A Month of Reading – February 2023

February was another excellent reading month in terms of quality if not quantity; mostly a mix of translated lit (from Germany, Chile & Argentina) and 20th century women’s literature. I continued to participate in the #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a couple of contributions to #ReadIndies.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.

GRAND HOTEL by Vicki Baum (tr. from German by Basil Creighton)

Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, Baum dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions. The novel sizzles with a vivid sense of place (1920s Berlin) and the language is wonderfully tonal and visual. Also, Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. I read this for #NYRBWomen23 and it was great.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE by Nona Fernández (tr. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

Using the motif of the 1950s popular science fiction/fantasy show The Twilight Zone, Fernández delves into the unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.

In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.

Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? It’s a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.


Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.

The book centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage of Robert Thomas, a scientist at a cosmetics firm and Katherine Bott, a teacher at a council school; both idealists who believe in progress and prosperity. As they marry, they enjoy a brief period of comfortable suburban living only to be followed by crippling poverty when Robert loses his job. Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War; Robert and Katherine’s relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. 

It’s this placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape that makes the novel unique and remarkable.

TWO SHERPAS by Sebastián Martínez Daniell (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft)

In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.

Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome. This is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN by Dorothy Baker

Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life. The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.

Rick is an orphan but from the very beginning he displays talent and flair for music, although with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. Once employed at Gandy’s Pool Hall, he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee and the two immediately slide into an easy friendship fuelled by their passion for jazz. At its very core, Young Man with a Horn is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries. Some of the racial terms used in the book might be hard to digest for modern readers (I did find quite a few of them jarring), but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. The novel is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading. This was the second book I read for #NYRBWomen23.

That’s it for February. In March so far, I’ve read Death at La Fenice, the first of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice followed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place and Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet – all three were excellent. I’m also reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan and All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, so it’s shaping up to be another terrific month.


Grand Hotel – Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

I have a vague recollection of having read Grand Hotel in 2019. I say vague because I was a very distracted reader that year, it wasn’t a good one personally, and I may have started the novel but kept it aside, which is by no means a reflection on the book (it is brilliant), but rather on my state of mind. Hence, I was happy to see it featured as part of Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 readalong, it gave me the impetus to pick it up again. Long story short, I loved it very much.

In the earlier pages of Grand Hotel, one of the central characters in Baum’s brilliant ensemble cast – the ballet diva Grusinskaya – is in the midst of one of her intense dance performances. Grusinskaya’s halcyon days of fame and adulation seem to be a thing of the past; she is now older when measured against the standards of her profession and yet not an old woman, but she is sharply aware of her star fading and her inability to mesmerize audiences the way she did in her younger days. As her dance performance draws to a close, the applause has dwindled and reduced to mere politeness, the theatre seats are mostly vacant mirroring the emptiness in Grusinskaya’s soul and the series of encores that she was so accustomed to are no longer plentiful. Grusinskaya’s entourage remains fiercely loyal to her despite her waning career because of her frail and tragic personality that stops them from abandoning her. 

However, Grusinskaya’s creator, the author Vicki Baum, need not worry about a lukewarm response to her novel; in a virtuosic performance where she displays sheer mastery over characterization, Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, she dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions.

In the book’s opening pages, the lounge of the Grand Hotel becomes a stage for the audience (readers) to whom the various dramatis personae are introduced. We first meet Doctor Otternschlag, all alone and seated in a corner surveying the hectic scene before him, gripped by utter loneliness. Physically and mentally scarred by war (one half of his face is destroyed), Otternschlag often shuffles to the reception desk inquiring for letters addressed to him (mostly none), and the staff put up with this daily façade to humour him. Newspapers fail to assuage his loneliness in those twilight hours and his overall view of life seems to be coloured by despondency.

