Books of the Year

Unputdownable thrillers, graphic vampire novels, eternal classics and many more – our wonderful authors at RH pick their favourite reads of 2010. At Random Reads we hope that they make sure your reading hats remain happily in place for 2011.

Manju Kapur: Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil

This book received mixed reviews, but I thought it was brilliant. Martel is a quirky writer, loves using animals, themes within themes, a book about the holocaust is rejected, he wants to find new ways to tell it, and here he has done just that.

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

The last book of his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, Poison, Shadow and Farewell brings together the vast themes that span Marias’ work,  life, death, memory, choice, love, betrayal, really everything. Felt a little awestruck when I finished it. 

Azar Nafisi: Things I Have been Silent About

Far more personal than Reading Lolita in Tehran and therefore to me more engaging. About Nafisi’s parents and perhaps inevitably the state of Iran.

Jo Nesbo: The Snowman

I am not a reader of thrillers, but cannot put Jo Nesbo down, hence it is included.  Set in Oslo, the policeman Harry Hole, drinks too much, is an iconoclast, a loner, with an obsessive temperament that tells on his love life.

Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question

A very distinctive mournful, thoughtful sense of humour – no wonder it won the Booker. And an author I had never heard of!

Namita Devidayal: The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson

This three-part series was the highlight of my reading experience this year. Despite its flaws and Hindi movie-like flourishes, the plot had me strangulated. I love the anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, and wish for her likeness among us to take care of all the meanies and rapists!

The Battle of Kurukshetra by Maggi Lidchi-Grassi

This extraordinary book written by a Polish countess, and published by The Writers Workshop, retells the classic epic, the Mahabharata. Through her lyrical prose and deep insights, she captures the timeless stories, the characters and all the paradoxes of the human condition such that you want to keep dipping in long after it’s over.

 The Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton

I re-read this book with my son with great relish. It is breathtakingly imaginative and, dare I say, more innocent than Harry Potter. It takes you into a lovely magical space where you travel with the little people and their pixie friend and lets you believe – especially if read at bedtime – that dreams do come true!

Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

This is a racy, searing crime story by a writer who, in another avatar, is the award-winning John Banville. It gets under the skin of the characters in a manner that is enviable for anyone looking to marry a page turner with literary fiction.

A Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro

A great example of literary non-fiction about a subject that has been grossly misunderstood or superficially dealt with – the Mumbai bar girl. We get a glimpse into the life of one girl, but through her, walk into the larger narrative of women in India.

Rahul Mehta: Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

Bloom is one of my all-time favorite short story writers, so a new collection from her is cause for celebration. Bloom’s signature wit is all over this collection. In particular, the two quartets of linked stories here are masterpieces. In one, the protagonist commits an act so shocking and upsetting that many readers would recoil. But in Bloom’s careful and compassionate hands, the character’s behavior seems not only understandable, but, somehow, inevitable.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but the mountain of attention Freedom has received this year is, in my estimation, well-deserved. I don’t usually have the stamina for long novels (due to no fault on the part of the long novels but rather due to my own shortcomings as a reader), but this one was an exception. After work, I’d rush home so that I could spend an hour with these characters before I had to turn my attention to evening chores. Reading in bed, I would keep my partner awake with my audible gasps and chuckles at the plot’s twists and turns. When I read the last page, I was sad to let these characters go.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

I was a virgin. I’d never read an Ellis novel, not even Less than Zero, to which Imperial Bedrooms is the sequel. So I wasn’t quite prepared for the assault—that’s what it felt like, an assault. Through the eyes of the narrator, we see a side of L.A. that is both sadistic and nihilistic. Yet the narrator is lacking in any reflection about this soulless world or about his participation in it. The flatness with which he describes a particularly shocking scene in the desert is deeply unsettling. Do I love this book? No, love is not a word I would use to describe my feelings toward it. Do I wish I hadn’t read it? Sometimes, frankly, I do. Then why is it on my list? Because I feel deeply impacted and altered by it, and that, in the end, is what I want from literature. I want to be transformed.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

I can’t think of a book more opposite of Imperial Bedrooms than By Nightfall. If Ellis’s book lacks interiority, Cunningham’s novel has it in spades. Indeed, no one does quiet introspection better. By Nightfall’s revelations about ageing, about beauty, about love and desire are both deeply moving and wise. Part philosophy, part poetry, this novel, of all the books that I read this year, is the one I’ll keep going back to.

