It’s not fun when your new year begins with a health condition that keeps you stuck at home. Of course, I was upset and frustrated. But sometimes, as a reader, perhaps this is exactly what you need to gallop ahead on your annual reading goals even before you put together your reading list for the year.
Here are three books from India, Japan and Sweden originally written in the local/regional language that I enjoyed in their translated English versions in January 2023
Gachar Gochar by Vivek Shanbhag
This novella, written in Kannada, the regional language spoken in the city of Bangalore, India and translated into English by Srinath Perur received rave reviews in 2022. To my surprise, I saw that we had acquired a copy on a recent trip to India. Given my painful condition and inability to focus on simple tasks, I reluctantly picked it up, wondering how long it would take for me to finish reading it. Twenty-fours later when I put the book down, I was glad it was my first book of 2023.
Although the words in the title don’t necessarily mean anything, it is perfect for this sweet gem of a story that takes you into the home of a family that finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
It’s a rags to riches story with a twist.
Every character in the household – Amma, Appa, Chikappa as well as the brother-sister duo who are at loggerheads are sketched with care. Even Vincent, the enigmatic, all-knowing but reticent waiter is described with the right degree of detail to draw you into the seemingly uneventful yet complex tapestry of family relationships that are affected by the arrival of money.
While I was not sure if Gachar Gochar was a novella or a longish short story, it surely belongs to the genre of classic short tales that lend themselves to TV or OTT very easily. I hope it finds its way to the screen soon.
Why read this book – The writing is simple, unpretentious and convincing. While I read the English translation, I’m sure the original Kannada version has subtle nuances that add to the authentic flavour of this not so unusual slice of life story.
Before Your Memory Fades by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Have you read Before The Coffee Gets Cold And its sequel, Tales from the Cafe, two books that tell stories of people who visit a cafe in Japan where you can travel back (or forward) in time? If yes, this book is the third in the series. If not, it doesn’t matter because you can start reading these books in any order.
Unlike the previous two books which were set in Cafe Funiculi Funicula, located in a back alley in Tokyo, this is a book about Cafe Donna Donna which overlooks the scenic Hakodate port in Northern Japan. What is common among the three books are unforgettable recurring characters such as Nagare the owner of the cafe, and his cousin Kazu along with memorable appearances by people who visit the cafe and boldly decide to embark on a time travel experiment despite the strict rules that they need to follow.
Unlike the earlier books where it was easy to get carried away by the poignant stories of the various cafe visitors, this book seemed to evoke less of a reaction. Was it the storytelling that appeared to be labored or the stories themselves that seemed very similar to the ones I had read previously in the series? I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. But the beauty of the seasons in Hakodate makes you want to visit the town, even if you are not interested in time travel. And of course, you can relate to the quirks and anxieties of each of the characters who either wade into the turbulent waters of time or watch others who do it.
Why read this book – For a small peek into a unique country and culture and feel a kinship with characters who have lost loved ones and would take great risks for just another glimpse.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This book has been in the news lately thanks to the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks. I haven’t seen the movie but I would highly recommend the book for one simple reason. It draws you into the boring life of a grumpy old man, one who begins to get on your nerves even though you start developing warm fuzzy feelings for him.
Frederick Backman’s wonderfully lighthearted approach in telling this story is what makes it riveting. In a reading marathon that lasted over a weekend, I felt as if I had run a race when I finished this book because each chapter leaves you with a breathless feeling of suspense. Despite the barren winter landscape and the empty life of the protagonist, a lot happens in the life of Ove as multiple characters make an appearance, including a cat with attitude.
The lean, no-frills prose takes you right into the rigid mind of Ove who has zero tolerance for incompetent people and as luck would have it, he seems to be surrounded by a bunch of people in his neighborhood who fit the bill. With each chapter you get drawn into the lives of a motley cast of characters and before long you find yourself nodding and agreeing with everything that happens.
It isn’t often that you come across fiction that is hard to classify precisely because it is a faithful representation of life – there’s impatience and empathy, great love and unbelievable frustration, hope and despair all existing side by side.
Yet, it somehow all fits together perfectly. There’s room for everyone, including Ove, in a world that doesn’t make sense.
Why read this book – For a taste of what life looks like as you age and how one can find meaning even when all seems lost, this is a perfect way to start a new year.