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These are a few of my favourite reads

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on December 25, 2020 Published on December 25, 2020

Deck the halls: In a year like no other, seven kinds of books to read to get the Christmas spirit going   -  ISTOCK.COM

Just how do we beat the 2020 blues? With books, books — and more books

* It doesn’t matter if your tree is still packed away, or that you can barely stumble to the kitchen for a cup of tea rather than stir the mulled wine. Books will help you navigate these last days of the year safely

* I draw up my knees and wrap myself into a little ball as I stare out the window. Can I still hear Santa’s bells? I think sometimes the swoosh of pages turning sounds just like a tinkling, magical bell to me.

****

On a December morning, I woke up with someone singing Deck the halls with boughs of holly…Fa-la-la-la in my head, and knew I should check the calendar. The earworm alarm had worked perfectly: It was seven days to Christmas. Any other year this would be the time to travel to colder climes, to meet friends and family. But 2020 is not like any other year, and Christmas, it has decreed, will have to be different as well. I wondered how I would beat the 2020 blues. And of course, the only answer in my book is...books!

It was seven days to Christmas when I first heard the carolers in my head. So here are seven kinds of books to read to get the Christmas spirit going. It doesn’t matter if your tree is still packed away, or that you can barely stumble to the kitchen for a cup of tea rather than stir the mulled wine. Books will help you navigate these last days of the year safely.

Day 7

 

Where I am, winter is just a whisper in the air. The sun is out, blazing in an apologetic manner in the spotless blue sky. It is time to feel the cold, and so I pull out The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Published in 1978, this is a classic travelogue of high mountains. Matthiessen accompanies the zoologist George Schaller on a trek to the Tibetan region of Dolpo where Schaller hopes to study blue sheep, and Matthiessen wants to see the snow leopard. The description of this journey is so beautiful that the words stop me in my tracks. It’s a book to stop and savour, and to see in your mind’s eye the snow and the impossible terrain, and stumble with the author on every step of his journey. For anyone who has loved the mountains, and the Himalayas even more so, The Snow Leopard is a book that remains an experience.

Talking of mountains — their permanence and fearsome ruggedness, the stories of humans who want to conquer them — it’s time to also read Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. He teases out how mountains have been viewed (albeit from a Western perspective) from the earliest times, and recounts iconic stories of mountaineering. It is a book to read knowing you are safe and sound at home, wrapped in a shawl, with a cup of tea that was made without melting snow on a small gas stove.

Day 6

 

The chill has now firmly set into my bones, and there is no turning back. I turn to my comfort read—crime fiction. My eyes wander over the shelves, passing over Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) and PD James (The Mistletoe Murder). I move further away, east, further east, till I land in Japan. The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo is the story of a large Japanese family whose patriarch dies leaving a strange will. What follows is a string of bizarre murders. In this story there are dopplegangers, illegitimate children, complicated family histories. There are drownings, stranglings, poisoning and more. It is very satisfying.

But I also need to have a quick bite of something plummy— an English village murder. An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare is just the thing. I find it in the reading lists that have obligingly popped up on my news feed. An English Murder is Christie-que enough in its setting of a manor house snowed in, followed by a startlingly high number of murders among those trapped. What sets it apart is its reference to English constitutional laws, and the tussle between socialism and rising fascism. It’s not high literature, but it is perfect to read under the covers, hoping no one has slipped in some cyanide in that plum cake by your side.

Day 5

 

I need to stop wandering the high mountains and the chilling realms of murderous minds, and turn to something warm and loving — books on books. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm was one of the first books I bought from a bookstore after this year’s lockdowns. Like any good book should, it got picked up at random and turned out to be a complete joy. For not only is it an account of the author’s reading journey, it is about her reading journey as a child. It talks about how she discovered various writers and books in her childhood, and the road which led her to becoming a bookworm. For anyone who has loved books and has been a pasty, silent child with her nose buried in books, her glasses sliding down the nose, finally here is the chance for you to be the hero(ine). Don’t miss it.

