Books I want to remember: March 2020 to May 2021

I read this glorious Lockwood essay sometime back and began macheting my way through this post which I was supposed to have finished on 31 Dec 2020.

“While writing this, I read another essay that made me self-conscious; it lamented the trend toward the autobiographical review. Oh no, I said to myself, like Lenù at university, like Lila at the party, I have been doing it wrong the whole time. I went through what I had written, carefully removing the I, I, I. Then I stopped. I was even angry. I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history?”

These lines made me think of all the ways in which I read and ate books through the lockdown last year. I carried some to bed with me, woke up with others but read them all with my body through the day. Sometimes I worry that the things I read go and die in my body in some unreachable place where I have placed them so gently that they become quiet and never resurface. What is the point of reading if I don’t remember what I read? Is reading supposed to sustain me only momentarily? Or is it teaching me things I can’t see and feel yet. Maybe it will come at that prime moment, like Thor’s hammer to Captain America when I need it most. Was watching Endgame with my brother last week and that scene made him weep a little. He looked up with his pinched face and wide eyes, making sure his tears went back right where they came from.

Zadie Smith said this lovely thing about the desire for elbow room being vital and it made me think of how my desire to read and keep reading was the only thing that gave my mind elbow room.

Zadie Smith, “Other People’s Words, Part One”, in Changing my mind: Occasional essays
  1. Americanah, Adichie
Image Credits: Vogue

Began reading this one evening when I was charmed by the memory of a student who would only write and read sitting down – her back easy against the wall. I read the first five pages of Americanah sitting under the tabebuia tree one evening, my back fitting surprisingly nicely into the flat of the wall. All of March was soaked in Ifemelu’s sturdy decisions. There were moments when I just wanted to watch the women in the book sit and talk to each other in the salon. Then I wanted to follow Ifemelu everywhere she went- her university days, her trip to America, her affair – and never wanted to go back to the salon. This hilarious twitter thread made me see the Lagos that I imagined in Adichie’s words.

2.Self-help, Lorrie Moore

I remember a woman who was trying to escape a boy she falls out of love with. And I remember a mother’s instructions to her daughter ‘Cold men destroy women’. Was sitting under the trumpet tree and underlining these lines when mother asked me why I underline. I didn’t know what to say, I was very close to saying they are nice lines but then that would have led to more explanation so I just said notes for lecture and went back to reading. I am to blame for why she and I don’t have more to talk about.

3. There are Jews in my house, Lara Vapnyar

I have been a Lara Vapnyar fan ever since I read Katania and Deaf and Blind but my madness for the short story, and particularly the Lara Vapnyar short story grew after Luda and Milena where two women fight with each other to feed a man, kill him accidentally and then become best friends. In this collection of stories, a teacher struggles with a class after being told to handle sex education for them. She fears questions from one super-articulate student, hoping this child doesn’t come to class on the day they were told to ask her anything they want to about sex. Then there’s a woman who hides a Jewish mother-daughter in her house; rats them out to the cops, and later doesn’t know what to do with her life anymore.

4. The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Mr. M suggested I read this dude instead of dying about Gabito. So I found this book, downloaded it and was soon absorbed in the narrator’s world (and how easy it is for me to do that when the writer is Columbian, even if male). ‘But in all Latin American cities there’s one place or sometimes several places that live outside of time, that seem immutable while the rest is transformed. That’s what La Candelaria is like.’ I was brought to pay attention to ‘the sounds bodies make when they flee’, the ‘solitude of a child’, and indeed ‘the sound of things falling’. The book is the story of a young Professor, Antonio who is intrigued by a prison returnee, Ricardo, and his mysterious past. He witnesses Ricardo’s unfortunate murder and sets to uncover the story of Ricardo’s life. The Latin America I have in my mouth is from the cutie tattooed on my arm. I know very little of it otherwise. It’s only because of Vasquez now that the chilling descriptions of Pablo Escobar’s abandoned estate, the humungous zoo, the starving animals in it, and also the pregnant hippopotamus that managed to escape are on my mind.

