Pratap Bhanu Mehta | David Davidar | William Dalrymple | Aatish Taseer | Shashi Tharoor | Tishani Doshi | Mani Shankar Aiyar | Srinath Raghavan | Arshia Sattar | KR Meera | Keerthik Sasidharan | Sudeep Paul
PRATAP BHANU MEHTA, Political scientist and columnist
IT IS DIFFICULT TO pick small number of books in a rich year. In my own field two important books came out. Gregory Conti’s Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britain is a fascinating intellectual history of debates over representation. A timely reminder of the tensions between representation and democracy. Katarina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy is a deeply stimulating and erudite account of the development of liberal political theory. But it also manifests one particular danger of the present moment: liberalism is being subject to too much condescension of posterity from both the Right but even more from the Left.
A walk through the Sabarmati Ashram bookshop led me to a rediscovery of Vinoba Bhave, the philosopher. Three short works in Hindi, Mahaguha Mein Pravesh, Saamya-Sutra and a commentary on the Koran, are dazzling in their depth, scholarship and a window to the enterprise of self-discovery.
In fiction, two novels seem apt for the Post-Truth Age. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of Ruins is a great mystery but also an introduction to the difficulty of historical truth. And the year ended with a rereading of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. I last read the book as an undergraduate but it still seems so fresh. Darkness at Noon indeed.
DAVID DAVIDAR, Author and publisher
WAY BACK WHEN, when to be lettered was a virtue and people actually read literary fiction, I remember asking a legendary publisher, who was renowned for the quality of the books he published, how he managed to keep up with all the literary trends and books of the moment. I still recall, more or less, what he said: “I read against fashion. I ignore everything that’s flashy, supposedly trending or earth-shaking and go for books that embody great storytelling and classic literary values such as a powerful style, memorable characterisation, insights, plot, the usual. You will find if you use these filters, that most so-called masterpieces are bogus, no matter what award juries or reviewers might profess. If you read the few novels that are true masterpieces, books that will, with luck, be read 20 years from now, and reread a classic that hasn’t dated, every now and then, you’ll be just fine.” At the time, as a sprat just entering the world of publishing, it wasn’t advice I could necessarily follow but these days I find I sample a lot of books, buy only a few and finish a very select number. I don’t feel I’m missing anything. And with that as context, here are my books of the year.
They don’t include any from India, for obvious reasons: as an Indian publisher I’m not allowed to pick any of my own company’s books, which would leave any list of books of the year incomplete. Among the books from elsewhere that I liked, the first is by an award-winning novelist, who has always been considered a first-rate stylist. I’d never read Kevin Barry before, but I was intrigued by the title of his book, Night Boat to Tangier, which suggested overtones and undertones of romance, mystery and sudden death, staples of the golden age of literature from a long, long time ago. The book fulfilled all its promises. Two over-the-hill Irish gangsters are waiting in the Spanish port of Algeciras for the arrival of the Tangier ship. Among other things they are looking for the daughter of one of them who has gone missing but that is not the only element of drama in this novel. The tension builds, as does the mystery, but there is much more to the novel than these elements, this is a genuine literary masterpiece that dives deep into the big questions of life, love, death and everything in between. All laid out in writing that’s as strong, spare and sharp as Japanese steel. It will cut you, this novel, make no mistake about that.
The second book on my list is an autobiographical novel so profound and beautifully written that it achieves transcendence. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is the story of an American poet of Vietnamese origin that talks of his family’s horrific past in Vietnam and his own struggle for acceptance as a gay, coloured child of immigrants in 21st century America. Vuong’s writing is so gorgeous you could read the book for the pleasure of his prose alone, but then the story it tells is so brutal and poignant, its power is guaranteed to sweep you away. A one-two punch, the sort of combination every writer dreams of achieving and every reader dreams of experiencing.
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE, Author
Underland: A Deep time Journey, Robert Macfarlane’s magnum opus, is a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. As always with Macfarlane’s books, the tales of his adventures underground are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place and, perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books, but here premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good.
Peter Moore’s Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World plunged me headlong into a very different world: the story of the humble Whitby coal collier, which in the 1770’s became famous as the ship, which took Captain Cook on his voyages to Australia and around the South Seas. Moore is a dazzling new arrival on the scene: a witty, intelligent and hugely entertaining historian whose prose can convey with alluring immediacy ‘the groan of oak timbers and the straining of sailcloth’. He allows you to recreate in your mind exactly what it must have been like to be on board such a voyage, but best of all are his pen-portraits of the men on board, especially the dashingly, pioneering botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, working with Linnaean rigour ‘on the very borderlines of human knowledge’.
