Saturday, December 26, 2009

2010: The Year Ahead in Books

(Published in the Business Standard year-end special issue on books, December 2009)

Fiction: It’s a great year for the novel of ideas, with writers from Ian McEwan to Gregory Roberts exploring new territory.

Roberts wisely allowed a long gap to elapse after the runaway success of Shantaram, but his new novel, The Mountain Shadow (Hachette) will still invite comparisons. Mountain of Shadows continues Lin’s story in a far more stylised way; a meeting with eight men will force him back into adventure and intrigue. Will this be as good—or if not, as bulky—as Shantaram? Ian McEwan is on familiar ground with Solar (Random House), where a scientist faces the wrath of the media for analysing the difference between male and female brains.

Dom DeLillo’s critics weren’t impressed with his 9/11 novel, Falling Man, but the advance buzz about Point Omega (Scribner) seems positive. DeLillo has a chance to take a more nuanced look at war and terrorism through the eyes of his protagonist, a secret war advisor. Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ promises—and has already delivered—controversy. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Hachette) already has literary groupies genuflecting in advance, and with new collections of short stories by Hanif Kureishi and T C Boyle, the cup of the inkstained wretches of this world runneth over. After a long silence, Thomas Keneally offers a novel—The People’s Train, which features a Russian revolutionary exiled to Australia.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s brand of dark satire is back in Way To Go (Penguin), while fans of “headline fiction” might like Narayan Wagle’s Palpasa Café (Random House)—a novel of Nepal that starts with the royal murders and continues through the current conflicts. Anita Nair (Lessons in Forgetting, HarperCollins), Namita Devidayal (The Mother, Random House), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (One Amazing Thing, Penguin) and Shobhaa De (Sethji, Penguin) all have new fiction out in 2010.

Keep an eye out for Omair Ahmed’s Jimmy The Terrorist (Penguin), and for these debut writers—Soumya Bhattacharya (If I Could Tell You, Tranquebar) and Tishani Doshi (The Pleasure Seekers, Penguin).And fans of historical fiction have Humayun’s travails, as the duo of writers known as Alex Rutherford offer the second volume in the Empire of the Moghul series—Brothers at War. On the literary front, Jeet Thayil and Dilip Simeon should also be out with riveting first novels, on addiction and revolution respectively.

Indian non-fiction: Shrabani Basu’s Victoria and Abdul (Rupa) is a fascinating account of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian secretary, Abdul Karim—well worth reading. Somnath Chatterjee’s Memoirs of a Parliamentarian (HarperCollins) promises to be more candid than most politicians’ accounts of their lives and times. Fatima Bhutto’s Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir (Penguin) should be every bit as melodramatic as the title. David Rhodes might top the blood-and-action stakes with his memoir of being kidnapped by the Taliban, A Gift of God: The Story of a Kidnapping (Penguin).

APJ Abdul Kalam’s The Scientific Indian (Penguin) is a reader-friendly guide to issues like water harvesting and space exploration. It’ll probably be as popular, but perhaps not as riveting, as neurologist V Ramachandran’s end-of-2010 release, Adventures in Neuroscience (Random House).

Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s The Butterfly Generation (Rupa) is about the fault lines between the socialist India of the ‘80s and the consumerist India of the ‘90s—it promises to earn out Mehrotra’s record advance. Later in the year, Salil Tripathi’s Silent Spaces (Tranquebar) takes a literary journey across the globe, with writers from Marquez to Rushdie as his guides. And in autumn, Ramachandra Guha examines The Makers of Modern India (Penguin). Jug Suraiya brings the year to a close with his wry brand of humour in his memoir, Times of My Life (Tranquebar).

Business books: Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is probably one of the most anticipated books of 2010—the Liars’ Poker author does a consummate job of unravelling the current global financial crisis. On the subject of fallen magnates, Kingshuk Nag takes a look at The Double Life of Ramalinga Raju (HarperCollins).The Luxe Book (Hachette) by Suman Tarafdar and Taneesha Kulsreshtha offers a little relief, with a look at high-end brands.

Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s Nano-vation (Penguin) is the authorised version of the Tata’s small car story, with an emphasis on the good news rather than the political upheaval in Nandigram. RC Bhargava offers The Maruti Story (HarperCollins), just as we bid farewell to the tiny 800. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Alam Srinivas explore The Ambanis and the Battle of India (Penguin) and how gas pipelines became the war zone between the two brothers. SP Hinduja’s What’s Your Problem? (HarperCollins), promises to diverge from the hagiographical approach to business family history, as he mixes family stories with his personal brand of philosophy. There will be a slew of China books on the market, as always, but the most promising is probably veteran business journalist Raghav Behl’s The Red Elephant: The Story of India and China (Penguin).

