Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Year in Books

For quite some time, I have been managing to squeeze around sixty books per year. So one can imagine my shame, when I turned the pages of my diary a few days ago, and discovered that I'd read only about forty-five books this year. I was ashamed but not surprised: a year riddled with a lot of academic writing, two jobs (both of which entailed teaching a foreign language to children), research applications, haywire personal life, and slipshod travelling, it is quite a surprise that I finished forty-five books after all. Yet, what I lost in numbers, I made up for in quality. 2013 will be special to me because I discovered all my favourite writers, one after the other: Evelyn Waugh (okay, I'd begun reading him in college, but he deserves honorary mention), Nancy Mitford, Rosamond Lehmann, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and it couldn't have been better.

When I was in Berlin in January and February, quite aptly I bought and read Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Novels. I'd read some Isherwood before and loved him, but reading about his Berlin while in Berlin, was a revelation altogether. Yet, I started reading him towards the last couple of weeks. The beginning of my year, and my early days in Berlin was preoccupied with Ruth Reichl's brilliant Tender at the Bone. My fiascoes at the kitchen, coupled with my addiction to reading had convinced my landlady that Ruth Reichl would be a writer I'd enjoy, and she was right. Tender at the Bone is the first part of her autobiography (I didn't find time to read the second part, Feed Me With Apples), and it elucidates her experiences of growing up in New York after the War, her mother's spiralling into mental illness, and the food that she ate all over the city. Every anecdote was followed by a recipe, and the details were so good that I had to continuously remind myself that Ms Reich is primarily a chef and not a writer. Her experiences of school in Canada, and especially her adventures in France are worth mentioning.

In Berlin, I was stupid enough to believe that I could read while commuting. I blame my abysmal reading figures to the captivating delights of the winter scenes of Berlin outside the U-Bahn window. I tried to catch up on my reading after I returned, by turning my disrupted sleep cycle into veritable reading time. I finished Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited by staying up all night. While each of them deserve special mention, the one I want to talk about is The Pursuit of Love. It is difficult to get Nancy Mitford in India. Hence when I found The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford at very reasonable price, I bought it, regardless of the fact that it is massive, reading it would be cumbersome, and it would be impossible to carry it around. I couldn't have made a better decision. The Pursuit of Love is one book to which I hope to return to over the years, talk about it and cry over it time and time again.

It is only when I discovered that artificial flowers could never replace gillyflowers, that I found my vocation in life: collecting Penguin editions of Brideshead Revisited.

I followed this book with another Mitford, Christmas Pudding, which was hilarious, but certainly not like The Pursuit of Love. Yet my (then) latent literary and research interests made me dig out and read some more inter War literature (at enormous prices, if I may be indelicate enough to add). I read Anita Loos's hilarious and bitingly sarcastic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Rebecca West's haunting The Return of the Soldier, E. M. Delafield's rip-roaring Diary of a Provincial Lady, D. H. Lawrence's middling Aaron's Rod, Richard Aldington's outrageous Death of a Hero, Sylvia Townsend Warner's wonderful Lolly Willowes, Laurie Lee's soulful Cider with Rosie, and Winifred Watson's mediocre Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

BBC's beautiful 2009 adaptation of Emma made me reread the classic, along with Persuasion. And if you thought that I was done with rambling about Evelyn Waugh, you were wrong: this summer I also read Decline and Fall and continuously doubled up with laughter. Consequently I was immensely saddened and humbled while reading May Sinclair's The Life and Death of Harriet Frean. Through the summer I read Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, which had followed The Good Soldier, and as we all waited and prayed for the monsoons, I tucked into Judith Earle (Dusty Answer) and Olivia Curtis (Invitation to the Waltz), and watched my life change before me.