Just as I stow away Bookworm, my eyes fall on The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Unlike other books on books that are essentially long lists, this centres around an event — a fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. And from here, Orlean goes on to explore American libraries in general. There is a lot about the American public library system. She describes them like a person who has known true library love. As I read about the millions of books that these libraries hold, and then think woefully about the inadequate public library system in India, I feel a flush of heat rise up on my face. No, the temperature is not at Fahrenheit 451. It’s my ears. They are red and burning — with jealousy.

Day 4

 

I find that I am increasingly mulling on how inexplicable 2020 has been. This year will soon slip away, existing only in memory and history, and all we will be left with would be tales of how the earth veered towards dystopia. It’s the right time to pull out my 20-year-old copy of The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh. In a year beset by disease, here is the story of how malaria was conquered. Or was it? Part science fiction, part adventure, part mystery, this novel moves from New York to Calcutta and through time. It has stumped me ever since I first read it as a college student and yet I return to it. Ghosh’s luminous prose, his unerring storytelling abilities, and the strange beauty of the book exert their siren-like charms. Reading this book is like slumping into a fevered state but with no tragic consequences other than a slight disorientation on returning to the present.

Day 3

 

Reading Amitav Ghosh has opened the portals of existential thoughts in my mind. Why do we exist, what is our purpose, as humans do we possess a higher consciousness, or are we one among many species capable of introspection? This seems to be the right time to read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. A delightful and deep examination into the world of octopuses, Montgomery talks about the octopus friends she makes, and the moments of deep inter-species communication she experiences. Occasionally purple of prose and at times self-indulgent, it nevertheless opens up the incredible world of these cephalopods.

Even more powerful is the heartbreaking classic memoir Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. An account of his years in German concentration camps, he talks about the utter debasement of life he experiences there. And yet within that he finds moments of meaning, and through those the means to move forward. This is a book to read when you are at your lowest, questioning life. Perhaps a few answers may come through these pages.

Day 2

 

It is time to really get into the holiday spirit now, and to turn to the writer who has been a tonic for me since age eight. Narayan Gangopadhyay, the Bengali writer, wrote a series of hilarious stories and novels for children about a group of four friends. The boys have adventures, but are none too smart (except one) and are intensely greedy. I pick up Jhaubanglow Rahasya (available in translation as Four Friends and Green Beard). Only a Bengali will truly appreciate the utter ridiculousness of the story where the foursome, on a holiday in Darjeeling, are lured to a pretty bungalow where they see, by turns, the dance of the grinning skulls, a green-bearded man and are threatened by strange Japanese dacoits. As I carefully turn the pages of my book which may literally fall apart any moment, I am transported back to my childhood. To a time of reading all day, laughing aloud at the story I had already read a hundred times by the time I was ten.

Day 1

 

Finally, it’s Christmas. A year that has piled on heartbreak after heartbreak is standing poised on a day when we can look forward to everything that is good — happiness, sharing, family, warmth. Today I choose to read the classic Caldecott-winning Christmas story The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. The pages reveal illustrations which are layered, and landscapes beauteous and wild. I hold a cup of thick, gooey hot chocolate, as I tuck in with an obliging child, and together we read the story of eternal wonder. The boy in the story is given a silver bell by Santa Claus when he goes to the North Pole. It’s funny but only he and his friends can hear the bell tinkle. Slowly, as the children grow up, they stop hearing the bell. Except the boy—he can hear it always, even years after he travelled in the Polar Express to the North Pole.

I shut my copy of the book. The kitten is eyeing my cup of chocolate. The child has wandered away. I draw up my knees and wrap myself into a little ball as I stare out the window. Can I still hear Santa’s bells? I think sometimes the swoosh of pages turning sounds just like a tinkling, magical bell to me.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

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Published on December 25, 2020
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