A Month of Reading – April 2020

The whole of April was spent in lockdown. I was somehow drawn towards authors whose books I had loved before, and this plan really worked because almost all the books I read were marvelous.

Like last month, I read six books in April too. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in April…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

This is classic golden age crime and the first book in the delightful Lord Peter Wimsey series, who calls himself an amateur detective. A naked corpse is discovered in a bathtub and the owner of the house has no clue who it is. While the identity of the corpse and circumstances of death continue to perplex the detectives, at around the same time a well-known financier goes missing. The link between the two is for Wimsey to decipher.

Wimsey’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me of Bertie Wooster and this was a solid mystery although I hear that the books subsequently get better.

Evening in Paradise (More Stories) – Lucia Berlin

A few years ago I was blown away by Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, a collection of stories that mostly drew on rich material from her real life – and what a life it was! Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman among others while raising four boys all one her own.

Her writing is unique, full of personality and verve and this is in full display in Evening in Paradise too, which contains a fresh batch of stories. There are 22 pieces in this book and I thought they were every bit as good as in ‘A Manual.’

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things gets shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor

I plan to read every book that Elizabeth Taylor has written – her writing is sublime! In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.

That about sums it up. I thought the Sayers was good, but the rest of the five were simply excellent.

As May begins, I have forayed into Korean Lit – Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It’s already super interesting and I am wondering where Suah will be taking me.

My Top 12 Books of 2018

Like the last couple of years, I was very lucky that 2018 turned out to be a great reading year too.

So much so that I struggled to whittle the list down to twelve. But after much dilly-dallying, I am happy and satisfied with the list that finally took shape.

In a year that was challenging, these books gave me pure joy and ideas to think about; it’s in them that I sought solace and found hope.

They cover a range of themes and topics – women wanting to live life on their own terms, survival, hope, loss, motherhood, friendship, and family.

A quick look at the statistics:

Half of them are translated works of fiction from countries as diverse as Argentina, Norway, Korea, Guadeloupe, and Lithuania. A majority of these books are by independent publishers.

And of the twelve books, nine are written by women.

So without much ado, here are my Top 12 Books of the Year, in no particular order, with a small description on each. For a detailed review on each one of these books, please click on the title of the book in question.

Top 12 of 2018

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz

A young woman struggles to adapt to motherhood. But rather than internalize her despair and retreat into a shell, she rebels – expressing her rage at conventional norms, and venting out on her husband and her family. Ariana Harwicz’s prose is so visceral, it bruises but in an exhilarating way.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

This is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship and the power of nature.

Ice – Anna Kavan

We are in surreal territory here as a man obsessed with a fragile, silver-haired girl, chases her across the icy wastes of a dystopian landscape. Only to keep losing her again and again. This is a wonderful example of Anna Kavan’s ‘slipstream’ fiction – there is a slippery and elusive feel to it all and where the conventional contours of a narrative structure do not apply. Kavan is at the height of her descriptive powers, and the passages describing the frozen settings are particularly sublime.

The White Book – Han Kang

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Anything that comes from the pen of Deborah Levy is essential reading. Her earlier novel Swimming Home was brilliantly unsettling, and her last novel Hot Milk made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. The Cost of Living is Levy’s memoir or a ‘living’ autobiography as it has been called. Levy divorces when she is approaching fifty, and now has a challenging task ahead of her – supporting her sons, and continuing her writing amidst many upheavals. It’s this transition that she describes in her trademark sharp prose, brimming with wit, warmth and keen insights.

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

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

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

Missing – Alison Moore

Jessie Noon is in her late forties, living alone with her dog and cat as companions, somewhere along the Scottish borders. Her second husband walks out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message on steam on the bathroom mirror. As a translator Jessie fusses over choosing the right words in her work, and yet ironically, in her dealings with others, she comes across as lacking tact. Meanwhile, Jessie’s days are filled with routine, and through the minute details of everyday life, Alison Moore slowly teases out the tragedy that took place in Jessie’s life in her late teens, and the heartbreaking impact it has had on her adult years. This quiet novel really tugged at my heartstrings.