Shortly, into this lounge enters an elegant, stylishly dressed man, a whiff of the scent of lavender about him. This is none other than Baron Gaigern – handsome, easygoing, and utterly charming. Baron Gaigern exudes an aura of wealth and aristocracy, although the reality, as the reader soon learns, is entirely different. Gaigern is a light-footed thief but has failed to scale the heights of his dubious profession (he does climb the steep hotel walls to slip into Grusinskaya’s room) because of his casual but endearing nature. Gaigern is often short of cash and is now in cohort with a band of petty thieves, who entrust him with the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s pearls.

Next through the revolving doors (a metaphor for something more philosophical later on), the provincial man Kringelein makes an appearance. Attired in clothes that sharply indicate his limited means, Kringelein, an accountant at Saxona Cotton Company, looks incongruous amid the splendour of the hotel. But he has come to Grand Hotel as if on a mission – he demands a room, but based on his appearance the staff put him in one that is downright depressing, and in a fit of tears he throws a tantrum. Kringelein knows that his short-tempered boss Mr Preysing always enjoys a luxurious room in this particular hotel, which is Berlin’s finest and he painstakingly makes it clear that he wants something similar. Kringelein soon gets what he wants but not before Otternschlag watching this spectacle, offers him his equally dingy room. Although his offer is declined, it’s an act of kindness that means the world to Kringelein.

Then there’s Herr Preysing, General Manager of Saxona and Kringelein’s boss who terrorizes his subordinates back home but lacks confidence in handling business matters. Preysing is at the hotel on a tricky mission that involves deft and delicate maneuvering, but this is made all the more challenging by his incompetence and lack of respect from his peers as well as his father-in-law. Saxona is a large company, financially sound but faced with a floundering future, and is looking to acquire a smaller but nimble firm with exciting prospects called Chemnitz. However, with a breakdown in those talks, Preysing is charged with the responsibility of reigniting negotiations; a scenario where he feels completely out of depth. Preysing wishes he was somewhere else, safe in his domestic idyll with his wife Mulle and their daughters, rather than sticking with a difficult situation that only fuels his mounting dread.

Last but not least is Flämmchen, the coolest character in the book and my favourite. Flämmchen is smart and glamorous, armed with an ice-cool attitude and dollops of confidence. We first meet her as a typist hired for Preysing’s work related to the Chemnitz negotiations, but Flämmchen has bigger ambitions. She dreams of making it to the movies, but in the meantime is open to dabbling in an assortment of jobs that will earn her money till she gets her big break. Compared to the rest of the cast, Flämmchen has the smallest role in the novel, but in that short space, she leaves an indelible mark.

That is a brief sketch of the novel’s characters and Baum expertly weaves their storylines together into a rich tapestry that explores a slew of themes – love and friendship, crippling loneliness, suicide, thwarted ambition, failure, dashed hopes, the price of success, the value of life and so on.

Baum’s characters may be flawed but her characterization is flawless. Her creations come from different strata of society, mostly strangers to each other before their stay at the hotel. But once there, chance and circumstance see their lives begin to intertwine in unexpected ways. Despite differences in class and wealth, each is plagued with fear and insecurity that torments them within.

The core cast is looking for answers to some of life’s monumental questions related to love, life, success and money…quintessential and timeless topics that have always mattered to most of humanity. For instance, Grusinskaya has reveled in fame and experienced the intoxication of success, but with the heady days of her career seemingly behind her, she is besieged with dark thoughts. Love and companionship have always eluded her until there comes along her life-altering encounter with Gaigern.

The bed was turned down, and a pair of little bedroom slippers were by the bed. They were rather trodden down and shabby – the slippers of a woman who is accustomed to sleeping by herself. Gaigern, as he stood by the door, felt a fleeting, tender pity at the sight of these little tokens of resignation on the part of a famous and beautiful woman.

Gaigern with his insouciant personality has always been a ladies’ man having enjoyed his fair share of affairs, but in Grusinskaya he finally experiences the beginning of something more substantial. But Gaigern’s chief problem is a perpetual shortage of cash and barely making ends meet which strongly belies his outer demeanor of elegance and extravagance.

