What Writers Are Reading: Amitava Kumar & Laura van den Berg

Elisa Gabbert
What Writers Are Reading
2 min readMar 18, 2024

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Photo by Olga Tutunaru on Unsplash

Amitava Kumar

All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal

You know, I routinely read the “By the Book” feature in the New York Times Book Review — often pausing at the question about which dead writers this particular person will invite to dinner. But recently I took note of a book that Sigrid Nunez had mentioned, All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal. I’m not a cat person but what drew me to it was Nunez saying that it “is one of those rare books that meet Kafka’s ideal of what a book should be: ‘An axe for the frozen sea within us.’” As if that were not enough, Nunez had added: “It also meets Nabokov’s concise definition of art: ‘Beauty plus pity.’” Wouldn’t you want to read a book thus recommended? I mean, I have carried that line by Kafka in my heart for decades and wanted someone to explain to me what it means. And now, in reading this slim memoir about a writer’s cats, I’m finally getting it. I’m half-way through. Of course, I don’t want it to end. It is effortless writing, every page, every line, shot through with love and regret.

Amitava Kumar (Amitava Kumar here on Medium) is the author most recently of My Beloved Life.

Laura van den Berg

beautyland by marie-helene bertino

I’m reading Marie-Helene Bertino’s new novel, Beautyland. I picked it up in part because I’m a MHB fan and also because I’m teaching a speculative fiction workshop this spring and we’re reading some of Bertino’s work. Beautyland covers the arc of a woman’s life (her name is Adina) but the twist here is that Adina believes herself to be an alien who has been sent to earth to gather information that will shed light on the human experience. It’s a beautiful book. Wise and spikey and funny and wrenching. It’s making me want time to slow down. It’s making me want to look a little more carefully, a little more curiously, at the mundane weirdness that surrounds us. I always love it when a book revitalizes my own antenna for the singular idiosyncrasies of being alive on earth.

Laura van den Berg is the author most recently of The Third Hotel.

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Elisa Gabbert
What Writers Are Reading

Poet and essayist. Author of The Unreality of Memory, The Word Pretty, and other books. On Twitter at @egabbert. More info at http://www.elisagabbert.com/