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.

A Month of Reading: March 2020

March was easily the strangest month ever, one that felt like it would never end. Despite the coronavirus crisis only worsening, I took solace from the fact that the books I managed to read during the orders to mandatorily stay at home were all very good.

I read six books and could have read more had I not been incessantly checking my phone for the latest news. 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 March…

Every Eye – Isobel English

Awkward Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Isobel English’s superb novella Every Eye. It focuses on two pivotal periods in Hatty’s life – the past when she is a young adult in a relationship with a considerably older man, and the present when she is on a honeymoon with her husband who is much younger to her.

Eventually both the past and the present will merge in an unexpected way. You can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Fate – Jorge Consiglio

Fate focuses on four individuals – or rather two couples – one pair who is gradually falling apart, while the other is seemingly coming close.

Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and begins a fling. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara.

By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, this was an interesting tale which showcased all the characters trying to control their lives or their destiny in some way or the other but not always succeeding in doing so.

A Quiet Place – Seicho Matsumoto

When on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai, a hardworking government bureaucrat, receives news of his wife’s death due to a cardiac arrest. This is not wholly unexpected given that she suffered from heart ailments. But yet, there are some aspects of her death that seem out of the ordinary to Asai.

As he delves deeper into the matter, he realizes that his wife – who he thought was shy and mostly by herself – had a kind of a secret life he was not aware of.

This was an absorbing tale where more than the death/ crime, the psychological depth of the characters – notably Asai – carried more weight. The last section particularly had shades of a typical Patricia Highsmith novel (I am a Highsmith fan).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

With the coronavirus raging all over the world, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The premise in ‘Station Eleven’ is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

It is a vividly imagined and unique novel with a focus on humanity at its heart. And you can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Actress – Anne Enright

In Actress, Norah FitzMaurice is narrating her mother’s story in the form of a book she addresses to her husband. Her mother is Katherine O’Dell and we learn of her ascent to stardom, her gradual decline, and her descent into madness further accentuated when she shoots a renowned producer in his leg.

That is the bare bones of the tale, one that explores the relationship between mother and daughter and the price each has to pay for being in the limelight. Enright’s prose shines on every page – intelligent, wise and sensitive and it was a pleasure to lose oneself into the book.

I have read two Enrights now, the other being The Forgotten Waltz, which examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald

Here’s what the blurb on the book states…

“Phoebe Wycherly was missing two months before her wealthy father hired Archer to find her. That was plenty of time for a young girl who wanted to disappear to do so thoroughly–or for someone to make her disappear. Before he can find the Wycherly girl, Archer has to deal with the Wycherly woman, Phoebe’s mother, an eerily unmaternal blonde who keeps too many residences, has too many secrets, and leaves too many corpses in her wake.”

This was another excellent Macdonald novel – the ninth in the Lew Archer series – with a tightly woven plot, surprising twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of California as well as the seedy world of blackmailers.

That’s it. I thought all the books were well worth reading but my favourites of the bunch were Station Eleven, A Quiet Place and The Wycherly Woman.

As April begins, I have embarked on my first Shirley Jackson novel – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – and I am already intrigued.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

We live in unprecedented times. March has felt like an unusually long month, one in which the Coronavirus Crisis has worryingly deepened leading to higher anxiety levels. As I write this today, there remains a big question mark over when this crisis will end or fade away. Will things go back to normal, will the world ever be the same again?

Meanwhile, the mandate to stay home means that there is more time on my hands to read books (only if I stop incessantly checking my phone). But rather than read lighter fare, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The central premise and the characters…

The premise in Station Eleven is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

When the novel opens, it is the last day of any normalcy in Northern America before the deadly virus encompasses the region killing millions. Arthur Leander, a renowned actor is performing on stage in a Toronto Theatre. While delivering his lines in the midst of Act 4 of King Lear, he suddenly collapses and dies on stage.

A person from the audience Jeevan Chaudhary – training to be a medical doctor – rushes onto the stage and tries to perform CPR on Leander but to no avail. Meanwhile, Jeevan spots a young girl in the wings, around 8 years old – Kirsten Raymonde – who is shaken by what she has seen, and who he tries to comfort. That is one thread of the novel and the core of the first section.

