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January Recommendations: Looking Back, Looking Forward


It is only natural that at the cusp of 2020, we at Champaca, found ourselves taking stock of the year that has gone by, and making hopeful plans for the new one. We would like to start 2021 with our reflections on a simple phrase — looking  back, looking forward. And we are doing that by each sharing two books with you that embody our interpretations. Read on to discover a dozen books that we love, and get your copies from Champaca.


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I happened to read Oryx and Crake in 2020, and it's not hard to see why this is the image of the year that stayed with me. A speculative fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic world that’s high on genetic engineering. A plague wipes out humanity and we’re left with Snowman and human-like creatures called Crakers. Atwood paints bleak, beautiful worlds to lose yourself in. I didn’t have the courage to finish the MaddAddam trilogy in 2020, and I am looking forward to returning to this world this year.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

What is family? A question I think about more and more. Without giving away the plot of this book I'd like to say that this was a new, heartbreaking way to examine this question for me. But one I would like to stay with in the coming year.


Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

This book always feels like something of a fever dream to me — ethereal, confusing, unnerving. This year felt like that too, simultaneously moving faster than I could keep up with and slower than I ever could have imagined. For whatever reason, I keep coming back to parts of this book, and its exploration of something wholly other, a something that can be completely unexpected (!) and even within ourselves (!!). One of my favourite quotes, and a little message to 2020: “Don’t follow. I’m well beyond you now, and traveling very fast.”

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I'm looking forward to Conversations with Friends in a very literal sense: I have reread it every year since I first read it, and I can't wait for that in 2021. One of the things I appreciate most about Sally Rooney's books is the fact that she always centres this idea: how much are we made by the people we surround ourselves with? 2020 has been isolating for a lot of us, and I'm hoping the next year is full of more, and better, connection


The Return by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s The Return is a memoir about the author seeking his father who was imprisoned by Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, when the author was 20. It is a memoir about loss, a sense of home and place, about what happens to the individual when the political world is ruthless, run by totalitarian demagogues. It is about the expansive but limited nature of hope. The memoir is written in a tone that is tender and heartbreaking, and the prose has a quality of honesty only acquired from a life of tremendous experience. In this difficult time in our country and all over the world, some of the hard earned insights from Hisham Matar seemed like a difficult but important guiding light for how to hold everything dear, as John Berger says (another book for our present).

Valmiki's Ramayana by Arshia Sattar

Last year, thanks to Madeline Miller’s Circe, I reread various translations of The Odyssey, and relished how much a telling, interpretation and translation of a myth can transform the story, and how it can point to vengeful gods and petty mortals with great ethical insight, and tremendous fun (monsters! spells! ships!). This year, I want to bring this rereading of myths closer home and read Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions, and Valmiki’s Ramayana by Arshia Sattar. Both myths have seen profound transformations in the public sphere, and I look for rigorous research, beautiful prose, and non-masculinist ways of telling.


The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago

Ever since I encountered The History of the Siege of Lisbon twenty years back, I have been struck by the contemporary consciousness of this historical and yet, not-historical novel. The story is of a proof-reader Raimundo Silva who alters the course of historical narrative by inserting a single word in an account of the Siege of Lisbon, an important twelfth-century event in Portuguese history. The reddish tone of Saramago’s approach is perhaps the idea that history is suffused with dominant narratives, with fiction creeping in periodically depending on the historian's creativity in places where the evidence doesn't exist to bridge gaps. Raimundo’s insertion brings in the voice of someone who isn’t used to taking weighty decisions in shaping sweeping narratives, and as he navigates the narrative with increasing excitement and creative flourish,  the resulting boisterous cacophony that stands in contrast with his own dull life in the world outside. My first introduction to Saramago’s writing, I was immediately drawn to the long, stream-of-consciousness which when heard read aloud sounds like warm, everyday conversation!  

Call of Nature: The Secret World of Dung by Richard Jones

Have you walked by cowsheds and noticed neatly rolled marbles of dung lying scattered in the vicinity? It is highly possible that you might have missed them as they can be quite small but when you begin to notice them, they are everywhere! Dung beetles, the creators of these dung balls and perpetrators of their mysterious local movements, act on elephant dung and bison dung with equal aplomb. They lay eggs on the dung balls, and transfer them away from the mother lode for the larvae to develop feeding on the dung. There are other kinds of dung beetles that don’t roll dung, but bury them wherever they find them, while there is a third group that live inside the dung itself! The dung beetles are a snapshot of the myriad diversity in the most speciose group of organisms on the planet, the beetles.  In the spirit of looking small in the coming year, I will keep returning to this wonderful book on the dung beetle that tells us not only life history, ecology and distribution of these beetles but also cultural anecdotes and stories from around the world. 


Beastly Tales from Here and There by Vikram Seth

After not being a reader of poetry for much of my adult life, something shifted in me a couple of years ago. In 2020, after a long time, I picked up Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales from Here and There once again. Seth’s animal fables in verse were an antidote for an already tough year that came with workplace challenges I found myself woefully unprepared for. Whether it was the retelling of “The Crocodile and The Monkey,” a story I heard innumerable times as a child, or “The Frog and the Nightingale” that I first read in a middle-school coursebook, the poems were a blanket of comfort wrapped in wit and good humour. As splendid as he is in his prose, I have always found Seth’s poetry most sublime. Not to mention, there was poetic justice in reading these verses, which he wrote while procrastinating, while doing the same myself. 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

After reading it and fits and bursts all of last year, I hope to return to Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost in 2021. The world and our lives have always been uncertain, but the year that went by laid that out in front of us in the most brutal of ways. And while the clocks may have turned once again, the uncertainty remains. Through Solnit’s essays, which tell her own stories, and those of her loved ones, and meander through art and history and politics, I wish to find yet another nudge to embrace ambiguity and my unease about it, and be welcoming of the unexpected, whether it is good or bad.


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain is not for the faint of heart. Set in 1980s’ Glasgow, it is a bleak, devastating coming-of-age tale about a young boy who is noticeably “different” from all the other boys, and whose search for identity is eclipsed by his mother’s increasing alcoholism. It’s also about so much more. Unflinching in its depiction of poverty and pain, this is a brave novel, psychologically astute and beautifully written. Not an easy novel by any means, it’s heartening to see it win the accolades it has. In a year that has upended all our lives, this novel reminds us that even when circumstances conspire to break us, we can and will adapt and survive in an unforgiving world.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

What happens when the son of the American President falls for a Prince of England? Seriously, this is all you really need to know to dive right into this immensely enjoyable gay rom-com which brims with feel-good tingles and fuzzy delights as two conflicted young men, whom you really grow to care about, find themselves falling in love amidst a presidential campaign and a royal showdown. Set in an alternate version of 2020, with a woman president in the White House and no whisper of Covid-19, this makes for excellent escapist fare, and is the perfect way to revive one's flagging spirits as we all look forward to a brighter, better 2021.

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