Bergeners – Tomas Espedal

Espedal’s Bergeners is a difficult book to describe. It is personal with autobiographical shades to it, and yet to call it a traditional autobiography would be doing the book great injustice. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen. It’s a book where Tomas copes with loneliness, reflects on writing and meets fellow Norwegian authors such as Dag Solstad in exchanges that are laced with humour.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwarz-Bart

Set in the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, this is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, the grim legacy of slavery, and the story of the protagonist Telumee and the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from.

With wonderfully named characters such as Toussine and Telumee and a village deliciously called Fond-Zombi, Schwarz-Bart’s storytelling is slow, sensual, hypnotic and rhythmic. Every page pulses with the energy and vitality of these three generations of women. There are dollops of beauty and warmth, wisdom and sadness.

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

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

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

As the daughter of a mining engineer, Lucia’s family moved often to places such as Idaho, Montana, Kentucky, Arizona and to Santiago in Chile. This trend of perpetually being on the move continues in her adult life as well and she travels/lives in New York City, Mexico, New Mexico and California. In this period, she goes on to marry and divorce thrice. Subsequently, by doing various jobs (hospital ward clerk, switchboard operator, cleaning woman and so on), she hopes to support her writing career and raise her four sons all on her own.

Welcome Home is Berlin’s unfinished memoir recounting her childhood years up to the point she was married to and living with her third husband Buddy Berlin. Through this, and a selection of letters also included in the book (and corresponding with this period), we get a glimpse of her real life that was as endlessly rich, adventurous, and fascinating as the stories she wrote.

Other Notable Mentions…

So, there you go. The twelve books above were fabulous, and I hope that next year shapes up to be a rewarding year for reading too.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I struggled to narrow the list down to twelve as a result of which there were a few books that did not make the cut. But they were excellent nevertheless, and so deserve a shout out (with links to the detailed reviews):

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You (A hard-hitting novel of an abusive marriage)

Mariana Enriquez’ Things We Lost in the Fire  (A collection of eerie and gothic stories set in Argentina)

Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye  (A travel memoir and an ode to Russia and Siberia)

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk  (The first book in Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series set in Latvia under Soviet Occupation)

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light  (A bracing novel on a young, single mother’s struggles to raise her daughter), and

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (The concluding novel in Cusk’s brilliant ‘Outline Trilogy’, which I have not reviewed here). One of the striking features of this trilogy was the concept of self-annihilation of the narrator, in the sense of her being more in the background. It’s the other voices that dominate and the narrator is like a sponge for the most part absorbing various viewpoints.

Happy reading!

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was relatively unknown when her first compiled collection of short stories called ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was released three years ago, 11 years after her death. But this collection became a huge hit with readers and critics alike, and she gained recognition in a way that she never did during her lifetime.

I absolutely loved it too, and it found a place in my Best Books of 2016 list.

Hence, when it was revealed that Picador in the UK (and Farrar, Straus, Giroux in the US) were going to release two (and not one!) new books this year by Berlin, I was thrilled.

The two books are – Evening in Paradise, a short story collection (Yay! More stories from Berlin), and her memoir Welcome Home.

I rarely read memoirs, but given that Berlin’s real life was as endlessly fascinating, adventurous and rich as the stories that drew from these experiences, I was very keen to make an exception this time.

Welcome Home
Picador Hardback Edition

Welcome Home consists of Lucia Berlin’s memoir peppered with wonderful photographs (of her, her sons and family), and a selection of her letters (a majority of them to friends Edward and Helene Dorn).

The memoir comes first, and rather than a linear retelling, Berlin has focused on places she has lived in and the memories associated with them. It has a spare, impressionistic feel to it; the hallmark of Berlin’s writing.

It begins in Juneau, Alaska where Lucia was born, and the description is enchanting enough…

They said it was a sweet small house with many windows and sturdy woodstoves, screens taut against mosquitoes. It looked out on the bay, onto sunsets and stars and dazzling Northern Lights. My mother would rock me as she gazed down at the harbor, which was always crowded with fishing boats and tugs, American and Russian ore ships.

From thereon, Berlin writes about her childhood in places such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, El Paso in Texas and then onto Santiago in Chile.

The rate at which Lucia Berlin moved places both during childhood and adulthood is simply astonishing. Her father was a mining engineer and thus the family kept shifting often.