In the second section, we then move forward around twenty years after the Georgian Flu killed most of America. Kirsten Raymonde is now walking the length of the country with a band of travellers and actors called the Travelling Symphony. They visit little towns and settlements and entertain the people by performing Shakespearean plays.

In this way, the novel switches back and forth between the storylines in the world before the Flu and after.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.

A lot of the book focuses on Arthur Leander, his path to success and riches and the consequences of his failed marriages. Many other characters populate the novel but they all in some form or other are associated with Arthur Leander. There’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife (he goes on to marry twice and also fathers a son in his second marriage called Tyler), who never really settles down to being the glamourous wife of an actor – the endless parties and media scrutiny. Being a graphic artist, she finds solace in her comic-book project called Station Eleven – a sort of a science fiction series featuring Dr Eleven and his adversaries from the Undersea who escape the Earth through a wormhole when the planet is attacked.

There’s Jeevan Chaudhary who just before the end of the world so to speak was training to be a paramedical but had dabbled in various jobs before particularly in tabloid journalism. Another character is Clark Thompson who strikes up a friendship with Leander when both are aspiring actors in their teens, but subsequently goes on to a corporate career.

In the new world, within the Travelling Symphony, we are introduced to several characters – some who were born much before the Flu and therefore were witness to both the worlds, and others who were born after. The actors fear the prophet and have to grapple with his extreme views and his band of religious fanatics.

Throughout the book, all these characters and their storylines intermingle.

The Old World and the New…

One of the themes that the author explores and particularly struck a chord with me was the destruction of the world as we know it and adjusting to the new. In the world that we live in, we pretty much take things for granted. It is a way of life we begin to yearn for and whose significance is sharply brought to focus only when it is destroyed or taken away from us. Through her characters, Emily St John Mandel also increasingly emphasizes on the marvels of technology, especially when it comes to travel and communication, things which were in abundance in the old world and pretty much unthinkable in the new.

More importantly, can people who were born in the old world and used to its ways ever adjust to the changed reality of the present world?

Some towns, as I (Kirsten) was saying, some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different, although you’d think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue.

This is a recurrent theme in Miranda’s comic-book project as well where Dr Eleven and his adversaries are hiding in the deep reaches of space. But while Dr Eleven has accepted this change in circumstances, the inhabitants of the Undersea yearn to go back to Earth, to a way of life they once had.

What do you want to be remembered for?

The pursuit of fame and a meaningful life is also a topic the author dwells on. Arthur Leander wants fame, works hard for it, gets it and yet is an unhappy man in his final years. Will he be remembered for his successful career or his failed personal life?

There is also a striking conversation that Clark Thompson has with a woman in the old world where she articulates the perils of being stuck in a job that one is not enjoying that shakes Thompson profoundly.

“I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction…

You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’ clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”

Objects, motifs and haunting scenes…

In the first chapter, in those final hours when the reality of the virus is beginning to hit home, there is a scene where Jeevan heads to the supermarket and begins to stock up (hoard?) on various goods and essentials; which was uncannily similar to what we have been witnessing during the present coronavirus crisis.

On that very day, a plane lands in Severn City Airport. But no passengers disembark. It is implied that a passenger down with the flu must have infected the others and so it has been quarantined away from the airport. Twenty years later, the plane continues to be parked there.

While there are some characters who find themselves navigating both the worlds, certain objects find their way in the new reality too. For instance, Miranda’s (Arthur’s first wife) is the creator of the Station Eleven comics in the old world, and they are in Kirsten’s possession twenty years later. A beautiful glass paperweight that Clark gifts to Arthur and Miranda is also with Kirsten now. As is a book whose contents include letters written by Arthur to an unnamed person ‘V’ detailing certain aspects of his personal life. In the new world, there is the Museum of Civilization which exhibits various mementos and things from the old world which are novelties in a post-flu world.

Station Eleven is excellent, but to label it a science fiction novel would in some sense be inaccurate. Yes, the central premise is certainly dystopian – a lethal virus contaminates a world and destroys humanity. But the author is much more interested in the human angle of this development and how people adapt to two different realities rather than describing the minute details of an altered world. It is what makes the novel very rich, immersive and absorbing. My only quibble is that some threads were tied up too neatly in the end (I have begun to appreciate ambiguity more).

But that in no way takes away the fact that Station Eleven is a vividly imagined and unique novel, one that will simmer in the mind for quite some time.

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.