I am no boatie, but it was another wonderful seaborne journey that closed my reading year. In The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination the brilliant English stylist, Philip Marsden, boarded an old wooden sloop and plotted a course north from his home in Cornwall up the West coast of Britain and Ireland to the Summer Isles, a small archipelago north of Scotland. It is one of the most brilliant, imaginative and alluring travel books I have read for a long, long time.
Only Macfarlane can equal Marsden as a contemporary master of travel writing and descriptive prose.
AATISH TASEER, Author
PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS look different from one another in ways we can’t control,’ wrote Thomas Chatterton Williams in a New York Times essay, drawn from his marvelous memoir, ‘What we can control is what we make of those differences.’ Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is a reckoning with both the illusion and reality of race. Williams is a wonderful, lyrical writer—the scourge of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I may add—and he gives the idea of race an almost metaphorical power, so that it speaks directly to someone as myself, who grew up half-a-world away, straddling a different but equally volatile fault line. James Baldwin and WEB DuBois are among my favourite writers in the world because they are able to use the prism of their specific historical situation, turning it into a meditation on the human condition. Williams writes into that same tradition and the result is exhilarating.
It is rare to have a new old book, but that is precisely our good luck in 2019. Koestler’s 1940 classic, Darkness at Noon, was among the earliest and most severe indictments of Stalinism. The book we read however was not the translation of the German original, which was believed to be lost, but rather a hastily completed English translation by Koestler’s sculptor-girlfriend, Daphne Hardy. Koestler had finished the book 10 days before the German invasion of Paris, then made a Casablanca-style escape to Britain through a Europe seized by Nazi terror. When he died by his own hand in 1983, he and everyone else believed the original manuscript of his modern classic was lost. Three years ago, a doctoral student named Matthias Wessel stumbled upon the original in the archives of Europa Verlag—Koestler’s publisher—in the Zurich Central Library. What we have before us now, published by Scribner, is the first English translation of Darkness at Noon from the complete German manuscript. And I’m happy to inform you that it’s great. The language is far less stilted and wooden. The themes, which are about the pressures of ideology on truth, are still electrifying. ‘What is true is what serves mankind,’ says the protagonist Rubashov’s interrogator, as he marches him towards his own death, ‘and whatever harms it is a lie.’ This and other prescient sentences, such as, ‘In periods of relative immaturity only demagogues manage to invoke the ‘higher reason’ of the people,’ gives the new Darkness at Noon a fresh urgency, even as it makes the need for a Gujarati translation something of earth-shattering importance.
SHASHI THAROOR, Author and MP
I HAVE NO DOUBT that Midnight’s Machines by Arun Mohan Sukumar will be heralded for years to come as the definitive account of India’s attempts to negotiate its technological destiny. In his trailblazing book, Arun Mohan Sukumar masterfully blends history, science and politics to deliver a narrative that both enthrals and informs. He proves himself to be that rare historian with a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s ear for prose. A must-read for all interested in India’s technological role in the 21st century world.
The most-widely read chronicler of British India today at the top of his game, William Dalrymple in his book The Anarchy traces the irresistible rise of the British East India Company from its origins as a trading concern in 1600 to the ruler of all India two centuries later. Dalrymple tells us this story in his magisterial study, with a command of both the sweeping historical summary and the telling anecdote. Fluent, comprehensive and compelling.
Paul Zacharia, the veteran Malayalam novelist and giant of Kerala literature, makes his novelistic debut in English with a bawdy, irreverent, complex and sweeping masterwork about a thriller writer authoring an essay on compassion for the Communist Party of India. Populated by, amongst others, a female philosopher and a shape-shifting executioner, infused with literary, metaphorical and political allusions to everything from Jesus to Marx, A Secret History of Compassion is a hugely ambitious and clever tour de force.
Powerfully imagined, compellingly written and deeply thought-provoking, So All Is Peace by Vandana Singh-Lal is a magnificently realised tale of twin women fighting for their place in an unfeeling society. The story packs a considerable punch: it is both intelligent and emotional, cerebral and tender. An astonishing debut.
TISHANI DOSHI, Author and dancer
I’LL RETURN TO MADHAVI MENON’S Infinite Variety: A
History of Desire in India again and again because it’s a book that defies, subverts and delights. It insists upon multiplicity and muddiness as part of our history, and within the current climate of rigidity it’s comforting to know that a more supple, textured past informed our desires and might return again.
