‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’: The Responsibility to Make Grief Worth it

Listen to this review via the Coffee Time Reviews Podcast:

Not Your Standard Shop

We have all lost people in our time. Whether through death or rejection, we have all felt that chasm in our chest where someone else used to reside. Many of us have been promised a greater step in our lives only for that promise to shatter in front of us. 

Oftentimes, it is near impossible to find an appropriate place to put our grief, disappointment, or resentment towards the things that we have been denied. Luckily, there are plenty of works of literature that give us a solution to this age-old dilemma. 

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a novella in which disenchanted street-dwellers of Tokyo make their way into a seemingly inconspicuous café. However, the main talisman of the café is the ability to travel in time to meet the ghosts of your past. 

In one short-lived saga, we witness a widower who was minutes away from saving their wife from a violent end. In another, we see a heartwarming reconciliation between a biological and adoptive father on their daughter’s wedding day. Kawaguchi paints a myriad of family portraits that have been dashed by car crashes, cancer, and the struggle of the starving artist. 

Sadly, you can’t just travel back in time in this café. You can only meet people who have actually visited the café in the past; you have one opportunity in the day to travel back in time; you physically cannot do or say anything that will change the present. Just when you start to think it’s not worth the hassle, the most important rule is that you have to end your retrospective session before your cup of coffee grows cold.

It would be a mistake to assume that this book only contains a string of disconnected short stories where people kiss and make up for their past wrongdoings. Yes, there are a whole lot of ‘saying what was never said’ and tearful reunions. 

But the unifying element of the book is the staff with their own intricate backstory. The notably reserved barista, Kazu, holds every interaction with other characters at arm’s length and doesn’t display any emotion. But the plot is no match for Kazu and her hard exterior must crack. 

If You Could Go Back…

Upon reading this book, I found myself yearning for second chances, to go back to people who I have lost. Would I express the love I was too young to articulate? 

Would I unleash the anger that didn’t arise until later? What would I even say? The best thing about this book is that it questions the necessity of its own plot. By the end of the book, my mentality had shifted in tandem with Kawaguchi and stopped to ask myself: why would I do any of that? 

The most harrowing story was simultaneously the most enlightening. A woman who suffered a miscarriage confides in a colleague who turns her whole outlook upside-down: 

“… if you try to find happiness after this, then this child will have put those seventy days towards making you happy […] You are the one who is able to create meaning for why that child was granted life. Therefore you absolutely must try to be happy. The one person who would want that for you the most is that child.”

This is not the only time this sentiment comes up. A man grieving his wife speaks to a woman who lost her sister where grief imposes the responsibility to live well: 

“If I had led a sad life as a result of my sister’s death, then it would have been as if her death had caused it. […] My joy would be the legacy of my sister’s life.”

Kawaguchi does not insist on a Victorian stiff-upper-lip approach to our grief. Cloistering ourselves in black and wandering morosely through the rest of our lives in the name of those we have lost does nothing for anyone. By the same token, neither does pushing down our grief as if it isn’t there. 

The best thing we can do, according to Kawaguchi, is to take the grief and make sure that it amounts to something positive. We’ve all heard that ‘the best revenge is living well’, but Before the Coffee Gets Cold encourages us to think of grief in this way too. 

What I respect the most is that it isn’t a dismissive way to cope with loss. We must strive to live the happiest life we can, not in spite of our grief but because of it. The futility of life and death is too much to carry on one pair of shoulders and most of us have found that out the hard way. 

To think about the frivolity of your loss just leads to resentment and indignance. In its place, Kawaguchi allows us to take our grief into our own hands and give it our own meaning. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a wonderfully written book in and of itself. It’s written in a charmingly simple way, which is why I would recommend it to anyone in a reading slump. But personally, Kawaguchi has shared with me a valuable lesson that I will carry with me through the darkest parts of life. 

A Rant about Tropes 

So

Many of you know I work in a library. I love working in a library, it’s a dream job, and I suspect that many of you are secretly jealous. Well — You’ll be even more envious when I tell you that the head librarian expects me to read books, so I can better recommend them. 

How sweet is that? 

I Just Finished

A book by Jordan Sonnenblick. Drums, Girls + Dangerous Pie. It’s a fabulous book, by the way, and one I highly recommend. It’s well worth five stars and currently has a 4.25 rating with a whooping 27,312 people voting on Goodreads. 

It’s about a family whose youngest son gets cancer. There are two boys in the family, with the oldest in middle school. The book deals with all the carnage that results from a cancer diagnosis. 

I read the book during my lunch breaks at work, and it made me weep. I don’t know if I ever really cry, but I certainly weep, and this book made me weep. 

Go buy it! Right now! This blog post will wait. 

So, when this book ended, I wanted something cheery for my next read, something uplifting, something that made my smile, nothing too heavy. 

I picked up: 

Book # 1 

A book about a girl with no arms: it had potential, and in a different time and place, I very well might have read it. However, the author spends a plot killing amount of time telling us how the girl copes with life with no arms. We don’t see her coping; we are told how she manages, and then her coping skills are explained in detail. (Ballet flats are better than boots, as it’s easier to use your feet, and she uses her feet a lot.) 

Book # 2

A book about a girl in constant pain because of chronic illness. Yep, there is no cure. The pain is constant whenever she uses a joint, and there are loads of joints in the body. Walking is especially painful. 

Knowing that walking is painful, her dad makes her walk nine blocks to school each and every day. Her mother either never asks or just goes along with this. Her parents are otherwise perfectly lovely; her mom takes her to the Dr., her dad is a dentist. (The Dr. never asks about the walking.) 

I know we have a reputation here in the States, but for God’s sake, take a bus. Honestly!

So, of course, she stops going to school. The school calls, but she deletes the messages, and she lied about her dad’s name, and well, that was the point I stopped reading. 

The plot was a little too much for me to swallow. 

I know parents are clueless, but seriously. 

Book # 3

I had my doubts about this book right from the start. 

The girl’s mother runs away early in her life, leaving her with her dad and brother. Her dad dies in a mining accident. Her brother then dies, I think in a fire, I can’t lie, I was starting to skim by this point, and the book opens with her at her brother’s funeral with her new foster parent. 

I can only imagine the plot points that were coming after this opening. 

So, I put the book down. 

Here’s my point

I enjoy reading about quirky kids with spunk and imagination, kids who don’t give up in the face of formidable odds. That makes for an exciting read. 

But it’s just as interesting to write about the trials and tribulations of teenage life. (Note, I didn’t use the word normal anywhere in that last sentence.) 

There is a love triangle in the book I finished, the one I loved, the one you have now purchased. 

The older boy is crushing on the super popular, gorgeous (beyond the ability of words to describe how pretty she is) girl. (She has a boyfriend, by the way.) 

