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!

Villa Amalia – Pascal Quignard (tr. Chris Turner)

I have had a great run so far with the novels published by Kolkata based Seagull Books. In 2016, Florence Noiville’s Attachment made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. And a couple of months back I loved and wrote about Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners.

Looking for something more from their catalogue, I was intrigued by Pascal Quignard’s Villa Amalia. And what more, the book cover was stunning.

Villa Amalia
Seagull Books

When the book opens, the protagonist Ann Hidden (a musician), is hiding in the bushes to spy on her partner Thomas who she suspects is cheating on her.

‘I wanted to cry. I was following him. So unhappy I wanted to die.’

But she is caught doing so by a friend from her past – Georges Roehl. He berates her for spying and soon he becomes Ann’s confidant in the drastic plan she is going to put into action.

Ann Hidden decides to ditch her partner (whose affair is confirmed), give up her old life in the Paris suburbs and altogether disappear. But she is intent on keeping Thomas in the dark of what she is about to do. Thomas, meanwhile, desperately tries to hold on to Ann, but she is indifferent and quite set on radically altering her life.

When Thomas is in London for a week for a business meeting, Ann successfully sells off their home and furniture, withdraws money from the bank, and decides to spend some time travelling.

Her friend George is privy to her new plans, or is he? Ann tells him that she will be heading to Morocco. Instead, she travels to Switzerland, and Italy, and finally enamoured by the volcanic island of Ischia off the Italian coast, halts there.

Days are spent in a hotel (with a sea view), swimming, walking and reveling in solitude. But hotel life soon begins to grate on her.

It is then that she comes across an abandoned villa atop a cliff that is surrounded by the sea on all sides. It’s a villa she immediately falls in love with. After a meeting with its aged owner, she rents the place and settles in her new home.

She was passionately, obsessively in love with Zia Amalia’s house, the terrace, the bay, the sea. She wanted to disappear into what she loved. In every love there is something that fascinates. Something much more ancient than can be indicated by the words we learnt long after we were born. But it wasn’t a man now she loved this way. It was a house that called out to her to be with it. It was a mountain wall she was trying to cling to. It was a recesses of grasses, light, lava and inner fire that she wanted to live in.

It’s a new phase in her life and promises all the solitude that Ann craves for. There is also all the time in the world to compose music.

She re-learnt how to be without a man, not having anything to prepare, not having to wash herself, not having to dress with care, taste or attention, not out on make-up or do her hair. The pleasure of collapsing into an armchair, lighting a marvelous cigarette and closing her eyes without anyone shouting, humming in the distance, coming up to you, speaking commenting on the weather, the day or the passing hour, tormenting you.

And yet ironically, even though her past relationships with men have left a bitter taste in her mouth and she yearns to be alone, she doesn’t really shut off people.

On the contrary, once settled in Villa Amalia, Ann Hidden actually begins a new life, forging new relationships.

Will this new phase give her satisfaction, or will she remain a restless soul aching to move on?

Villa Amalia is a beautiful book (both the cover and the content), and Ann’s story – especially the sections of her life in Ischia – is immersive and engrossing. Quignard’s prose is spare and poetic, and there is an enchanting quality to his storytelling (wonderfully translated by Chris Turner).

There a couple of themes that are dominant in this novel. The first that comes to mind is how we choose to deal with loss and abandonment. Her partner’s betrayal, of course, disorients her, possibly making her feel anchorless. But we learn that she has been abandoned by her father earlier leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves (Mind you, mother-daughter do not have an easy relationship either). And even in the new relationships that she forms when in Ischia, there comes a point when she is confronted with loss.

Villa Amalia is also about transformation, about breaking the shackles of convention and choosing to live life on your own terms. We live with this perception that the older we get, the more difficult it is to change our thinking or our way of life. But that does not have to be necessarily be so. After all, Ann Hidden is middle-aged when she decides to live her life differently.

Ultimately, in Ann Hidden, Quignard has created a fascinating character. Her metamorphosis from a woman leading an ordinary existence to a life filled with adventure and new possibilities was fresh and invigorating adding another dimension to her personality.

She was a complex woman.

As Magdalena saw it, the mistress of the storms was, in some deep way, a magical being, a fairy creature.

In the eyes of Leonhardt, Ann was an extraordinarily inward artist, almost indifferent to those around her, strong, wild or at least relatively untamed, solitary.

In the eyes of Giulia, she was a great gentle body that was silent, sensual and reassuring, a bundle of bones, evasions and elusions.

In Georges’ eyes, she was a little girl who was proud, rather hostile, always on her guard, easily upset, fragile, worried, mysterious.

In my eyes, she was a genius of a musician. I very seldom heard her play. Yet I did everything I could to do so.

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:)