A Month of Reading – November 2022

November turned out to be a great month. I read six books – a mix of contemporary literature featured on prize lists such as the Goldsmiths Prize and the Irish Book Awards, translated literature from Norway and Canada, a forgotten classic recently reissued and a graphic memoir.  All were excellent but the best of the lot was Trespasses.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

SOMEBODY LOVES YOU by Mona Arshi  

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You is a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up. Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside. While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.

AUTUMN ROUNDS by Jacques Poulin (Translated from French by Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off. It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart.

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)  

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality.

THE GLASS PEARLS by Emeric Pressburger

The Glass Pearls is a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run. We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos.

It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon learns that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.

Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and his panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?

The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and how fate can play cruel tricks.

DUCKS: TWO YEARS IN THE OIL SANDS by Kate Beaton

This book came to my attention thanks to the One Bright Book podcast hosted by Dorian, Rebecca and Frances and it is lovely. This is a graphic memoir written and illustrated by Kate Beaton and gives an account of the two years she spent working at the Alberta Oil Sands.

A resident of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia Canada, Beaton majors in art and wishes to pursue a museum career but she has a big burden to bear – crippling student loans – and in order to repay that debt she needs money, which a career in art is hardly going to fulfill. Hence, she heads west to Canada’s oil fields like so many other Canadians from different parts of the country with hopes of raking in some moolah.

Beaton gets employed as a tool attendant and while she is a hard worker soon gets disillusioned by the people who surround her. In a largely male-dominated workplace, misogyny is rampant and Beaton is often at the receiving end, unfortunately facing a harrowing ordeal herself. The ghastly behaviour of quite a few men makes her wonder whether they are portraying their true selves at the camps or whether it’s a persona they are putting on for survival, fuelled by the need to belong, a result of being away from their families for so long.

This is a book that explores loneliness, survival, the clash between man and nature, the huge costs of exploiting the environment in the quest for development (the three legged fox is one symbol), the difficult choice between making money and pursuing your dreams and how the two are often divergent, and a tough, misogynistic work culture. It’s a statement on the economic and political landscape of Canada against which Beaton’s own personal story plays out.

The graphic artwork is gorgeous capturing the stark beauty of the boreal forest, the pristine snow and the majestic Northern Lights in a palette of grey, white and black; the stunning depiction of nature a sharp contrast to the ugliness of the industrial oil machinery that has encroached upon it. In a nutshell, Ducks is a wonderful book…honest, poignant and humane at the same time and heartily recommended.

That’s it for November. In December I’m reading Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament which is absolutely brilliant and I plan to complete the remaining three volumes from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill and March Moonlight). I also plan to release “My Best Books of 2022” list somewhere around mid-December, I’ve read some great books this year.

The Glass Pearls – Emeric Pressburger

I’ve had a good run with Faber Editions this year with two excellent novellas, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, and to these I will now add this fascinating novel by the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger called The Glass Pearls. Pressburger was most known for his collaboration with Michael Powell; their production company released fourteen films of which some of the classics were The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name).

In his afterword to the book, Kevin Macdonald (Pressburger’s grandson) throws some light on the essential details of his grandfather’s life – Pressburger was a Jew, born in Hungary in a world that revered all things German. After studying engineering in a prestigious university in Prague, Pressburger moved to Berlin in the 1920s, the most happening city at the time, but where he fell on hard times. He would then gain a foothold into the film industry and the rest they say is history.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Pressburger was forced to flee but Macdonald argues about how in his material whether books or films, he tried to depict a sympathetic view of the Germans, who he insisted were not Nazis. Pressburger knew Berlin and its inhabitants intimately and strongly believed that there was a sea of difference between ‘Germans’ and ‘Nazis’.

Something of this quality is palpable in The Glass Pearls too, a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run.

We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. When Karl inspects his new surroundings, his landlady Mrs Felton is not around, but he bumps into the building manager Mr Strohmayer, a charming but dubious man always looking to make easy money through impromptu side deals.

Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos, his schedule chalked out by Lillian Hall, Mr Parson’s secretary, who secretly holds a torch for Braun.