He’s also friends with the wildly intelligent, musically gifted girl, who clearly likes him, but of course, he’s clueless about her. (I’m guessing you already knew that.) 

I would bet everything I owned that every male on the face of God’s green earth has had a crush on someone unattainable. Heck, I can name names. We all can relate. 

It’s cool to write about overarching human emotions, but try to stay away from the tired tropes. 


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

The Most Anticipated Books of 2022

All the books featured in this article have been read in the form of advance review copies. Although recommendations are subjective by nature, the following titles have been hand-picked based on relatively objective standards.


1. ‘The Whale Tattoo’ by Jon Ransom

Publication date: 4th February (Muswell Press)

In THE WHALE TATTOO, death gains both a voice and a lapping body of its own. Hounded by its murmurs, Joe returns to the home he left two years ago, only to find that memories can scream themselves raw. But death’s grip continues to tighten, leaving Joe risking more than he can bear as he gives in to the power his lover Fysh has always had over him.

Much like the surface of the river that keeps mocking the protagonist, there’s an ominous tenor behind Ransom’s every word; a beauty that shocks. And, much like the elusive line between the bank of the river and land, time is a shifting entity within the parameters of the story. 

There’s no clear distinction between the past and the present, only a rush of sensation. The body of water it holds penetrates the protagonist’s psyche, floods reality in a way that is both hungry and foreboding.

What’s more, every character carries the water’s darkness deep within, every limb appears forged from something indistinct and shapeless. It’s the vagueness of their motives, the troubled honesty with which they navigate their subconscious, that transforms the novel into a breathless enigma.


2. ‘Young Mungo’ by Douglas Stuart

Publication date: 5th April (Grove Atlantic)

Stuart’s ability to erect a world of such ferocious brutality —  both raised and devastated by brittle longings —  and still maintain an air of vulnerability is truly uncanny. The story’s central violence, which stems from both poverty and Protestant-Catholic tensions, is almost jubilant. 

The young boys it conscripts repeatedly confuse pain and death with pleasure, and they see the suppression of emotion as the mark of a man. The writing is deeply evocative, marked by exceptional precision. Stuart’s depictions of Glasgow’s East End are never stifling, never once intrude on the novel’s other facets. 

As a result, you can smell the sour, alcohol-infused sponge of Mo-Maw’s breath as it hits Mungo’s cheek, you can feel the tickle of James’ hair as Mungo noses the crack between his asscheeks. 

The author manages to strike the perfect balance between the boy’s purity and the merciless space he occupies, using both his beauty and virtue as a magnifying glass for the troubles he has to both witness and endure. 

This also elevates his forbidden love for James to new levels. Ultimately, the story’s devotion to feeling makes for a painfully memorable, bodily reading experience.

Warning: The novel depicts rape, alcoholism, graphic violence, and paedophilia.


3. ‘Boys, Beasts & Men’ by Sam J. Miller

Publication date: 10th May (Tachyon Publications)

Miller’s short story collection is a blend of science fiction and magic realism. Every story is wildly imaginative, each one twists and bends its form to stun and titillate that much more. And aside from the wonderfully eclectic narratives, which burst and shatter but never disenchant, it’s emotion that dominates every page. 

Death, grief, rage, lust, longing, loss and desire breed various beasts and terrors, which are, in turn, nurtured by the intensity of human passion. Likewise, the monsters’ physicality is used to illustrate the depravity lurking within the human psyche.

Miller makes it a point to disengage the body from the soul, repeatedly referencing “the bodies we wear”, the fates dictated by our lack of choice when it comes to the fit and colour we’re assigned upon conception. 

This fracture is tangible in each one of his stories, and it blends eroticism with ghoulishness, sensuality with violence.


4. ‘Brother Alive’ by Zain Khalid

Publication date: 12th July (Grove Atlantic)

BROTHER ALIVE is an intellectual feast, an existential wail, the anguished contraction of feeling, a pyretic dream. Simply put, it’s a work like no other. Stitched from three unique parts, the novel tells the story of three brothers connected not by blood or race, but by the protective gaze of their adoptive father, Imam Salim.

But as the man begins to unravel, the mystery shrouding his relationship with the boys’ parents transforms into a physical, gouging weight; one that propels them back to Saudi Arabia, where they confront the horrors of their shared past.

Khalid’s decadent prose roils and subdues the pages of the book, swelling around the seam of its poetic tone, fudging the grainy feel of reality. And the deeper we delve into the story, the more ominous the enigma of Youssef’s mental affliction appears. 

The Brother’s shape acclimates to the fissures it leaves in the boy’s form, cementing their relationship as not only parasitic but oddly tender.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

Books by Memory: ‘Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories’ by Thomas Grant

As the third of my Books by Memory series this is a rather tangential book review that uses memory to approach a book, rather than focusing in a more analytical way. This time I am reminiscing on reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories.


As I sit here writing with a blanket over my shoulders for warmth, you might expect me to be thinking back to other books read in winter, perhaps by a roaring fire, or with a mug of cocoa, but instead, I feel drawn to books of summer.

There is little that can beat the pleasure of a sunny, slightly aimless, afternoon spent with a book outside. Now in winter, the same does not quite work, even if there is a rather sublime feeling to reading as the cold wind buffets and bare branches frame a leaden sky. So, memories have to be drawn on to provide a vicarious fix of sun-warmed tranquillity.

Of course, it is not really just the environment in which you read that matters, but the ritual. For sitting outside with a book might well add that certain feeling, but when you know you have time and so can pause, decide which book, consider if it’s really sunny enough for sunglasses, and then walk down to the garden, pausing again in the kitchen to make a cuppa, but so caught up are you in the joy of the sun that you go the student way, and milk it at the start and take it outside tea bag and all.


It is rather hard to pin down what should be read on such afternoons when draped in sun-warmed air you are separated from the worries of the next day, yet it would be foolish to think that the surrounding days do not leech into the atmosphere in which you read.

In this case, I feel that I was pushed towards picking up a piece of engaging prose non-fiction, for I was spending my week wading through Latin, both in finely wrought odes, and the dullest of self-congratulatory prose, so could not help but turn to something resoundingly fixed to the modern world, yet with the touch of glamour that a previous world can give. After all, it is far easier to fall in love with a narration when you are able to remove yourself from the details of it.

It can be by a temporal removal, or by stepping out into fiction: either way the impact is the same. Sunny afternoons are for such removal from the life you are living. For it is enjoyable to get that vicarious, almost voyeuristic, touch of a life not unlike your own when you are trundling to work or the like, but on an aimless afternoon, ideally outside of the working week, some form of escape is needed.  

And, it hardly needs saying that, such a book would be equally suited to an elongated summer evening with a glass of cider or draught pint to hand. Even if the cuppa provides a certain connection with the innocent afternoons of childhood in which books were a good in and of themselves, not a luxury to be snatched when and wherever possible.