As soon as the charming Baron Gaigern had forsaken the Lounge it became suddenly still, and the illuminated fountain could be heard falling into its Venetian basin with a cool and gentle murmur. The reason was that the Lounge was now empty, the jazz band in the Tearoom had stopped playing, the music in the dining room had not yet begun, and the Viennese Trio in the Winter Garden was taking a break. The sudden stillness was broken only by the agitated and persistent hooting of cars as they passed the hotel entrance and were lost again in the nightlife of the city. Within, however, the Lounge was as still as if Baron Gaigern had taken the music, the noise, and the murmur of voices away with him.

Gaigern is the very personification of Life itself, a symbol of optimism and robust health at least to the beleaguered Kringelein who during that very period is staring down an abyss towards death. Suffering from poor health, the doctors have handed him a poor prognosis, and Kringelein is suddenly gripped by a feverish urgency to live the final days of his life to the fullest. But in what way? Having lived a considerably narrowed provincial existence until now, Kringelein craves adventures and a sense of well-being that only money can buy. The doctor’s morose company at first depresses him, but then he latches on to Gaigern (who has his designs) and is transformed by this odd alliance. While Kringelein desperately hangs on to the last days of his life, the traumatised Doctor Otternschlag often contemplates death. Even the least likeable character of the lot – Preysing – evokes some sympathy from the reader as he struggles in his business dealings, increasingly yearning for success but staring instead at failure.

Grand Hotel sizzles with a vivid sense of place; we are immediately transported to the milieu of 1920s Berlin of which this fashionable hotel forms the primary setting. In the beginning, the hotel itself feels like a place of wonder seen through Kringelein’s eyes…

He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick red carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. Kringelein slid the sole of his boot gingerly over its pile and blinked. The Lounge was brilliantly illuminated and the light was delightfully golden; also there were bright red-shaded lights against the walls and the jets of the fountain in the Venetian basin shone green. A waiter flitted by carrying a silver tray on which were wide shallow glasses with a little dark-gold cognac in each, and ice was floating in the cognac; but why, in Berlin’s best hotel, were the glasses not filled to the brim?

There’s a whiff of nostalgia, a sense of looking through sepia-tinted glasses at a faded past; Baum has brilliantly captured the quiet, understated yet sophisticated mood of a plush hotel, the musicality of its range of sounds and voices with the volume turned down.

Senf, feeling somewhat oppressed, made his way straight across the Lounge, where there was now a good deal of movement. There the music of the jazz band from the Tearoom encountered that of the violins from the Winter Garden, and mingled with the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, the soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving to and fro.

One of my favourite set pieces takes place during afternoon tea at the hotel where the beats of the jazz band unleash a frenzy of dancing notably Charleston and tango; a set piece that also sees some drama brewing between Gaigern, Flämmchen, Kringelein and Preysing. Later on, we are given a whirlwind tour of Berlin’s vibrant nightlife seen through Kringelein’s eyes – a diet of fast cars, gambling clubs, sports arenas and drinking dens.

Like the effect of dappled sunlight with its interplay of light and shadows, Grand Hotel oscillates between moments of light and darkness that filter through the lives of its characters; we see them experience joy and exhilaration, even driven to acts of daredevilry that often alternate with periods of loneliness, depression, and frustration that weigh heavy on their hearts.

The writing in Grand Hotel is marvellous. The text is sprinkled with doses of humour and Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. The language is both tonal and visual – we can hear the tinkling of music and chatter in the tearooms, the sound of polite clapping in a theatre, we can see the blurred landscape through the window of a speeding car like Kringelein and taste iced champagne as he does in a cocktail bar. Baum’s descriptive powers also shine when she is writing about ballet, boxing or business. The set piece describing tense moments of Preysing’s crucial meeting with the Chemnitz owners is as riveting as the live boxing match that Kringelein attends along with Gaigern, the adrenaline coursing through his veins. She also beautifully evokes the atmosphere of jazz and tango teas that so epitomized the life of the jet-set crowd in 1920s Europe. Later some philosophical musings punctuate the text, the most striking one being the hotel’s “revolving doors” that in Doctor Otternschlag’s view serve as a metaphor for life and death.