It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon receives some disturbing news from a friend who he hadn’t seen for years. This man Hein informs him that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.

If Hein was wrong in assuming that his friend could be talked into abandoning a clandestine life for the safety and cosy companionship of the Brotherhood, he was right about the intention of the West German Parliament. Early in March the English papers reported that the majority of members in the Bundestag voted in favour of extending the deadline for the prosecution of alleged Nazi crimes.

The news hit Braun with cruel ferocity. Most people can bear anything as long as their ordeal is limited. As long as they can count the days, the years; as long as they know they are progressing towards an end of their tribulations. Only if the suffering imposed upon them appears to be limitless do they go to pieces.

But more importantly, he lets Braun know about the Brotherhood in Buenos Aires who is in need of funds and a good doctor to carry out their activities. Hein plans to join them, and tries to convince Braun to do the same although Braun refuses.

Braun’s murky past is unknown to his work colleagues and his immediate acquaintances and he has every intention of keeping a low profile till he can get to Zurich and access the wealth he and Hein had amassed and finally settle down.

Left alone, Braun sat on the green velvet settee, contemplating the months lying ahead. Life was not too bad. He did not mind tuning and repairing pianos. Visiting other people’s homes, watching their relationships, could be quite amusing. He made enough money for his needs he even had a little in the bank. He enjoyed a good book, a good play, a good concert, a good talk. What else does a man want from life?

But that’s easier said than done and meanwhile things begin to get tricky. Beset by loneliness, Braun is attracted to Helen Taylor, the woman employed by the estate agent office that secured him the place at Mrs Felton’s. The two soon begin to regularly see each other and attend musical concerts, theatres and dine at fancy restaurants. Braun has a fine taste for music and opera and some of his tastes begin to rub off on Helen too. Helen has a complicated personal life herself, she is divorced from her husband Dan and they share joint custody of their daughter Eve. Terrified of losing her daughter, Helen struggles to maintain a balance between holding onto her job and her rented place while at the same time letting loose and having a good time herself. Braun regales her with stories about his time in Paris and the exciting adventures he’s had and she remains fascinated trying to live vicariously through this memories. For instance, one of his stories centres on the glass pearls that lend the book its name; he reminisces on a party he had attended where glass pearls were inserted into oysters to watch for the ladies’ reaction, a story that will gather much significance in the final pages.

In the midst of all this, Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and now with Helen in the picture, worries about the shame of being arrested in front of her. These instances of fear are immediately followed by moments of logic and rational thinking (the hallmark of his time as a doctor in a Nazi concentration camp), but he remains troubled by this wild oscillation between paranoia and calm as he navigates his present circumstances and their complications with the uncertainty of the future stretching before him.

His panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?

But Braun’s scars run deep. We learn that his wife and only child were killed during sustained bombing raids on Hamburg; a fate he was destined to escape simply because he was called away to the concentration camp to continue his work. Is there evidence of guilt and trauma there? Through the momentous effort required to keep his past under wraps and escape prosecution, Braun begins to feel tired. He desperately longs for peace, to lead a normal life, and even contemplate love through his budding relationship with Helen. Is that now within his grasp or is this dream futile?

The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and the randomness of fate (surrounded by news of the atrocities suffered by his people during Hitler’s reign, one of Braun’s neighbours at Mrs Felton, a Jew, manages to escape to Zurich simply because of a minor adjustment to his name that miraculously saves him – the very Jewish Kohn becomes Kolm). Where Pressburger’s storytelling skills shine is the way he manages to instill some amount of sympathy in the reader for Braun; given the magnitude of his crime, the reader wants Braun to get the punishment he deserves and yet there’s the other part that wishes him to escape the clutches of law.  

Both the introduction (by Anthony Quinn) and the afterword mention how Pressburger was torn by guilt – while he managed to flee to England he could not arrange to bring his mother and family safely there, they would go on to perish in concentration camps. Quinn and MacDonald discuss how Pressburger, a Jew, projected his guilt and shades of his identity onto his creation Braun, a Nazi criminal and it is this backstory too that heightens the strange and unique allure of The Glass Pearls.

Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman turned out to be an excellent discovery this month. I liked Sunburn so much that I ended up buying two more of her books – The Lady in the Lake and After I’m Gone and I’m also keen to explore more titles from her backlist, she seems to have quite a few under her belt.

He looks into his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself:

“What kind of an asshole orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?”

“I don’t know,” she says, not looking at him. “What kind of an asshole are you?”

“Garden variety.”

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that.

And yet strangely enough Polly has landed up in Belleville. At that point, her motive is a mystery to Adam and to the reader (“One thing’s for sure: she’s up to something. His instincts for this stuff can’t be denied”).

But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Adam tentatively attempts to strike up a conversation with Polly, a cautious banter that only heightens the sense of mystery around the two.

“You from around here?”

“Define from.” She’s not playing, she’s retreating.

“Do you live here?”

I do now.”

“That sunburn – I just assumed you were someone who got a day or two of beach, was headed back to Baltimore or D.C.”

“No. I’m living here.”

He sees a flicker of surprise on the barmaid’s face.

“As of when?”

“Now.”

It immediately becomes clear that Polly is running away from something, and a sufficiently curious Adam books himself a room in that very same motel where Polly has chosen to reside. In the second chapter, we are introduced to Gregg, Polly’s husband, who is taken aback by Polly’s sudden decision to abandon him and their daughter Jani. A typical conservative man, Greg finds himself saddled with the unnerving prospect of being Jani’s sole caregiver, a role he did not take seriously before.

Things take a turn when Adam finds himself falling hard for Polly against his better instincts, and Polly begins to reciprocate. The fact that both have secrets they would rather hide only complicates matters.  As the novel progresses, Polly’s motives become clearer as do Adam’s and their lives become intertwined in a potent manner, a combination that involves both attraction and mistrust. 

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh.

Polly is a fascinating character with a dark, checkered past; a past dotted with violence and murder. Largely sidelined to the fringes of society because of what happened to her before, Polly through sheer resilience and instinct for survival soldiers on, always trying to think ahead. Her quiet demeanor and attractive persona make her irresistible to men and Adam, unsurprisingly, is taken in by her charms. Precisely because of her reputation of having an uncanny way with men, it’s also not surprising that most of her relationships with women are largely strained, marked by hints of suspicion.

Lippman is great at portraying the intrusive atmosphere of small town life – the gossip, the unflattering insinuations, and the conservative outlook…plus through the stuff that Polly has to grapple with, it’s also a book that subtly makes digs at gender stereotypes.

Sunburn appears to be some form of homage to James McCain and his brand of hardboiled noir. During a particularly disturbing period in her life, Polly seeks refuge in cinema halls watching adaptations of his novels, particularly Double Indemnity.

Then she found the films series at the museum, free on Thursday afternoons, and she escaped the long Baltimore summer in that cool, hushed place…The summer of 1985, the film series was all black-and-white films from the 1940s. Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Polly didn’t understand at first how they were linked, why the series was called Raising Cain, but then someone explained they were all based on books by a Maryland man who had lived in Baltimore and Annapolis, grown up on the Eastern shore.

With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

A Month of Reading – December 2021

I had a good December in terms of reading and managed to finish five books. I also started Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, most of which will definitely spill over to next month, so hopefully it’s a book that will feature in my January 2022 post. Anyway, of the five books this month, my favourites were Small Things Like These, Nightmare Alley and Suite for Barbara Loden.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first two books you can click on the links, while there are a couple of reviews I plan to put up in January.

SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.

This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding. 

During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.

The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.

Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Lindsay Gresham

This book had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…

Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.

The first chapter is striking where our protagonist Stan Carlisle, a magician at the carny show, is mesmerized by the geek in the enclosure, a man who has sunk to the lowest of depths, is akin to a beast biting the heads of chicken. Carlisle subsequently learns that he is a man-made geek, a drunk who can be manipulated by the lure of the bottle. Meanwhile, Stan, an ambitious man, wants to rake in moolah, and we subsequently follow his journey from his days at the carny to becoming a preacher and plunging headlong into full-blown spiritualism where he latches on to wealthy, gullible clients as prey. Until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.

Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical. It’s a terrific novel and highly recommended.

FATALE by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Chaos runs supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim, stylish novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. We are introduced to the quintessential femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, a highly trained killer who has left a trail of bodies behind her, mostly of the wealthy and privileged set. Aimee is now on her way to a town called Bleville, particularly heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhoods. Once ensconced in that wealthy set, Aimee sets about putting her plan in motion of extracting money, but a baron with Marxist tendencies veers her from her path.

In terms of themes, Fatale, can be looked upon as a statement on the dark, dirty side of capitalism, and an indictment of status and class privileges. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing, atleast in the two noir books I’ve read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad.

NECKLACE/CHOKER by Jana Bodnárová (tr. Jonathan Gresty)

Necklace/Choker by Jana Bodnárová is among the first titles released from Seagull Books’ newly created Slovak List, one of the books I purchased from its recently concluded excellent Winter Sale.

It’s a book about memories, nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished, the debilitating impact of war on ordinary citizens, the power of art as a means of protest and how it can be snuffed out by totalitarian regimes.

When the book opens, we are introduced to Sara who has returned after a longtime to her hometown in Slovakia, to the bungalow which belonged to her father, the renowned painter Imro. Sara’s return is solely to wrap things up, hand over the bungalow to the municipal authorities to convert it into a museum. In this project, she is joined by her friend Iboja, a woman some years elder, and who lived across from Sara and her family when they were both children.

As Sara and Iboja spend an evening at the bungalow quaffing wine, relishing food and enjoying the beautiful night in the garden, they begin to reminisce about the past, about their parents and their own personal lives. In that sense, through their flashbacks, we are presented in a way a brief history of Slovakia right from the glorious pre-war days, to the terrifying life under the Nazis, the brutal impact of the World War to be followed by the cruelty of Soviet rule.

Through Sara, we learn about her father Imro, his Jewish heritage, his passion for painting, how Imro’s parents find it difficult to adapt to the harsh realities of Nazis and the war, followed by his marriage to Sara’s mother and the birth of Sara.

Through Iboja, we learn about her grandparents. How her grandfather ran Hotel Aurora, a classy, beautiful hotel filled with wealthy, stylish patrons, smoky jazz evenings, music, gaiety and laughter. How he and Imro’s father were good friends and his fondness for Imro. But the brutality of war and the massive scale of political upheavals take its toll on running the hotel, it becomes increasingly clear that things will never go back to what it was once.

Despite its ambitious scope, Necklace/Choker is a quiet, elegantly written novel. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it effectively conveyed the uniqueness of Slovakia, somehow I felt a sense of place was missing.

SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN by Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon)

Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is part of a triptych of books that include Exposition and The White Dress. The book is based on the actress Barbara Loden and the only film she directed Wanda. Before embarking on the book, I decided to watch Wanda first and was pretty struck by its subject matter. Wanda is a woman completely adrift and rootless. She has abandoned her husband and kids, has been kicked out of her job at a sewing factory (she is too slow), and is now homeless and practically penniless. The only real thing she clings on too is her prized possession – a white handbag. As she aimlessly roams the streets of Pennsylvania, she runs into the robber Mr Dennis and for the rest of the film hangs on to him, even agreeing to become his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery.

Loden’s inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article she read which reported on the arrest and sentencing of a woman for being an accomplice in a failed bank robbery. Her partner having been shot at the scene of crime, this woman is pronounced guilty and actually expresses relief for being locked away, and this fact plants a seed of an idea in Loden’s mind.  

Meanwhile, Léger’s mandate from her editor is to prepare a short encyclopedic entry on Loden but Leger can’t bring herself to commit to such a narrow task. She desires to research deeply on Loden, on Wanda, on how bits of Loden’s life and Wanda’s circumstances are intertwined. It also explains why Loden cast herself as Wanda in the film, because, in many ways, she was Wanda.

