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2023 was not my favourite year. I welcomed the New Year through the hallucinatory haze of a viral fever, recovering far slower than I had hoped to, missing out on friends and their life events. Barring a brief spell in February which, if I could, I would preserve in the formaldehyde of sunshine and spring, it seemed as though I could not find my footing and time kept slipping by. At many points in time that are privy to only a handful around me, I felt lost and confused, even hurt. But there is art, always, to tide you through. On days when things did not make sense, it was comforting to open a book, knock on the annals of time, and commiserate with writers and characters. These are some of the books that I read this year that healed my fragile heart, and reminded me of my place in the grand scheme of things. I will refrain from mentioning books that I re-read though I would argue there is more comfort in the certainty of an old story, like listening to anecdotes of oneself as a child. 

January - Woman Running in the Mountain - Yuko Tsushima (Translated by Geraldine Harcourt) - 275 pages

Takiko Odaka slips out of her home around dawn to deliver her child. She walks through the neighbourhood with her head held high, enduring months of gossip. She's 21 and unemployed. The father is a married man. Yuko Tsushima's novel is as much a glimpse into motherhood as it is about a woman's desire to exist on the periphery of social conventions. 

The book deals a lot with the mundane - there is a chapter dedicated to what the baby does in the nursery, documented in a diary by the workers - but nature, and Takiko's urge to fantasise about life away from daily struggles forms an important part. There are wonderful descriptions of the weather mirroring Takiko's desires.

Reading about Takiko reminded me of the Deborah Levy quote,

"It seemed to me all over again that in every phase of living we do not have to conform to the way our life has been written for us, especially by those who are less imaginative than ourselves."

I have often wondered if I should get this quote tattooed but the sheer length discourages me. I will settle for a framed print on my wall. 

February - The Education of Yuri - Jerry Pinto - 408 pages

This wonderful bildungsroman set in Bombay of the 1980s features Yuri Foncesca, a surprisingly well read teenager who overthinks most of the time. Rather aloof, he is socially awkward and struggles to make (and keep) friends. But when he starts to study at Elphinstone College, he begins to realise he has signed up for an education in more than the Humanities (tempted to say he signed up for an education in humanity but that's too cheesy).

Courtesy Yuri's fondness for reading, it features a superb list of book recommendations! In moments when he can rationalise and analyse others with clarity but stumbles in opening himself up to his friends; in his consistent worries about who he is and what he wants to do in life; in his awkward sexual encounters, he is all of us.

In one scene in the last year of his college, he decides to list out the things that he wants to do including learning a language, picking up a skill, and sorting out his love life. I chuckled at a memory of writing something similar on my whiteboard. I recall being just as lost and clueless but what Tio Julio taught him, took me a lot longer to learn:

"I just don't know what to do"

"Then you must flail"

March - A Chess Story - Stefan Zweig - 112 pages

A taut, sharply written tale of a game of chess played between two men aboard a cruise: one, a grandmaster, and the other, a dilettante. I found it to be an interesting take on the idea of polarising genius - one, stemming from talent that is acutely honed through instinct and practice, and another that emerges out of desperation and forever teetering on the brink of sanity. A pitch-perfect novella that can be read in one day, or in fact, within 2 hours.

March - Who will run the Frog Hospital? - Lorrie Moore - 147 pages

"Despite all my curatorial impulses and training, my priestly harborings and professional, courtly suit of the past, I never knew what to do with all those years of one's life: trot around in them forever like old boots - or sever them, let them fly free?"

The protagonist of this novel, Berie, takes a trip to Paris with her husband when she goes down a Proustian reverie of her childhood, one that focuses on her friend, Sils. She thinks back to the small moments that anchored them together, the jokes, the banter, and that incident in Sils's life that was a test of their devotion. One would think that a friendship like that would have strengthened through the years but we find that Sils is rather absent from the present. 

It made me think back to the Sils of my childhood. Endless days spent together, running around under the scorching sun, cycling maniacally, teaching each other curse words, meeting each other's extended families, breaking teeth and bones and growing up planning a house together. I would say that the bubble of the friendship burst some time ago but in fact, it has stayed as it is, preserved in some moment in the past, underscored by the soundtrack of the mid 2000s.