In a nutshell, the drama that is life is full of its share of ups and downs; a dramatic reversal in fate whether for the good or the bad always a possibility. As the novel concludes, some characters meet a sad end but others gain a new perspective on the way they view the world and also derive joy from new friendships. It is this fusion of sadness and optimism that makes Grand Hotel a novel of pure perfection. I’ll leave you with this quote…

The experiences people have in a large hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, full and completed. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind its doors may be unimportant or remarkable individuals. People on the way up or people on the way down the ladder of life. Prosperity and disaster may be separated by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door turns, and what happens between arrival and departure is not an integral whole. Perhaps there is no such thing as a whole, completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings.

A Month of Reading – December 2022

In a year that was full of wonderful reads, December also turned out to be a good month. On the 14th of this month, I released My Best Books of 2022 list, a mix of 20th century literature, translated lit, contemporary fiction, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography; books that truly enthralled me.

In December, I read five books – a combination of translated literature, Indian fiction, crime, short stories and volume 11 of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  My favourite was the Hjorth by a mile, a novel that also found a place on my year end list.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)  

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

KILLING HAPPINESS by Friedrich Ani (tr. from German by Alexander Booth)

Friedrich Ani’s Killing Happiness is a dark, wintry, melancholic but beautifully written crime novel. Lennard Grabbe, Stephan and Tania’s 11-year old son, is found brutally murdered in a forest one cold December day after being missing for a month. This devastating news is delivered to them by Jakob Franck, now retired from the police force but not entirely out of it – he still performs the difficult duty of conveying news of death to the victim’s loved ones.

Her son’s tragic demise sees Tania spiraling into a depression, while Stephan is left to run their café. Holed up in her son’s room for most part of the day, communication between husband and wife is pretty much non-existent; cracks in their marriage leave no room for the couple to find solace in each other in their grief. For some reason though, Tania remains closer to her brother Maximilian, a shaky mysterious relationship the nature of which Jakob Franck and even Stephan can’t quite fathom.

Meanwhile, the case completely consumes Franck; a crime seemingly difficult to solve given the lack of clues and reliable witness statements (“Franck knew from innumerable question sessions that memories consisted of fissures, ellipses, misperceptions, loose sensory connections”). Heavy rain and thunderstorms on the day Lennard disappeared pretty much obliterates the chances of finding critical forensic evidence, and Franck is desperately seeking that crucial piece of information, or what he calls the ‘fossil’ (“that very material or immaterial link that placed the act’s past in an unassailable connection to the crime’s present and held the genome of the truth to solving the case”).

While Killing Happiness has all the traits of a crime novel, it is also very much a novel of marriage and family, the dark secrets that lurk within and how a hidden past can drive a wedge into already fragile relationships.

Franck is also an interesting character, effortlessly donning the dual roles of investigator and confidante. He assiduously and patiently chips away at the evidence before him, revisiting the crime scene innumerable times, probing witnesses to remember better, while his gentle, quiet personality compels Lennard’s family members to talk to him in a way one would to a therapist.

Published by Seagull Books, this is a novel I very much enjoyed and I plan to read Ani’s other work released earlier, The Nameless Day.


This turned out to be an excellent Christmassy read in December; a terrific compilation of golden age crime stories and my first ‘British Library Crime Classics’ read.

The stories are mostly set around Christmas, and while Christmas itself might not be a dominant theme, quite a few are atmospheric, capturing the starkness of the wintry season. In GK Chesterton’s ‘The Hole in the Wall’, a country house fancy dress party in the depths of winter goes awry when the host mysteriously disappears; while Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Death on the Air’ is an excellent story of a dysfunctional family ruled by a tyrant with “a clever murder device and a cleverly hidden murderer.”

‘Person or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson is a historical mystery set in the Restoration period during Charles II’s reign centred on a love triangle gone wrong; ‘Dead’s Man’s Hand’ is an atmospheric, intense story where guilt is examined to brilliant effect; Cyril Hare’s ‘A Surprise for Christmas’ (lending the collection its name) is also wonderful where an old homicide gets unexpectedly discovered in a cosy domestic setting. A postman is killed in Margery Allingham’s ‘On Christmas Day in the Morning’ that combines the gloominess of winter with the warmth of the festive spirit in a surprise ending.

