I read more in 2010, but I didn’t read enough. Emma Donaghue’s Room, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, to take but three examples, still await perusal. (I did plough through the Franzen, however; my review is here.) With that caveat in mind, here’s a selection of books worthy of mention, in no especial order.
I. VOICES IN MY HEAD
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Shenanigans at an all-boys’ school in Dublin involving students, teachers, swimming coaches and priests. Written in an exuberant high-five style that threatens to – but never does – go off the rails.Very funny, very moving.
The Ask, Sam Lipsyte. A satire on America today, and by implication the rest of the world. Follows the fortunes of a character collecting donations for Mediocre University and what transpires when he runs into a wealthy former classmate. Obscene, outrageous and hilarious.
Home Boy, H.M. Naqvi. The travails of Shehzad, a ‘metrostani’ lad from Pakistan caught in the cross-currents of post-9/11 New York. Distinguished by great chutzpah in prose style – yet not so flashy that one doesn’t feel empathy for the predicament of his main character.
II. THE LIVES OF OTHERS
Teach Us to Sit Still, Tim Parks: A memoir of prostate trouble and how Vipassana meditation showed a way out of it. Frank, forthright and revealing, especially when it comes to sojourns in Italian meditation retreats and how chronic pain affects daily life.
Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro. Ripping aside the sequined curtain that separates Mumbai’s bar dancers from the rest, this exploration of their seamy subculture is brave and compelling, expertly walking the line between the hard-bitten and the wide-eyed.
Following Fish, Samanth Subramanian. Informative, droll essays of travels along the Indian coast while sampling and otherwise immersing oneself in fish and the people who depend on it. Covering better-known destinations (Kerala, Goa) and those that remain anonymous (a secret destination called Xanadu). Delicious.
Gold Boy Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li. Short stories of an older generation of stoic Chinese men and women reflecting on the changes in their country and their lives. Those wearying of realism would do well to immerse themselves in the quiet voice and telling details of the first and longest story, ‘Kindness’.
Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph. A counter to all those grand Mumbai novels, this inward-looking narrative moves in low gear, with more than a few echoes of Amit Chaudhuri. The well-chosen details make the familiar unfamiliar and the wry musing keeps you immersed in her characters’ lives.
III. FRACTURED REALITIES
Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco. A kaleidoscopic debut that attempts nothing less than an audacious retelling of Filipino history. Made up of straightforward narrative, blog posts (and comments), essay extracts, e-mails and more. That all of this hangs together to create a very readable unity is testament to Syjuco’s skill.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason. Puzzles, inversions and reversals on the tales that comprise Homer’s epic of the return to Ithaca. Sometimes inventive, sometimes playful and always haunted by the spirit of Borges.
In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut Fiction? Memoir? Travelogue? At times it reads like a hybrid, but this novel of encounters in Greece, Africa and India is always haunting in its precision and effect – especially the last section dealing with travails in Goa. The alienated man’s Eat Pray Love.
IV. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A Reader on Reading, Alberto Manguel. Essays from one of the foremost readers of our times, touching upon writers from Lewis Carrol to Borges, mixing the personal and the critical. Encompassing times, places, moods, identities and associations that his act of reading conjures up, it’s a reminder of how there are “a few safe places as real as paper and as bracing as ink”.