2020 was a tough reading year for me two reasons. Firstly, the pandemic-induced anxiety made it harder to focus. Secondly, I read more as a writer, picking away at the pieces to see what I could take away for myself – on characters, plots, setting, narrator voices. There were a lot of pauses as I sipped and swirled sentences with care. This kind of reading takes time, gives you pleasure and knowledge in equal parts. I discovered a lot about myself as well, and the kind of writer I would like to be. Hence, my favourite reads of the year are a result of this process.
I’d set two reading goals for the year – to read more women and non-fiction. I managed the first one well but the second, not so much. Again, I blame the pandemic for this because fiction offers me more escapism. I did not set a book reading goal for the year, but I clocked in at 61.
While I have never been a fan of Audiobooks, I signed up with Audible in April and have been doing one audiobook a month. There has been a lot of trial and error, but I have figured out how to pick the right kind of book to listen to, not read. Although it takes longer for me to go through a book in this format (you see the number of hours to listen to and it can be terrifying), I discovered that it gave my eyes some well-needed rest and was a different sensorial experience, especially before bedtime. It also really depends on the narrator’s ability to emote without overpowering the narrative. I think Audible works great for medium sized books in the non-fiction category and if I’m being honest, sometimes I pick a book to listen to because I like the narrator!
Without any further rambling, I will go ahead and share the list of books devoured over the past 365 days that have moved (in some cases, disturbed) me.
The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I heard this collection of short stories on Audible, narrated by Kirsten Potter who does a wonderful job. I cannot believe that I have lived this long without reading any of Charlotte’s books. I find her work simple and smart; dark and layered. This collection has multiple themes – horror, romance, religion. I insist that everyone read (or listen to!) one of her most popular pieces – ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. It is an eerie tale of a woman’s mental health depleting as she is kept in isolation by her husband who thinks he knows what’s best for her. In contrast, ‘The Cottagette’ is about a man and woman in love debating the balance between domestic responsibilities and practicing art. Charlotte was very keen on exploring the division of labour between men and women in a household. Her stories have progressive men who do not exist to merely adore the women they love, but to play a role in cementing their independence. I plan to read ‘Women and Economics’ next year.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
I spent a long time on this 2018 Man Booker prize-winner: nearly a month, with a lot of breaks. If you were to ask me what it was about, I would just stare back at you blankly with an ‘I don’t know how to explain it but I can only tell you it is oh-so-lovely’. Flights is the most unsettling book I read this year. While it appears to be a collection of random stories and extracts, there is a pattern in Flights. Whether you’d like to call it movement or mortality, it’s there for you to figure out. People travel in trains and planes and wait at airports, bodies get dissected and organs suspended in fluids and examined, a mother runs away from her family, a father searches for his wife and son on an island. The tales are strange but captivating. Olga writes beautifully; her sentences are masterpieces.
‘But the human ego burst forth and swept the gods up and inside, furnished them a place somewhere between the hippocampus and the brain stem, between the pineal gland and Broca’s area. Only in this way can the gods survive – in the dark, quiet nooks of the human body, in the crevices of the brain, in the empty space between the synapses.’Flights, Olga Tokarczuk
Son of the Thundercloud by Easterine Kire
‘Son of the thundercloud’ is a myth that uses magical realism to connect with nature. It’s a man versus nature, good versus evil story told beautifully. Kire, a prominent voice in Naga literature, shows me what it means to snip away at unnecessary descriptions and write honestly. Pele loses his family to a famine and leaves his village. He meets the divine sisters in a village where it hasn’t rained for centuries. A prophecy tells of the son of the thundercloud who will be born to kill a tiger and avenge his family’s death. The child, Rhalie, is born and we watch how his entry brings out the worst in people – pettiness, envy, cruelty. I finished this book in a day. It was also relatable during the pandemic when all the world was contemplating (or so I hoped) the need to find harmony with the planet.