Medieval masked balls, notorious gangs, pantomime, ghosts among other things feature in these stories as do love affairs, fractured families and broken relationships. A collection comprising 12 stories, I have given a flavour of only a few but overall I thought this was a lovely collection well worth reading.

SOJOURN by Amit Chaudhuri 

Sojourn was my first foray into Amit Chaudhuri’s work; I enjoyed this novella but didn’t quite know what to make of it. Our narrator/protagonist is unnamed, a middle aged Indian writer, who has been offered a short stint as a visiting Boll professor in a Berlin university where he is required to give weekly lectures.

Once ensconced in a flat in his new surroundings, he meets the Bangladeshi poet Faqrul, an exile in Berlin, who takes our narrator under his wing, helping him navigate everyday living in the city. Our narrator ponders about the Japanese writer Oe in the bathroom, aimlessly wanders around the city – Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Museum et al – thinking about the history of Berlin and its present status, dines in restaurants with acquaintances, and so on. Faqrul then disappears as fast as he had made an appearance, and our narrator later gets entangled in a tentative relationship with Birgit, until a feeling of disorientation completely engulfs him in the final pages.

Throughout this novella, there’s a sense that our narrator is lost and maybe trying to find himself, akin to Berlin’s identity which also seems in flux; a unified city very different in the present but one that has not entirely shaken off the remnants of its past.  The prose is elegant, pared to the bone, not a word wasted and an aura of uncertainty and rootlessness pervades the novel, the sense of being in no-man’s land  further heightened by the fleeting nature of things and the impermanence of connections. Like I mentioned, I am not entirely sure of having grasped the essence of this novella and yet it was laced with the sort of suspense that made it fascinating.

CLEAR HORIZON (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Clear Horizon is the eleventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

In Clear Horizon, Amabel continues to be a dominant presence, and a telegram from Michael Shatov sends Miriam reminiscing on their friendship and his marriage proposal which Miriam rejects, but in this book she considers introducing Shatov to Amabel. There’s also a sense that Miriam could be pregnant post her one night stand with Hugo Wilson in Dawn’s Left Hand, but then realises that not to be the case. That’s the first very long chapter and the second chapter entirely consists of a lengthy conversation between Miriam and Hugo Wilson, where Amabel is partly present at the beginning. This meeting only confirms Miriam’s opinion of how different her views are from Hugo’s who continues to be annoying and patronising. It’s then that Miriam decides that the end of her relationship with Hypo is now final.

It suddenly occurred to her that perhaps much of his talk was to be explained by the fact that he had never known that rapture. Had always been shut in and still, in spite of his apparent freedom, was enclosed and enmeshed? If this fact were flung at him, he would freely admit it, with an air of tragic hilarity, while overtly denying it, with a conspiratorial smile to emphasize his relatively large liberties, in order to use the admission as a point of departure for fresh insistence upon their neglected opportunities, while, hovering high above the useless to and fro, would hang the question, sometimes accepted by Amabel and sometimes wistfully denied, as to whether men, however fitted up with incomes and latchkeys and mobility, can ever know freedom-unless they are tramps.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s descriptive powers continue to enthrall as can be seen in the following passage…

And again, demanding no price for truant contemplation, the heavenly morning received her. Turning, in the fullness of her recently restored freedom, towards the light as towards the contemplative gaze of a lover, she felt its silent stream flood her untenanted being and looked up, and recovered, in swift sequence, and with a more smiting intensity than when she had first come upon them, the earlier gifts of this interrupted spring: the dense little battalions, along the park’s green alley, between tall leafless trees, of new, cold crocus-cups, glossy with living varnish, golden-yellow, transparent mauve, pure frosty white, white with satiny purple stripings; the upper rim of each petal so sharp that it seemed to be cutting for itself a place in the dense, chill air; each flower a little upright figure and a song, proclaiming winter’s end. Then tree-buds in the square seen suddenly, glistening, through softly showering rain. Then the green haze of small leaves: each leaf translucent in the morning and, at night, under the London lamplight, an opaque, exciting, viridian artificiality. And it was with power borrowed from this early light, and from the chance of stillness as perfect as its own, that these memories were smiting through her.