I must admit I do not remember the writing in any detail so I cannot entice you to read the book with any descriptions of coruscating prose or the like, but I do remember the feeling and way the text drew me on and a vivid picture of the events. I suppose it was a little like the tea I was drinking. Lacking the engraved finials of Early grey, which impress at a first meeting but soon are understood to be a distraction, the text flowed like a good breakfast tea in that it had a solid backing, enlivened by complexly constructed flair that never veered from the overriding smooth texture.


Now I have spent a little too much time discussing the idea of a type of reading and tortured a few similes, but then sunny afternoons with books are meant to be slightly self-indulgent and lackadaisical. In this case, I was reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. It might seem an odd choice for a chilled Sunday afternoon, being a recounting of various legal cases, but then I had started it the day before and it had that perfect balance of interest and engaging writing.

Perhaps it helped that I was reading it in just the right setting as it details the life of one who was incredibly privileged. For how many people are able to buy a house after being left a Monet by a friend? Oh, and his parents were part of the Bloomsbury group.

Yet such things feel a tad less impressive when reading in one of the oldest still existing residential streets in Europe, for that summer I spent two weeks in a house on Vicars’ Close in Wells (a city in Somerset, in the South West of England, and often considered the smallest city in England). I was there to improve my Latin skills by reading a range of Latin literature, but mainly remember the time spent otherwise. It is a rather relaxing, and handsomely built, city to amble through and the incongruity of imagining it as it was as a set for Hot Fuzz adds a certain element to enliven the most peaceful evening.


Of course, even a piece that is more focused on memory than accurate review must consider the book in question beyond the vibes given off. And then a book detailing old legal cases might not seem the most interesting, especially as by now most readers of this article will not have memory themselves of the cases in question. However, even if you were to view them as totally irrelevant cases, the way they are described and Hutchinson’s rhetorical brilliance is enough to create a series of enticing recollections.

Perhaps the rather performative nature of many of the defences, which at points would not seem out of place in an am-dram farce, makes one question the effectiveness of an adversary legal system in which trials can become to be seen as games to be won irrespective of the facts, but it would be impossible to come away from this book without acknowledging Hutchinson’s skill as an advocate.

(Also, I do love the detail that in one case someone was only convicted of theft of a picture frame, as the picture in question was returned after a period as a form of protest, but the frame wasn’t, and at that point for theft to be proved an intention to permanently deprive someone of something had to be established.)

It also has further interest for anyone interested in books for it details the obscenity case against the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, along with many other ‘morality’ trials in which the right to publish or perform was challenged on the basis of specific ideas of morality. Yet as I look via the lens of memory it is hard to remove the filter of other information from the clarity and detail of Mr Grant’s narration, and so it would be a disservice to ramble on now. 

So, I will leave it with the exhortation that these are trials that all who care for books, and the freedoms they both provide and rely upon, should know of and keenly keep in mind when faced with challenges to what can or should be published.

‘Afterparties’ Explores the Intersections of Class, Ethnicity, and Sexuality

Ever since I joined Bookstagram, I’ve noticed a trend. Popular books will pop up on my feed for weeks at a time, their aesthetically crafted photos alongside multi-paragraph reviews by various readers. 

Sometimes, these books are mediocre, at best. Other times, the Goodreads synopsis can’t even capture my attention for more than a few seconds. But every so often, there’s a book that truly does “live up to the hype” and deserves every staged photo and shoutout it gets. The late Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties was one of them.

Let me preface this by chatting a bit about the author. As a gay Cambodian American man, he didn’t exactly fit the traditional expectations of his culture. He graduated from Stanford and completed an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse, before going on to fulfil various teaching positions. And of course, penning these wonderful short stories. 

Afterparties is a collection of So’s best work. Many of the stories take place in his hometown of Stockton, California or the San Francisco Bay Area, and tackle salient (and more subtle) aspects of his culture. 

The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s underscores the pain and intergenerational trauma many of his characters face, and he highlights the generational gap that occurs as a result of immigrant parents being at odds with their American-born children. 

So also criticizes the idea of the American dream, that all who flee violence and threats to their existence don’t necessarily find abundant promise in their newer, safer lands. 

As he says in one of the stories, most Cambodian Americans “… fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.” His stories carry this overarching concept of class consciousness. 

The first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” was first published by The New Yorker. It features an overworked mother and her two daughters during their graveyard shifts at a family donut shop. 

A mysterious man begins coming to the shop for fritters after 12 A.M., but remains taciturn and unwilling to dig into his baked good, spawning the girls’ curiousity. The mother, muddled by a messy past including an unfaithful husband and unpaid debt, remains defensive. 

When the true intentions behind the man’s visits to the store manifest, the reader is hit with a gasp-inducing twist.  

One particular piece I liked was “Human Development”, in which the main character, Anthony, finds himself in an unlikely Grindr romance with a fellow Khmer man. 

As their intimate entanglements deepen, Anthony must face the dissonance he feels over his simultaneous commitment to and distaste towards his lover. This story underscores the convoluted feelings about what it means to be Southeast Asian in America. 

There was much to learn about Khmer culture in each story. So throws in Khmer words and provides insights into religious and traditional norms, which also help us understand where he is coming from. I liked that So took risks in terms of the ideas he shared, and also wasn’t afraid to throw in a little cringe factor here and there. 

He tackles deep situations and historical events without sugarcoating, but balances out the seriousness with ample humor. I found myself LOL-ing many times throughout. 

I also appreciated So’s writing style, which was succinct and conversational, easy to follow and eloquent. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve rekindled my appreciation of short stories, and this was an excellent read to continue that literary quest. 

There’s a lot to be explored within shorter forms of fiction, and I think it takes a skilled approach to create a meaningful story within a confined framework. Perhaps we will see more short story collections like these, which bring to the forefront struggles that marginalized groups in society face. 

Unfortunately, Anthony Veasna So passed away in December 2020, at the age of 28, due to an accidental drug overdose. His partner Alex Torres shares more about So and their relationship in this heartfelt Buzzfeed post. It’s sad that we won’t get to see So take off on his literary career — which would have been immensely lucrative, I’m sure — but he has left ripples of influence behind. 


Let’s continue the book chat! You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, or Goodreads

‘The Ends of the Earth’ Will Make You Wonder How Much You Would Do For Love

Disclaimer: Please note I received a copy of this book as part of a blog tour, in exchange for my honest review.

When I spotted The Ends of the Earth on Twitter, my first thought was “sweet, I could use a light romance”.

But then I read the premise and was even more intrigued. This is a story I, personally, have never encountered before. A romance where one partner is nowhere to be found but may still possibly return? Sign me up.