5. The First Bad Man, Miranda July

I read July’s collection of short stories ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ in the last few days of 2019. The story of a woman driving around pointlessly with all her belongings in the car, stopping at signals and worrying that the ones around her will know that she has nowhere to go remained with me, as did the story of a young woman unwilling to let the other tenants in the house think that they own the porch that also partly belongs to her. After that, I have been accumulating her slowly. Too much of her causes what I call the July Rush. I was compelled to read her first novel after her short story, Roy Spivey made me giddy with joy. Listened to it on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast while watering plants, and died a little bit over roses that have never made me gasp like she does. The First Bad Man made me desire a woman like I didn’t know how to before- despite parents, despite myself, despite everyone else. ‘The point was Kissing’, she says. Just like that. The story of Cheryl and her miserable 20-something bully, Clee seemed possible despite how vulnerable Cheryl lets herself be and how much we don’t trust Clee. It seemed possible because July makes it possible before taking it away.

6. Beloved, Toni Morrison

There’s little I can say about a book that gave me a way to reimagine anger and love. I am terrified of what her writing does to me. Of how much more there is to learn about the calm that is possible to bring in writing, the kind with a power to break open every story you have ever told yourself and a thousand others you don’t. I see the same calm in her interviews, and speeches. Reading Morrison’s work is very reassuring. In Seattle, I overheard two white men saying that stories were responsible for a lot of wrong in the world of politics and I giggled quietly in my head. Toni’s writing is story-telling. Her story-telling is writing. The language of Beloved is the language of sleep right before waking up, where sentences just seem to flutter out of your eyelids.

7. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Thirteen stories come together to draw you into a long one. They are each told by a different character. In the first one, there’s a woman prone to kleptomania. She is on a date with a man and when we see her house through his eyes, we are shown the bonsai-like story of each of the objects stolen. There’s a bathtub in the kitchen and I remembered this detail with smiling pleasure when Dawn Powell mentions bathtubs in kitchens in her New York diaries. In the second one, there’s a man who succumbs easily to what he calls shame memories and doesn’t recover from them very well. My shame memories are small, like yours. But his are big and they keep getting bigger (kissing a nun on the mouth only because she leaned in, and he was tempted). He adds gold to his coffee and drinks this several times through the day. His secretary is the kleptomaniac girl from the first story whom he has feelings for. Rhea narrates the third story – the story of a college band – the flaming dildos.

There are three other girls and more boys, and they all love someone who loves someone else. Rhea feels undesired. She has freckles and she is on the inside of most things. I love that she loves her friend Jocelyn. But Jocelyn loves Lou – an older man who gets Jocelyn and Rhea high one evening and makes Jocelyn give him a blowjob at a concert they go to. In the fourth one, a Safari tour, and two young children discuss their father’s new girlfriend they are not very thrilled about. Said girlfriend is a student of anthropology and through their time there, she develops feelings for the man driving them around. In another, a man and his friend walk through New York city drunk all night. In the morning one of them flings himself into the river and dies. An event unfolds in every story and you might resist it the way your eyes resist a new book, especially when you’re on the first few lines. Then you give in because Egan’s control over the narrative is such that each new story is always as good as the last.

8. The Maple Stories, John Updike

Reading Maple Stories made me feel a lot surer about my capacity to be alone and in love at the same time. I don’t know what white and Savarna feminists are rambling about. In Twin Beds in Rome, Joan Maple tells her husband, Richard that she was once turned on when a boy at the gas station was wiping her windshields and rocking the car side by side. She almost came. Richard is wildly jealous of this and I, wildly amused. Joan Maple has the perfect answers to her perpetually grumpy husband. When he accuses her of having an affair after having had one himself, she denies. The phone rang and when I picked up, no one answered. So, it is your lover, he says. Could be yours, she says. Then why would they hang up, he asks. Maybe they don’t love you anymore, she says calmly. And I fell about laughing. At one point Updike asks, ‘Can love be defined, simply, as the refusal to sleep?’ – and I said yes yes yes. Back when I was a girl in puppy love with a boy, I treasured the idea of being driven around by him in the late hours of the night. I imagined we would stop on a hill to watch the sunrise, and go back home to get some sleep. But then I think how lovelier it is to wake up next to a woman smiling into my face.

