2021 Reading List

This year the theme of my reading list is Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, which includes 20 countries. I don’t really know much about the Middle East or North Africa. At first I thought I would only consider the Middle East, but then decided to extend it to cover North Africa as well.

Sometimes we over-estimate the simplicity of searching for information on the internet. It took me over a year to populate this year’s reading list. It wasn’t because there aren’t enough writers from the MENA region. It was due to the fact that only a few have been translated into a language I can read.

After a lot of research, I was able to narrow down the list to 2 authors per country. I also added some anthologies and collections to the list. My goal this year is to read 30 books, but perhaps I do finish all the books on the list (which can be found here).

Besides reading books written by authors from each of these countries, I will also be studying the religious texts from the religions that came out of this region. Five major world religions have come out of here; Judaism(the Talmud), Zoroastrianism(the Avesta), Christianity(the Bible), Islam(the Quran) and the Baha’i faith(the Kitab-i-Aqbas).

This year I will try to be better about posting my reviews of the books I have read.

Until the,

Happy Reading!

Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“To say that a moment is ‘very Barbara Pym’ is to say that it is a moment of self-observed, poignant acceptance of the modesty of one’s circumstances, of one’s peripheral position.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Excellent Women (page X)

I came across this book in 2018 via an article in the Guardian written in 2008 and decided to read it this year. This book took me quite a long time to finish. I am a slow-reader anyway, but this book took me very long indeed and in the beginning tried my patience a bit. However, I stuck with it and it turned out to be a very interesting and amusing read. It is one of the most poignant and nuanced books I’ve read in a long time.

Excellent Women starts off with new tenants moving into a vacant flat in the same house as 30-something, independent, unmarried and genteel, Mildred Lathbury. The Napiers are not your conventional 1950s married couple. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier is an ex-Navy officer. Soon after we are introduced to Julian Malory, vicar of the parish, and his sister Winifred Malory. We are also introduced to a colleague of Helena Napier, Everard Bone, who comes off as being rather arrogant.

A comedy-of-manners, Excellent Women is very witty. The book revolves primarily around Mildred, an excellent woman, the Napiers, the Malorys and Everard Bone.

“I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.”

Excellent Women, page 190

An excellent woman is someone who is sensible, has been rejected and is therefore unmarried. Alas, Mildred is labeled as an excellent woman by everyone around her for precisely, she suspects, these reasons. Mildred is a humble, down-to-earth person, who sometimes laments the fact that she is a spinster. Her spinsterhood, unfortunately, leaves her open to the condensation of the men, and sometimes women, around her.

I would recommend Excellent Women to anyone wanting to read more British women authors or wanting to amuse themselves by poking fun at the condescension of other people. The book is full of quotable witticisms, so definitely read it with a pencil nearby!

Book Review: Quicksand by Nella Larsen

I don’t remember what brought my attention to this book. Whatever it was, I am grateful for it. Nella Larsen was associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is loosely based on her life. Our protagonist Helga Crane, like Larsen, has mixed-race heritage. A daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father, Helga finds that she doesn’t really belong to either community.

I found Helga Crane’s life to be completely tragic, which made me feel quite sad for her. Throughout her search to belong somewhere, I was rooting for her, thinking the entire time that soon she will find fulfillment and happiness. But Helga Crane is not a pitiable character. She is in fact fierce, tenacious and resourceful. Every time she falls, she picks herself right back up again.

Her journey takes her from Naxos (based on the Tuskegee Institute) to Denmark, via Chicago and New York, back to the south. The book starts with a disillusioned and dissatisfied Helga, feeling herself to be a complete failure at Naxos and contemplating immediate departure. But first she must tie up loose ends, like breaking off her engagement to a fellow teacher and heading back to Chicago. Shunned by her uncle’s bigoted wife, Crane finds work with Mrs. Hayes-Rore who then helps her find work in New York. Helga’s life in Harlem starts out optimistically, but she soon feels out of place and disillusioned. As she begins contemplating leaving Harlem, she receives a letter from her uncle in Chicago with the address of her aunt in Denmark.

With the money left to her by her uncle, she books passage to Denmark, where she is greeted with enthusiasm by her aunt and uncle. Although in the beginning she really feels at home in Denmark, soon she realizes that she is simply viewed as an “exotic”. The old disillusionment and dissatisfaction resurfaces and she longs to come back to Harlem.

At the end of the book, we see Helga dissatisfied with her new family life in the south. Her search for belonging and contentment seems to have led nowhere. But perhaps there is still hope…

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

*** My reading list for this year has been exclusively women. Why? Because I realized that I mostly read men and wanted to read more women. So I picked up a few books from my to-read list, added to that some recommendation from friends and then finished off the list with some spur-of-the-moment purchases . For the days leading up to Christmas, my goal to write a short review of the books I have read this year. ***

When we traveled to Japan, shopping at convenience stores became something of a ritual. Before you turn your nose up, the coffee we drank at some of the convenience stores was some of the best I’ve had! The good memories of my travels prompted me to get this book on a whim and I am so glad that I did. Convenience Store Woman, is about Keiko, 36, who works at, as the title suggest, a convenience store. She has been working there since she started university, and that is the only job she has had up till now. Not only does this job give her a sense of purpose, she is also very good at it. She is, in my opinion, the perfect employee any organization would love to have. Her dedication knows no bounds. One example of this is when she “walks around the area” in order to “glean valuable information”, such as if a rival store is closing down, in order to help the store run more efficiently and smoothly.

She doesn’t quite fit in, but isn’t oblivious to that fact. In fact, her powers of observation help her get by. After carefully studying the “normal” people around her, she starts to emulate them in small ways. Enter well-meaning, but worried, family and friends. They wonder why at her age, she has never had a boyfriend and why she isn’t trying to get one. In order to stop their pestering, she decides to take-in a colleague from work, who basically just wants someone, who will take care of him.

“The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered”

– Japanese Proverb

As I was reading this book, this Japanese proverb came to mind. A friend of mine, who has worked and lived in Japan for a long time, mentioned it to me once. Keiko seems to have mastered a way to game this system of conformity. In order to avoid being “hammered in”, she just fakes her way through. She is indeed a clever protagonist!

2020 Reading List

Another year gone by, another GoodReads reading challenge completed. This past year, I felt increasingly overwhelmed by my ‘To Read’ list. With over a 1000 thousand books waiting to be read, surely I would never read them all in this lifetime. I am a slow reader. But my resolve to make a dent to my To Read list prevailed. I decided to plan my reading list for the coming years. This year, I simply chose the books at random. But for next year I decided that I am going to read only women authors. Why you ask? This won’t be a one-line answer. I have been having a nagging feeling that I don’t read enough female authors. I mean yes, I have read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Margaret Atwood. But my reading lists tended to be men heavy. That’s a shame.

For my 2020 reading list, I decided that it would not only read only women authors, but women authors is as many different genres as possible. On my list are 38 books, and my goal is to read at least 25 of them, if not all. You’ll find my list here. I am excited and looking forward to my reading this year!