The Business Standard 50 Best Books of the Year: 2

(Published in the Business Standard's special year-end issue on books, December 2009)

THE NON-FICTION LIST:

The Idea of Justice: Amartya Sen (Viking/ Penguin)
One of the most widely discussed books of the year seeks to redefine justice as an active goal rather than a passive abstraction, via the Indian concept of “neeti”. The Nobel laureate’s arguments are succinct, thought-provoking—and always entertaining.

The Case for God: Karen Armstrong (Bodley Head)
In a decade where faith has come under attack from the Dawkinites, the former nun makes a plausible and persuasive case for the continued existence of religion, if not the Almighty.

The Hindus: Wendy Doniger (Viking/ Penguin)
The eminent Sanskrit scholar goes back to the Vedas and the few clues from the Indus Valley civilisation among other sources to trace the development of the multiple ideas of Hinduism. Enjoy the splendid digression into the role of dogs, cows and other animals in the scriptures.


Nine Lives: William Dalrymple (Viking/ Penguin)
This thinking person's tour through India's vast array of religions explores nine different ways of finding faith, from Sufis to Tantrics. Dalrymple's relaxed, casually conversational style draws one effortlessly into an examination of faith in all its complications, from religious passion to the faultlines of competing beliefs and the surrender of one's life
in the name of, and with the permission of, God."

Lords of Finance: Liaquat Ahamed (Penguin Press)
Perhaps the best business and financial book of the year, Liaquat Ahamed offers a riveting study of concentrated power, hubris and the collapse of apparently invulnerable financial systems.


Ayn Rand and the World She Made: Anne C Heller (Doubleday)
The power and influence of Ayn Rand has outlasted her death, despite the frequent literary dismissals of her work. Anne Heller offers a fascinating look at the ways in which Ayn Rand was shaped and in which she shaped the world around her in return.


The Last Empress: Hannah Pakula (Simon & Schuster)
The Dragon Lady of China, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, is an ambiguous figure. This exhaustive and well-written biography explores the workings of the world of the last empress of China in illuminating detail.

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life: Carol Slenicka (Scribner)
This stunning work offers deep insight into the life and relationships of one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, with special emphasis on Carver’s often controversial relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish.

Open: Andre Agassi (Knopf)
Agassi’s confessions of drug use overshadowed the other aspects of his biography. The tennis great unveils the darker side of sport, and of parental ambition in an oddly moving memoir.


Curfewed Night: Basharat Peer (Random House)
This memoir of growing up in Kashmir provides a personal view of its troubled history. Peer’s background as a journalist allows him to blend the personal and the political with consummate ease.

Stranger to History: Aatish Taseer (Random House)
Taseer explores the faith of his fathers through the prickly terrain of family history via the faultlines of today, as Islam reveals its multiple faces.

A Place Within: M G Vassanji (Penguin/ Viking)
The Canadian writer’s explorations of India become a quest to understand the roots of his work, as he meets some of his most revered fellow practitioners and thinkers.

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity: Sam Miller (Jonathan Cape)
Miller’s evocation of Delhi’s history, past and present, makes this book the perfect guide. Take it on a long walk around Old and Brashly New Delhi, and you won’t be disappointed.

Dreaming in Hindi: Katherine Russell Rich (Houghton Mifflin)
This unusual memoir explores what it means to find a new language—and a country—in midlife.

Rethinking Hindu Identity: D N Jha (Equinox)
An outspoken scholar presents his view of the shaping of an often rigid, often troubled view of Hinduism.

Fear and Forgiveness: Harsh Mander (Penguin)
The Gujarat riots and their aftermath, examined by one of the most conscientious voices among India’s citizens.


The Difficulty of Being Good: Gurcharan Das (Viking/ Penguin)
Lessons in contemporary dharma, via the Mahabharata, take us through the squabbles of the Ambanis, lessons from Arjuna on the battlefield, and the importance of living well versus the need to win.


The Ethical Worker: Subroto Bagchi (Penguin)
The management guru explored ways of bringing values into a workplace that might often seem to place ethics below profits, in this final work.

The Satyam Saga: Bhupesh Bhandari and others (BS Books)
A comprehensive look at the rise and fall of India’s IT behemoth. (Disclaimer: This book was compiled by a team of Business Standard journalists; I decided to let it stay on the list despite the potential conflicts of interest because of the number of business gurus who recommended this to me.)


Baulsphere: Mimlu Sen (Random House)
Travels with the faith-intoxicated singers of Bengal, written by an insider to the world of the Bauls.