9. The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

At one point in the story, the child-narrator tells us how when she was constipated, she was made to lie down on the sofa, bum in the air, her father hovering above, trying to push a soap down her anus. Mr. M confirms that this is practiced to irritate the bowels which helps ease constipation. I was zapped not so much because this is true but because of the chilling calm with which she narrates this scene, and several others. I learnt to let go of the distrust I usually have for child-narrators. I seem to only treasure Munro’s child narrators as if all the children in the world belong to her. They should, if they want to write. But it’s from Marieke Lucas that I learnt to have faith in Konkani when I feel lost. She says the most absurdly Konkani- sounding things about lendi. Here for instance, “My poo belonged to me, but once it was between the blades of grass, it belonged to the world” — or here about booger: “The tension makes me poke my little finger up my nose and hook a piece of snot. I glance at the yellowish ball and then put it in my mouth”

10. The short stories of Dawn Powell

Turns out that Dawn Powell is the writer I’d been waiting to read all my life. Last year’s best discovery, Fran Lebowitz led me to the very bestest Dawn Powell. She writes stories about women running away, about women living alone and working in a city, about women saving and hiding their money from men to spend on drinks with girlfriends. I don’t know if there’s a pioneer writer of women running-away stories. I am sure our mothers and grandmothers are all kinds of pioneers and it’s with the same regard that I read Powell’s women. I sent my first piece for LARB last September for a SUSI special issue. It’s not out yet but I had super fun writing it early one morning. Kept taking breaks to breathe the early morning Dawn Powell sky. I made a giant fool of myself loving her here.

11. Motherhood, Sheila Heti

I was in a bad space when I was trying to read this book. I was broken and angry that I’d let myself be broken again, like I was a fucking child, as if I’d never grown up, as if the last 32 years never happened. The book is largely about a woman’s quest to find out if she wants to have children or not (she doesn’t) but in the process, she learnt a lot more, and so did I. I read this very slowly and these lines gave me small hope to mend myself.

  • Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself-it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.
  • Yet making art makes me feel alive, and taking care of others doesn’t make me feel as alive.
  • A woman must have children because she must be occupied. When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing-not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want that woman to be doing the work of childrearing more than they want her to be doing anything else.
  • A child is not a combination of you and your partner, but a reality all its own.
  • Of course, a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal, whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries.
  • What do we need to know about a person in order to like them? Before she wrapped her leftover buttered toast inside a paper napkin, I didn’t know whether I liked her or not. Then, when she wrapped up her toast in the napkin, I suddenly loved her. She liked toast even more than she liked being admired.
  • I thought about how unfair it was that she and I had to think about having kids-that we had to sit here talking about it, feeling like if we didn’t have children, we would always regret it. It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties-when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience-from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility-a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all.
  • I had such a nice time the next day, pacing in the sunlight before my 4:30 lecture, realising how much writing has given me, and feeling so lucky that this passion was mine-right there, in the center of my life. And you are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be categorically impossible-because writing is a relationship. You’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself.
  • I am a blight on my own life. How can I stop being a blight on my life. It’s not right to always be sitting here, crying. Outrun your tears-that’s all you can do. Outrun your tears like an athlete every day. Outrun your tears like someone with faith. Okay, I will outrun my tears and win.
  • Only in failure. Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.
  • I don’t know why I don’t do the obvious thing-instead of fantasising about other lives, why not try to imagine what it’d be like to be me, and live the life that’s actually mine? The first time I ever had this thought, it gave me such a deep thrill, almost a sexual thrill, as if I was having sex with myself.
  • Getting my eggs frozen would have been like freezing my indecision. I couldn’t reveal my weakness to myself in such a tangible way.
  • But you know what you should be grateful for: following this tiniest thread of freedom, which is to write. That is all you ever truly wanted, so don’t vainly throw it away. Don’t throw it away chasing even more riches-more than what you’re owed.
  • The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us.
  • Slowing down is important. Repetition important. Be in the same place, differently. Change the self, not the place.
  • I will do anything to save this relationship except walk on eggshells around you.
  • Your life can only be what your insides are. Your life sits in your lap. I saw my life literally sitting there.

12. The Shame, Makenna Goodman

Second of the anti-baby book I read last year 🙂 The married, mother-of-two narrator stalks a woman online. The woman our lady stalks wears super clothes, has lovely crockery, shoes, walls, and posts her entire life online. Our lady could have been that woman, had she not fallen in love, married, and had children. Our lady loves watching her and feels acute dread when the woman isn’t online. On a whim, she replies to a nanny vacancy ad the woman posts and then leaves husband and children behind, takes the car out in the middle of the night and drives and drives well into the morning to see this woman in flesh and bone.

13. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Maloy

The first story had me kidnap a deep breath which I may not have let out since. A man on a horse meets a young woman in an evening class that he randomly walks into. He likes her, she doesn’t. One evening, her car breaks down and he takes her for dinner on his horse. (“He wanted to say that he wasn’t hungry when he was around her, but he feared the look on her face if he said it, the way she would shy away”) When she stops coming to class, he takes his truck, travels all night to go see her in another state. (“I just knew that if I didn’t start driving, I wasn’t going to see you again, and I didn’t want that. That’s all”). Two brothers in Spy vs. Spy take an age-old childhood fight atop a mountain peak and come tumbling down, fight still unresolved. Maloy observes, “They were bound like to dogs with their tails tied together, unable to move without having some opposite effect on the other, unable to live a single restful minute”. In Liliana, a man opens the front door one day to find his dead grandmother refusing to remain dead. The line that made me snort with relief was ‘Since my father’s death, my mother had been living in an ashram outside New Delhi. She sent us postcards about how deeply at peace she was, in the land of the caste system and the dowry murder’. I read the last couple of stories sitting in a park full of tall trees, small birds, old people, and young lovers.

14. How should a person be?- Sheila Heti

It’s a question I ask everyday and the answers fill me just as easily as they leave me. Nothing is good enough to be the final answer. How do some people just be? How do they get themselves out of a situation without being majorly disliked? Caste answers my questions but I still want to learn. Heti asks, “So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do”. Two artist friends love each other, support each other’s work. Narrator, like me, obsessed with learning to be, says about her friend, Margaux: “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain. I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become that same way too”

Heti has one lovely scene in a chapter called Two Spiders. Begins with the worry that “It always was too scary; a threat I had felt since childhood that at any moment a relationship might disappear with a poof because of something little I had done or said.” Margaux explains to Heti that boundaries are what keep friendships alive. Literally alive. She takes the example of a spider they found in the bathroom of a hotel in Miami. They decide to keep the spider. Margaux would have thrown it out but Heti insists that they keep him. Soon, Heti begins to like the spider, as a pet she could be affectionate with. On their last night in Miami, they forget to close the bathroom door and the spider was next to Heti’s legs. Unthinkingly, Heti smashes it under her hand. “Boundaries, Sheila. Barriers. We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.”

Genius lines, Sheila Heti Round II

~Smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time. #BoreMatKarYaar

~Silence is a fence for wisdom.

15. The Secret History, Donna Tartt

This was supposed to be read after I drooled all over A.S. Byatt’s Possession. That they were both on our M.A Syllabus meant that I was not ready for either then. I began reading this book after I watched Tartt in this 1992 interview and was very intrigued by her style. Style maane her dressing style, suit and bob cut and all. Plus uber cool handling of goofy male interviewer whose questions are longer than her answers, and who doesn’t even let her finish a sentence. I enjoyed reading The Secret History because it made me believe that I can still read. I was coming to the book after a long drawn spell of down first and up then and too up later. A moment that gave me smiling ache was Tartt describing a character’s relief from a painkiller to calm his migraine attack. The pain leaving was like ‘forgiveness’ she said. I took it all my classes and said see see. They saw and said ok, calm down. I am slightly obsessed with her suit boot style. Want to steal it for my work look. When I tried it in 2015, I looked tight in places I shouldn’t have. I gave up on that after I saw a full sized picture of what I looked like. Sticking to loose clothes since. Loose suits then maybe. The Secret History is about a bunch of students who study greek in a university. They study greek and only greek and nothing else. There’s a murder and then one more murder to cover up the first murder which was partly inspired by something they discovered in the Greek classes 🙂 Where is my university-murder mystery life man?

16. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif

Bestest book I read this year. After The Secret History, I was looking around my room thinking what to eat next, saw this copy Namsies had given me long ago and jumped. After 3 pages, I felt settled and thought, where were you all my life man? Book said, fuck you, I was on that shelf you put me on 5 years ago. I said ok ok come now, let’s see where you take me. Hanif’s sentences are oranges that you want to eat more and more of not because they are sweet but because you spent all your life believing that in one orange, not all pieces are sweet. This one was and how! It is a funny funny funny book because it is told simply. It made me think that if to eat, I don’t have to dislocate shoulder. To write also, I don’t have to dislocate anything no? The story is set at a hospital in Karachi where Alice, a nurse, single-handedly castrates men when they walk around expecting blowjobs. Her father offers castration of a different kind, perhaps leaving an even acute burn. (‘When I walk the streets, the streets belong to me. Have you noticed that when I walk the streets with my bamboo, they cross over to avoid my shadow? What are they scared of? Getting contaminated by their own refuse?’)