I so enjoyed Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House—the prose is effortlessly classic, and I’m always a sucker for a novel where the house is a protagonist. PEN Pinter prizewinner Lemn Sissay’s memoir, My Name Is Why, eviscerated me. Sissay writes of his experience growing up within the foster care system in the UK, of racism and bullying and finding himself and his true identity. It’s also the story of how he came to be a poet and how that saved him, so I was crying and cheering all over the pages of this one. And finally, Marianne Boruch’s masterful poems in The Anti-Grief showed me what to do with the increasing gathering grief, offering windows of beauty and wonder.
MANI SHANKAR AIYAR, Author and politician
MY SOMEWHAT eccentric choice falls on AK Bhattacharya’s The Rise of Goliath: Twelve Disruptions that Changed India, a roller-coaster ride through what he calls the ‘disruptions’ that have marked our volatile post-Independence economic history. I prefer Nandan Nilekani’s expression ‘transformational moments’, in his Advance Praise for the Book, to describe the 12 crises, or points of inflexion, that constitute the milestones on our path to development: Partition; Nehruvian ‘statism’, which guided our transformation from a colonial economy to a ‘socialistic pattern of society’; the food crisis of the ’60s that sparked the Green Revolution (‘a largely positive disruption’, as the author says); the ‘stronger dose of statism’ that Indira Gandhi administered through nationalisations to capture the commanding heights of the economy; the ‘oil shock’ of 1973 that blew apart our balance of payments but also led to our discovery and exploitation of Bombay High; the Emergency of 1975-77; the twin disruptions of Mandal and Mandir in 1990, the consequences of which are still with us; the ‘celebrated reforms of 1991’; the telecom revolution, which has bestowed unprecedented connectivity on Indians of all classes but has now left the players squirming in a morass of their own making; the massive leveraging of bank credit to fuel faster growth, as in China, which has now stranded our entire financial system in serious straits; and, finally, demonetisation (‘huge disruption and output loss’, raising ‘challenges’ that have become ‘more formidable and worrying’) and GST, ‘a mix of some pluses and many minuses’.
AKB, as he apparently prefers to be called, is so totally in command of his story that what could have become a dull and dense rendering of a somewhat arcane subject has been transformed into a very accessible tale for the general reader, quite free of charts and tables and technical jargon. And so we have almost a ‘who-dun-it’, a page-turner of the intermeshing dynamics of politics and economics, and of internal and external climate changers, that have led to the unanticipated twists and turns in government policy, some of which have run forgotten into the sands of time and others of more enduring consequence.
But why ‘Goliath’? He is a character from the Old Testament, a giant of a man, a formidable warrior. AKB senses that however tangled our path to development, whatever the harrowing setbacks or the sudden leaps forward in our economic trajectory, there is no halting India’s eventual rise as a global economic behemoth. Hence, his characterisation of India as ‘Goliath’. But, at the end of the Biblical tale, it is little David, King of the Jews, who slays Goliath. So, is AKB saying we will rise only to fall?
My other two choices are equally individual: Assam: A Journey Through Its Textiles put together by lawyer Krishna Sarma and her colleagues, Savitha Suri and Shaheen Desai, whose theme is the textiles of Assam, but so thoroughly researched and contextualised and lavishly illustrated as to be a most informative introduction to the little known history and astonishing ethnic diversity of the Northeast.
And, finally, my fellow-octogenarian Bhaichand Patel’s autobiography, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, his ‘unreliable memoirs’ which mirror the rollicking times that we of the Beatles generation have lived through. Of course, there have been all the ups and downs of any life led to the full but we can all sing, ‘Those were the days, my friend/ We thought they’d never end/ We’d sing and dance forever and a day/ We’d live the life we choose/ We’d fight and never lose/ Those were the days/ Oh yes, those were the days!’
SRINATH RAGHAVAN, Author
THIS HAS BEEN an eventful year in Indian and global politics. As a historian, I have been repeatedly struck by the salience of the past in our turbulent present. Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History is an acute analysis of modern democracy’s relationship to truth. By excavating contests over epistemic authority since the advent of modernity, the book illuminates current discussions about populism and disinformation. Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination is a remarkable history of anticolonial internationalism. Focusing on an extraordinary group of black anglophone thinkers and leaders, Getachew convincingly argues that anticolonial nationalism wasn’t as narrow and pinched-up as its critics hold, but rather aspired to an egalitarian post-imperial world system. The book resonates with our debates on global justice.