On the surface, this is a gripping tale of will he, won’t he, but on closer analysis, it’s here to make you question just how far you would go for love.

The trope isn’t necessarily new, as there is a lot of pop culture around that covered the disappeared lover prompt in one way or another. If you’ve ever watched the movie Cast Away, do you remember your feelings when Tom Hanks’s fiancee turned out to have married in the four years that he was stranded on the island?

I remember the conflict of ethics in my own mind: if she had married and had a child while he was disappeared or believed to be dead, had it meant that she lost hope after a mere one or two years?

Would I have lost hope so soon? Is one year even soon?

This is what The Ends of the Earth explores but over a much longer period of time, and that’s where it’s nothing like the other approaches to this trope. Mary, the protagonist, has been waiting for her partner Jim to return for seven years.

Now that’s dedication.


From the publisher

Mary O’Connor has been keeping a vigil for her first love for the past seven years.

Every evening without fail, Mary arrives at Ealing Broadway station and sets herself up among the commuters. In her hands, Mary holds a sign which bears the words: ‘Come Home Jim.’

Call her mad, call her a nuisance, call her a drain on society — Mary isn’t going anywhere.

That is, until an unexpected call turns her world on its head. In spite of all her efforts, Mary can no longer find the strength to hold herself together. She must finally face what happened all those years ago, and answer the question — where on earth is Jim?


My thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and how heartwarming and at the same time tremendously heartbreaking it was. 

There are glimpses of the past throughout the book, detailing how Mary and Jim met, fell in love and their chemistry, which I thought was very well described and built.

I believe in the power of chemistry between two people and seeing how much the plot played on the strong and almost instantaneous connection between the two protagonists made me believe in Mary’s dedication all the more.

The characters are all flawlessly built, but especially Mary truly strikes you as the realistic, relatable and profound woman she is made out to be. Her faith, determination and courage to keep holding on to the hope that Jim will return showed a lot of strength.

On the surface, it may seem like Mary is weak for refusing to move on, but when you get into her reasoning and see how much she is ready to sacrifice just to get Jim back, it becomes obvious that she is a resilient character who hasn’t lost it all.

I would recommend this story with all my heart. It’s emotional, empathic, sweet and very romantic, an excellent twist on your usual fluffy love story.


The Ends of the Earth comes out tomorrow, 6th January, from Century, an imprint of Penguin. You can pre-order it here.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

50 Books of 2021 and Their Underrated Meaning in 1 Phrase

We’ve reached the end of one of my best reading years to date. I set myself the challenge to read 50 books this year and I succeeded with flying colours and time to spare.

Reading adds incredible value to your life, sometimes in the most understated ways. As a writer, reading is what I count on to keep my mind running wild with content every day.

I’ve experienced the disappointment of hearing people around me dismiss reading as just a waste of time. “Why would you like staying still and in complete silence, staring at words telling a story that’s not even real?”

There’s great potential in reading and it quite literally can change your life. Books add to your life more than you can think of, from the possibility of living thousands of stories, the power of deep empathy, the happiness of laughing when you feel down or the hope that love and kindness still shine through all the heartache.

I’m not a harsh reader. I know people who hardly ever rate a book 4 stars or above, and who mostly lurk in the 1- and 2-star ratings because they’re so picky. I don’t like to be a picky reader. Instead, I love looking for value in everything I read.

Of the 50 books I’ve completed this year, I had one 1-star rating, one 2-star rating, seven 3-star ratings, 24 4-star ratings and 17 5-star ratings. 17! All of them had a lesson for me though, and I’ll share those with you in a snappy phrase for each book.


1. ‘Written on the Body’ by Jeanette Winterson

Finished: 1 Jan 2021; Rating: 1 star

Key takeaways: Love doesn’t always mean closeness and it can work even when it’s not a perfect fit.

2. ‘How to Sleep Well: Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Good Night’s Sleep’ by Dr Chris Idzikowski

Finished: 12 Jan 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Insufficient sleep won’t damage your health as much as your own anxiety caused by insufficient sleep, so trust your body more that it can adapt to your changing circumstances and stop worrying so much.

3. ‘Red, White and Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuiston

Finished: 22 Jan 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: A classic story of impossible love across political ideologies with an entertaining presidential election sub-plot; always a feel-good book I return to.

4. ‘Why Is Romania Different?’ by Lucian Boia

Finished: 30 Jan 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: As a Romanian, I know the shared feeling that something about us is off, like we’re doomed and can’t get over it, which Boia analyses from a cultural and historical perspective and gives logic to a gut feeling shared by an entire nation.

5. ‘Every Heart a Doorway’ by Seanan McGuire

Finished: 25 Jan 2021; Rating: 2 stars

Key takeaways: An atmospheric novella with dark academia vibes and quirky characters who are all disappeared children who travelled in alternative worlds; too short for the promising premise, so it didn’t deliver for me.

6. ‘Beyond Mars and Venus’ by Dr John Gray

Finished: 20 Feb 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Understanding our contrasting traits is key to mitigating conflicts within couples; this is a useful book that explains relationship dynamics and how to make them work.

7. ‘The Cheerleaders’ by Kara Thomas

Finished: 12 Jan 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A gripping multiple-death mystery told through the grief of a high school student who doesn’t believe her sister took her own life.

8. ‘Sadie’ by Courtney Summers

Finished: 3 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A stunning disappearance mystery with an investigative podcast element and very well-handled multi-perspectives, showing the lengths to which a child can go to for justice.

9. ‘The Music of What Happens’ by Bill Konigsberg

Finished: 20 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: This YA romance shows that young relationships aren’t always superficial, but formative and profound too; a great lesson in parenthood and friendship.

10. ‘Act Your Age, Eve Brown’ by Talia Hibbert

Finished: 25 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: The last Brown sister did not disappoint in this steamy, wholesome and relatable romance that shows life has the right thing for us set aside and no matter how much we struggle, we’ll see the light sooner or later.

11. ‘What Happens in Tomorrow World’ by Jordan Gross

Finished: 1 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A short and sweet fable that depicts all kinds of human reactions and how we can adapt them to everyday situations to maintain our peace and happiness.

12. ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by T.J. Klune

Finished: 4 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Don’t underestimate the power of kindness and connection, even if it comes from the Antichrist.

13. ‘The Hating Game’ by Sally Thorne

Finished: 6 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Classic hate-to-love trope, handled pretty well, with some good, believable characters — I’m so over the small woman, big, gym-fit man scenario, though.

14. ‘Uzumaki’ by Junji Ito

Finished: 10 May 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: A very original horror depiction of spiral elements, with disturbing plot development and hypnotic art.

15. ‘Nothing to Lose’ by Clare Lydon

Finished: 18 May 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: A sweet, lesbian romance with more mature characters and a great representation of getting over trauma and coming to terms with yourself.