17. A Life Misspent (Kulli Bhat) Nirala, translated by Satti Khanna

Nitin told me about one charming scene from the book which I thought I misheard. A tear of deep attraction between a Dalit man and a Savarna man. I didn’t mishear. He showed me this sentence which I later read again and again not for what it revealed but how. Said men are sitting in a carriage when this happens — “I sat in front with the driver of the trap. The master of the trap gazed at me for some time before taking his seat in the back. I did not recognise the gaze then; I do now. It is the sort of gaze bestowed upon an exceedingly beautiful woman at the height of her beauty” – the man looking is Kulli Bhat, the man looked at is Nirala. A little ahead, sharing paan, Kulli says to Nirala: ‘How wonderfully the paan juice traces your lips, turning them into daggers’. Nirala was desperate to write a biography of someone but didn’t find anyone worthy enough. “Our heroes compensate for their weaknesses with grand statements. The blaze of light around what they say hides how they live”. Then he meets Kulli Bhat and this is his biography.

Although I was left wanting to know more about Kulli, it all comes together beautifully in the end when Nirala conducts the rituals after Kulli’s death. No pandit agrees to do it fearing ostracisation and impurity. Nirala decides to do it but doesn’t know some of the mantras. He seeks help from a Brahmin a day before the ritual, by-hearts some mantras, makes up the rest, and on the evening of the ritual – recites them less like a Brahmin more like a poet. “My recitation of the mantras was unsteady; I couldn’t find the right Pandit voice. I tried to exercise my imagination. I imagined I was living in the sixteenth century at the time of Surdas and Tulsidas. I imagined myself reading their poetry out loud. My face grew calmer. My recitation improved. Then I launched into Sanskrit, singing the praises of Lord Ganesha and Gauri. The listeners settled down and became lost in thought as sometimes happens at poetry festivals.” The moment is both subtly and piercingly anti-caste for me. That you use poetry to puncture Brahmanism is both beautiful and obvious.

18. Karachi, you’re killing me! – Saba Imtiaz

Nisha suggested this book when I was wallowing in covid grief-part non-covid drama. I wanted to read a book about a woman on the verge of changing her life. Felt settled in 2 pages and finished in 3 days. Ayesha is a journalist in Karachi on the hunt for a story that will give her her first break. When we first meet him, her boss, Kamran is on the phone with his wife insisting that she wear the black Armani, not the red. There only I died off little. After that, I watched as Ayesha trusts easily, breaks down, and picks herself up just as easily. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to pick yourself up, like making your mind up to want to wash the plate immediately after you eat, not the next morning. Do it now only. The thing to know and what she tells herself is -“I’ll be fine”. As I was reading this, I realised that this was my second set-in-Karachi novel and head was hung in shame for not reading more earlier.

19. Moustache, S.Hareesh (Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil)

Currently reading. Insides are flourishing with words, fishes, kanji, trees, and birds. I am learning, like Vavachan to not lose ‘the sense of wonderment’ that others are more than happy to pee all over on. Know it, water it, hide it if you must — but above all, protect it when you have it. More on this when my insides are bursting with Hareesh’s worlds and words. Vavachan, a Dalit man plays the role of a policeman on stage. After the play, he keeps the moustache he was made to grow for the role. This causes terror in everyone. The Moustache grows and grows -birds build nests there, insects procreate, rivers flow, dams build themselves etc. The story follows this, what happens to him, his moustache, and the many rivers of Kuttanad.

Elbow room activated 🙂

3 Comments

  1. Hi Vj,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I absolutely love your writing and your ideas and insights. These days I’ve been thinking about how we read—both the way each reading is scaffolded by our personal history and experiences, and about underlining and marginalia. I came across this bit in a piece by the novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, that I thought I’d share with you, since it provided me with immense clarity about the experience and meaning of underlining while reading. She writes,

    “I always read with a pen in hand, ready to underline the sentences I love. It’s how I engage with the text, isolate what I want to learn from it – whether it hums with a human truth, or is an example of prose to aspire to. Before I’ve returned the book to the shelf, I re-read the passages that struck me. Much later, flipping through the books I’ve read, the familiar lines comfort me – my old self reminding me what passages I’d wanted to remember. But sometimes, I am surprised: what I’d want to underline now is not necessarily what I’d underlined in the past. In these moments, old markings even feel too revealing, less about the text itself and more about what my concerns and curiosities were when I first encountered it.”

    Source: https://www.toa.st/blogs/magazine/fatima-mirza-the-written-line

    Warmly, Dhruvi

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so beautiful. And exactly the sentiment I was hoping to find. Thank you so much for sharing this with me, and for the kind words 🙂

      Like

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