Two books stood out on the relationship between economics and democracy. Tobias Straumann’s 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler is a superbly researched and highly readable account of financial panic and democratic collapse in Weimar Germany. Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality is a powerful analysis of the legal structuring of global financial capitalism and its deleterious consequences.
At a time when historical myths and half-truths are brandished to legitimise current politics and policies, we have had some outstanding and timely books on Indian history. Richard M Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765 is a deeply learned and lucid work of historical synthesis and argument by a scholar at the height of his powers. Julia Stephen’s Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia is an incisive account of the transformation of Muslim law under the impact of colonialism. Its treatment of ideas about religion and gender, custom and economy provide essential historical context to discussions of personal law and civil codes. Read it alongside Joan Wallach Scott’s brilliantly provocative Sex & Secularism. The Oxford India Short Introductions series has two excellent titles: Jawaharlal Nehru by Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Kashmir by Chitralekha Zutshi. Everyone should read them.
I haven’t read much fiction this year, but I was thoroughly charmed by Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina. Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work was a memorable account of death and life in war-torn Syria. Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day is a genre-defying narrative of the run-up to World War II. Edouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father? is another such attempt at diagnosing the present moment of ‘populist’ disaffection.
ARSHIA SATTAR, Author and translator
I FOUND MYSELF DEEPLY moved by Anukruti Upadhyay’s books, Daura and Bhaunri, published in two beautiful little volumes by HarperCollins. Both the novellas are set in Rajasthan and Upadhyay sweetly brings the lilt of the local into her English. The resulting language of the stories is lyrical, earthy, direct and delicate all at the same time and its undertones bring with them an entirely different music.
Upadhyay also writes in Hindi and in these English stories, she suspends you, with the greatest of ease, between the real and the magical, between worlds and idioms, between the mundane and the poetic. It is not only Upadhyay’s language that is so seductive, the stories, too, are gently haunting. With nary a false note in word, landscape or character, Upadhyay locates us firmly in leaving, breathing, rural India, a place becoming all too rare in Indian writing in English. In Daura, a young bureaucrat from the city gets completely involved in a local folk tale and as credulous readers, we follow him without any hesitation as he moves from one way of living and being to another, from a world that we recognise to a realm that sits both within and outside it. In Bhaunri, a lovely young bride learns to negotiate patriarchy with both her body and her mind. In the softest of whispers, Upadhyay also reminds us that the inequities of gender, caste and class remain as destructive as ever in the places and people that we have learned to disdain.
KR MEERA, Author
I WAS COMPLETELY MESMERISED and unsettled by The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. It is a brutally truthful analysis of the idea of nationhood and unbelievably well crafted for a debut novel. This is a novel which is brilliant in every grain, telling a story about our troubled nation from the deep inside. Marvellously translated from Bengali, by Arunava Sinha, There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari is about a prison break in Bengal during the Naxal days. Yet it is not about prison or violence alone. As you read it, it unfurls to give one a disturbing and visceral view of our democracy and our idea of justice.
My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a rare gem of a novel, in content and craft, for it narrates the story of how caste and class bite into the life of an educated and empowered Adivasi in the modern India. The craft is brilliant, letting the story unfold in three sections in incisive prose.
Eating Wasps by Anita Nair and The City and the Sea by Raj Kamal Jha had a very similar unsettling effect on me and I think they together provide an insight into the act of violence against women from two perspectives.
Although let down by the translator miserably and unpardonably, I consider The Final Solitude originally written in Tamil by S Ramakrishnan a bold and ambitious experiment in theme and craft. It is an intelligent effort to illustrate the times we are living in using the stories from a distant past.
KEERTHIK SASIDHARAN, Author and essayist
PICO IYER’S AUTUMN LIGHT: Season of Fire and Farewells is a narrative informed by friendships and family, by contentments that ebb and swell in domestic life. Like much else in Japan, where the book is set, and like in all marriages, which this book is about, we realise that to make something meaningful out of our lives and to correct the aftereffects of our misshapen words, requires effort and care. As a chronicler of everyday life, Iyer pares his words down only to the necessary, and reveals paragraphs and sentences, both shorn of excesses and sentimentality. All the while, he watches himself go about his life in Nara, a town overrun by deer and forlornness near Kyoto, as a middle-aged man who accompanies his wife while she grieves the loss of a parent and the aging of another. In more ways than one, his attentiveness to all around him, we intuit as readers, is a form of love for his wife and all that she brings into his life—her family, their children from her first marriage, ancestral Japanese spirits, and Japan itself, which is both intimate and yet foreign to all outsiders.