16. ‘Into This River I Drown’ by T.J. Klune

Finished: 25 May 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Trust T.J. Klune to make you grieve, cry, hope, scream in excitement and believe in an angel-human romance all in one book.

17. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ by Andre Aciman

Finished: 30 May 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A heart-breaking story of wrong place, wrong time, and an excellent portrayal of the short-span, flame-like qualities of love that still lingers.

18. ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Finished: 3 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Great intersection between fame and family life and an amazing discussion on ethics and female traits in rapport with career, motherhood, society and love.

19. ‘M Is for Mother’ by Alexandra Antipa

Finished: 4 June 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Motherhood really is something you have to experience for yourself and cultural bonds shine through candid stories.

20. ‘Away With the Penguins’ by Hazel Prior

Finished: 5 June 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: It’s never too late to fight for a cause you believe in and make an unexpected change in your life.

21. ‘Soho’ by Richard Scott

Finished: 9 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Double-check around you and within you for internalised homophobia — or any other kind of discrimination; we don’t live in such a tolerant world as it may seem.

22. ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

Finished: 18 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Love can transcend prophecy and deity intervention, but especially war and aversion.

23. ‘Why Buddhism Is True’ by Robert Wright

Finished: 19 June 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Negativity, fear and anger are altered mental states, otherwise delusions, we can remove ourselves from.

24. ‘Radio Silence’ by Alice Oseman

Finished: 21 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: This is an incredibly real account of how the one-size-fits-all nature of the education system can break young people.

25. ‘Where the Stork Flies’ by Linda C. Wisnievski

Finished: 9 Jul 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Female strength shines through generations — a wonderful time-travel plot that reinstates the importance of women supporting women.

26. ‘The Gravity of Us’ by Phil Stamper

Finished: 10 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Came for the internet journalist trope, stayed for the wholesomeness: another cute romance with a very unique setting and plot.

27. ‘You And Me on Vacation’ by Emily Henry

Finished: 14 Jul 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: It’s important to make the first move if the connection you’re trying to salvage is worth it.

28. ‘Pansies’ by Alexis Hall

Finished: 15 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: This is a very steamy and apparently superficial romance, but the character analysis really just shows how important it is to be yourself in the face of aversion.

29. ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

Finished: 26 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: There are many layers to the discussions about race; a stunning and insightful family and identity drama everyone should read.

30. ‘The Summer of Everything’ by Julian Winters

Finished: 5 Aug 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: This is the perfect book for geeks and it just felt very familiar and comforting; the romance is adorable.

31. ‘Sometime After Midnight’ by L. Philips

Finished: 15 Aug 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Music is everything; if you want a romance with musicians who just click through their art, read this.

32. ‘The Extraordinaries’ by T. J. Klune

Finished: 17 Aug 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Representation is vital: finally finding a protagonist who thinks and acts like me showed me that maybe I’m not just clumsy, rushed, annoying or unfocused.

33. ‘Flash Fire’ by T. J. Klune

Finished: 26 Aug 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Keep loving with your whole, entire heart and believing in yourself and those who matter.

34. ‘Eliza and Her Monsters’ by Francesca Zappia

Finished: 11 Sept 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: There are people out there for you, no matter how hard you’re finding it to fit in. Also, keep creating and protecting your craft.

35. ‘Cemetery Boys’ by Aiden Thomas

Finished: 26 Sept 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Traditions are worth breaking to protect identities and love can transcend death.

36. ‘Beach Read’ by Emily Henry

Finished: 5 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Writers go through a lot to make a story good — and not everything works, sometimes a change of perspective is necessary.

37. ‘In The Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Finished: 10 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: It’s about damn time we start talking about and documenting domestic abuse within queer couples.

38. ‘History Is All You Left Me’ by Adam Silvera

Finished: 11 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Loss can mend and fill up the gaps between those left behind.

39. ‘One Last Stop’ by Casey McQuiston

Finished: 21 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: If someone’s worth fighting for, go as far as fighting the law of Physics to get them.

40. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Finished: 22 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Vanity can quite literally kill you.

41. ‘The Meaning of Pain’ by Nick Potter

Finished: 23 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: I haven’t lost against chronic pain, I still have a chance to redeem myself and regain control over my body.

42. ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of The Universe’ by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Finished: 23 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Teenagers can be as profound and wise as any well-built character and deserve to be listened to. Also a great lesson in parenting.

43. ‘A Study in Scarlet’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Finished: 27 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Never underestimate the twists and turns of a good Sherlock Holmes story.

44. ‘The Queer Principles of Kit Webb’ by Cat Sebastian

Finished: 27 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Regency romance is much more entertaining when it’s queer and has a fierce female supporting character.

45. ‘Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World’ by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Finished: 31 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: It’s never too late for a coming-of-age story.

46. ‘How to Kill Your Family’ by Bella Mackie

Finished: 2 Nov 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Excellent characters come with heavy baggage and make you root for them…even if they’re a serial killer.

47. ‘Fear No Evil’ by James Patterson

Finished: 23 Nov 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Political thrillers can be just as thrilling as your average crime story, sometimes even more so.

48. ‘These Violent Delights’ by Micah Nemerever

Finished: 29 Nov 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: The best villains are those who you could befriend if they were real.

49. ‘Underneath the Christmas Tree’ by Heidi Swain

Finished: 24 Dec 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: It takes courage to return home, but if you just take a step forward, you might be showered with surprises.

50. ‘The Christmas Murder Game’ by Alexandra Benedict

Finished: 31 Dec 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Don’t underestimate festive family dramas and their gripping potential.


Eliza Lita is a freelance writer based in the UK. She covers books and reading, fitness, lifestyle, and personal development. For more of her stories, please consider signing up for a Medium membership through her referral link.

‘Five Tuesdays in Winter’:Has Lily King’s Most Recent Release Made Me Love Short Stories Again?

Psst. I have a confession to make. 

Are you ready for this?

I fell out of love with the short story. Not recently, but over the span of about fifteen years. As with a former flame, I moved on to bigger and bulkier things (in this case, novels and works of nonfiction), without so much as a glance backwards. It’s funny, though, because I wrote short stories for fun all the time as a kid. In fact, that’s where my love of writing was born. 

As I became aware of this, I knew I had to make a change. So, this year, I made it one of my bazillion goals to read more short stories. And I’m proud to say that I actually upheld this one. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts and Dantiel Moniz’s Milk Blood Heat this past summer. 

There were even creative nonfiction pieces that piqued my interest. I realized how much I’d been missing out by overlooking an entire genre. And a mighty one at that. 

On a recent visit to a local bookstore, Lily King’s Five Tuesdays in Winter popped out at me. I’d never heard of King, but it seemed like a fitting final read of 2021 given the title and artsy cover. And it fell into the short story genre — bingo! 