This was a gem of a novel. Every single word in it was picked and strung together with such purpose and thought that I could not imagine any sentence written differently. I honoured Lorrie Moore's writing as someone who admires the strokes on a Van Gogh painting.

April - Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto (Translated by Megan Backus) - 160 pages

'Kitchen' is two stories, both touching on what happens to us when a loved one dies. The stagnation of time, the disconnect with the pace of life outside home, the fogginess of one's thoughts, the dullness of existence. In the first story, the protagonist, Mikage is grieving the loss of her grandmother when she moves into the house of an acquaintance and sets up a semblance of a new reality. In the second story, 'Moonlight Shadow', Satsuki comes across a clairvoyant while grieving the loss of her boyfriend. Both women are led by the question, "What now?".

I was going to dismiss the book as zany but something changed in the course of a few pages. In the simplicity of the writing, there was a sensitivity. One character found her joy awakening by whipping up meals for her loved ones. The act of chopping, dicing, boiling, and cooking brought a transformation. The other felt an answer coming from a plane beyond the one she inhabited. Who am I to question their grief and how they deal with it?

“I'll never be able to be here again. As the minutes slide by, I move on. The flow of time is something I cannot stop. I haven't a choice. I go.

One caravan has stopped, another starts up. There are people I've yet to meet, others I'll never see again. People who are gone before you know it, people who are just passing through. Even as we exchange hellos, they seem to grow transparent. I must keep living with the flowing river before my eyes.

For waving good-bye, I thank you.”

May - Boulder - Eva Baltasar (Translated by Nicole d'Amonville Alegría) - 105 pages

Insular, reserved "Boulder", an unnamed protagonist who is known by her nickname only, falls in love with Samsa, and settles into the rhythm of domesticity in Iceland. Eventually, Samsa raises the possibility of parenthood, and Boulder reluctantly agrees, straining herself and the relationship as a result.

At 105 pages, it is a crisp read that wastes no time getting to the point. In fact, Boulder, the character, has a relentless sense of insight and self-awareness that makes it tough to read the whole thing at one go. She mentions babies as "drawn to me the same way cats zero in on people who are allergic to them". She describes her girlfriend's professional accomplishment as "moving a goat braving the Dolomites' slatelike ridges, climbing straight up to the highest peak". It's funny and biting but I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of such critical barbs. In fact, the book is entirely her inner voice which only allows you to see others as the crisp but emotionally distant analogy she reduces them to.

As a book, this was brilliant. But I leave Boulder feeling that her nickname had less to do with a sense of stability and more with how she came across - cold and unmoving.

May- Two Cures for Love - Wendy Cope - 112 pages

I read 'The Orange' by Wendy Cope,

On poetry pages of Instagram.

I found her poems pretty dope.

I passed them along to friends and fam.

I scoured and read Wendy Cope,

In this oeuvre I bought online.

Her verse, her rhyme had no fancy trope,

I found her work quite sublime.

I tried to review Wendy Cope,

In a scheme like hers, the same design.

To imitate, not mimic was my best hope,

I guess this ought to be just fine.

June - A Dutiful Boy - Mohsin Zaidi - 288 pages

A beautiful, universal coming-of-age memoir of growing up gay in a conservative Shia household. Mohsin’s story would resonate with anyone who has felt the need to hide a part of themselves from their family out of fear. Though it was heartbreaking to read in many places, overall, it is about hope, patience, and the ability of people to overcome conditioning and dogma to be able to love those around them as they are. Mohsin’s voice was able to strike that perfect balance between being matter-of-fact about his life whilst sharing the sadder aspects of it without hitting a note of self-pity. 

July - Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood - 532 pages

'Alias Grace' is a novel based on a double murder in the 1840s in Canada. For the murders of the house owner (Thomas Kinnear) and the housekeeper (Nancy Montgomery), two house servants (James McDermott and Grace Marks) were charged. While James was hung to death, Grace was sentenced to life in prison. Atwood takes this backdrop as her setting and patches a narrative, much like one patches a quilt, covering themes of womanhood, identity, class differences, and sex. A psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan, is brought on to assist a committee in establishing Grace's innocence and to grant her a formal pardon. As he works with Grace to determine what happened, he himself gets embroiled in murky circumstances. Is Grace telling him the truth? Is she a femme fatale? 

