Friday, December 28, 2007

Picks of the Year: Books

It is the last few days of the year, and everyone is busy making the good, bad ugly lists of the almost 365 days gone by. Expanding on a trend I began last year (inspired a little by fellow bloggers), I have decided to use this space to reflect on the best of reading and cinema I came across this year. I think 2007 was a year rich in both – movies particularly so because I experimented with many different genres, more than I had ever done before. Even in reading, I came upon a few new writers, and read more of the ones I had read last year. I even came back to a few writers which had become kind of a stumbling block before, and I am glad I finally read them. I only closely made it to the 50-book milestone, but I am proud to have gone through some arduous books as part of this list. Some of the interesting and notable things that I read this year are:

Jose’ Saramgo – I read three more books from this Portuguese Nobel Laureate: The Cave, Gospel according to Jesus Christ and Blindness. I enjoyed them as much as the Double, the first two more so. While Cave and Blindness were what you would call typical Kafkaesque works, Gospel… was mainly a humanistic and slightly satirical take on Bible. There is nothing realistic about Saramago’s works – they are always placed in a nameless town, with nameless people trapped in a situation which we can only call a negative fantasy – yet there is something of a very raw reality. I loved the sort of doom and helplessness they portray.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie – This was a very complex allegorical work, complicated further by Rushdie’s winding sentences and words hand-picked from a thesaurus. It took me quite a while to wade through this heavy book, but it was an interesting read in the end. I don’t particularly care for magic realism, but I like allegories – and this book had many.

Nadime Gordimer – She was another author I read further after an introduction last year. Though I didn’t like any of Get a Life or The Conservationist as much as The Pickup, the latter was good, with its monologues and all-pervasive emptiness. Get a life, on the other hand, was quite passable.

Naguib Mahfouz – I read this Egyptian (exotic, isn’t it?) Nobel laureate for the first time, in two different avatars. In books like Khufu’s wisdom, Mahfouz has taken over the task of re-telling old Egyptian tales, and frankly, I do not wish to pick up anymore from this genre again (they are outdated tales of morality and wisdom which are great for bed-time reading if you are an insomniac!) However, I simply loved his existential author avatar in Midaq Alley, which is an assortment of the life stories of a few people staying on a modest Cairo street. Purely despondent, very existential.


Zeno’s Conscience, Italo Svevo – Now this was one book I loved. It is a mock autobiography written by a smoke-addict, on the suggestion of his psychiatrist. The writer spins a tale replete with Freudian overtones and laden with ