Books of the Year

An 840 page long graphic novel, the venomous diaries of an American millionaire, forgotten old classics – our wonderful authors at RH pick their favourite reads of 2009. We hope at Random Reads that they find their way in your reading lists for 2010.

Vikas Swarup: For me the best book I read this year was The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller. It is a non-fiction book that recounts in lush, poetic prose, the story of a Wyoming kid who died in an oil-field accident.

Basharat Peer: Peace by Richard Bausch: One of the most insightful accounts of what war does to men by a writer of razor-sharp prose. Three other non-fiction books which I loved were The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier, a journey from Geneva to Afghanistan, Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, the classic non-fiction account of race in America and Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples by Christopher de Bellaigue

Namita Devidayal: I read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates rather than watching the Oscar-winning movie and loved it. And I keep dipping into Maria Lidchi-Grassi’s Mahabharata trilogy which is mesmerising. On the lighter side, had great fun reading Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Mavis Gallant’s stories inspired me to write my own. She’s been a particularly strong presence this year as I spent a few days in Paris interviewing her for Granta and had to revisit her work, many of which feature in The Cost of Living, a collection of her early and uncollected stories. My two other novels of the year are Contempt by Alberto Moravia for its exquisite pacing, and Camus’ The Stranger, which I had the great pleasure of rereading this year.

Daniyal Mueenuddin: I mostly read old books – on the theory that, all books are new to me, if I haven’t read them – and it seems arbitrary to limit myself to the “new” books that happen to have been published recently.  However –with that caveat – or perhaps, with that defence of my tragically out-of-it reading habits – here are some books that have meant a lot to me this year.

Last winter, when it seemed that the Taliban would soon be cruising into Islamabad on their Toyota-pickup battlewagons, I read through the essays of Sir Francis Bacon, and found great comfort in them.  His analysis and his prescriptions are as cold and pragmatic as anything I know – and at the moment we all, in Pakistan, should be working on those qualities.  The prose is chewy and ripe and strong – a strengthening tonic.

In the same vein, I read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy for the first time, and found myself admiring the prose tremendously, the hard sentences – and the starkness of the tone. Strangely, he sometimes, as if making up for the generally spare writing, launches into hyperventilatingly purple passages, which come foaming out every twenty or thirty pages.  The effect of the whole is nevertheless pretty tremendous.

Finally, on a lighter note, the diaries of Chips Channon, a (very) rich American who moved to England in the 1930s, married a Guinness, daughter of the second Earl of Iveagh, became an MP, and set about wining and dining his way up the greasy pole of society.  The diaries are biting and funny – he makes no bones about being a colossal snob – pure confection – the ideal escapist read, deliciously bitchy gossip about famous people long dead.

Alice Albinia: The year began with Daniyal Mueenuddin’s book of startling and luminous contrasts, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. A rainy Scottish holiday was saved by Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and William Trevor’s Love and Summer, novels which I read back to back and savoured; there are strong parallels between them, though I loved Trevor’s slightly more: for the quirky characters and the strangeness of the tale. Autumn brought John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the Mahabharata to my desk. What a boon, to hold this inimitable text in one hand! I found his translation easier to read than the Chicago version (though less beautifully bound, inevitably, than P. Lal’s multitudinous Calcutta edition). For Christmas I am saving two giants: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.

Geoff Dyer: I can’t remember a year like it: so many great things were published in 2009 that what follows is a very selective selection of highlights: Wells Tower’s powerhouse debut collection of stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; Lorrie Moore’s long-awaited third novel (though actually her first substantial one), The Gate at the Stairs; David Eagleman’s Calvinoesque collection of ‘stories from the After-life’, Sum. In non-fiction: The Music Room, William Fiennes’s memoir of growing up in an old English castle, an idyllic childhood rendered unstable and poignant by his severely epileptic brother; Richard Holmes’s amazing, enthralling narrative of science in the Romantic era, The Age of Wonder; Ed Burns’s and David Simon’s account of life in a drug ghetto in Baltimore, The Corner. Clearly, this formed an important part of the preparation for the TV series, The Wire but make no mistake: it’s a flat-out masterpiece of reportage in its own right.

Mohammed Hanif: Home by Marilynne Robinson: the slowest, saddest book I have read this year. It’s a painfully accurate but tender evocation of every home.

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. The most deliciously depraved book about a travelling salesperson you are ever likely to read. Bunny is a stomach churning and disgusting character but you don’t want to leave him alone because you never know what he might do next.

Home Boy by H.M. Naqvi: Finally a funny, racy novel about 9/11 by a hugely talented Pakistani writer.

Chalo: Very strange and endearing travel stories by debut Urdu writer Masud Alam.

Mitti Ki Kaan by Afzal Ahmed Syed: collected works of Urdu’s best contemporary poet.

Tehzibi Nargasiat: Ever wondered why a certain kind of Muslamans is always whining? This book has all the answers.

Brighton Rock by Graham Green: A feverish, twisted thriller. Its teenage villain-hero will haunt you long after you finish this book.

Yasmin Khan: Two (recent) books I very much enjoyed reading in conjunction are Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and Sugata Bose’s A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire – one fiction and one non-fiction but complementary to each other; both open up wonderful new ways of looking at the South Asian past. Another book I loved was The Real Wizard of Oz: the life and times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine (Penguin, US); she’s a friend but that’s not why I recommend it – it’s about Baum, the man who wrote the Wizard of Oz, but is more than a straightforward biography as it really shows small town American history in a fresh light, in all its weirdness and eccentricity.

Manju Kapur: A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This book is gigantic in scope, amazing in its understanding of history and social processes, with enough interest in all the characters to keep one turning its 700 pages.

J M Coetzee’s Summertime. Trademark Coetzee, with the maximum amount of distance between narrator and subject, this book is part memoir, part fiction, part biography, and wholly thought provoking.

Amos Oz’s A Time of Love and Despair.  A memoir, written with great poignancy, with all of Europe and its anti-Semitism as its subject.

Joseph Roth’s Weights and Measures. First published in 1937 and reissued recently, this tiny book has not a word out of place. It deals with love, betrayal, passion and duty all in a remote town of the Zlotogrod district in Europe.

Anita Desai: Sheila Dhar’s Raga n’ Josh for its infectious gusto and relish for music, food and friends, as well as a marvelously vivid and unsentimental portrait of family life in the Old Delhi that was.

David Shulman’s Spring/Heat/Rain: a diary of the three seasons he spent amongst the poets, musicians and temples of Andhra Pradesh, written with an intensity that goes beyond the poetic into the spiritual – and reminds me of Andrew Harvey’s Journey to Ladakh.

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets: an uneven collection as anthologies must be but beautifully edited and produced by Jeet Thayil.

On the American Scene: Alexander Hemon’s books on being a Bosnian immigrant in the US, particularly the most recent, The Lazarus Project; he writes in a language foreign to him in the wonderfully creative way that Nabokov did.

Ashok Banker: For me the highlight of the year was Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s massive 840 page graphic novel A Drifting Life. A thinly fictionalized autobiography that tracks the growth of Japan from post-WWII to the present day paralleled with the growth of manga this is a highly literate work.  It describes the life of a young man’s journey into adulthood, his encounters with famous manga legends, the inner workings of the manga publishing world, difficult editors, unsavoury publishers, with a brother afflicted by medical problems who is both his greatest burden and greatest source of moral support. A must-read for anyone who believes (or questions) that graphic novels can be as important works of literature as the greatest contemporary novels.

Moni Mohsin: My book of the year is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a novel about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s much maligned chief minister. Mantel takes a risk in revisiting Tudor England for it is a period more written about by historians, novelists, script writers and dramatists than perhaps any other historical period in British history. Yet in imbuing it with a modern sensibility, Mantel manages to not only breathe new life into a tired old literary genre, she makes us appraise the period afresh. This is a truly original book.  And I couldn’t put down Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second part of his Millennium Trilogy. Though repetitive in parts (a fresh cup of espresso is brewed on virtually every other page) it is fast paced and vividly written, with an exciting, involving plot. Read the first page and you’ll be hooked.

And from the team at RHI (Disclaimer: we asked the team not to mention RHI books in the interest of objectivity but they insisted!)

Anirban: Last Orders (Graham Swift)

Wikinomics (D Tapscott & A Williams)

The Child in Time, Saturday, Enduring Love, Black Dogs (Ian McEwan)

Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (Francis Fukuyama)

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Geoff Dyer)

Chiki: I’m currently reading Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus and am staggered by its scale, wit, style and idiosyncrasies. I think it must be the most important non fiction book published in India this year. My other obsessions of the year were the Steig Larrson trilogy which I only discovered in April and devoured hungrily, and the books of Aleksander Hemon ( his new collection of short stories, Love and other Obstacles was published this year) who I feel is the most ambitious and talented writer of his generation in the English language. I try and re-read a classic each year – this time I returned to Marquez’s work, and remembered anew what a master he is.

Milee: Chetan Bhagat’s Two States. Although I’m not a big fan of his writing I really admire Chetan Bhagat’s smart choice of subjects, in this case, love marriage in India and how the family plays such a crucial role. His natural instinct for the mass Indian market is extraordinary. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders. This for me is one of the best books of 2009. Daniyal Mueenuddin in his book has created an exquisite portrait of Pakistani life, in a way never done before. His writing makes the characters come alive and lends them a life beyond books. And lastly, Satyajit Ray’s The Feluda Mysteries. I think it was a great idea to present Satyajit Ray’s long enduring and much loved adventures of Feluda as a comic book series. At Rs 99, it is priced and packaged well for children.

Neyata: Borders and Boundaries by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin for its extremely poignant and intensely moving account of India’s partition, retold from the personal narratives of women subjects. An absolute must-read for all those interested in the genre. The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple: for its compelling, albeit somewhat disturbing picture of modern day India through a range of different vantage points. Two of the RHI books I worked on have stayed with me. One is the Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai because of the way Desai makes the reader empathize with the two protagonists, although in completely diametrical ways, and for its subtle portrayal of the perceived contradiction between the material and the spiritual. The second is The Painter by Deepanjana Pal for the way she infuses fact with imagination as she recreates the life and times of Ravi Varma, making it so much more than just a biography.

Rachel: Cairo Modern: Naguib Mahfouz, although it was published in 1945, it’s finally been translated to English.  He is one of my favorite authors who brilliantly expresses the complexities of relationships, youth and life in 1930’s Cairo.  Hello Sunshine by Ryan Adams.  One of the biggest selling musicians in the US and UK, this is his follow up to Infinity Blues – poetry and short stories in the voice that can only be Ryan’s bittersweet song.

Sohini: Since starting at RHI this year I haven’t read many non Random House books. My picks: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (fiction) and Chris Andersen’s Free (non-fiction). The only non RH title that I can recall right away is what I just finished: Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a fabulous retelling of Cinderella.

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2 thoughts on “Books of the Year

  1. I didn’t know Revolutionary Read was based off a book! Heard about the movie and seemed interesting, now I’ll make it one of the titles in my 2010 reading list.

  2. Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness and not as mentioned. I would venture to add that it is likely my book of the decade, if we can agree that this decade is over. Great pick by Manju Kapur. Cheers.

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