MS & Radha: Gowri Ramnarayan (Wordcraft)
One of India’s most insightful critics pens a beautiful evocation of a relationship between a musician and a connoisseur of Indian music.

An Indian for all Seasons: The Many Lives of R C Dutt (Meenakshi Mukherjee) (Penguin)
A classic biography of an Indian pioneer from the late and respected critic.

The Business Standard 50 Best Books of the Year

(Published in the Business Standard year-end special issue on books, December 2009)


THE FICTION LIST:

A Gate at the Stairs: Lorrie Moore (Knopf)
Moore’s novel of a woman growing up in the American Midwest is funny and heartbreaking in turn, and deserves all the praise it’s got.

Love and Obstacles: Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead)
One of the best new writers of our times puts Bosnia on the map with these taut, linked stories of immigrant longings, memories and frustrations.

Too Much Happiness: Alice Munro (Chatto & Windus)
One of Munro’s best collections yet, this is all the evidence you need that the short story is a thriving form, and that Munro is one of the most rewarding writers of our times.

Wolf Hall: Hillary Mantel (4th Estate)
The Booker-winning historical novel examines the political machinations and blood-and-guts of Cromwell’s time, in an age where “man is wolf to man”.

The Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk (Knopf)
Love and obsession in Istanbul; and Pamuk collects the objects in his story in a real-life museum.

Brooklyn: Colm Toibin (Viking)
An Irish immigrant travels to 1950s America in this novel of the discovery of a country, and the making of heartwrenching but necessary choices. One of Toibin’s masterworks.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Daniyal Muenuddin (Random House)
This gently incisive first collection of short stories set in Pakistan is Tolstoyan in both range and understanding. Definitely a writer to watch.

Home: Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Few writers understand the human heart as well as Robinson. The sequel to Gilead pits faith against despair, shelter against experience, in this wise, resonant novel.

Love and Summer: William Trevor (Viking)
A woman brought up as a foundling, a man about to leave home forever; Trevor makes magic of these simple ingredients.

The City & The City: China Mieville (Del Rey)
Mieville explodes through dark and rich territory in his latest futuristic sojourn.

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Javier Marias (Chatto & Windus)
The concluding part of Marias’ trilogy reinvents the Cold War spy novel, blending literary fiction with the conventions of the thriller in a spectacular mix.

The Little Stranger: Sarah Waters (Hachette)
This evocative ghost story set in a Victorian house is a classic tale of deception and quietly climactic horror.

Nocturnes: Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
The Japanese master offers stories linked by music and musicians in this delicate and moving collection.


Summertime: J M Coetzee (Harvill Secker)
Coetzee fictionalises Coetzee, in this tale of a South African writer seen through the eyes of the women he’s tried and failed to love.

Year of the Flood: Margaret Atwood (Doubleday)
Atwood sticks with SF territory in this clever, apocalyptic follow-up to Oryx and Crake.


The Children's Book: AS Byatt
Children's literature and the perils of growing up, both addressed by Byatt at the top of her form.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)
A jaded journalist in Venice, a pilgrim in Varanasi: Dyer romps through this delightful novel with considerable verve.


Cutting for Stone: Abraham Verghese (Random House)
Verghese’s first excursion into fiction is a sweeping, ambitious historical novel.

Solo: Rana Dasgupta (HarperCollins)
Skill and craft fuel this view of Europe from one of its more neglected literary corners.

The Story of a Widow: Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Picador)
Farooqi proves that he’s as good a novelist as a translator with this quiet, satisfying tale of a woman in transit.

The Immortals: Amit Chaudhuri (Picador)
Music forms the backbone of this intensely literary work, which showcases all of Chaudhuri’s lyrical skills.

The Storyteller’s Tale: Omair Ahmad (Penguin)
Ahmad brings back the fable in this delicate and curiously modern tale, despite its medieval setting.

The Story of My Assassins: Tarun Tejpal (HarperCollins)
Tejpal’s journalistic skills flesh out this ambitious novel of darkness and violence in present-day India.

(Caveat: Because of my previous association with Tranquebar as an editor, all Tranquebar picks were made on the basis of the recommendations of other reviewers and critics.)

If It Is Sweet: Mridula Koshy (Tranquebar)
The Shakti Bhatt award-winning collection of debut short stories that map the secret worlds hidden in cities as disparate as Delhi and Los Angeles.

Eunuch Park: Palash Krishna Mehrotra (Penguin)
A brilliant first collection of short stories steeped in black humour explores masculinity and the changing face of urban India.

Arzee the Dwarf: Chandrahas Choudhury (HarperCollins)
A new perspective on Bombay, from the point of view of a dwarf obsessed with a crumbling cinema hall.