Just as The Tunnel marked Miriam’s entry into London as an independent woman with a career as a dental assistant to Dr Hancock, so does Clear Horizon mark the end of this period of Miriam’s life, a period that encompassed a decade. Having now read 11 of the 13 volumes of Pilgrimage, Miriam’s journey has certainly been interesting although I must say that to me the first six volumes (including Deadlock) were the best. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll continue with the remaining two volumes, we shall see.

That’s it for December. 2022 has been wonderfully rich in terms of reading and I hope that streak continues in 2023 too!

A Month of Reading – August 2020

Since August was WITMonth, my original plan was to focus only on WIT books and to read as many as possible. That didn’t quite work out. I did read 4 WIT novels from Poland, Denmark China and Germany, which I ultimately felt was not too bad. And I also threw in a Ross Macdonald and the latest novel from Daisy Johnson.  

So here’s a brief summary of all that I read in August 2020…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a fascinating book, a heady cocktail of ingredients – offbeat murder mystery, subtle humour, and philosophical musings with an ethical bent at its core.

Set in a Polish village in deep midwinter, the novel begins with the discovery of a man’s body in his home in the dead of the night. Called Big Foot because of his enormous feet, the circumstances of this man’s death are quite mysterious. It is Janina, the novel’s central character as well as the narrator, who chances upon his corpse along with her neighbour Oddball. The local police are summoned but they cannot for the life of them figure out who killed the man and the motive behind it.

As the novel progresses, few other prominent men of the village are also found dead at regular intervals under similarly strange circumstances. These murders completely baffle law enforcement and increasingly spook the villagers.

Our narrator, Janina, finds herself to be the first person at these crime scenes a couple of times, and she has her own theory on these murders, which she persistently presents to the police but to no avail. It is perhaps significant that at most of these crime scenes she and her friend spot a set of footprints that belong to animals, specifically deer.

Janina is viewed as a cantankerous old woman in the village, not to be taken seriously. An engineer turned school teacher, she is also the caretaker of some holiday properties of owners who come to stay in the village during summer months. Janina clearly loves animals (possibly more than humans) and has strong opinions on hunting, animal brutality and non-vegetarianism. She also is a deep believer in astrology looking for answers in stars and cosmic planets to make sense of the chaos around her. And in her free time, she keeps herself busy translating poems of William Blake.

For most of the time, Janina is a recluse – “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”. She is nonconformist and is not afraid of expressing her opinions even if most of the time she is derided. Appalled by the extent of hypocrisy exhibited by the men in her village, Janina is like a lone crusader fighting for the rights of animals, and finds the popularity of hunting sport deeply disturbing.

Is it possible, then, that the men who were murdered finally got their comeuppance? Were these men killed by animals who spotted an opportunity at revenge? Janina increasingly begins to think so but is also aware of the futility of stating her suspicions out loud. After all, won’t people think that her views are the incoherent ramblings of a mad woman?

The most dominant theme of the novel, then, is man’s lack of compassion towards animals, labeling them as inferior beings. The other theme explored is the treatment meted out to elderly women – the blatant lack of respect shown for their views and how younger people (men mostly) fail to take them seriously while also adopting a condescending attitude when interacting with them. This is very apparent in the way Janina is treated. Her various letters and entreaties to authorities to stop the inhumane killing of animals simply fall on deaf ears.

“But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.”

The novel is pretty atmospheric given its setting in a remote village during a harsh Polish winter, and death permeates everywhere as the bodies of both humans and animals pile up.