‘That is incredible! If the drought was man-made, isn’t there a danger that men could create another drought in the future?’Son of Thundercloud, Easterine Kire
My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
This book is set in three parts to reflect the narrator’s, who remains unnamed throughout, progression in life as he goes from being a young student in medical college to a working doctor at a government hospital – Lover, Friend, Father. In ‘Lover’, he tries to find love with different men. There is sex and intimacy in his affairs that never crescendo to a committed relationship. ‘Friend’ brings hospital clerk Bada Babu to life, a memorable character with many shades. This was the part I paid attention to, how Babu builds and dominates relationships by greasing the right wheels. It’s really good writing. The last part ‘Father’ brings caste and politics into the picture. Hansda is a member of the Santhals, an Adivasi community, and this reflects in the detailing here. I enjoyed this book and wished it were longer. For 2021, I plan to read his collection of short stories ‘The Adivasi will not Dance’.
“I was shocked, but only for an instant. I trusted him. How else does one love?”My Father’s Garden, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Recollections of my non-existence by Rebecca Solnit
We must be grateful to Solnit for her contribution to the feminist dictionary. One of the many roots of the term ‘mansplaining’ is Rebecca’s essay ‘Men explain things to me’. ‘Recollections of my non-existence’ ties together pieces of her life as a writer and woman in San Francisco, the motive and inspiration behind her work, and her activism toeards preserving history and the environment. I heard this as an audiobook narrated by Rebecca herself. It was painful to listen to her voice recount hers and other women’s struggles; the effort it took to step out and have a good time, to find space for yourself, or to just be heard. I loved her description of the desk that she wrote at, gifted to her by a friend who was stabbed fifteen times by an ex-boyfriend.
“You could be erased a little so that there was less of you, less confidence, less freedom, or your rights could be eroded, your body invaded so that it was less and less yours, you could be rubbed out altogether, and none of those possibilities seemed particularly remote. All the worst things that happened to other women because they were women could happen to you because you were a woman.”Rebecca Solnit
Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan
Andal is one of Lord Vishnu’s twelve alvars (consorts). The word alvar translates to one who is immersed. She is the only woman to have this status, earned by her devotion and longing to be one with the Lord. The Thiruppavazhai is her work, a set of thirty verses to be recited each day of the Margazhi month when women observe the pavai nonbu – a fast to seek fine husbands. Queen of Jasmine Country is a fictional account of Kodhai’s life, the woman she was before becoming Andal. Sharanya gives a beautiful introduction on how she transformed her understanding of the literature on Andal into this book. Her poetic prowess makes its way into the sublime setting – the tulsi grove, the blossoming flowers, Kodhai’s raptures, the days and nights separated by her dreams.
“I surrender to the carnal like the daughter of a dancer. I scatter enigmas like the daughter of a shell-reader. I swallow the ocean in my dreams like the daughter of a diver.”Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan
Kari by Amruta Patil
A graphic novel set in Mumbai with the city itself as a character. I bought Kari for a friend and shamelessly devoured it before giving it to her. Kari is a heart-broken, introverted lesbian who tries to end things but is saved by the sewer. She writes copy at an ad agency, travels in the crowded Mumbai trains, rooms with women and the suffocating men that visit them. The illustrations are exquisite with varying textures; the words juxtaposed almost like poetry. Kari is overwhelmed by loneliness and the minutiae of surviving a ruthless city, and she holds on to whatever she can – a friendship with a cancer warrior, little victories at her job, holding and eating exotic and unaffordable fruits, getting a buzz cut from a man who insists it will not look good. Amruta draws us into the melancholy and conflict that a queer individual experiences in a heteronormative society.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Jansson is popular for the Moomin comic series, beloved white creatures that resemble hippos. The Summer Book is one of her few novels. A six-year-old girl and her grandmother, who is an artist, spend a summer together on a small Finnish island. Nothing much happens and it is only in their time together that they create new adventures by playing, co-existing, discovering their unadulterated surroundings. Time, essentially, stops here. The girl’s father comes and goes but he is not central to the story. The vivid coming together of land and sea in a quietude away from the world’s commotion makes this a comforting read. Sophia and her grandmother talk about God, convictions, worms, what it is like to sleep in a tent. The Summer Book lands itself in one of my favourite books of all time. It is a warm, bittersweet hug enveloped in 170-something pages. Tove’s writing is the kind that flows from a well of wisdom and hurt. Grandmother says when she stumbles across hideously large houses built besides clean shores, “Just because more and more people do the same dumb things, that’s nothing to make a fuss about. Progress is another thing entirely, you know that. Changes. Big changes.”
Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end by Atul Gawande
A non-fiction read that will make you question what we want out of medicine as we age and what constitutes a fulfilling life, i.e. longevity versus quality of life. Atul writes with honesty, empathy, and a fine balance of facts and emotion. India struggles with providing proper geriatric care and this topic has been particularly close to my heart. He weaves his own experience of his father battling cancer. There is a likeness in the book to Paul Kalanithi’s memoir ‘When breath becomes air’ (which I cried buckets for) in how doctors observe life’s fragility as they confront sick and dying people daily.
“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” It is highly wishful thinking to hope all doctors felt so deeply so what I will keep for myself is the insight on the power of choice that we can give to those growing old.Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Wow, no Thank you by Samantha Irby
I’m taking a break from all the heavy stuff to share this HILARIOUS (you will notice that I have not stated anything in caps till now so this must emphasize the severity of humour) book by Samantha Irby, a comedian and blogger who suffers from Crohns disease, a kind of IBD. I heard her narrate this in audiobook format, so it was even funnier. Heads up – she swears a lot, which I have no problem with whatsoever but when I read some of the other reviews, I did find a few comments stating it felt excessive and unnecessary to them. She writes about being young and growing old as a woman, what it’s like to make new friends as an adult, what it’s like to be a stepmom to your wife’s kids, how she consistently shoves vitamins and processed food down her system. Samantha is unabashed about the details of her sex life, bowel movements, anxieties, and shameful fantasies. There is an entire piece called ‘Sure, sex is fun but have you ever…’ where she goes on to list amazingly stupid things we call accomplishments to make life more bearable. In the swarm of self-deprecating jokes, she effortlessly slips in some wisdom. Wow, no thank you really injected some mirth into this crappy year. Here are some of her gems from the book:
“First of all, why you would ask a man anything is beyond me.”
“I feel my sexiness is a thing that creeps up on you, like mold on a loaf of corner-store bread you thought you’d get three more days out of.”
“I am a negative person by nature, and I typically shy away from anything that requires me to be having visible fun.”Wow, No thank you by Samantha Irby
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Let me start off by saying that Elena Ferrante is one of my goddesses and I worship her. She is my “Oh, how I wish I could write like that” person. Days of Abandonment is the story of a wife abandoned by her husband for his mistress, and how she copes with her two children and a dog. It details her devastation and recovery over the few months post the separation. We witness Olga’s identities as a woman and mother flailing, her aggression towards the children she has little feeling toward because she is trying to survive this ordeal, how she alienates herself from people who try to help her as a reaction to the injustice of being abandoned. This is not an easy book to read, crass and raw in its descriptions. It is disquieting to read of Olga’s descent into the mad and bitter void where women wonder who they are without the men they’ve grown to depend on. I know I will never have the strength to read it again.
“We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex.”The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The strangest book I read all year but with the most relevant message in it for me. I am tempted to describe it as fantasy but that’s just not it. It starts off with two characters Piranesi and the Other in a place filled with statues and flowing water. Floods come and go. Piranesi keeps a journal and makes entries of what he does all day. In a time when we wonder what solitude and companionship do for us, this book answers those questions in its own ways. It’s really brilliant. You just need to be patient for the first half!
“He cannot imagine why anything should exist if he cannot make use of it.”Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
Weather by Jenny Offill
A short novella that I heard on Audible narrated well by Cassandra Campbell – this is the kind of book I aspire to write. Lizzie Benson is a librarian with a husband and a son. She has spent a considerable amount of her life being responsible for her mother and brother, a recovering addict. There is little plot and it is more of a stream of consciousness flowing from Lizzie. She tries to reconcile the problems of her home and family with those of the world and feels the anxiety of the effort wholly. As a reader, you feel her helplessness in the act of living a life you’ve chosen even if it is dull and disappointing. Lizzie is not meant for a world that thrives on self-destruction and I find this relatable. Weather is the right kind of depressing, where you feel sad but also good about your capacity to feel that sadness.
“Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”Weather, Jenny Offill