Suite for Barbara Loden, then, is a hybrid book, a wonderful amalgam of film appreciation, biography and memoir. Indeed, just as the creation and filming of Wanda was part of Loden’s vision to express a part of herself, so is Suite for Barbara Loden a vehicle for Léger to examine her own motives which include her relationship with her mother who finds herself abandoned by an abusive husband. In short, this is a wonderful book on what drives us to make art, on being a woman, on relationships and the desire to be accepted.

That’s it for December. I had an excellent reading year and last week released My Best Books of 2021 with a total of 21 books. I loved them all and would heartily recommend them. Hoping for an equally amazing 2022 bookwise and everything else!

Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…

Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.

The novel’s opening chapter is striking. We are taken to the scene of action, the Ten-in-One carnival show. Stan Carlisle is stationed well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure where a ‘geek show’ is in progress. Stan is the novel’s protagonist, the carny magician with his impressive sleight of hand and a host of tricks up his sleeve. But he is not the show stealer in the first chapter. That crown belongs to the carny geek, a near madman with bloodshot eyes, cradling snakes like they were his babies and biting off the heads of chicken. Stan is merely an observer, but he is mesmerized. The “marks” attending the carny, are both disgusted and fascinated by this geek and despite their revulsion they can’t take their eyes off him, they want to witness this freak show and egg on the geek to get at the chicken. It’s a show that panders to their basest instincts.

Later in the chapter when conversing with the carny boss Clem Hoately, Stan is stunned to realize that the geek is a man-made phenomenon (“Well, listen – you don’t find ‘em. You make ‘em”). Since the man playing the geek is a raging alcoholic who fears the tremors associated with withdrawal, Hoately explains how the lure of the bottle and a little bit of manipulation compels the guy to become a geek if only to ensure that he can continue drinking. But that fact leaves an indelible mark on Stan’s mind – that every individual is gripped by hidden fears, fears that can be exploited to one’s advantage.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a slew of characters that form the pulse of the Ten-in-One carny show. The doyenne, Zeena Krumbein, is the show’s “mind reader” and an expert at tarot cards. Stan is impressed with her ability to understand human nature and play into the crowd’s emotions…

Magic is all right, but if only I knew human nature like Zeena she has the kind of magic that ought to take anybody right to the top. It’s a convincer – that act of hers. Yet nobody can do it, cold. It takes years to get that kind of smooth talk, and she’s never stumped. I’ll have to try and pump her and get wised up. She’s a smart dame, all right. Too bad she’s tied to a rumdum like Pete who can’t even get his rhubarb up any more; so everybody says. She isn’t a bad-looking dame, even if she is a little old.

Pete is Zeena’s drunk husband and a shell of his former dynamic self. At one time, Zeena and Pete as a team were unbeatable, working up a code-act that transfixed the audience. But fear gets the better of him and Pete these days is nothing but an alcoholic. Zeena remains loyal to him much to Stan’s chagrin.

Molly is a victim of bad luck too. Always her daddy’s girl, Molly adored her father, a real estate man, who could talk himself out of a jam in any situation. His death leaves Molly rootless until she finds a place in the carny show as “Mademoiselle Electra.” Zeena takes her under her wing and is protective of her.

Ever ambitious and with a desire to master Zeena’s tricks of the trade, Stan begins an affair with her but is irritated with Pete’s continual presence. But then an “incident” at the camp provides Stan an opportunity to team up with Zeena and he grabs it with both hands.

A turning point occurs when a policeman raids the carny premises and threatens to arrest Molly for indecency (she is in the midst of her act wearing skimpy clothes to give the impression of electricity passing through her body). Displaying a tremendous presence of mind, Stan gives the policemen a “cold reading” of the kind that only Zeena is capable of and averts that threat. Stan’s inspired act earns him new found respect from his colleagues, but he craves for something more, something big where the payoff will be huge (“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough”).