In true hygge fashion, I lit my candles, buried myself under a blanket, and listened to the pitter-patter of the rain as I read most of Five Tuesdays in Winter. Here’s a lowdown on what to expect from this book, and a few of my takeaways. 

Overview

King is no stranger to the short story, having written multiple New York Times bestselling collections in the past. Her newest book is a compilation of stories that are new, alongside those that have been published in literary magazines. In it, she explores the parent-child relationship, forbidden romance, and loss — whether it be through death or divorce. 

She employs a tone that is morose and mysterious, making each narrative feel like a dreary winter day itself.

There’s the story of a teenage boy, left home alone with two college-age male babysitters while his parents jet off to Europe; a woman’s blooming obsession with her friend’s father after interacting with him at a bridge game; and a German widow who vacations with her daughter to the North Sea, hoping to break through her impenetrable exterior. 

King has the ability to take mundane events and charge them with layers of complexity, grief, and surprise. It’s through the slow unraveling of each story that we end with a bang, a burn, or a blow at the end, asking ourselves, “Wait what?!” 

She isn’t afraid to bend conventions or explore more taboo sides of the human experience. I had visceral reactions to certain parts of this book, just because she takes us to places that we tend to turn away from. 

Her writing breaks into poetic cadence at times, further easing the reading experience and relating us in some way to each situation. Even if we aren’t entirely conscious of what that may be. None of the stories seems to be set in the present day, further adding to their sense of distance. 

And with stories set in the coastal regions of Maine or the frigid environs of Northern Europe, we are transported into worlds that feel as remote as the characters that inhabit them. 

King proves herself to be one of those writers whose writing process would be fascinating to examine. How much does she draw from her own experiences? Does she have a ritual that brings her into her writing headspace? How does living in Maine impact the sorts of characters she conjures up? What helps her determine the direction she’s going to take in each story? 

Exploring the Short Story

As I read King’s book, I began thinking more about the concept of the short story itself. I noticed how this form of writing doesn’t necessarily need to give us closure. In fact, some of the best short stories I’ve read don’t have resolved endings. Instead, they leave us with more questions. 

Endless possibilities. And furthermore, the characters’ motivations, thoughts, etc. propel the stories more so than a concrete plotline. We become deeply invested in the characters, but also don’t quite understand their motives. 

Short stories require a careful level of precision — a way of fleshing out the narrative at hand without sharing too much or too little. They bypass a lot of the buildup we see in longer works and take us straight to the heart, the “Aha!” of what’s going on. 

Perhaps my falling out of love with the short story for so long has to do with these phenomena. For wanting happy endings, predictable characters, and easily navigable storylines. But, as we all know, life promises none of these to us. And I find solace in stories that give us a glimpse of the messiness and madness of this human experience. Stories that lead us to the realm of ambiguity. 

So, I’m here to declare that I’ve rekindled the spark that so long ago fizzled between myself and the short story. I’m making it my goal to not just read, but write, more short stories going into 2022. Because we, as readers and writers, know that there’s so much to explore and put to words. 

Deepening that relationship to craft can help us express feelings and questions we may be harboring within. It can make us more comfortable with visiting the depths of our emotional landscape.  

If you’re looking for a quick yet thought-provoking read this winter season (or summer, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), take a peek at Lily King’s newest. And follow your creative impulses, wherever they may take you. Happy reading and Happy New Year!


Want to continue the bookish conversation? Let’s connect on Instagram, Twitter, or Goodreads

What Books These 5 People Who Had Near-Death Experiences Want You to Read

Note: this piece is adapted from my Substack, Discovery Magazine, which focuses on the books and movies you need to read before you die.

Over the course of the year, I did something I didn’t think I was going to do.

I called people who had faced death—real death—and I asked them about it.

I talked to them about it. And I tried to tease out the intimate details that, at first, some of them didn’t even reveal to friends, family, and everyone else for years because, frankly, they thought it sounded absolutely insane.

But the reason I found these people—and trust me, finding these people wasn’t, initially, an easy task—was so I could ask them what their literary suggestions would be. Basically:

‘What’s the one book you think everyone should read before they die?’

The truth is, time is short, and time is limited. We have a series of moments—brief moments—that add up in a string, and the string we call life has a finite endpoint.

Maybe there’s something on the other side—if we believe first-person accounts from some of the people you’re about to read, then it’s true—but either way, the point is: life is limited.

We only have so many books, movies, and things to do, and it’s best—apt—to think about our limited time. Asking people, “what’s the one book you should read before you die” might not end up in a book you read.

But the question forces the person to cut through the complexity and the distraction and the noise and get you closer to the books that’ll be worth reading.

Over the summer and year of 2021 for my own newsletter, I asked people with life-shattering experiences what their favorite books were.

Here’s what they told me.

Quotes edited for readability

1. Peter Panagore — experienced clinical death for a few minutes induced by hypothermia

Image provided by the author.

When I chatted with Peter Panagore, I realized you don’t get the idea—the real idea—of what he’s been through until you start talking to him.

But it quickly dawns on you that when you imagine what he tells you—going up a mountain, and then freezing to death—the point that always leaves people starstruck is the idea that he actually died.

Peter Panagore actually died on that mountain. He was clinically dead for a few minutes.

And after that, his life changed forever.

He saw, as he reports, a “darkness spread into infinity” and a type of “intelligence”. He calls that intelligence by the colloquial “angel” but the point is, the angel guided him back to life (he eventually got off the mountain), and for decades—because the experience was so insane, so nutty—he “kept [his] mouth shut for decades.”

When we talked about his favorite book (Ulysses, by James Joyce), he lit up like a Christmas tree.

“I tried to read it three times, and I could not,” he told me.

“I reached this place in the book where I did not understand what was going on, and I thought — this man has no idea what he’s doing. He’s completely lost it.

“And then finally I thought: I’m going to get it on Audible, and I’m going to listen to it as a story.

“[And] there’s this place in the novel that goes on for like pages and chapters of this incomprehensible — what seems to be — babble that’s being spilt on the pages. And you have to understand, this is a day in the life of one person. You’re inside his head and suddenly it becomes completely incomprehensible…And yet it goes on and on and on and on.

“And the language is obtuse, but it’s also beautiful….But the difficulty of trying to penetrate the meaning was impossible….

“And then — in a paragraph — all of that meeting was explained in an instant, and then all of the previous babble turned into not-babble….”

When I asked him how the book made him feel, he said something that struck me almost dumb. I remember being on the phone, and thinking, I’d love to quote this in the article one day:

“[The book] made me feel like I’m never going to be the greatest writer there ever was, for one thing. But it made me feel like art — the literary arts — are a high form of human communication that imparts beauty and humor, a humanistic understanding of psychology and relationships. It was — it was just the fullness of — it made me feel like I was part of the human race.”