A Pack of Lies: Urmilla Deshpande (Tranquebar)
A young woman discovers freedom, sensuality and identity as she struggles with a troubled family history.

Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories, edited by Ruchir Joshi
India’s first contemporary collection of erotica brings in mofussil lust, Chugtai’s infamous quilt, and a very unusual wedding celebration.

THE BEST OF POPULAR FICTION: THE TOP FIVE

The Lost Symbol: Dan Brown (Doubleday)
Though the kindest word critics had for Dan Brown was “inescapable”, his latest Freemasonry-in-Washington saga hit the bestseller lists.

Two States: The Story of My Marriage: Chetan Bhagat (Rupa)
India’s answer to Dan Brown explores the venerable institution of the great Indian marriage—fans love it.

Under the Dome: Stephen King (Scribner)
The horror-meister delivers one of his best thrillers yet in this SF-influenced tale set in a besieged city.

My Friend Sancho: Amit Varma (Hachette)
Varma’s first novel explores a fake encounter in Mumbai, and bridged the divide between popular and literary fiction in India.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest: Stieg Larsson (Maclehose Press)
Lisbeth Salander must clear her name of false charges in the final volume of the late Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy.

Books in 2009: What authors were reading

(From the Business Standard special year-end issue on books, published in December 2009)


THE BEST READS OF THE YEAR:

Gurcharan Das, author of The Difficulty of Being Good:

My choice would be the battle books--Books Six to Nine--of the Mahabharata in the recent, beautiful, parallel texts in English and Sanskrit published by the Clay Sanskrit Series/New York University Press (2005-2008). Ten volumes of the epic have appeared in this series. Like the Book of Bhishma preceding them, the epic has named the battle books after the successive leaders of Duryodhana’s army. Notable for its poetic rendering is Drona by Vaughan Pilikian but Adam Bowles’ Karna and Justin Meiland’s Shalya are also impressive. Some of the verses from Pilikian's translation seem to jump of the page.

I only wish that Clay had employed the Sanskrit Critical Edition, compiled painstakingly over half a century by comparing several hundred versions from across India and beyond. Clay follows the ‘vulgate Mahabharata’ of the 17th century scholar, Pandit Nilakantha Chaturdhara (Kinjawadekar R, The Mahābhāratam with the commentary Bharata Bhawadeepa of Nilakantha, 2nd ed. 6 vols, New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp, 1979.) Hence, its numbering of chapters and verses is different.


Alice Albinia, author of Empires of the Indus:

There’s been something interminable – literally – about previous
translations of the Mahabharata. Bookness does not become this
epic-poem-genealogy-story, and there’s no reason why it should. Indian
audiences have generally absorbed it as a recital or performance;
previous translations into English have been cursed by its
extraordinary length; so this abridged version by John D. Smith is a
feat. The summaries and abridgements aid the flow, bringing out the
operatic, or sometimes even soap-operatic, quality of people telling,
and re-telling stories to each other.

It’s always pleasing to have one’s prejudices about a book confounded.
Last night I read Summertime by J.M. Coetzee, expecting to find it
self-referential and dull. But I liked it. I liked the ‘dour comedy’,
and the teasing overlap between memoir and fiction, and the questions
it poses about politics and truth. It’s good.

William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives:

Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity teems with strange stories and bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions that will delight Delhi lovers and baffle and amaze those who have so far remained oblivious to its erratic charms. Doggedly pursuing his subject through the meandering back lanes of the old city, its spiralling markets and its gleaming new highways, Sam Miller has created a book that is both a quest and a love letter, and one which is as pleasingly eccentric and anarchic as its subject.

No less eccentric is Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. I loved its brave and even reckless quirkiness (why all that focus on animals—but then why not?) and thought it an earthy, revelatory and brilliant book by one of the world’s greatest Sanskrit scholars, and certainly its most unpredictable. It’s a model of how scholars can make their work accessible to a general rather than an exclusively academic audience, without any way losing their authority

[Other Rooms, Other Wonders is an astonishing collection of short stories by the new star of Pakistani fiction, Daniyal Mueenuddin. Like Turgenev, Mueenuddin creates a world peopled by rural folk, generously sketched with a wonderful freshness and lightness. I also hugely enjoyed Basharat Peer’s moving and beautifully written Curfewed Night, a worthy winter of the Crossword prize, John Guy's Indian Temple Sculpture, and Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky: I predict she will be one of stars of the next Jaipur Literary Festival, which this year runs from the 21st-25th Jan.]

For me, though this was the year of Cormac McCarthy. There is no question in my mind he is one of the two or three the greatest living novelists writing in English today, and The Road for my money the great dark masterpiece of this decade.

Aravind Adiga, author of White Tiger:

Thomas Pynchon is becoming unfashionable, but his latest novel, Inherent Vice, a detective story set at the end of the psychedelic 60s, reminds us why he is worth reading. If you can put up with the bad puns and the sometimes heavy-handed caricature, you'll find an edgy, energetic, and often very disturbing book.

In Soumya Bhattacharya’s If I Could Tell You, a man who has always wanted to make it as a writer tells his daughter his life's story. Opening with quiet, precise strokes, Bhattacharya's new novel builds up to a terrifying--and ambiguous--crescendo.

Sam Miller, author of Delhi: Adventures in a Mega-City:

My favourite book of the year is, without question, The Running Sky by Tim Dee. It's a remarkable memoir by a man who is obsessed with birds - and always has been. It's a graphically unsentimental book, about a subject which, hitherto, was of no interest to me. Dee writes beautiful prose which never collapses into the breathless, saccharine hyperbole of so much 'nature writing.'

My other book of the year is about Delhi, and no it's not mine, but a gorgeously produced, weighty volume called New Delhi: Making of a Capital by Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee. The text is an excellent introduction to the building of New Delhi and the photographs are extraordinary. They include superb images of the blasting of Raisina Hill to create the plateau on which Rashtrapati Bhavan was built, and another that shows the Indian Parliament, mid construction, looking like a bomb-site.

Namita Devidayal, author of The Music Room:

I loved Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. After it won the Oscar in 2009, I decided to read the book instead of watching the film, and loved how it unravelled the dark side in a seemingly normal family. I found it particularly inspiring because i am working on a similar kind of novel -- about a big happy Indian family and the duplicity that takes place...how things that get pushed under the carpet only to pop up later in a dream or through a child. For, the past is the present.

I also loved Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant, where a marriage broker turned “most private investigator” tracks down a missing maidservant in Delhi-- it was light and funny and perceptive!



Ruchir Joshi, editor of Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Anthology of Erotic Stories

I've been reading Anthony Beevor's books on the second world war. I started with `Stalingrad' and then, having begun `Berlin', I made a detour into `D-Day', just to get the chronology right. Beevor's is an amazing talent, he's someone who can score facts and testimony into a gripping narrative symphony on the bloody grandeur, the tragedy and complete absurdity of war, a compostion where you can simultaneously hear the waterfall of massed brass and rhythm along with the faintest notes of an oboe or a violin.

In the first book, you can see and understand the sweep of large history as the German Army rumbles across the steppe, almost unopposed; you can feel the baffled frustration of the star Generals of the Wehrmacht as their collective greatcoat catches on the large, rusty nail of Stalingrad; you shiver with the young Soviet Frontnik as he attacks the panzers with rationed ammunition, the SS facing him and the NKVD waiting behind to shoot him if he tries to retreat; you can see Samuel Beckett in the detail of the defeated, starving, frostbitten German soldier as he scoops off a lump of live lice and throws it at his Russian guard, knowing full well that this could mean instant death.

Weaving through soldiers' love letters and brilliantly collated army memos, you stumble into the cross-machinations of three old men in Tehran and Yalta as they carve up the world among themselves, an ailing Roosevelt almost enamoured by the wily Stalin, ignoring Churchill's huge and accurate misgivings about the Georgian's post-war intentions.

Moving west, in `D-Day' you witness the gargantuan logistical madness as Operation Overlord goes into first gear, participate in the gamble with the weather which could have meant thousands of lives lost and the war prolonged by months, suffer with the Americans stuck on their landing boat, suspended between the roiling sea and the toilet chute of their British transport, cursing and shouting as the oblivious Royal Navy sailors empty their bowels on the GIs' heads and heavy combat gear.

As the competing`Yanks' and `Limeys' move into the deadly maze of Normandy hedgerows, you see the petty jealousies of the generals on both sides, the peacocking stupidity of Montgomery, the bluster of Patton, the senility of Von Rundtsedt, the fury of Rommel teh first one on the German side to do his sums and come up with the answer: total defeat. Across all three books a masterful portrait is also built up of one Adolf Hitler and his circle of poisonous sycophants and you understand eaxctly to what extent the war was lost by this madman as it was won by the Soviet Army with a little help from the Allies. Finally and most importantly, because of Beevor's subtle rigour and supple story-telling skills you understand how the British Empire ended, why the Cold War began, why the post-war United States behaved as it did, how, in the short span of those five years was compacted the course of the next seventy.

(Compiled by Rrishi Raote and Nilanjana S Roy)
 
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