Wow. 2021 is slowly drawing to a close. With just two months more before the commencement of a new year, everyone is brimming with enthusiasm and hope for what 2022 will bring. I am one of those who are looking forward to what the new year has in store. But before the year ends, I hope that you all reap the benefits of all that you have worked hard for in the past ten months. I hope you reach or have reached those stars you have been reaching for. I hope you have accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish this year. But more importantly, I hope that you and your family are all happy and are doing well during these uncertain times. I fervently pray for this pandemic to end soon; hope still springs eternal.
Before we turn on a new leaf, let me first go through my October in terms of reading. It was partly an extension of my September reading journey for I prioritized books nominated for this year’s Booker Prize, eventually won by Damon Galgut’s The Promise. In between, I read some works of American literature that I have listed as part of my 2021 reading challenges. With the year drawing to a close, I must now focus on these reading lists for I have just realized that I have fallen behind. So that was how my October reading journey went, me scrambling to finish as many books as I can. This is going to be my story until the year ends. I just hope I get to complete at least one of my reading challenges for I have quite some.
With this being said, here is a peek into how my journey went. Here is my reading list for October.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
With October being an extension of my September reading journey, I opened my reading month with Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men. Mohamed made literary history as she became the first writer of Somali origin to have her work be shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. The Fortune Men was my fourth book from the shortlist and sixth from the thirteen nominees. If my memory serves me right, it was one of the first books that really piqued my interest. I was really glad when I managed to purchase a copy of the book. Like most of the books on the longlist, Mohamed’s third novel was a work of historical fiction. It was predicated on the real-life story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan. Mattan was born in British Somaliland and worked as a merchant before finally deciding to settle down in Cardiff, Wales’ Tiger Bay, a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures. The novel’s primary concern was on the miscarriage of the British judicial system as Mattan was wrongfully convicted and executed for the murder of Jewish shop owner Lily Volpert (renamed Violet Volacki in the book). The novel made me look up Mattan’s case and I was appalled by how it was handled, from the racial profiling to the withholding of pieces of critical evidence. His conviction was later quashed in February 1998. Mattan was the last person to be hanged at Cardiff Prison. The story was an eye-opener but I wished that Mohamed did more on the material although Mattan’s spiritual awakening in the last part of the story was beautifully portrayed.
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
Except for Kazuo Ishiguro, I have read none of the works of the writers nominated for this year’s Booker Prize. I have heard of Powers before because of The Overstory but most of the writers drew blank from me. Such is the case for Sunjeev Sahota and his novel China Room. I have learned that he is one of four writers whose works have been shortlisted previously; the other three are Ishiguro, Powers, and Galgut. This made me look forward to reading his novel even though it missed out on the shortlist. China Room, like Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, follows two timelines, one in the past and one in the present; it was actually inspired by the story of the author’s own family. The past follows the story of 16-year-old bride Mehar, who finds herself, along with Harbans and Gurleen, living in the titular “china room” after they were married to three brothers. We see the trio go about doing domestic chores and also wondering who their husbands are. In the contemporary, we meet a young man veiled in enigma, who we later learn as Mehar’s great-grandson. The anonymous narrator, he retreated to his native country after years of living in England with his parents. In rural Punjab, he spent his summer break. Parts-family saga, parts-historical fiction, China Room is rich with details of family dynamics juxtaposed on the modern history of Punjab. However, the novel’s exploration of the main subjects, from racism to incarceration, barely scratches the surface.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
