The other day, as I was aimlessly browsing through my Goodreads app, at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday night, I noticed that one of my ex-colleagues was reading a book I had just finished that I found so tedious that for half an hour I wanted to play Jesus and reach out my hand to say “Dear child, stop! I burned myself so that you could be saved”. I held back from saying God-ism because I haven’t spoken to this lady in over half a decade, so the gesture may have been considered disturbing. My automatic stalker instincts, however, led me to go through his TBR list and thank the Lord, I found some brilliant books in that pile that I’ve absolutely loved in the past, so I figured it was better to leave it to its present boring reading. Certainly, better days are ahead of her.
Did it help me sleep better that night? No. Instead, I felt a sense of envy that she could experience these wonderful works for the very first time. So I decided to do what every insomniac does in the wee hours of the morning: make a list.
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This one is rhetorically titled Five Books I’d Sell My Soul to Read for the First Time:
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1989)
One of my first 5 star reads of 2022 and I can’t believe it took me 35 years of living on this planet to discover the works of this Noble award winning author. Ishiguro is an artist like no other and this is his masterpiece. It is his homage to England, its glorious past, its noble riches, its magnificent landscapes and ultimately its torments through two great wars. He writes the book in the form of a seemless travel memoir, one undertaken by its protagonist, Mr. Stevens, a very uptight and loyal English butler. His character is unknowingly comical, thoughtful, noble, and attached to his place in the world like no other. Through his eyes, Ishiguro tells a story of loneliness, human relationships, loyalty, class diaspora, self-realization, lost love, regret and acceptance.
It’s so rare that you come across a book that you know will stay with you until the end of your time and will be read and re-read in hopes of discovering tiny bits of missed magic the first time around. ; but the first will always remain the first.
A GOLDEN AGE (2007)
There are a few times in your life that are so entrenched in the crevices of your brain that you tend to remember the smallest details of the day of the week or the exact jacket you were wearing. Witnessing an English-language hardcover novel by a Bangladeshi author for the first time on a shelf in an independent Sydney neighborhood bookstore was all that for me. I distinctly remember the elegant blue and gold cover of the dust jacket, of a mother holding her child, the blue being the drapes of her wild sari, an almost illusory quality to the picture. I remember to this day the rush my 20 year old felt reading the blurb at the end, knowing that I was finally going to read about my country’s glorious but bloody past in a work of English literary fiction .
I hoped so desperately that the narrative flowed effortlessly and remained authentic to our story; and oh-how I was not disappointed! Anam expertly shapes each of the characters of the Haques, the titular family of this saga (which ended up morphing into something of a trilogy), their trials and tribunals at the dawn of the most trying time in the history of the Bangladesh and its war. towards liberation. Anam’s plot takes a while to firm up, but its world-building is so immaculate that I’ve read some of its passages twice to savor the Bengali pride. The underlying themes of motherhood, national pride and female roles in the otherwise male brutality of battles make Anam’s debut one of the best yet to come out on our side of the world.
STRANGE WEATHER IN TOKYO (2013)
My first foray into the world of contemporary Japanese literature (with the exception of a few Harukami classics), this book changed the way I identify as a reader. Until I read this, I was a solid plot seeker – hard-hitting middle, heart-stopping climax, smashing finish; I needed everything. Kawakami taught me to look for the epic in the banal. Like a work of origami, it starts with nothing but porous paper and with great subtlety takes its beautiful characters and readers to the finish line; no glue, no cuts, no marks on the paper needed.
It’s a story about loneliness and the need to find connection in the strangest places and people. It’s a love story, told with respect and profound elegance, between a woman in her thirties and her former high school Sensei. Between their dreamlike, quiet nights in small Tokyo sake bars and the weather outside described as if it were the symphony of their union, I was a forever changed reader.
ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS TOTALLY (2017)
I’ll be honest, I’m offended that Gail Honeyman hasn’t published a second novel since this superb debut. I want to re-read a work by Honeyman for the first time, and that’s it! Also, Eleanor Oliphant might be totally fine, but, after reading this book, I definitely wasn’t. The last 70 or so pages of my copy may or may not be soaked in tears and snot, deeming the copy unsuitable for borrowing.
Frankly, when I had read the blurb at the end, I had already sanctioned books with lonely, eccentric characters in mundane jobs who don’t seem to pick up social cues and are oblivious to personal behaviors. Done to death, right? Bad. Honeyman gives you a masterclass on how to write a non-neurotypical character, without explicitly shoving their diagnosis down your throat. It does what so many writers in this genre fail to do, it gives Eleanor a personality beyond her mental illness and gives her a backstory so chilling you want to root beyond the 350 pages. of his column. So I ask again: Where is the second book, Mrs. Honeyman?
NINE LIVES: IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED IN MODERN INDIA (2009)
It’s hard to believe I chose to include a work of non-fiction, a single-author anthology written by a historian in this list. Dear readers, amusing anecdote: I am not a fan of short stories or dry historical accounts written “subjectively” by ancient white men on the subject of my subcontinent. Instead, I chose a husband who is a white-hearted ancient man who has a lot to say about the history of my subcontinent, but that’s a story for another day.
With nine lives, William Dalrymple not only showed me that in literature there is no place for stereotypes, but goes on to write nine of the most fascinating, magical and illustrative plays that delve into the world of ancient religions, rituals and faith from the corners of India. Nine stories of nine lives – there is a tantric, a nun, a prison guard who plays God, a prostitute; Dalrymple tells their story without judgment and with great dignity. Her story takes the form of a travelogue and her observations are remarkable, honest and haunting.
Once, during the Dhaka Lit fest, I had asked the author if he was still in contact with some of his characters from the book, to which he replied that he was, but it shouldn’t matter to the reader because the stories of these individuals are more expansive than his relationship with them, which is but a fragment of their totality. I knew immediately, from that moment on, that I had a favorite historian!
Dear readers, as always, thank you for being with me and my heartfelt case of verbal diarrhea. These books, while they may not be my all-time favorites (I mean hello, Pride and Prejudice), are all my 5 star reads and the impacts they left on my heart, from the first reading, were more than profound. I also noticed that three of the five books listed here have tragedy and loneliness as their main theme. Maybe a little less reading and a little more therapy for me then.
Sarah Ismail Bari is a full-time corporate slave, overtime mom, part-time reader, and chronic dreamer.