Sunday, December 30, 2007

Books 2007

This was written for Mail Today, the India Today group's new New Delhi newspaper. Sadly, an errant sub-editor hacked off the last two paragraphs. Here it is, in full.

To begin with, three memorable books that were published in 2006, but that I read only in 2007. The first, Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a luminous and moving novel which showed us characters caught in the crossfire of the Biafran conflict without being polemical about it. The second, former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, a non-fiction account of American intervention in overseas regimes in the last century, from Hawaii to Iraq, a timely reminder of how the world’s superpower has meddled, often with calamitous results, in the affairs of those that pursue goals not to its liking. Finally, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road rose above the rest for its spare yet Biblical use of language to convey a bleak, austere vision.

The discovery of the year was, of course, Chilean author Roberto Bolano. Natasha Wimmer’s translation of his polyphonic, audacious The Savage Detectives and Chris Andrews’ rendition of some of his earlier short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, were felicitous. (One awaits his to-be-released masterpiece, 2066, in 2008.)

From the sub-continental diaspora, the voices that stood out were Nalini Jones’ sensitive short story debut, What You Call Winter, Mohsin Hamid’s brave and well-structured The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Boston-based surgeon Atul Gawande’s further musings on his profession, Better.

From India, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi was readable, magisterial and even-handed, and William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal was a poignant retelling of the days of 1857. One hopes that these are harbingers of more such books on Indian history.

To turn to racier subjects, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black produced a fine thriller in Christine Falls, a novel steeped in the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin and swirling with moral ambiguity. Another thriller that made a political point without sacrificing an iota of entertainment was Robert Harris’ The Ghost, clearly born out of the author’s disagreement with Tony Blair over Britain’s support for the Iraq War.

Considering that so many of us spend so much time at work, it’s a wonder there aren’t more novels about office life. Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came To The End, filled the gap admirably. Dealing with the goings-on at a beleaguered Chicago-based advertising agency, it was witty and incisive. Ferris makes pitch-perfect use of the first-person plural throughout – the last time I came across this technique was in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

And in the last month of the year, I spent much time poring over a work devoted to the avant garde movement in the arts, Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. Though not distinguished by bold new pronouncements or radical reassessments, it’s an engaging, broad overview of the artists and works that defined the period, from Baudelaire to Warhol. Very stimulating: a reminder that though we may find many good works of art nowadays, we don’t come across any great ones.

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