My third book for the month took me from India to the USA, with yet another novel nominated for this year’s Booker Prize. While the 2020 Booker Prize longlist was dominated by debut novels, this year’s Booker Prize longlist abounded with works of historical fiction. Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water is a rarity for it enjoys both worlds, of being a debut novel and a work of historical fiction. The novel is set in the fictional town of Old Ox, Georgia during the twilight years of the Civil War. With President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, brothers Prentiss and Landry are now free from slavery and can now be compensated for their labor. To reunite with their mother who they last saw in the north, the brothers agreed to work for their neighboring landowners, George, and Isabelle Walker. The couple was in grief following the news of their only son, Caleb’s demise at the front row of the war. George and the brothers started tilling the land. The subgenre of historical fiction dealing with the American Civil War is often brimming with machismo and manly bravery; think Cold Mountain and Gone With The Wind. However, Harris refused to conform to this convention. What resulted was an interesting intersection of small-town politics, sexuality, and murder. Harris also managed to capture the portrait of a town in transition, from the way it views slavery to the influences of outside forces to its own politics.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
In a manner of speaking, The Sweetness of Water was a transitory work, from Booker Prize-nominated work to works of American literature. With the year drawing to a close, I shifted my focus to my reading challenges; I am hoping to complete as many books as I can, starting with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I have listed the book as part of my 2021 Beat the Backlist challenge, one of the reading challenges that I have been lagging behind. The Sun Also Rises is my fourth novel by the Nobel Laureate and Literature and my first since 2018. My last Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a forgettable one so I was hoping to wash off the aftertaste with The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s first full novel, it zeroes in on Jake Barnes, an American expatriate working as a journalist in Paris. He fought during the First World War and suffered an injury that left him sexually dysfunctional. On the other side of the narrative is Lady Brett Ashley, a promiscuous divorcee who forged a friendship (seemingly platonic) with Jake. The novel was meant to depict the resiliency of the Lost Generation, hence, the characters in the book were drawn from individuals who were part of Hemingway’s stay in Paris. The novel explored various subjects as love and grief, and a subject Hemingway has been renowned for, the concept of masculinity. Compared to For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises was an easier read. However, I was not as riveted by the story as I expected.
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
It was not until 2018 that I have heard of Don DeLillo. I just bought one of his works from a fellow book reader. Back then, I didn’t have an iota about his prolific career. I was actually surprised to see several of his works listed in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die List. Moreover, he has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature more than once. I have then concluded that he is pretty much like Thomas Pynchon, a reclusive presence. With this in mind, I listed the first DeLillo novel I bought as part of my 2021 Beat the Backlist challenge; it was more slender than Underworld, the only other DeLillo novel I own. Published in 2003, Cosmopolis follows the story of 28-year-old Eric Packer. He worked his way up into becoming a multi-billionaire by being an asset manager. The novel transpired in a single day and is set on the jam-packed and chaotic streets of Manhattan. We follow Packer as he is being driven around in his limousine on his way to a haircut appointment. However, his journey was marred by many events such as a traffic jam caused by a presidential visit. He also encountered a funeral procession and a riot. The novel was an interesting experience. It was a straightforward and clinical execution, abound with elements of American literature. Overall, I find the main character unengaging although the novel gave me vignettes of what to expect of DeLillo and his prose.