Basharat Peer: My favourite books of the year are:

The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow Suransky (Pantheon),  How Wars End by Gideon Rose (Simon and Schuster), Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie,  Bomber County by Daniel Swift, Dubai: The Gilded Age by Syed Ali (Yale), Serious Men by Manu Joseph.

Geoff Dyer: The two best new books I read this the year were: 

David Finkel: The Good Soldiers (non-fiction)

Sam Lipsyte: The Ask (fiction)

Mohammed Hanif: The Passage by Justin Cornin

It’s a vampire novel but that’s not the reason I loved it. In fact I have never read a vampire novel before or after this. THe Passage is one of those old fashioned novels where every page leaves you breathless. And at 800 plus pages it feels too short.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

A story of polio epidemic in small town America in the forties. Only Philip Roth could make this into a rollicking read.

The Quiet American by Graham Green

I only read it this year but it’s as relevant as it was sixty years ago.

Rait Par Lakirain by Muhammed Khalid Akhter

This is a collection of book reviews, essays and parodies spanning forty years. The book teaches you how not to read Urdu’s great books. A very funny, very wise book.

Chalo by Masud Alam: Our book shops are full of travelogues but this one takes you truly off the beaten track.

Aman Sethi: A year in Chhattisgarh meant that I missed every single ‘new’ book this year. Instead I found myself reading from the idiosyncratic collection of the small town bookstore; an odd, but surprisingly fulfilling compendium.

I started the year with Moby Dick and ended with The Brothers Karamazov. En route, Tolstoy’s short story – The Raid – about a military maneuver in Chechnya surprised me with its similarities to the ‘counterinsurgency operations’ conducted by our security forces in Central India, while Gogol’s Chichikov charmed me with his own sub-prime crisis of Dead Souls that only existed on paper. Coetzee’s incredible sketch of a grieving Dostoyevsky in the Master of St. Petersburg was one of the highlights of my year; as was Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Daniyal Mueenuddin: There are books that I put off reading over the years, not because I’m disinclined to approach them, but because I’m waiting for the perfect moment, to savor and relish the thing in all its toothsome glory. This winter, one chilly afternoon, I took down Frank O’Connor’s Collected Stories from the shelf, and, after pouring a hot tea, adjusting the light, and generally doing a little round of mental calisthenics, I tucked into the first story, the marvelous but overly anthologized Guests of the Nation – which isn’t really representative of O’Connor’s work, is drier and harsher than many of his pieces. Among the many things that I admire in his work is the dramatic shifts that he accomplishes in the trajectory of his narratives. Quite often, just as the reader has gotten comfortable with a story, it will jag off in an unexpected direction, seemingly without any guile, as if he had impulsively decided to change his purpose. But impulse had little to do with it! This is tricky stuff indeed, and not to be ventured lightly.

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of non-fiction that I have read in many years, especially when coupled with her biography of Mao. Chang’s memoir describes the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself in pre-Communist and Communist China, brutalized, starved, dehumanized – at one point, Mao toyed with the idea of replacing people’s names with numbers. The Mao biography seems to me the beginning of an accounting for the horrific crimes of this evil man, whose memory is not sufficiently vilified: These two books should be read in tandem by all apologists for his reign.  But I don’t want to turn readers away – so be reassured, Chang also includes juicy details, about Mao’s mistresses, his appetite for attending torture sessions, his horrifically bad hygiene – he apparently never bathed or showered, and rarely brushed his teeth. Let us hope that this is the portrait of Mao that will ride off into history, his bad breath and bad faith, this killer of seventy million souls.

Among contemporary writers, Tishani Doshi’s The Pleasure Seekers stands out in my mind.  She is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and this is evident in her prose, which is pleasingly musical, delicate – she has a great ear.  Set both in England and India, and describing the pleasures and difficulties of moving between the two cultures, this is a story that has been often told in the past few years, but rarely told so well. 

 Ashok Banker: For me, 2010 was the year of the underdog. There were any number of good books, almost all from unknown authors and suitably under-hyped and under-marketed, which meant that only genuine book lovers who went searching for them even knew they existed. I’m tempted to include Jaimy Gordon’s Lords of Misrule among them only because her independent publisher, undaunted by the surge of demand generated by the book winning the National Book Award, refused to reprint more than a few thousand copies because he didn’t want to go mass market and lose the aesthetic details of small press publication, such as the lovely endpapers. Padma Vishwanathan’s Toss of a Lemon was my favourite of the year, a beautifully written and published book that slipped under the radar while truckloads of beautifully packaged trash fell off the shelves of Indian MNC publishers. Toss of a Lemon’s sincerity and emotional drive reminded me of another personal favourite – Anjana Appachana’s Listening Now. And the wonderful work of Sunetra Gupta – Memories of Rain, Glassblower’s Breath – which seems to be so sadly overlooked and out of print. It also took me back to a very different but equally lyrical novel, particularly in the introspective parts – Renata Adler’s Speedboat. I reread them all, and now intend to reread Toss of a Lemon. It was probably the one book that I wished I had written myself. 

