Books to combat melancholia
The pandemic of 2020 has paralysed the world into a stupor and forced us to spend anxiety-filled days in isolation. In these troubled times, whether you binge-watch a show on Netflix or dust off the bookshelf and rescue some must-reads that were eventually never read, remember to thank creative minds for the much-needed refuge they provide, only if temporary. If you are home and in need of a read, here is a list of books that are bound together by hope, love and dreams of the possibility of a happier tomorrow — that this too shall pass.
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman (2013)
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1988)
Severance by Ling Ma (2018)
Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma by Amitav Ghosh (1998)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (2005)
Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon (2016)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman by Nora Ephron (2008)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2009-10)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton (2019)
Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-35)
Everything around you could very well seem perfect but your world could be crumbling inside. Think graduating from Columbia, beautiful, thin, with a job in a hip art gallery, a boyfriend from Wall Street and an apartment in Upper West Side Manhattan that is paid for by your inheritance. That is what the protagonist has in this book and yet she feels vacuous inside, leading her to a therapist whose license deserved to be cancelled yesterday. Armed with a plethora of medicines, our protagonist spends a year looking for answers that were essentially available to her right from the beginning. This book helps in bringing a sense of unity to that feeling of being ‘alone’ in this world, letting you know that the feeling is constant and universal.
It is the story of Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, and his heroic battle for independence. His battle is juxtaposed by his daughter’s want of independence from him and this conundrum is beautifully dealt in this book that secured the author his Nobel Prize for Literature. After serving 18 years as a slave, Bjartur now wants a life where he can rule over his sheep without being answerable to anyone, but the emotional intensity with which this has been dealt with makes it a perfect read for these times of self-imposed curfew. The inner battle of discerning right from wrong gets a new perspective that is much required as we fight with ourselves in isolation.
The woman who has given us classics like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, brings a laugh riot which should be a must-read for women who think they are ageing too fast and that they need to hold on to time. Ephron speaks with her general sense of amusement about the money she spends uselessly on doctors in an effort to stop time, by undergoing procedures that weren’t necessary at all. Acceptance is a common thread that runs throughout the book, as is her sense of humour. No hair dye, botox, cosmetics and weight-loss programmes can bring you what you are looking for. Another book on the list that makes you look within instead of outside.
What is happening around us feels surreal and who better to escape into further sense of being than Kundera. It is the story of a couple against the backdrop of spring in Prague. Tomas is a surgeon who believes in infidelity and his photographer wife is anguished at his antics. Tomas’s lover is free-spirited Sabina who is loyally adored and worshipped by simple university professor Franz. These four characters and a dog make up the cast of this story that takes you up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and stirs emotions that are mostly inexplicable. If existential questions are brimming in your mind, let Kundera give you some answer.
Another post-apocalyptic novel on this list, The Road has The Man and his son, The Boy, on the road escaping from their home, avoiding ‘bad people’ who have become cannibals, to a better place. Written in very sparse language to denote the landscape on which the two traverse, this book is one that arouses different feelings in different readers. Faith and its relevance in such difficult times is questioned as The Boy comes to terms with his Christian allegiance or the lack thereof. This is a great reminder of our vulnerability as a species and that of the planet too. Who do you turn to when everything crumbles? That’s an answer that only comes from within.
Mariam’s tale in this book was so painful that one had to pause between chapters to soak in her emotions while wondering “this too happens?”! A lesson in keeping up our spirits and search for the positive in the face of extreme negativity, Mariam and Leila’s story is one that sealed Hosseini’s place in the history of fiction. Mariam and Leila, who share a husband, come from two very different backgrounds of abject poverty and privilege, providing a commentary that is at times heart-warming just as it is heart-wrenching. It is this extreme ends of a narrative that one needs to internalise in times like this to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
This book was a part memoir and part curious study of humankind that explores both the good and evil of the species. Exploring the changes that were occurring at a geometric progression because of humans, astrobiologist Grinspoon spoke about climate change, while also speaking of the achievements in technology, machinery and the power to shape the world. In the same breath, he discussed the perils that awaited us in the next century and the possibilities and potential as well. There is a sense of unity in his words as he charters a path less taken, on a journey for even bigger and more marvelous achievements. There could be no better time to read this book than now, as the world stands united in the face of calamity.
