and confused man, insensitive and superficial. Aldo, meanwhile, vehemently describes his relationship with Lidia as purely physical, but Vanda believes he is lying. Deeply hurt and struggling to come to terms with her sense of abandonment, Vanda makes it clear to him that she is cutting off his access to their children.

In Section Two, several years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are now an old couple, they are together but it’s a delicately balanced existence – the fissure in their marriage hasn’t entirely disappeared, and a nudge in the wrong direction, can cause their relations to crack. Their children, Sandro and Anna, are grown up individuals living their own lives away from them. We learn that Aldo has achieved some success as a TV producer and writer but his fame has now dimmed. The couple is comfortable financially, a large part of which is due to Vanda’s obsession with money and finding ways of not indulging in wasteful expenditure.

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. The house is a complete mess with objects strewn everywhere, although strangely no valuables have been stolen.

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.  The second section is from Aldo’s point of view and he tells us how Vanda’s disintegration disturbed him, how his love for Lidia revived him, giving him a sense of purpose. Ironically, while deep in his relationship with Lidia, he is plagued by the same set of insecurities – that Lidia is likely to abandon him in the same manner that he left Vanda. Aldo eventually does crawl back to his family, but he finds the home atmosphere completely altered.

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. In her fascinating introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri makes an illuminating point about how boundaries, structures, containers are symbols depicted in this novel both literally and figuratively. Structures provide a safe space but can also heighten feelings of entrapment. Boundaries limit chaos, but things can keep breaking down anyway.

Interestingly, the multiple perspectives give a sense of how there is never only one guilty party, of how in a marriage there are always two sides to the story. When we read the first section, we feel for Vanda because of the terrible treatment meted out to her, the insensitiveness and cowardice of Aldo. But as the book progresses, we realize that while Vanda is the wronged woman, she is no saint. She puts Aldo on a tight leash with the result that their relationship transforms into one of tyrant and slave. She is the one calling all the shots, and his opinions don’t matter. Even though Aldo’s actions have set their marriage on a downward spiral, one can’t help but sympathize with him for the way he is punished by Vanda.

And what of the children? In the third section, we are privy to their points of view…they are now middle-aged adults but the kind of lives they have chosen to lead gives a perspective of how damaged they have become thanks to the bitterness of their parents’ marriage.

He’d given up me, you, Mom. And I quickly realized he’d done the right thing. Away, away, away. Our mother, to him, was the negation of the joy of living, and us too, you and me. Don’t fool yourself, that’s what we were, the negation, the negation. His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, to kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back. You have to accept responsibility for the crime through and through. You can’t commit a half-crime.

This excellent novella, finally, ends on a satisfying note and while the mystery of their parents’ ransacked home is resolved, there is a sense that the future will always be in a state of flux.

I must mention that I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Vanda’s section and realized there are striking similarities with Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment – the wife ditched by the husband for another woman, the rage seething within her, the burden she bears of caring for the children and the household singlehandedly and her gradual descent into despair. But Ties for me was the more interesting and therefore better novel because we are also presented with Aldo and the children’s points of view, which was the not the case with the Ferrante novel where we were only inside Olga’s head.

Ties, then, is an excellent reminder of how love, trust and respect are the foundations of a good marriage, and the complications that can arise from the lack of any of these attributes. Children, especially, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Divorce is one option, but often frowned upon because of its negative consequences for children. But the logic of “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is deeply flawed too. Children in their own ways are perceptive and can sense the discord between their parents. They become subconsciously aware of the need to tread carefully so as to maintain that delicate balance in their homes. Sadly, this unbearable burden and the underlying guilt can often affect them too. There are no easy answers!

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Last year, I read the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and I was blown away. Not surprisingly, the books found a place on my Best of 2019 list, and I was keen to explore some of her standalone works.

The Days of Abandonment was the one that was calling out to me and I also felt it was a perfect fit for “Novellas in November” (#NovNov)

The Days of Abandonment is a vivid, visceral tale of a woman’s descent into despair after she is abandoned by her husband.

From the very first page, Olga (our narrator) is devastated when Mario, her husband, communicates his intention to leave her.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

At the time, Mario does not give any explicit reason, other than the fact that it’s all too much for him and he wants to leave. While Olga is shocked, she also feels certain that this is only a phase – Mario had expressed this very intention many years ago, only to come back to her again.

Olga, meanwhile, must grapple with the day to day life of taking care of her two children – Gianni and Illaria – and their dog Otto, while managing the house and paying the bills. They reside in Turin. At the same time, Olga refuses to accept Mario’s abandonment, and spends every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done so that he comes back. But when she somehow learns that Mario has deserted her for another woman, Olga loses control.

Seething with anger and immense rage, Olga goes on the offensive – she speaks roughly with her friends and acquaintances, hurls abuses and resorts to foul language when interacting with others, and at one time even physically attacks Mario when she spots him with his new love Carla, in a shop.

Thereby begins Olga’s downward spiral into depression and gross neglect. Finding herself standing at the edge of a precipice and staring into an abyss, Olga struggles to adapt to the cruelly altered circumstances of her life.

At times when examining her situation, Olga is haunted by the image of the poverella (poor woman), a dominant presence in her childhood. The poverella in question was also abandoned by her husband and reduced to a state of utter despair, cutting a pathetic figure. Olga, at the time, vows never to slip into the same situation, but in her present sorry state, she can’t help but identify herself with that woman.

As the days go on, completing household chores, performing the duties of a mother, and tackling other practical problems of everyday life begin to take its toll on Olga as she overwhelmingly feels she is trudging through wet cement.

Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip.

She starts faltering, until one day things simply hit rock bottom. Has Olga reached a point of no return? Or, will she succeed in climbing out of this hole, and clawing her way back?

I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole, whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. She is immensely self-aware in a way that is fascinating and compelling. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. As readers, we are forced to wrestle with our feelings, because while Olga’s neglect of her children in her dark days can be hard to fathom, we also can’t help but empathize with her.

The Days of Abandonment, then, is in many ways an apt title for this powerful novella. On one level, it refers to the obvious fact of Mario leaving Olga. But, on another level, it also conveys a sense that Olga is losing her identity, that her sense of self has merged with that of the poverella, and that there is not much to separate the two women.

The Days of Abandonment is a great entry point for those who have never read Ferrante’s books before and do not want to commit to her Neapolitan Quartet yet, although I do think the latter is much superior.