Apposite to Iyer’s meditations, Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires is also a form of love. But here, it is love for Arabic as a language, which is both poisoned and perfumed by history. The writing is a marvel of lucidity—a lesson in how to be scholarly without being pedantic, on how to think about history—not just as a litany of empires and anecdotes about imperfect men but as self-understandings refracted by experience, geography, and culture. What emerges, slowly, as we wander from the Nabateans to Nasser, is a connective tissue— one that sprawls from Saharawi people in western Sahara to the archipelagoes of tribal loyalties in Yemen; sensibilities held together by language—that is periodically bloodied, self-aware and beholden to Islam. Like a patient lover, he explores little known parts of that vast body politic, much of it increasingly unknown even to the Arabs themselves, only to reveal aspects that remind us that the imperium of time spares no one. Especially the powerful. But in the middle of all these vast epochs of history, between birth and obscurity, individual lives trickle by and not all of it is sweet. The great Malayalam poet Attoor Ravi Varma, who passed away this year says in an autobiographical note, that while his own personal journey was sweet (madhuram is the word he uses), his little translated modernist poetry could be no other way but laced with bitterness. For much of life straggles on the precipice of disappointments, betrayals and deaths.
Few have written and imagined more evocatively in English about these despairs than Toni Morrison who died this year. Her collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard, is a testament to a life that has ambled amidst these private ruins—as an individual, as a member of a people who have been maimed and wounded by history, as a teacher to young students who share none of her anxieties, for their own lives has only been madhuram thus far. How then does one speak of wounds to those who have never been wounded? This is also a collection where Morrison reveals her analytical mind as a writer, as one who thinks about the very words she deploys to effect an argument. Words that have themselves travelled through time, changed forms, abandoned old meanings and opportunistically acquired new ones. Words that have thrived amidst the sweat and slurs of humanity, because words, like humans, also seek to survive.
But not all words are the same. Some have consequences that go beyond costless virtue signaling on social media and op-ed pages, and must be paid for in blood. Philippe Lancon’s Disturbance (translated from French by Steven Rendall) is an extended essay on what follows political violence. Injury, disfigurement and fragility came his way when, one morning, he cycled to work for an editorial meeting at his office. The magazine, where he contributed weekly columns on theater, poetry and art, was Charlie Hebdo. Within hours, a wounded Lancon lay amid the still warm bodies of his friends and mentors, their flesh and brains shredded onto the floor, their blood trickled down the corridors, subject to no morality or compassion, except the laws of nature, which pronounce that all fluids must flow downstream. What follows in the pages are also questions about guilt and randomness. Instead of pummeling Lancon with bullets to finish him off, the terrorists left him there wounded—why, we’ll never know, neither does Lancon—as the living to witness the newly dead. In the years that followed, Lancon recuperated—much of his jawline, destroyed by gunfire, now slowly stitched back. Along the way, between one hospital visit to another, loneliness amid a crowd of well wishers, Lancon reread old classics, and modern masters—Proust, Mann and Kafka—if only for their companionship and the consolations they bestowed generously. Despite this squall of injuries and injustice (who is ultimately responsible—the Gods, the Fates, the secular French Republic or the alarm clock that woke him up on that murderous day?)—what froths from these pages is his hard-won lack of bitterness.
Sifting through Lancon’s prose, we are reminded of two axiomatic truths. A public one which he states—the first principle of civilisation is ‘thou shalt not kill’. And one, a more privately held belief, which appears in some as calls for revenge— ‘my experience goes beyond my thought’. What are we to do when the two contradict each other? Who is to guide us in a world with no sign of God? Each one must find his own answer. Or perhaps in the writings of others, who have found ways to side with life and
THE ENDS OF years always force a reckoning; what did we see, what have we learnt and what can we expect next. And nothing captures the spirit of a year quite as well as books and cinema. Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.’ True to his time, he did not factor in women leaving their homes. But if we were to add all genders to the original, his quote would still hold true.
Our list of Best Books of 2019 covers 70-plus books, including crime fiction, political thrillers and personal choices by a range of authors and essayists. The diversity in the list is particularly noteworthy. Only two books occur more than once: the Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
The lack of repetition tells us that 2019 was not the year of the big book. Instead, it was a year of many small and meaningful books. Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning The Testaments has not made it to our list, and I wonder if that is a terrible oversight, or if it tells us that the book did not resonate with readers in India. 2019 saw releases from some of our most beloved authors such as Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer and Salman Rushdie, but the books they wrote this year weren’t the best of their oeuvre.