As we spend our days in isolation, much is being spoken about utilising this time on the betterment of the self. However, this need is not one that can be shared, instead, it is one that comes from within. So for all of those wanting to learn to play the guitar or pick up a language as you spend your days cooped up in the house, here is a book that tells you the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, not as the world knows it but as a process of inner healing. Encouraging you to connect with nature and forgive yourself for acts that you hold yourself responsible for, this book is a treat for those looking to help themselves. The importance of treating yourself the way you would a friend, with compassion, is one of the most important takeaways from this gem of a book.
Travelling is not on the radar but travel essays can definitely be and if that be the case, why not one that is rife with history and is penned by Amitav Ghosh. A collection of five essays, this travelogue takes the author to the depths of strife-stricken areas as he narrates a first-person account of his interactions there. Revisit King Sisowath and the great revolutionary of Cambodia, Pol Pot. The insurgency of Cambodia feels closer than 1968 when the Khmer Rouge was formed. Find Burma and then come back to India, to Andaman and Nicobar Islands as you take a tour through time and geography. Perhaps the closest one can get to travelling for the joy of it.
There are few books that have instilled a dose of positivity in the face of death as well as Zusack’s award-winning novel. Set in Nazi Germany, little Liesel discovers a book by her brother’s graveside and stumbles upon the joy of reading. Thus begins her journey of stealing books from book burnings and even the magistrate’s wife’s house as Death hovers close by, going about its extra-strenuous days. Narrated by Death who has in his possessions Leisel’s notebook that she had used to document her years of stealing books, life comes full circle in The Book Thief as Death himself becomes one. As Leisel’s parents hide a Jew in their basement, the book is a lesson on doing the right thing even when it feels like the end of the world. Sounds familiar?
If you are feeling a little lonely in your state of isolation, as most of us are, this book could be the perfect antidote to those thoughts on mortality during such torrid times. “Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the greatest motivations for living,” writes Backman in his tale of a grumpy old man Ove who is the modern-day Grinch with milder manners. Ove would remind you of The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared as he encounters a newly-relocated family next door and his tumultuous life is revealed over the chapters. Laugh, cry and empathise — all emotions that are crucial at this time — as you deep dive into this comical and deep world of Ove and a broken mailbox.
If you feel like running away, escape somewhere else — universes await you in 1Q84. For different readers, this book is open to interpretations that are deeply personal. Essentially a love story of a boy who meets a girl and then loses her only to begin the greatest search of his life, there is an angle of thrill, suspense and magic realism. The Japanese genius gives us an atmosphere so vividly exuberant that you can forget the ordeals of the real world for a while. And ‘a while’ it shall be for the book is 928 pages thick, three parts having been translated and made into a single book. It is the tale of Aomame and Tengo over the course of a year while they seem to occupy places in two different points in time and space and yet have converging narratives. This is a book that stays with you well after the 928th page. Escape as soon as you can!
A self-proclaimed ‘apocalyptic satire’, Severance is a tale of time akin to the one we are living in, where a certain Manhattan-based Candace Chen is stuck in the loop of work and watching TV in the basement, in Manhattan. So when a plague sweeps the city of New York off its feet, Candace is slow in her response. Empty streets, broken-down subway and a claustrophobic existence is described quite aptly by Ling Ma, so be forewarned as this recommendation comes with a trigger warning. However, enter Bob and his team who are on their way to a safer space called ‘Facility’ and urges Candace to join them. Post-apocalyptic literature never looked juicier and if you believe art and life imitate each other, this is a book you must pick up.
Due to the similarity in the name of what plagues us now, myriad references have been made to this book in recent times that essentially has not much to do with cholera except for using it as a beautiful metaphor for the repeated renewal of life. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are two lovers whose youthful romance begets the much-deserved pages of eloquence from the wordsmith. Enter Urbino, the quintessential “nice guy” who courts Fermina and is the perfect example of the perfect husband. However, the book raises multiple questions on fidelity and spiritual loyalty in a way that wasn’t experienced before. It is always a good time to revisit a classic like Love in the Time of Cholera, however, there is no better time than now to indulge in this book that can soothe any aching soul.