Drive Your Plow is no ordinary ‘whodunnit’, but that’s really not the point of the book. Peppered with doses of black comedy as well as melancholia, this book has existential overtones as it poses questions on our place in the universe, and challenges notions that humans are superior to animals. Strange and unique, with fascinatingly named characters (Oddball, Big Foot, Dizzy, Good News), and a fierce, eccentric personality in Janina, Drive Your Plow is a brilliant read leaving the reader with much to think about.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. from German by Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin.

While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

Wild Swims – Dorthe Nors (tr. from Danish by Misha Hoekstra)

I had been meaning to read Dorthe Nors for quite a while now, ever since her first collection of stories Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was released a few years ago (a book I had purchased then but is now languishing somewhere on the shelves).

I delved right into her latest collection Wild Swims instead. The themes of loneliness and human connection are central to these stories, but they are also brief character sketches encapsulated in certain moments with an element of darkness running through them.  

In ‘In a Deer Stand’, man in his late forties, finds himself miles away from home on a deserted dirt track, wet and frozen. Hampered by an injured ankle, he thinks desolately of his wife and the toxic nature of their marriage.

In ‘By Sydvest Station’, two girls who are going around houses collecting charity from people for a cause, encounter an old woman living in considerable poverty and distress. While one of the girls is quite disturbed by the incident, it barely ruffles the other who is more preoccupied with a relationship gone sour.

In ‘Our Narrow Paved Paths’, Alice is super busy taking care of a friend – Einar – who is suffering from cancer and expected to die anytime, although by the end you get a feeling that its Alice who possibly needs support as she is wracked by a feeling of emptiness.

In a disturbing story called ‘Honeysuckle’, a medical student studying at the NYU meets a blind Hasidic woman with whom he frequently has sex. It is during these moments that her face truly comes alive when at other times she is described as ‘a pale blotch in the midsummer night’.

All in all, there are fourteen stories in this collection and despite their brevity, it’s the sharpness in them that makes quite an impression.

Sisters – Daisy Johnson

Sisters is the second novel I have read this year where the relationship between two sisters is the focal point (the first was the marvelous We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).

September and July are born ten months apart but are almost inseparable. When the book opens, the girls (in their late teens) have just moved to Settle House in the remote Yorkshire moors with their mother. A certain ‘incident’ at school is alluded to – the primary reason for the house move – though not revealed to us (that will come later on).

As sisters, September and July could not have been more different. September is the dominant personality, she is assertive, willful, fiercely protective of July but also prone to bouts of cruelty. July, on the other hand, is always in September’s shadow, doing what her elder sister tells her to do, although there are moments where she yearns to have an independent identity.

Their mother, Sheela, is an author of children’s books but prone to bouts of depression after a failed marriage, her ex-husband having died since then. She loves her daughters but is also unsettled by their closeness. The sisters are in some sense self-sufficient in their own private world, a world from which Sheela is excluded. This greatly disturbs her, although she feels powerless to do anything about it.

The relationship between September and July is complex suffused with love but also extreme possessiveness and manipulation. So entwined are the two sisters, it almost feels like there is a merging of identities into one (September insists that rather than have separate birthdays, the sisters celebrate it on a single day). However, for a considerable part of the novel, particularly after the ‘incident’, July becomes increasingly unsure of their bond, and where they stand in relation to the other. She is loyal for the most part but also wants to break away from September.

All these elements pretty much set the tone of the novel right from the start – there’s a creeping sense of dread that pervades it. Daisy Johnson is great at creating atmosphere, there’s a gothic fairytale feel to the story, where the house is as much as a character in its own right as the mother and her two daughters. Throughout the book the narrative voice shifts from July’s first person to a third person from Sheela’s point of view offering us a glimpse into their shifting mental states.

Ultimately, Sisters is a very-well written novel, which besides the overarching theme of the unconventional rapport between two sisters also takes a look the intricacy and delicate balance of the mother-daughter bond.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald

I always turn to Ross Macdonald when I am going through a bit of a reading slump and he never disappoints. I am gradually making my way through his Lew Archer novels in the order of publication and The Zebra-Striped Hearse is the tenth in the series.