Moni Mohsin: My book of the year is ‘A History of the World in a Hundred Objects’ by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane). Based on the BBC’s flagship series of a hundred Radio 4 broadcasts, this is a novel approach to history. Essentially, Neil MacGregor, the brilliant director of the British Museum has chosen a hundred objects from the museum’s collection to recount the story of human civilisation. The first object, a hand axe from Africa, is two million years old. One of the last objects is a chair, again from Africa, fashioned from disused Kalashnikovs and less than two decades old. In justifying each choice, he brings to bear on every object his formidable erudition and intelligence.  In just a few well-chosen words, he teases out meaning, decodes the past and illuminates the civilisation that created, used and left behind each object. It is an utterly, utterly fascinating book and every time I read it, I ask myself which single object would I use to relate the story of my life, my time and my culture. I’m still mulling . . .

Curiously enough, my second book is also about a collection of objects and their history. The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance is by a Cambridge contemporary, Edmund de Waal. Now among Britain’s best known and most collectable modern potters, de Waal’s book is about a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke he inherits from his Jewish great uncle. Recognizing that things ‘retain the pulse of their making’ de Waal embarks on a quest to understand how these tiny carvings made their journey. In doing so, he also goes in search of his Jewish ancestors, the fabulously wealthy Ephrussis, who resided in palaces across Europe, collected works by the likes of Monet and Degas and were all but wiped out by the Nazis. This memoir could have been a warm bath of nostalgia and sentimentality but it isn’t. In fact, it’s remarkable for its emotional restraint, its intellectual rigour and its sheer elegance.

A book I revisited last month was A Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger’s classic novel about an adolescent’s psychological disintegration. Aged seventeen, when I first read this book I was so struck by the singularity of the sixteen-year-old narrator’s voice that I didn’t understand how dark and disturbing a book it was. Thirty years on, reading Holden’s Caulfield’s account of his three days in New York was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

And from the team at RHI:

Chiki Sarkar: I read many wonderful books over the year, but the ones that stand out as my books of the year are the ones that linger much after. No new fiction has had this effect on me this year but I’ve been very struck by two memoirs by Tony Blair and Andre Agassi, both unexpectedly candid and insightful in their own way. My favourite fiction of the year has come from the good old Russians. I finally read Master and Margarita and regretted not reading it earlier, devoured some Chekhov stories but my book of the year is Hadji Murat, the last novella Tolstoy wrote, about a Chechnyan war lord who has moved over to the Russians. It’s deeply moving and very resonant, as good a thing as he’s ever written.

Rachel Tanzer: Here are my top books of the year:

 Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg – a brutal, heart-wrenching memoir of a young man’s addiction to crack and the journey to hell and back.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – as a New Yorker how could I not love this

Blow by Blow by Detmar Blow and Tom Sykes – could not put this down but it broke my heart.  Money clearly does not buy happiness.   

Graphic Novel:  How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Milee Ashwarya: My favourites this year are:

Biryani by Pratibha Karan for its all season, lip-smacking biryani recipes.  If you want to learn how to make one of the most complex and delicate of dishes well, and lap up compliments you know where to look.

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land for its depth, darkness and haunting quality.

Dork by Siddin Vadukut. It’s light-hearted, refreshing and fun.

 Trisha Bora: My top three reads of 2010:

Master of structure and style, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet is my book of the year. Set at the turn of the 18th century, this historical novel captures the essence of Edo era Japan in marvelous words.

Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists tells the stories of a group of employees working for a newspaper based in Rome. Witty and hugely entertaining, The Imperfectionists illustrates the death of newspapers in the face of ‘technology’ and, paper-thin relationships in a rapidly changing world.

Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica is an honest, revealing and funny (well, not exactly, but I’m mad about him) portrait of the Larkin-Monica affair.

Priyanka Sarkar: Quarantine: the fact that you could relate to the emotions each story evokes as these are stories about young gay Indian men in the diaspora.

American Vampire, volume 1: amazing graphics and rich colours, it just brings out the ‘sinister-ness’ of the new age vampire who is bigger, badder, bloodier! The narration is racy and the characterization is amazingly strong.

 

 

 

     

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