Here are a few books which I feel rose to the top. The Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel so packed with voice and life that you read it in a breathless rush. It is a book of Britain—set in Newcastle, Cornwall, London and Oxford—but the voices of the 12 very different protagonists give us a new kind of history. Deborah Levy is another novelist who plays with both time and history in her wonderfully clever work The Man Who Saw Everything, which switches between London today and Communist East Germany in 1988. Levy’s seventh novel casts a steely gaze at the messiness of human relationships, especially when it involves love and sex. It reveals both the unreliable nature of our memories and our perceptions. We build our pasts from fragments, but how authentic are they? Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything is another novel that grapples with an unreliable narrator—and if we can believe what he is telling us. It has a simple but disconcerting premise: good people do evil acts. And evil is not always the act of a sledgehammer; instead it is more often than not the insidious, even routine, tightening of screws. The novel is a ‘rehearsal’ of a conversation that Dr K has with his absent daughter as he tries to explain to her why he did what he did as a surgeon, at the behest of his superiors.
Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is a work of memoir and journalism that every leader and politician should read, as it makes for a watertight case for the breaking down of walls. Today as the definitions of immigrant/citizen/infiltrator roil legislatures from the US to India, Mehta’s book reminds us we are all migrants. The fear of immigrants is only stoked by politicians to earn votes, make money and vilify the ‘other’.
I recently read A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed about Love Whilst Dying by Joe Hammond on a single, short-duration flight. Reminiscent of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, this is also a memoir written by a man who knows he is dying. Hammond, a father to two young sons, chronicles the shredding of his bodily strength from motor neuron disease in a memoir that is both tragic and uplifting. As he writes, ‘This book is everything—the experience of my body as it changes and declines. The experience of saying goodbye to those I love. I’m scared—I know I am. But it feels strangely OK. And surprising too. I’m going to tell you about it.’
SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2019, was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. When the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border and the Luftwaffe began a bombing campaign of Polish cities, the Poles had no choice but to become the first to fight. Then Joseph Stalin, capitalising on the Nazi-Soviet pact, sent the Red Army into Poland from the east. Caught between the two, the Poles put up a brave resistance. Historian Roger Moorhouse’s First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 not only resurrects this largely forgotten chapter of WWII but is also the first to be written about it in several decades.
The official demolition of the Berlin Wall began only in June 1990. But November 9, 1989 was nevertheless the beginning of the erasure of the Inner German Border. Iain MacGregor’s Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth was timed for the 30th anniversary of Der Mauerfall. MacGregor, author of To Hell on a Bike, has written one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Berlin Wall and everything tied to it through its 28 years of existence, including new interviews with and stories of the people who built and broke the wall, or manned and operated across it.
Rory MacLean had headed east in 1989 as the Iron Curtain fell. Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe examines what happened to promises made and dreams dreamt and retraces that journey 30 years ago—albeit backwards, from Russia through Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Germany, ending in Britain. MacLean’s intriguing and sometimes downright eerie stories keep in perspective old spectres and the multiple dilemmas confronting Europe today, raising questions about history, literature and the making of news.
The assassination of Olof Palme on February 28th, 1986, remains an open wound for Sweden. In 2018, Jan Stocklassa published the outcome of his years of research into Stieg Larsson’s files on the assassination, hidden away, and his own chasing up of clues. The book, translated into English this year as The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin, is a fascinating read, digging up long-lost trails from Stockholm to South Africa via Northern Cyprus, examining how the original investigation was repeatedly misdirected.
Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is the story of a true crime Harper Lee did not get to tell. Almost two decades after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee had travelled to a murder trial in her home-state of Alabama intending to turn it into a novel (‘The Reverend’). Reverend Willie Maxwell allegedly murdered five of his family and escaped justice till a relative killed him—at the funeral of one of his victims. And, his murderer was acquitted, thanks to the same lawyer who had saved Maxwell’s skin. Cep’s is a colourful, subtle story of the story that Lee had obsessed over but abandoned—and of Lee herself.
Editor’s Books Choice ~ by S Prasannarajan
Best of 2019 Books: Politics ~ by Siddharth Singh
Best of 2019 Books: Crime Fiction ~ by Shylashri Shankar
Complete List: My Choice of Best of 2019 Books
2020 Books Highlights: Fiction
2020 Books Highlights: Non Fiction
Best of 2019: Cinema & Series ~ by Rajeev Masand