Teaming up with Molly, who is smitten by him (particularly by his smooth talking ability which reminds her of her father), Stan and Molly breakaway from the carny to venture out on their own. Not content with only vaudeville, Stan has big plans and flings himself headlong into full-blown bizarre spiritualism to become a preacher where he finds his audience in gullible, wealthy patrons who are more than willing to buy into his nonsensical ramblings desperate to get a glimpse of their dead, loved ones through mediums and séances.

Meanwhile, enmeshed into this narrative are Stan’s forays into his troubled past. We are provided a peek into his childhood as he becomes overwhelmed by a flood of memories – an abusive father, a distant mother in the throes of an affair, and hints of animal cruelty.

There is one recurring image that keeps haunting Stan – a sense of being trapped in an alley, a “nightmare alley” that gives the novel its name, where the walls around him are closing in, and the exit (or the light at the end of the alley) seems so far away that he might not reach it in time.

Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream. He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

Thus, tormented by his past and super stressed in his attempts to always stay one-up in his charade as a spiritualist, Stan finally consults a psychoanalyst – Dr Lilith Ritter – a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.

The other fascinating image that keeps popping up in Nightmare Alley is the symbol of tarot cards. The novel is made up of 22 chapters, each depicted by a tarot card at the beginning. In his introduction, Nick Tosches gives an interesting commentary on these cards and how Gresham used it to structure his book. These 22 cards are figured trump cards beginning with ‘The Fool’ and ending with ‘The World.’ However, Gresham chooses to shuffle the deck and the last chapter in the novel is thus titled ‘The Hanged Man.’ Therefore, from the index alone, one can gauge in a broader sense where the novel is headed and who the ‘hanged man’ refers to, even if we don’t know the details yet.

A cynical vision brews at the heart of Nightmare Alley, fumes of fear leap up from its pages. Stan spots this window into fear – that raw, base emotion – in the very first chapter when he learns about the geek, and an idea begins to ferment in his mind.

The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they are afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key.

This bleak view is further cemented when Stan is reading Pete’s old notebook. Written on its pages are not only Pete and Zeena’s trade secrets but also these lines…

Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature.

As an aside, capitalizing on fear and greed is a potent marketing tool even in the corporate world. This strategy of playing on people’s fear and greed reminded me of my stint in a financial firm that tracked stock markets. For instance, when stock markets are in a downward spiral, fear becomes the dominant emotion as investors stare at massive losses in their portfolios. In such times, the marketing copy emphasizes on how a particular strategy can help investors preserve their wealth when there is chaos all around them. That strategy changes in a rising market, when investors are greedy, they want to make big profits and the marketing copy adjusts its tone and message accordingly, highlighting the huge returns to be made from investing in a particular set of stocks.

Anyway, the point here is that Stan’s dreams of making it big in the world are dependent on exploiting this fear. In that sense, the novel explores the foibles of human nature – how people readily abandon reason when they are beset by fear or are promised something that they desperately want; how they become the perfect targets for con artists, crooks and evil doers.

Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical.

The speech fascinated him. His ear caught the rhythm of it and he noted their idioms and worked some of them into his patter. He had found the reason behind the peculiar, drawling language of the old carny hands—it was a composite of all the sprawling regions of the country. It was the talk of the soil and its drawl covered the agility of the brains that poured it out. It was a soothing, illiterate, earthy language.

There is loads of tough talking but at various moments the poetry of the prose shines through such as in these lines…

Loneliness came over him, like an avalanche of snow. He was alone. Where he had always wanted to be. 

Some excellent set pieces pepper the novel – the geek show at the beginning, Stan’s inspired ‘cold reading’ to the policeman, the team learning a thing or two about tarot cards, one of Stan’s duped clients led into believing that her house is haunted by ghosts, Stan’s sessions with Dr Ritter and so on…

In a nutshell, Nightmare Alley is a terrific novel, a fascinating spectacle of manufactured horror and evil. Like the crowd at the geek show, we the readers are the viewers. We are horrified by what we see, but we can’t look away because it’s so utterly riveting. We have to follow this story right through to the end, and when we do those last lines are singed into our minds, lines that depict irony and a cruel twist of fate that is simply unforgettable.