Real life usually impedes on our little pleasures. It’s just how it plays out for most: in high school and university you had more time to do as you liked in between classes and studying (if you were studying at all). Even when you were shuffling part time work, internships and a typical course load, you somehow could find the energy and time for pub crawls, club nights, weekend trips into the city, etc. etc.
Not so much when you’ve hit your mid-20s. By then you’ve got loan officers and stacking bills and a 9 to 5 and whatever other ugly responsibility comes your way. But I don’t begrudge these things, I go with it and I steal my “little pleasures” when I can: a good solo dance session in the privacy of my room, an indulgent Vietnamese coffee on a hot day, and a lazy Saturday with nothing but a book and nargile to keep me company.
This summer, these are the books that stole my attention.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
I read Narcopolis on a 10-hour train journey in Morocco and was completely engrossed by Thayil’s style of prose. An award winning poet, the way in which he address narrative is reflective of that; sometimes the plot felt thin but the writing was original and brought to life the slums of 1970s Bombay in grotesque and vivid color. The book tells the story of the opium dens in India’s capital and the often terrible human beings that profit and indulge in that underworld. There are scenes which are hard to stomach: murder and rape are very much present in the text as they are in the realities of many of the world’s poorest areas. However, despite how despicable some of the characters are, there are flickers of humanity. The eunuch and skilled opium-pipe mistress, Dimple, is tender and romantic; her addiction is very much the result of a desire to flee the slums.
I wrote about Astragal previously and it’s for good reason I bring it up again here: it is phenomenal. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the tale of two convicts on the lam and utterly in love. The title is taken from the French word for ankle, an allusion to the opening scene in which the protagonist Anne snaps her astragal while escaping prison. She is found, rescued and soon begins her slow journey to Paris, hiding out in apartments and paying off strangers to keep hush about what they know. This isn’t a wild adventure story, however, as Anne spends most of the novel healing from her injuries and being carted along by others. In reality, very little happens and so much of the book is wrapped in Anne’s internal monologue; while she is holed up with little to do, she muses on love and life, her purpose within it all, the consequences of choice and the value of freedom.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
For some inexplicable reason I had never read any of Marquez’s work prior to this summer. I always intended to but it seemed the right text never fell into my hands. But in July I found a cheap and battered copy of Love in the Time of Cholera while killing time in a Greenwich bookstore; with little more to do that day, I gave up a few quid and read through the first 70 pages without noticing the time. There’s a reason Marquez is such a beloved writer; his narration is, for lack of a better word, stunning. His seamless blending of the fantastic, the anachronistic and the all-too-real takes a practiced hand, a keen eye and a quick mind. Love in the Time of Cholera is more than a story of “enduring love” — Florentino’s love is fantasy and Marquez makes points to mock his blind devotion to Fermina — but it’s a story about aging and the tensions between progression and hopeless nostalgia.
The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
If I’m honest, I didn’t manage to finish The Naked Lunch. I’m not new to Burroughs writing — I actually really enjoyed The Yage Letters — but I found this particular text so disconnected, so jarring and so peculiar that I would have to rewind and re-read passages. It was a striking and interesting text, but it was difficult to follow through without annotations and discussion. I still have my copy of however and now it seems to be taunting me for discarding it so early on. Nonetheless, I’m open to revisiting it — I just need some academic and critical reading to help me unravel Burroughs’ meanings and metaphors.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
I’m a massive fan of Murakami’s work and was eager to read his most recent English release Colorless Tsukuru, a much more realist novel then some of his past publications. Colorless Tsukuru reminded me a great deal of his previous novels South of the Border, West of the Sun and Norwegian Wood, both of which are firmly rooted in time and place with surrealist elements coming through only in dream sequences. This particular novel is focused on the protagonist’s journey to understand why his friends abandoned him without any explanation during his sophomore year of university. Not much can be expected from such a synopsis but Murakami manages once again to rope the reader into the loner world of a damaged”nobody” lost in Tokyo. Without giving too much away — or really anything at all — take my word for it and pick up a copy if you can. You’ll breeze through it within a few days and you’ll become completely engrossed in Tsukuru’s search. But be warned, like so many of Murakami’s work, you won’t get a nicely wrapped up finished. Some questions are intentionally left unanswered.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
My friends tell me I have a slightly unhealthy obsession/love for Virginia Woolf but her style, her wit, her use of free indirect discourse (which isn’t implemented in Orlando in the same way it is in To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway!), and her willingness to experiment with the English language make her — hands down — one of the most fantastic writers of the 20th century. Orlando is a clever little gem and a play on the biographical genre. It tells the story of a wealthy land owner-turned-Duke in the Elizabethan era who wakes one day from a sleep-like-death to find he is completely transformed into a woman. What makes this novel so fantastic however, isn’t the absurd little plot twists, but the narration itself. Woolf is a remarkable story teller and gives her literary world so much color and breadth, it’s hard to not fall in love.