This book reads better if you do not concern yourself with the question of Grace's guilt/innocence. If a definitive answer to the crime is what you are after, you are likely to be disappointed. Atwood creates a great list of characters, sets them in this Gothic era Canada, and writes about life back then. It does go on for longer than needed at some places but as a huge Atwood lover, I concede that she has never been one for brevity. Grace is a sharply crafted character who, across chapters, comes across as dejected, strong, seductive, clever, tactful, or helpless. I found myself sympathetic to her as the pages went by, even though her reputation as a murderess stayed in the air.

Sidenote: There is also an excellent Netflix mini-series that is faithful to the novel.

August - The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto - Pico Iyer - 352 pages

I randomly purchased this book a week before I was supposed to travel to Japan. It was one of my best bookish decisions.

Pico's book is an account that saccades between travelogue and memoir, set against a year in Kyoto where he had gone to pick up the tenets of Zen philosophy but ended up losing his heart to Sachiko, his now wife. Walking the streets of Kyoto carrying this, and reading passages from it as I sat in front of a window that overlooked the city; the emotional bond of that itself inflated my sense of this book. But on top of that, it featured some breathtaking moments of romance, ones that could put Yash Raj Films to shame.

The book may have its failings, both, in the Zen part of it, that sounds heavy-handed and at times, like a diary entry gone too far, and also in the complicated morality of Pico falling for a married woman, but I found it, despite all, to be a touching account of the tiny little things that make you fall for someone. I am not one to feel a pang of romance when I read books but in many places in this book, I found myself touched.

"Somehow the world has misted over as we talk, and time and space are gone: the world, I think, begins and ends on this small bench. And as we sit there, sometimes with her dainty pink umbrella unfurled, sometimes not, I, pointing to the yellow trees, or the blue in the sky...".

September - Hotel du Lac - Anita Brookner - 184 pages

'You are a romantic, Edith,' repeated Mr Neville, with a smile.

'It is you who are wrong,' she replied. 'I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.”

Middle-aged romance writer, Edith Hope, has been exiled to an austere establishment in Switzerland where she must reflect upon the disgrace that she has (allegedly) brought upon herself, and decide upon her course of action. To everyone around her, Edith is timid and subservient, forever relegated to the Supporting Cast, even in the middle of conversations, but there is more to her. The reader can see it through the sharp observations she shares with us. Can she herself see it though?

I love any book where the protagonist tells society to piss off, and I loved this more so on account of its elegant, old-school prose which gives an air of Edith doing so whilst waving a handkerchief and curtsying. As she spends her day noticing, and eventually interacting with the limited clientele of the hotel, she finds herself pulled into the orbit of their lives. Yet none of this allows her to forget what she is running from which hangs like a mystery in front of the reader until halfway through.

This book, its themes, and the time in which it is set, can seem simultaneously outdated and relevant. What might seem, at surface, to be a question about marriage and status in society, is ultimately the all too familiar battle for agency. For being able to choose for oneself a life that one can stand by. And more importantly, to let that pass you by, which you cannot find comfort or happiness in.

October - Heartstopper Series Books 1 to 4 - Alice Oseman - 300 pages per graphic novel

If I had read this back in college, I might have found it saccharine to the point of inducing diabetes. But in the last decade, I have realised that it is silly to be cynical and edgy. It's a lot cooler to be hopeful and romantic, and this graphic novel is absolutely the cutest thing, more so on account of the innocence of its characters. Charlie and Nick’s romance is special because it is preserved in a world where they exist as teenagers with interests and personality first, and queer people second. That the story features a school with characters (students, teachers, and family) that are accepting in a way that, perhaps, verges on utopia gives this story an almost fairy-tale hue set in present times. 

As one of the reviews of the series mentioned, this book series is retrospective healing for a generation of queer people who never had the opportunity to experience overwhelming puppy love back in their schooling years. To borrow a line I read about the Netflix adaptation which is just as applicable to the books, "it is quietly radical without having to resort to the shock value of its contemporary shows."

Sidenote: The Netflix series (2 seasons)  is superb, and features an excellent soundtrack!

October - The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree - Shokoofeh Azar (Translated by Anon) - 268 pages

It says a lot about the regime about which this story has been written that on the inner jacket cover, the translator remains unnamed on account of safety and that the author was able to write it only when they settled in Australia as a refugee.