The novel begins when Archer is paid a visit by a client – Colonel Blackwell – who wants Archer to find dirt on a certain Burke Damis who is set to marry Blackwell’s daughter Harriet. Blackwell is a man prone to quick flashes of temper and his attempts to dissuade Harriet from marrying Davis are in vain. Archer for his part realizes that although Harriet is besotted by Davis, he is anything but.

A deeper examination into Damis’ background leads to a trail of murders which takes Archer to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Guadalajara in Mexico as he tries to get a sense of Damis’ personality.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse is another excellent addition to the Lew Archer oeuvre with a solid plot, a keen insight into the nature of family and how the past always comes back to haunt the present.  

So, that’s it for August. It was a solid month of reading with not a single dud among them. My favourites, though, were the Chang, Keun and Johnson.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Inspired by the example of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), Keun set out to write the German answer to the bestselling novel from the US (a book I haven’t yet read). That’s how The Artificial Silk Girl was born, first published in the early 1930s in Germany at a time when the Nazis were in power. Not surprisingly, this book, along with many of Keun’s writings, was banned at the time.

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

Our narrator and protagonist is the feisty Doris residing in a mid-size town in Germany with her parents. When the book opens, Doris finds herself stuck in a staid, stifling job with a legal firm, which requires her to insert commas in the appropriate places in letters. Not only does she not enjoy this role, she is not particularly good at it, something she tries to make up for by flirting with her boss. But it’s a job that pays even if half of her salary goes to her domineering father who wastes it away.

Inevitably, Doris loses her job but through her mother’s connections manages to find an opening in the glittering world of theatre. Theatre life is full of politics and backbiting but Doris is street-smart and carves a place for herself by falsely letting on that she’s in a relationship with the director. Subsequently, a competition with the other girls for a one-line part in the play ensues. Doris bags the part, although she is eventually fired when her lies are exposed. She steals a fur coat from the dressing room and makes her way to the big city, Berlin.

In those first heady days, Doris is dazzled by the grandeur and splendor of Berlin.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated.

She has ambitions of becoming a movie star and leading a glittering life filled with glamour and romance. There’s one section where Doris is in conversation with her blind neighbour Brenner with whom she’s possibly having an affair, which is particularly fascinating in the way Doris describes the vibrancy of Berlin. For Brenner, Doris is his eyes for a view of the big city. To his recurring question, “What did you see?”, Doris embarks on a stream of consciousness style narrative that depicts Berlin in a series of dazzling images following one after the other.

“I see – swirling lights with lightbulbs right next to each other – women without veils with hair blown into their faces. That’s the new hairstyle – it’s called ‘wind-blown’ – and the corners of their mouths are like actresses before they take on a big role and black furs and fancy gowns underneath – and shiny eyes – and they are either a black drama or a blonde cinema.

But it dawns on her that the reality is quite different, made all the more apparent when she takes Brenner out for a night on the town. Wandering through the streets and visiting cafes and restaurants, Doris desperately aims to convince herself and Brenner that Berlin has the power to entice and seduce with its myriad diversions.

I just want him to like my Berlin.

But what is visible instead is the grimness of urban life and a sense of existential angst, which seeps through the core of their beings, disillusioning them both. Doris begins to experience these harsher realities in everyday life as well as she struggles to find a place to stay and call home and has to rely on men for money and some company. The only thing she can hold onto is her fur coat which gives her not only warmth but also a sense of self.

In The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun has painted a memorable character in Doris, who is both naïve and streetwise at the same time. While Doris somehow has the guts to navigate the tougher side of Berlin, she harbours romantic illusions of making it big as a movie star, dreams that do not come to fruition.

The latter half of the novel particularly takes on a darker undertone, the bleakness of which is blunted to some extent by Doris’ unique and breezy voice. I could not help but think of Jean Rhys’ novels when reading the last section. In a way, while depending on the company of men for money and warmth, Doris bears a lot of resemblance to Rhys’ heroines in Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. And yet, I couldn’t help but think that despite the similar circumstances, the heroine in Keun’s novel is not as defeated as in Rhys’.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, transmitted to us by an unforgettable protagonist.