What were the best books published this year? For our year-end survey, we decided to ask seven authors to send in their selections.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s account of America’s misadventure in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, were the only books to receive multiple mentions, but from Ramachandra Guha to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Roberto Bolano to Don DeLillo, there are plenty of great picks here:
Amit Chaudhuri, author of A Strange and Sublime Address
Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis had been out of print in Britain for a long time. How fortunate, then, that it should not only be available again this year as a Penguin Modern Classic, but in such a marvellous translation by the poet Jamie McKendrick.
Faintly Gatsby-like in its delineation of the romance of luxury and graciousness as experienced by a besotted outsider, darkened by the imminence of 1939 (all the main characters are Jewish), it is, nevertheless, a paean to life in the way it circles round space and remembered objects. Space and time are at odds in this story; space unfolds, time is recovered even as it dwindles, and the complex, long sentences—which are translated into hypnotic English—enact the simultaneity of letting go and of hoarding.
In this context, I should mention that Jamie McKendrick is one of Britain’s best younger poets, and that his beautiful and passionately intelligent collection of poems, Crocodiles and Obelisks, published this year by Faber, is a reminder of this fact.
Two other books—by Pakistani writers in English, who remind us that South Asian Anglophone writing can be just as effectively informed by craft as by storytelling: Mohsin Hamid’s terrific The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and the unique Aamer Hussein’s wonderful collection of stories, Insomnia.
Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist
Philippe LeGrain’s Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them is an impassioned defence of immigration from the point of view of the host country, the source country, and most importantly, the migrants themselves. Philippe is a great reporter and an even better thinker.
Thanks to the success of Freakonomics and to a lesser extent my own The Undercover Economist, a glut of pop-econ books hit the market this year. The most likeable—and original—was Tyler Cowen’s Discover your Inner Economist. I lapped it up.
Finally, two psychology books: the brief, snappy Yes by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini; and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which is a book guaranteed to change the way you think when it comes out early next year. Predictably Irrational will go head-to-head with my own The Logic of Life, and with almost the opposite thesis. Ariely gives many fascinating examples of when we make mistakes.
Amitava Kumar, author of Home Products
I have been reading a lot of books about war this year. Right now, I am in the middle of a wonderful memoir—Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet. Samet teaches English at West Point, and it is fascinating to read how American cadets read literature and deal with doubt.
The Abu Ghraib Effect, which I read during the summer, is a fine reminder of why scholarship matters. Written by art historian Stephen Eisenman, it shows that the demeaning poses in which American soldiers photographed Iraqi prisoners had their provenance in a 2,000-year-old tradition of Western art devoted to aestheticizing and eroticizing pain.
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a success in the West. I would like to think it was because of the book’s artfulness and charming candour, but I wonder whether the truth might not be more crude. The suave protagonist was someone White readers hadn’t met before, a Muslim man who looked and acted differently from all those they had seen on TV.
I liked Don DeLillo’s Falling Man for its simple surprises. The performer who, in the days following the 11 September attacks, used a cable and a harness to throw himself down from tall buildings. The image caught something about how flagrant art can be. Had DeLillo intended his novel to be like that too?
I am only a few pages into Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, but even a few lines are enough to know that this is a big book. The voice of a major artist reaching into the violence and pain inside the world’s soul.
Sonia Faleiro, author of The Girl
My favourites this year have all been non-fiction, although I did, occasionally, submit to the guilty pleasure of a book such as The Gardener’s Song by Kalpana Swaminathan. The second in a series of crime novels set in Mumbai, its silver-haired detective, Lalli, unravelling murder and mayhem, will have readers begging for a sequel.
My non-fiction list tops with The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose prize-winning Imperial Life in the Emerald City offers an ironic contrast between American decadence in Iraq’s Green Zone, and scarcity and bungling outside of it. Still on politics, I was completely taken by Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Twenty six seems young to write a memoir, until you discover that at 13, Beah was hand-picked by the government army in his native Sierra Leone to “shoot everything that moved”.
No less startling was Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, a powerfully rendered account of a journey that began in an Islamic state antithetical to women, and led to a seat in the Dutch parliament only 10 years after Hirsi sought refugee status in Holland. Lastly, reporter Christopher de Bellaigue takes up territory covered one generation previously by V.S. Naipaul and Ryszard Kapuscinski, and offers a fresh and entertaining account of Iran’s society, polity, art and literature in his book The Struggle for Iran.
Kalpish Ratna,author of Nyagrodha: the Ficus Chronicles
Kalpish Ratna—Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed
Friends indulgently call me a listomaniac. But the list I most enjoy is the one I make every December—of books I particularly liked, admired and reread in the year past.
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa, expertly translated by Edith Grossman, has Emma Bovary remade for our times in this infectious tale of tender love and cruelty.
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt imagines the relationship between Srinivasa Ramanujan, the unschooled genius from Chennai, and G.H. Hardy, the Cambridge don. It is unusual and rewarding to find the Reimann hypothesis—zeta function, order of the primes, an infinity of zeros on the critical line—rendered into lucid literary fiction.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan is the horror story of bungled sex on a wedding night and the fractures of its aftermath. Unflinching in its gaze, the narrative achieves poetry out of banana skins and blood. Finally, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, without taking sides—left or right—chronicles and indicts the astounding stupidity, incompetence, and lethality of George Bush’s misadventure in Iraq.
(Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed write together as Kalpish Ratna)
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Point of Return
When I discovered the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano last year, I was astonished by the power of his fiction. This year saw the publication of his novel, The Savage Detectives, in English and I found it to be a genuine Third World epic: funny, tender, political, impassioned and brilliant. I was also impressed by the cerebral J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Part fiction and part philosophy, it is at all times a provocative handbook on democracy, the modern state, and the abuse of power.
I’ve also received immense pleasure from reading two unusual detective novels. David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero is a dark and gritty exploration of post-war Japan, glimpsed in the hallucinatory aftershock of defeat and nuclear devastation. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is more upbeat but equally accomplished. A wonderful hybrid of crime novel and alternate history set in an imaginary Jewish settlement in Alaska, it is tough-guy in tone and lyrical in style. Finally, I’ve read a remarkable debut novel, Lunatic in My Head, by Anjum Hasan, set in the north-eastern town of Shillong. Steeped in memory, loss, and desire, it marks the arrival of a wonderful new talent in Indian writing.
Mukul Kesavan, author of Men in White
Vikram Chandra is a writer of unusual powers: He makes worlds in which the most odd stories seem plausible. Sacred Games is a wonderful book: a metropolitan novel that combines a genius for invention with a real feeling for place. After reading a succession of Indian novels in which the ethnographies of provincial life stood in for fiction, it is good to read a writer who recognizes that novels are works of the imagination.
Ambarish Satwik’s Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire—an album of grotesque colonial fictions—was a remarkable fictional debut.
But the book of the year, for me, was a book of non-fiction: Ramachandra Guha’s magnificent history of the republican state, India After Gandhi . To set yourself the task of telling the tangled political history of independent India in a single volume is a bit like deciding to comb out Shiva’s matted hair in an afternoon. Guha carries it off: His achievement is that he tells his story with such conversational modesty, such poise, that his reader is instructed and moved and amused without being oppressed by the massive scholarship that underwrites the book.
Write to lounge@ livemint.com