2. Dave “Bio” Baranek — nearly died in a plane crash

Image provided by the author.

When I talk to Dave “Bio” Baranek, I always get a bit of thrill. He exudes the kind of integrity and honesty that’s distinctive of someone you imagine to be ex-military.

But with risk, comes death.

For Dave “Bio” Baranek, a Top Gun RIO (meaning, radar intercept officer), death came close. A series of events happened that, strangely, as he was explaining it to me, made me realize how technically and mechanically complex the situation was.

But the short version: when he was in the back of a Tomcat fighter squatron, his plane—after a mechanical malfunction—ended up crashing into the Indian ocean.

The plane was sinking, but through training, reflex, and ‘holy-shit’ survival mechanisms, they got out.

Switching gears, I asked him about his favorite book—and he made the point that it had nothing whatsoever to do with his experience.

“The book that I would read is called The Once and Future King by T.H. White,” he said.

“Now, I’ve got to qualify this. It’s not about wizards. It’s not about magic. It’s not about dragons. Even though there are wizards and magic and dragons — but they’re bit players.

“I mean, I don’t like that. I don’t like fantasy reading. That’s not what I read.

“This is a story about a kid who grows up to be a king, and it’s thrust on him and he is unprepared for it — but what he has, you know, his character, makes him prepared for it.

“But then all of the incredible, great things and the incredible tragedies that he experiences…I mean, the first time I read it, I was in high school.

“I did not appreciate it — but it stuck with me.

“I read it again a few years later and then I just read it for at least the third time or maybe the fourth time. And I just totally enjoyed it because it’s…[…]…it’s substantial and it’s just rich with characters and activity. And also the portrayal of life, you know, at least a thousand years ago. Daily life.

“But I think one reason that I like it is that it shows these people who are just the most incredible people — and yet they have to deal with the drudgery and tragedy of human nature.”

3. Nayano Taylor-Neumann — illness and how it teaches us to be aware of death

Image provided by the author.

When I got an email from Nayano Taylor-Neumann, she told me she was “aware of death”. I’ve always thought of death as something that was worth being aware of—if not in the direct sense, then in the peripheral sense, meaning we should think about the people we want to be with, the things we want to do, and the goals we want to achieve, all within the specter of the idea that we don’t have unlimited time. We only have right now.

For her, something similar had occurred. Due to inertia and life and all the little things that keep people in one place, she’d lived in Australia for far too long, even though she’d always wanted to move.

But when she was diagnosed with a critical lung disorder, it changed her mind. Life was limited. Time was short.

It was time to do something. She moved to the United States, and in the meantime, told me a book she’d enjoyed—though she had trouble with the question:

“I found that an impossible question to choose just one book when you frame it like that,” she said to me.

“But when I reframed it for myself saying what book can I really remember pleasing me, the first one that came to my mind was a pretty recent one. And it’s called A Gentleman in Moscow.

“Count Rostov [the protagonist] is a delightful character. When you see the world through his eyes, it is a delightful place. And the delight is in the details. How he looks at a tiny pair of embroidery scissors that used to belong to his sister. And how he describes those scissors is entrancing.

“And the way he speaks and the way he describes his life….I mean, it’s not a totally easy life — he can move anywhere in the hotel; he still goes to the incredibly fancy restaurants and so on — but it’s just delightful….”

She then goes on to impart some advice.

“Delight is all a creation of your own consciousness,” she said.

“You do not need anything outside of yourself, apart from whatever is in your everyday life, whatever that might be, to have delight. And so if you are confined at home, then the novel is a constant reminder to look and to actually see what is around you, and to hear what is around you, and to smell what is around you and delight in it.

“But you don’t need to leave the house to go on a journey of delight.”

4. Tricia Barker — experienced clinical death after a car accident

Image provided by the author.

I’ve been in a car accident before. Another person was driving, we were hit in the back—the car started to go off the road to stop—then both of the drivers talked to each other, it was brief, and that was that.

There are car accidents, of course.

Then, there are car accidents.

Tricia Barker was just a college student—she was rushing to a race that day—when she finally found herself hitting a car at 60mph. The series of events was dizzying, but she found herself on an operating table, then dying—actually dying (just like Peter)—and encountering a near-death experience.

An NDE is the common abbreviation, but it stands for people who face death, die, then come back to life. What they report on the other side of that death experience is, what seems to be, a tangible spiritual experience that feels alien and strange and incomprehensible to non-near-death-experience eyes like our own.

But when she experienced it—her own soul floating out of the room, family and relatives, and a peace and love that seemed, strangely, absent for much of her life—she felt it was real.

Something real on the other side was there, and the book she chose, strangely, dealt with her own exploration of spirituality, the other side, and living here, now, in this world:

“When people ask me what book I would choose (if you had to pick just one book) I usually say The Brothers Karamazov. Just because it shows — and not so much about the near-death experience — but it just shows the problem of taking anything to an extreme in this life.

“So if you take one of the brothers — the intellectual, the professor — the professor ends up losing his mind. The spiritual seeker becomes unreachable and unable to feel human love. He could only feel love for God. The brother who was more athletic and passionate is seen losing control of himself in bar fights. Any path that you take too far is a balance.

“So that taught me how to live. More so after the near-death experience, I had these moments of just wanting to go to an ashram and just meditate and not be anxious and just live in that space — and that wasn’t my calling. My calling was to be here in this world.”

“And sometimes this world is a mess. And sometimes, what you’re doing is you’re loving people and helping just a little in the middle of a big mess.”

5. Jose Hernandez — near-fatal allergic shock

Jose Hernandez was featured in the Netflix docuseries ‘Surviving Death’. His story is surreal and insane and all-encompassing—and, oddly, it all started when the man decided to take ibuprofen.

It was for breaking his ribs, which quickly turned into an allergic reaction.

He’s at the hospital, suffocating, when it happens—just like Tricia, just like Peter, a near-death experience.

Through this experience he meets—and makes peace—with his dead father, he sees memories flash before his eyes and feels his soul leave his physical body. I remember he was telling me all of this, and just hearing him talk—it’s hard not to believe someone when they’re telling you a nuanced, intricate account of something over the phone for something that felt like over an hour.

The phone call was emotional, but when I asked him about his favorite books, it tied directly with his experience:

“There is a book called Spirit Walker…It was a book that was gifted to me by my new wife. And — I was still — although I had embraced my experience — what if…what if it wasn’t real? Right?

“That book helped to anchor me and said, you know, we live in a world where we know so little — and yet we think we know so much.

“And we do have a lot of answers.

“But — when we look at the big picture — we have very, very few answers.

