Saturday, December 06, 2008

2008 : A Retrospective : Books

For the whole of 2008, I have been over the clouds, on the rails, on bumpy roads far too often and far too long that I have managed to read far more than I have written.
Below are five of the best books that I have read this year. Not all of them are new (4 out of 5 were published this year). There is absolutely no science behind choosing these titles. At the end of the year, these are books that have stayed in my mind, that I have talked so often about and that I remember fondly.

5. Gang Leader for a day - Sudhir Venkatesh
An Indian American Sociology student goes to an all-black Chicago neighbourhood to interview young black gangsters. The first question in his questionnaire was "How does it feel to be young, black and poor?". The options in his questionnaire were "very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good". The answer he got was : Fuck You and a night in a dingy room with the gangsters.
A fantastically researched, first-hand account of how Sudhir Venkatesh spent days and months living with gangsters as one of them through gangfights, shoot-outs, deaths, celebrations and fallouts. I would have loved it even if it were a pure work of fiction. But to know that someone actually went through these experiences makes it much more engaging to read.
Some of you might have read about his work in Freakonomics, the book and the blog. But this one delves much deeper and creates characters out of a community that have long been glorified (by the arclights) or shunned (by the system).

4. Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
No one who has ever read Salman Rushdie has been indifferent to his work. My first work of Rushdie was "Moor's Last Sigh". I hated it. 3 years later, I read "Midnight's children", a book that fills every single sheet with as much imagination and magic as a paper can hold. But I could never truly come around to trust such a trickster - I gave all his other works a miss (including Shalimar the Clown). Until Enchantress of Florence.
I don't know if I have grown up to enjoy his works or whether he's aged and can finally hold the reins of his imagination firmly. But Enchantress is a true work of art - It is lucid (something I never thought I would say about Rushdie's work), poetic (as always) and vividly imaginative. True, it zigzags into little details, stays on a moment for longer than you would want and throws a lot more at you than what you can hold in your head. But there's a binding integrity and richness of prose that holds the book together.
The book is about how the line betwen imagination and reality is thread-bare, imperceptible and extremely subjective. And by picking characters that are real (Akbar) and those from the folds of his brain, Rushdie makes his point where one doesn't know where history ends and fiction begins. And how!

3. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
You should be pure evil to enjoy this - have malice oil the valves of your heart, and enjoy humour where sharp knives are dipped in a bowl of chilling sarcasm and pierced into people's backs. Oh, Devil be damned. I would love an extra helping of this.
Vernon God Little is wickedly funny. Every single page, every single paragraph is written by a man who is an anti-social and is a misfit. DBC Pierre is an evil man. He lures you with some jokes and engages you in a conversation. A few pages later you don't really know where he is going but follow him out of sheer curiosity. Half-way through, you know something is seriously wrong but you can't leave because you are strapped to the chair. And by the end, the jokes are still there but a deep, disturbing core unravels and as much as you wish you didn't have to deal with it, he doesn't leave you with much of a choice.
Vernon God Little is the "Dark Knight" of Fiction. The creation of man who is completely in control of his craft and knows exactly where he is needling you with the knife that is stuck firmly to your back.

2. Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh
I like Amitav Ghosh - I read the Hungry tide through the night (and slept through most of the next day in office). I liked the The Glass Palace and got through the The Calcutta Chromosome as well (though I think it is one of his weaker works).
But nothing prepared me for the Sea of Poppies. Having read some of the other shortlisted novels for the Booker (including the eventual winner), this is my personal favorite of the list. I don't remember the last time I put down a book and for days after wished I had more of the book to read. And because it is a trilogy, the novel doesn't leave you with a sense of closure but is suspended at a point where the characters slip into darkness right in front of your eyes.
The research is so good and so well woven into the story that you sometimes wonder if someone could provide so much detail, without actuually having seen the farms of poppies, the ships for the trade, the people in the fields, in the harbours, on the docks. Every character has its own distinct voice, accents and vocabulary.
Sea of Poppies is brilliant. As much as I am wary of superlatives, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in a long time (Right up there with Midnights Children, Never Let Me Go, Atonement and others).