It is quite well to read mid-century erotic French novels with the AC blasting over your head, and that is what I did through the long summer of 2013: Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse followed by A Certain Smile and wrapping up with Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy. An important mention of my reading this year was the discovery (for me) of several Russian children's literary works. Bengal has had a long history with communism, and during those years, many literary works were translated into Bengali from Russian, and was widely popular in Calcutta. There were even Bengali publishing houses in Moscow, or at least that is what my copy of Arkady Gaidar's Chuk and Gek and The Blue Cup tells me. Some people had the (now unavilable) books buried in their houses, and had the wonderful presence of mind to scan them and circulate them widely, and I before I knew it, I'd found wonderful translations of delectable children's works. I hope to explore this area more in the new year.

I read Saramago's Cain during my birthday, and was so overwhelmed that I passed my copy to my teacher, pleading her to read it. She reciprocates my feeling. And after rereading James Herriot's If Only They Could Fly at a hotel room in Varanasi, as autumn rolled in, I ventured into my favourite genre: whodunnit. I have long been an ecstatic fan of Agatha christie (who isn't?), but this year when I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers (and Ngaio Marsh), I decided to read all the Queens of Crimes together. I couldn't keep my word, but there's so much to look forward to. I reread The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Murder on the Links, before moving to the object of my unbridled affection, Lord Peter Wimsey. I started chronologically with Whose Body, then moved on to Clouds of Witness, Unnatural Death, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and shed copious tears with Strong Poison because Lord Peter meets Harriet Vane and falls in love with her (not me!). I have a lot of things to say about Dorothy L. Sayers (all pleasant), and I'll reserve that for a separate post. I read Ngaio Marsh's first A Man Lay Dead, and felt that although the premise was perfect (country-house murder) and the book began with great promise, Ms Marsh muddled up the detecting procedure by heavily involving the suspects in the detection, and suddenly introducing a sub-plot of Russian gangsters. I know that she gets better, so I wouldn't be unkind to her. Which is something I will be to P. D. James's Cover Her Face, which was bland, and after watching and reading about her Death Comes to Pemberley, that is one writer I will not return to again. As far as whodunnits are concerned, one should read Dorothy L. Sayers for the crimes, Agatha Christie for the detection, and Ngaio Marsh for the unwelcome camaraderie between the detective and the suspect. I'm happy to announce that I have also laid my hands on the major works of Gladys Mitchell and the complete works of Josephine Tey, and I will accommodate their names too into my analysis once I've read them.

With Virago republishing Angela Thirkell, and the virtual book world agog with excitement, I took great pains to procure High Rising and read it just before Christmas. Although it was funny in parts, I found the racism in the novel absolutely unpardonable. Racist sentiments were so atrocious in certain places, that I'm wondering if I'll read the rest of her works ever again. And thus I travelled a full circle and came back to my massive Nancy Mitford. I'm wrapping up the year with her early novels. I've already finished Highland Fling, which I must admit, I quite liked, despite the writer's vociferous attempts to disown. It was hilarious, and gave a wonderful sketch of the Bright Young Things of the Twenties and Thirties. This strain is carried into her second novel, Wigs on the Green, which I'm reading now, and although the sarcastic tone is doubled up (she satirises Unity and Diana Mitford's reverence for Nazism just before the War broke out), the reader needs quite a lot of prodding to remind him/her that this is indeed by the same writer who wrote The Pursuit of Love. Having read Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels earlier this year makes me intimately acquainted with the family and the times, and at this juncture I'd like to mention Virginia Nicholson, whose Among the Bohemians I hope to return to in the new year, and who gave me a new lease of life with Singled Out

The Google Nexus 7 that I bought in Berlin has been instrumental in my discovering several wonderful books which I would never have had access to because of my location. The Nexus has changed my lives in inconceivable ways, and certainly my reading habit too. Now storing over two thousand books, it tempts me every day to retire from life, travel to a favourite, quiet part of the world, settle down in the house of my dreams, ship all my books from Calcutta to said new house, and spend every day reading. That might even happen soon, who knows? New Year greetings to everyone!


  1. Wow I think you and I like similar kinds of books! I love Agatha Christie, Nancy Mitford, Rosamond Lehmnan Rebecca West and so many others you have mentioned. It seems you have read some lovely books.

  2. Gorgeous summary of your year's highlights, what a wonderful year of reading you had! Here's to 2014 being as good. :)