In Montana for instance, Berlin talks about how her father took her into the mountains every Saturday for weeks before the first snow. An old prospector lived alone in a cabin up there, and they carried winter supplies to him. This snippet of her life offers us a glimpse into Lucia’s early fascination with stories.

I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to celing. All through the dark days of winter Johnson (the prospector) would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.

I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was his walls were a great idea. This way, since they were not in any order, whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it…

When her father gets called abroad for the Second World War, Lucia and her family move to El Paso in Texas to stay with Lucia’s grandparents, where relations between them and her mother are fraught.

Most evenings he (Lucia’s grandfather) was at the Elks club and my mother was at the Pomeroys’ playing bridge or in Juarez. The two of them ate in their own bedrooms and never spoke a word to each other.

Once the war is over, Lucia’s father comes back and they move to Patagonia in Arizona, and it’s a phase in her life where she wonders, “Is it possible that we were all happy every day that we lived there?”

It is during her teenage years that the family moves to Santiago in Chile, and here Berlin lives a rich life brimming with a buzzing social circle – friends, parties, balls, dresses and so on. Her mother cannot adapt to this high society life, always retiring to bed early with a bottle, and it falls upon Lucia to host these gatherings.

After moving back to the US during her late teens, Berlin goes on to marry a sculptor with whom she has two sons – Mark and Jeff. He ditches her and just before her second son  Jeff is born Lucia meets and marries the jazz musician Race Newton. This period of her life is also marked with moves and chaos as the family first settle in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then move on to the East, to New York City, where the jazz scene is flourishing.

Berlin finally marries Buddy Berlin, another jazz musician, who is brilliant, charismatic and dynamic but consistently struggling with a drug addiction problem. She eventually went on to divorce him too and never re-married.

However, Berlin’s memoir was unfinished at the time of her death, and she had left off at the time when the family was once again on the move in both New Mexico and Mexico (she had not yet divorced Buddy Berlin, which she would eventually do).

One of things that is so fascinating about Berlin’s stories and her memoir is the constant moving, travelling, never settling down anywhere for long periods. It only gave way to chaos and upheavals. One wonders why that is so….

Of course, she didn’t have much choice in her younger years given the demands of her father’s profession, but even in her adult years, she was never rooted to one place. It could be that on some subconscious level, she welcomed upheavals and the chances it offered to re-invent herself, as opposed to staying in stasis for too long at any one place and suffering boredom.

It is a mesmerising, fascinating life nevertheless, and gave Berlin a lot of rich material to work with when writing her stories.

At the end of the memoir, Berlin provides a list of the places she has lived in titled, “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived in”

Here’s a snippet:

Corrales Road, Alameda, New Mexico – No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.

Thirteenth Street, New York City – Five flights up. Two kids, none walking. Blizzard, all streets closed, miracle. Rothko.

Acapulco, Mexico – Honeymoon. Three weeks of rain. Flood, dysentery, Mark electrocuted, more flood.

An article in the Los Angeles Times sums it up wonderfully…

As the list of her homes suggests, her 68 years were almost impossibly full of travel, adventure, loves found and lost, alcoholism and its defeat, and the struggle to get by as a single mother of four boys.

The second section of Welcome Home comprises her letters.

The first letter is a poignant one from her father when he is away at war and Lucia is 8 years old.

The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world…

The second one is to a friend Lorna, where she confesses that she loves Lou (Berlin’s first love before she married) but is not sure she wants to marry yet given her desire to make something of her life. Berlin was 17 then.

I love Lou and we’re still going together, but all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do…I never thought school would ever come between me and a guy…I’m real proud of myself…got two A’s in summer school…I like this idea of doing something and working for something that I can be proud of doing…

The later letters are mostly to her friends – poets Edward and Helene Dorn, and many are written in 1959, the period when she was in New York with her second husband Race Newton. And then on, she wrote from Mexico and New Mexico when she was married and living with Buddy Berlin. Essentially these letters correspond to the same time period as her unfinished memoir. They give a great feel of what was going on in her mind during those times, her struggles, and her attempts to churn out quality writing material often asking Edward Dorn to give the necessary feedback.

Welcome Home is a wonderful companion piece to Lucia Berlin’s short story collections. And it was just as much of a pleasure to get a glimpse into her real life, as it was to read her stories.

The Best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality. ‘Hot Milk’, particularly, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize during the year.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)

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