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
When one talks of classic works of American Literature, one of the first titles that come to one’s mind is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Up until 2015, it was Lee’s only novel but with it, she has already accomplished a lot. It won her the Pulitzer Prize and its film adaptation was a critical success as well. Without a doubt, To Kill A Mockingbird has cemented itself as one of the most beloved and influential works of American literature. However, Lee has not produced a single novel since. Things changed in 2015 when news broke out that the “sequel” to her masterpiece is going to be released. Go Set A Watchman, to fanfare, was published. The readers are again introduced to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, but now as a 26-year old young woman who lives an independent life in New York City. The novel revolves around the events that transpired during one of her annual pilgrimages to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, and pays a visit to her aging father, Atticus. Her brother, Jeremy “Jem” Finch, has passed away because of a heart condition. There was a certain laidbackness to reading Go Set A Watchman; I guess it was because of the setting. Nevertheless, Lee captured the readers’ attention with details of Atticus, a man who loomed large in Lee’s first novel but was mostly sketchy. Go Set A Watchman gave an interesting, albeit different account of who Atticus is. Overall, interesting work but not as powerful or evocative as the coming-of-age story of Scout Finch.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
My first encounter with Richard Powers was through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. I came across it in the bookstore and it immediately captured my interest because of its book cover, abound with nature. However, after some thought, I decided to skip the book, or perhaps reserve it for future reading. It didn’t take that long before I would encounter Powers again. His latest novel, Bewilderment, was just announced as part of thirteen books nominated for the 2021 Booker Prize; it would eventually be shortlisted. I was still apprehensive about the book but after encountering several glowing accounts of it, I finally decided to take the leap of faith. I have resolved to read all six shortlisted novels, making Bewilderment my fifth of the shortlist, and ninth of the longlist. The novel relates the story of astrobiologist Theo Byrne who was singly raising his son, Robin, following the untimely demise of his wife, Aly. At the onset, the presence of nature was prevalent as we see father and son on a wilderness trip. Robin, haunted by the death of her mother, was fascinated by the natural world, an interest he shared with his environmental activist mother. I loved how the relationship between father and son was portrayed although it was weighed down by the palpable political overtones – the allusions to President Trump and Greta Thurnberg were too palpable. Nevertheless, Bewilderment provides an interesting diagnosis of a future world should we fail to live up to our role as its protector. Bewilderment was my pick for the 2021 Booker Prize; it was won by Damon Galgut’s The Promise, the last of the six shortlisted works I read.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Staying true to my main theme for October, my last book for the month is another classic of American Literature. I first came across the Beatnik Generation through Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, a book I read back in 2018. It was in the book’s introduction that I learned of Kerouac’s friends, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The trio is known to be one of the catalysts for the Beatnik generation movement. Because of this, I did not hesitate to buy the first Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch, I encountered. Three years after this purchase, I included the novel in my 2021 Beat the Backlist challenge (I have an awfully long list of books). Much like On the Road, Naked Lunch was drawn from the author’s own experience. His alter ego in the novel, William Lee, fled the United States to Mexico. Without a linear plot, Burroughs related Lee’s journey through his encounters with random characters he met in his journey. With its structure and its exploration of drugs and addiction, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, albeit a more slender one. But despite its deceptively slender physique, there was a lot to process in the book for it grappled with subjects such as homosexuality, pedophilia, and even murder. It also resonated with an obscenely strong voice. It was, nevertheless, a rollercoaster of a reading journey.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 13/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 8/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 6/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 77/85
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 14/20
Book Reviews Published in October
- Book Review # 282: Great Circle
- Book Review # 283: The Fortune Men
- Book Review # 284: Independent People
- Book Review # 285: Parallel Stories
- Book Review # 286: A Gentleman in Moscow
- Book Review # 287: The Sellout
Unsurprisingly, I have again failed to meet my target of publishing at least ten book reviews. In a way, it was a tedious month not because of work but because of other things that have distressed me for a couple of weeks. But hey, things have started to look up so I am starting to regain my momentum. I am still glad I managed to complete six book reviews last month but I am even happier that I have now completed all my pending book reviews from 2020. I am now focusing on completing my early 2021 reads. I will muster all energy and focus to complete as many book reviews as I can so that I can have a lighter year in 2022.
Apart from writing as many book reviews as I can, my goal for the last two months of the year is to complete all my reading challenges. Yes, I have been lagging behind because of various factors but I will be focusing on closing these items out. Earlier today, I have just completed Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, my second book from the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and my fourteenth from my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. I have Nikos Kazantsakis’ Zorba the Greek next in line. I am both excited and anxious for I have never read any of the Greek writer’s works before. And yes, before the announcement of the 2021 Booker Prize winner, I completed all six shortlisted novels. Who’d have thought that the last of these six books that I read would go on and win the prestigious literary award.
And that was how my October reading journey went. How about you fellow reader? How was your own journey? I hope you enjoyed the books you have read. For now, have a great day and weekend. As always, do keep safe, and happy reading everyone!