1. The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein
A Psychologist in Canada in the sixties wanted to create 'Ideal people'. People without vices, malice and weaknesses. So, he experimented on his unsuspecting patients by putting them to extreme electric shock, sensory deprivation, hunger, thirst and absolute lack of human contact. He believed that if he could achieve an extreme state of shock, his patients would be so malleable that their brains would be blank slates where he could write what he wanted.
His research was a disaster and ruined many lives. But since then, this research has been used by Intelligence agencies (CIA) during investigations, International organizations (IMF, World bank) on developing countries, by first-world nations (the US) during wars and now by Governments during times of crisis (Hurricane Katrina, Iraq War, 9-11, Tsunami) - To exploit a crisis and get people to do things, forsake rights before the shock wears off.
And this is a book for the times.
I sat in front of the TV for two whole days non-stop and watched the live telecast of men and women stuck in hotels and screaming for help. I listened to all media channels telling us how India has been redefined forever. I watched the man from Gujarat who came all the way from his state to the site to make a point against the government, and to establish 'stringent terrorist laws'. I see the subtle change in the reports on how Pakistan 'is coerced' (and not agreed) into helping us, how ISI chief is 'summoned' (and not invited or asked).
In times like this, it is important to remember who we really are and what we stand for as a nation. Lest someone should use this as an opportunity to change this nation into something we dont want to be.
There are books you enjoy and there are books that change the way you see this world. Shock Doctrine has forever altered the way I see many things around me. Go read it.

Some other books that I have read and enjoyed this year (by no means exhaustive)
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland (Haruki Murakami) - Classic Murakami!
  • A case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammad Hanif) - Intelligent piece of writing!
  • The White Tiger (Arvind Adiga) - Good. But Booker? Uh. hum. And I am not nationalistic. But this is way too much India bashing for my taste.
  • Winnie and Wolf (AN Wilson) - On Adolf Hitler's possible love affair. My usual weakness for history and fiction interlaced together.
  • Shantharam (G D Roberts) - Well-written but this is a story on steroids!
  • Purple Cow (Seth Godin) - If you have read his blog, you know what to expect
  • Amerika (Franz Kafka) - Depressing! And they tell me it is one of his happy books.
  • Mothsmoke (Mohsin Hamid) - The second pakistani author in my list. Guilty pleasure reading about streets in Karachi, a place I would never be able to visit.
  • A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) - Good. But like the walk, a little too long.
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka) - Amusing material! But I read it after too many recommendations. And so didn't enjoy it so much.
Books I wish I didn't waste my time on (again, by no means exhaustive)
  • Ignorance (Milan Kundera)
  • Merde Actually (Stephan Clarke)
  • How starbucks saved my life (Michael Gates Hill) - The worst book of my life!
Currently reading
  • Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama) - OK, if someone's going to be the most powerful man in the world, I'd like to know what he thinks. For one thing, this man can express himself very well. That we know is already a big bonus!
  • Empires of the Indus (Alice Albania),
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is on its way


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! You should publish this column in paper!


4:07 PM  
Blogger Kumari said...

:( I just realised I haven't read a single one of the books in your list. Damn! Double Damn!

But yeah Rushdie is a little too unpredictable. I loved Haroun and the Sea of stories but couldn't bring myself to read Satanic verses. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind.

Now I know which shelves I should stalk for my next week's TBR pile :)

8:58 AM  
Blogger Rathish said...

Hey ponc, Thanks for stopping by. Just to let you know, I made a few notes from your list as well :)

8:18 AM  
Blogger Y? said...

Wow Ratish- you are so articulate
change from microchips to lit crit

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2:27 PM  
Blogger Medhini said...

Hi Rathish,

I just finished reading 'sea of poppies' and wanted to know what others thought about it... At many points during my reading I did struggle with the question: Why didn't it win the Booker? but towards the end, I was convinced that white tiger was a better book... I felt Amitav Ghosh's characters were too rigid... and eventually fade towards the last pages...But I have to agree I am looking forward to the next volume in the triology!
Another thing about Rushdie... 'Moor's last sigh' has been my favorite Rushdie work till now. Loved Shantaram! True about the steroidal dose!!
A good post.. I did enjoy reading ur list

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