The days are getting darker and the end of the decade is inching closer. If you’re already ahead of the game, and have read the big books of the year—Madhuri Vijay’s JCB Prize-winning The Far Field, Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-bagging Girl, Woman, Other, and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which took home the Goldsmiths Prize this week—here are some smaller gems to finish the year with. And if you’re struggling to meet your reading goals for 2019, HuffPost India has your back—and some single-sitting books for you. Easier on the wrist, but no less stimulating, these 10 small and short books also make for friendly travel companions and fun presents.
As a bonus, and because we truly believe you will love these little books, we’ve also recommended book pairings—or what we think you should read next. Don’t say you weren’t spoilt for choice. And happy reading!
1. Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic Books; 100 pages)
Palimpsest-like, playful, polemical, provocative and at its most powerful in the peripheries of its pages—Kandasamy’s latest is a response to the reactions to When I Hit You. The experience, for me, felt closest to reading JM Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, which I similarly read multiple times, in multiple ways. Do you read the main narrative first, or the margins? Do you somehow read them simultaneously, or separately? Exquisite Cadavers has fun with form, fact, and fiction—a “literary hall of mirrors”—and is not unlike a choose-your-own-story-style book. Kandasamy interrogates how we read and invites new ways of reading and being read. In her preface, she says that she has embarked on an experiment—which she pulls off successfully, of course—and this positively ambitious and audacious work may just be my book of the year.
What next? In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado or The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
2. A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Viking; 118 pages)
If, like me, you too were suffering from a three-year hangover from Matar’s magnificent and masterful memoir, The Return—which won him a Pulitzer and a Rathbones Folio Prize—A Month in Siena is your cure. Part art history and criticism, part memoir, part philosophical meditation and part travelogue, this book is beautiful both inside and out. Interspersed with images and dedicated to his wife, Diana, it is an ode to a city long “worshipped from afar” (“Siena began to occupy the sort of uneasy reverence the devout might feel towards Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem”) and an elegy for a lost father and a lost fatherland—spectres of which still soak these pages. I use “ode” and “elegy” as descriptors for the book because Matar’s fiction and non-fiction writing have always felt closer to poetry. Sample this from this latest: ‘Isn’t this at least one definition of happiness, I thought, to be anticipated?’ A gorgeous and glorious book you can dip into and return to time and again.
What next? Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, translated from Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
3. We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner (Dostoyevsky Wannabe; 105 pages)
A summarization can’t do justice to this utterly unputdownable and uber-cool novella shortlisted for this year’s edition of the Goldsmiths Prize. At just over a hundred pages, this is Waidner’s second literary outing after Gaudy Bauble—also published by the Manchester-based indie press—and immediately made me want to seek out more of their work. Brace yourself for the innovation, intertextuality and metatextuality at work here—you are not ready—and the simultaneous seriousness and playfulness of it all. Soak in the space-clearing, canon-shifting, rewriting of “national” identity—dealing as it, and Waidner, does with Empire (2.0) and Brexit, queer migrant experiences and working class cultures—set in the Isle of Wight. Only in Waidner’s wondrous, weird and wild fiction can ice-skater Tonya Harding, polar bears, Reebok Classics, and a protagonist who looks like Eleven from Stranger Things share space.
What next? Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, translated from Danish by Anna Halager
4. Europa by Han Kang, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith (Strangers Press; 33 pages)
One-of-eight in the YEOYU: New Voices Korea chapbook series, Europa is, as its protagonist In-ah sings: “So many colours, like funeral ribbons.” If you read the Korean writer’s last book in English, The White Book, the sheer number of colours in contrast here will immediately strike you. This short story is about friendship, love and longing—for another, but also to be another. It’s also about pain, peril, and violence—although this is almost always on the peripheries of the page—as well as depression and death. “(It’s like there’s some kind of toxic black liquid trickling into my skull. When it happens, I can’t move, I can’t sleep.)”—she writes, in parenthesis, at one point. In-ah suffers nightmares “of fish bones, fractals, and a marriage that ended”. And although the love here is written in a style closer to The White Book—tender, soft to the touch, fragile, may break easily—the violence, hunger, and desire is reminiscent of The Vegetarian. I have said too much already; go seek this gem out for yourself.