“I know the world’s gonna think I’m crazy. But this fantasy story — which [laughs]…sometimes I wonder if, maybe it’s real? Maybe you think you’re writing a story, and you’re writing a story that you’re creating — but maybe you’re just retelling a story you already lived.

“I look at it like that. [The author is] just recreating a story he already lived — 5,000 years in the future. It helps me to make sense of today. Even though most people would say the opposite — that’s a way of not making sense.

“But it’s the peace of being open, and saying, you know, I don’t know a lot of things.”

Bonus Book Recommendation—’Family Life’, by Akhil Sharma, recommended by Mohnish Soundararajan

When I was thinking about this, it was hard to pick my own favorite book recommendation.

What if I was picking the wrong book? What if—deep down—my fascination with this book was just a“phase” and the book that I picked wasn’t apt?

All of a sudden I was facing the artificial microscope I’d put on Nayano—basically: it feels impossible to pick a “one book everyone should read before they die” maybe because there’s something implicitly wrong with the question.

But the question, for all its constraints, is useful. It forces us to make a choice at a point in a time—a decision: what’s the book you want to talk about when you finally get the chance to?

And for me, that book is Family Life, by Akhil Sharma.

There was a moment when I was—right after having finished the book—just staring at something (I don’t remember what) in the room I was in. I was overwhelmed with emotion; that raw feeling you get after being devastated by a book.

It’s a moment in my own life that I remember, clear as day. I can see it in my head, right now.

And Family Life is the book that produced that kind of visceral reaction: it’s a book that’s defined by its emotional honesty, an elegant sense of simplicity (it’s less of a narrative, more of a fictional retrospective of a man’s life growing up), and I absolutely adored it.

It was “full of life”, as the author tried to do, and it was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

It was the thing that re-sparked my own fascination with novels, and it reminded me of what Peter said before—that books have a depth in understanding humanity that is hard to be matched with another medium.

That, I took to heart.


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Nourishing, Fulfilling and Wholesome: The Best Essays of 2021

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Bloomsbury India. However, all opinions expressed are my own.

One of the best books I read in December, or rather, in 2021, was Ann Patchett’s latest — These Precious Days.

I had first come across the author’s work in The Dutch House, which had been yet another review copy that the kind people over at Bloomsbury had sent me. I had loved reading it then (late 2019), and the essence of it had remained in me for a long time afterward. 

I felt strangely in touch and in tandem with the emotions of the characters in a way that was unlike anything I had ever felt previously, for characters in ‘literary fiction’ works.

Flashforward to December 2021, I got the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Ann Patchett, and boy, am I glad! There is certainly a reason why this is one of my favorite reads of the year, as it was Barack Obama’s!


Synopsis

If I still haven’t convinced you enough, here is a synopsis from Goodreads:

“Any story that starts will also end.” As a writer, Ann Patchett knows what the outcome of her fiction will be. Life, however, often takes turns we do not see coming. Patchett ponders this truth in these wise essays that afford a fresh and intimate look into her mind and heart. 

A literary alchemist, Patchett plumbs the depths of her experiences to create gold: engaging and moving pieces that are both self-portrait and landscape, each vibrant with emotion and rich in insight. Turning her writer’s eye on her own experiences, she transforms the private into the universal, providing us all a way to look at our own worlds anew, and reminds how fleeting and enigmatic life can be. 

From the enchantments of Kate di Camilo’s children’s books to youthful memories of Paris; the cherished life gifts given by her three fathers to the unexpected influence of Charles Schultz’s Snoopy; the expansive vision of Eudora Welty to the importance of knitting, Patchett connects life and art as she illuminates what matters most. Infused with the author’s grace, wit, and warmth, the pieces in These Precious Days resonate deep in the soul, leaving an indelible mark — and demonstrate why Ann Patchett is one of the most celebrated writers of our time.


Essays and why I love them

There is something undefinably wholesome and at the same time, real, in the reading of essays. One knows there is an end, that arrives faster than a novel’s (which might even have a sequel); that is to say, essays are short. Unbearably so or gladly so? I cannot say for sure.

The compactness of the essay is something that has really pulled me towards essays, increasingly so in recent times. Perhaps I have evolved as a reader or I simply want to explore the shorter works of literature now — short stories, essays, and the like. But what I could not imagine when I had first started doing so, was how life-altering it would be.

Knowing that there is an end and that essays are often non-fictional works rooted in reality (in someone’s actual life), sobers me and at the same time, makes me fascinated. Is it therefore a surprise if I say that I connect more with essay writers than perhaps any character in a fictional tale?


Ann Patchett’s style

Now we arrive at the most arduous part of my review essay — to put into words the beauty of Ann Patchett’s writing. Even ‘beauty’ is too simple. 

And so I glance through the blurbs and see that words like ‘powerful’, ‘profound’, ‘kind’, ‘nourishing’ (too bad that I already used it in my title), ‘truth’, ‘pleasure, ‘master’, ‘forensic eye’, ‘humane’, ‘stunning’ etc. have been used in varying capacities to describe the way Patchett’s work made readers and reviewers alike, from all over the world, feel.

For the sake of my own peace and the feeling of accomplishment that will definitely be there if I believe I am able to describe my own emotions about the collection well, I shall at least try.

Ann Patchett writes about life. But what is special is that she brings the reader in — you are now her friend, and maybe you are penpals, the width of a country between you; maybe you are a girlfriend sipping on long island peach teas on a Sunday as you catch up, or maybe you are the favourite relative. 

You are now a cherished part of Patchett’s life and in return, you cherish being given that place of honour. I laughed, cried, felt bittersweet, inspired — but most of all, I felt understood because Patchett’s work is humane. There. I just had to use the word.

I cannot possibly not talk about this other aspect as well — how Patchett’s words are so evocative, they fill my mind’s eye. Her sentences are cozy and often quite calming in how they are delivered. The reader is at home and finally at peace.


My Favourite Essays

From the 24 pieces in this collection (yes, I shall count the Introduction and Epilogue in it), I resonated on a greater level with some of them. This was because of various reasons, including but not limited to my own journey in life — living today as I am, my convictions and ideologies, my aspirations, my relationships, and so on. Maybe you will resonate like me, with all of them, but in most probability, you will have a completely different selection (which again reflects the varied nature of the humane in Patchett’s work!)

So the essays I resonated the most with, are:

  1. The First Thanksgiving
  2. My Year of No Shopping
  3. How to Practice
  4. How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice
  5. Tavia
  6. A Paper Ticket Is Good For One Year
  7. The Nightstand
  8. A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities
  9. Two More Things I Want to Say about My Father

And here I end

I shall end my attempt at this review essay, by simply believing that a friend is reading this. So here goes:

Consider this book a gift from me to you. Think of it as a reflection of the depths of my heart, my feelings (because this book is now a part of me and I am a part of this book).

And I give you my heart, Dearest One.


Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.