'The Enlightenment...' is a story of the upheaval brought upon the Iranian diaspora during the Islamic revolution. The story is narrated by the omnipresent ghost of a 13 year-old girl, Bahar, who reports on the slow disintegration of her liberal-minded family as a consequence of the revolution. Her mother ends up attaining "enlightenment" the second her son is murdered as a political prisoner. Her sister morphs into a mermaid. Her father becomes obsessed with documenting life even as books get outlawed.

As we follow the family's collapse, and people in the village and cities set about repeating cycles of inflicted misery, we arrive at questions that we face to this day - Who gets to be the spokesperson for a higher power? Why do we believe with passion in the arrogance of power hungry humans? Why can't faith be questioned? How do we live if we do not agree with the regime in power? Why are people scared of those that disagree with them?

There is a discussion to be had over the trajectory that history has taken on account of a handful of men hell-bent on their thirst for power, and the willing hands they found to build their worlds. But the larger question remains - if any revolution, in the name of any power, supernatural or human, comes at the price of destroyed families and murdered children, is there even any point?

November - Elena Knows - Claudia Pineiro (Translated by Frances Riddle) - 143 pages

Elena has been told that her daughter, her only child, Rita, killed herself by hanging in the belfry. Elena knows that that isn't the truth. She knows, knew, her daughter. She takes it upon herself to investigate. Surely, the police aren't doing enough. She knows what she intends to do, whom she wishes to call upon for a favour, which train to take, how many blocks to walk. And if it means travelling halfway across Buenos Aires fighting through her advanced form of Parkinson's, then so shall be it.

What a visceral, gut-punch of a novel that starts off with an unusual heroine investigating a hushed up suicide, but expands into a commentary on aging, illness, the disintegration of bodies, the pressures of caregiving, the indifference of bureaucracy, the hypocrisy of the religious, the lack of agency of individuals, particularly women over their own bodies, and the crushing knowledge that we never truly know anyone in our lives with the depth that we think we do.

This is the first story that I read where someone with Parkinson's is at the forefront. I have someone in my family who suffers from it but this book gave me unmissable clarity on what they must be enduring on a daily basis; how their body fails them over and over again; how humiliating it is to know what you must do but you cannot make your limbs do it; and to do it over and over again, day after day with no cure in sight.

Within 143 pages, Claudia and her translator, Frances, weave such a crushing, gruelling story of a mother's search for the unknown that it haunts you. Elena, who starts the story sure of everything that she knows, ends up wrecked once she learns what she didn't know, nor could have hoped to know. "People confuse thinking with knowing, they let themselves confuse the two", Elena is told. That, often, is the price of knowledge. To have to live with what you know.

December - The Hours - Michael Cunningham - 230 Pages

I want to write the most lyrical and evocative review for this gem of a book that has entered my "favourites" shelf along with my heart but sadly, I do not think I can do that effort any justice. ‘The Hours’ (a title that Virginia Woolf had considered for her novel, ‘Mrs. Dalloway’) weaves a tapestry through time that links the lives of three women: Virginia Woolf as she writes ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ whilst struggling with her mental health, Laura Brown, a woman suffocated by the pressures of marriage and domesticity in post-war America, and Clarissa Vaughan, a present-day Mrs. Dalloway herself, planning a dinner party for her writer friend, playing the role of the perfect hostess. The writing is truly sublime and I underlined my copy with plenty of pen marks.

Reading 'Mrs. Dalloway' immediately after reading this impressed me with Michael's reverence for the book and all the subtle details he peppered 'The Hours' with. I do impress upon everyone who reads this that this book is sad and haunting but just like Mrs. Dalloway, it emphasises the importance of living life, no matter what.

I must insist that even though I limited this post to books, I was also buoyed by other art forms - poetry, music, movies, dance, paintings, and the most wonderful living pieces of art - my friends. 

Have you read any of the books mentioned within this post? What was your favourite work of art that lifted your falling spirits this year? I am not one to make resolutions because I believe one can change things about their lives on any day but in case you do intend to make and keep them, what are they going to be about?


2023 - A Year in Books

As the year draws to a close, the writer recounts the best books they read through every season, month, emotion and feeling, and what those books meant to them.

Dec 25, 2023
Chaitanya Sethi

About the Author


Chaitanya Sethi

Chaitanya Sethi is perpetually reading, mostly overthinking, and sometimes writing. For this article, he did all of them.

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