What next? Complete the YEOYU series for your coffee table
5. My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Speaking Tiger; 200 pages)
I recommend you read My Father’s Garden, which is structured in three sections (short stories? novellas?) which are told and titled via the protagonists’ relationship with three men—‘Lover’, ‘Friend’, and ‘Father’—in one or two sittings at the most. Shekhar’s latest, shortlisted for the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature, engages with big, bold, brave matters (homosexuality in a homophobic society; political ambition and exploitation; and environmental issues, to name but a few) with ease, earnestness and economical prose. The book is that perfect blend of the personal and political, as it archives the young life of a queer, Santhal doctor, his disappointments and disillusionments. What stood out to me was the use of language(s)—the on-the-page translations—which transformed words and dialogues on paper, and pages in a book, into places in Jharkhand: dorm rooms, rented flats, demolished houses, gardens, ponds.
What next? Turn to Shekhar’s short story collection, The Adivasi Will Not Dance
6. The Half God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams (Fourth Estate; 96 pages)
It’s the season of Greek myth retellings, but I can assure you that this one is not like the others. From the award-winning poet and playwright behind Barber Shop Chronicles comes this deeply feminist story of bravery, danger and defiance—and which Ellams also adapted for the stage. Mixing Greek and Nigerian mythology, basketball and issues of the body, motherhood and #MeToo, pride and power, fury and female revenge, this book may not be epic in size, but is in genre and ambition. Behold young Demi’s mother, the brave Modupe—alongside other mothers, daughters and goddesses—assemble like Avengers, fight for what’s right, and face Zeus’s lightning bolt.
What next? The 2019 Forward Prize-winning Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson or Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
7. I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions; 79 pages)
Titled after Ernaux’s mother’s words in her final fully coherent phrase, this memoir and diary-entry-style meditation at just under 80 pages is incredibly moving, poignant and powerful. An account of a mother-daughter duo, mothers becoming daughters and daughters becoming mothers, health and sickness, role reversals and remembering, forgetting, coping, witnessing, and (anticipating) mourning, it looks at a kind of loss that cannot be fully fathomed or understood or explained, only told in fragments. Anxiety, ageing, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of agency and one’s sense of self and the world around them, I Remain in Darkness is about the darkest moments of life.
What next? Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi
8. This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail; 96 pages)
A small but mighty fictional companion to two recent, non-fiction heavyweights—Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill and She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey—Gaitskill’s latest shakes up the nascent genre of #MeToo novels we’ve seen in recent years—especially those set in the workplace. Told through alternate, shifting perspectives—from the point of view of friends Quin and Margot—this is at times, an uncomfortable read. When does flirting go too far? Where do the limits and loyalties of friendship lie? Human relationships are messy—and Gaitskill wants you to make up your own mind, question, and then question again, your own moral compass. This small book packs a punch and aims straight for your gut. When you turn the final page, which side of the fence do you find yourself on?
What next? Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
9. Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman (Penguin Classics; 99 pages)
“In the morning there was hope”—thus opens this trilogy (including Youth and Dependency) by Tove Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s “most famous and extravagantly tortured writers”—and whose autobiographical work is of the re-discovered “lost classic” variety. Its opening chapter is full of the most painful and perfect passages I’ve ever read. A bildungsroman, the portrait of a young, female, working-classic artist, it’s no surprise the writer’s work has been compared to Annie Ernaux and Elena Ferrante (I would hasten to name the greats—Tolstoy and Coetzee—here, too). At the end, the book, like life, comes full circle: it looks forward to Youth but also backwards, over its shoulder to the bygone childhood days (“childhood is long and narrow like a coffin”). You simply cannot stop at one.
What next? Complete The Copenhagen Trilogy (PS: her final memoir was titled Gift, which in Danish means both married and poison)
10. There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha (EKA, Westland; 178 pages)
There’s gunpowder in the air… and a pungent smell soaks the prose and pages of Byapari’s second work in translation. Shortlisted for both the 2019 JCB Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, its cast of characters, its comic tragedy, its compelling account of corruption, cruelty, poverty, and prison life, and the climax towards which the central plot travels, has struck a chord with several readers. Unsentimental, yet searing, and refreshing, this is a remarkable literary achievement—and resurrection of the Naxalbari movement and Bengal in the 1970s.
What next? The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner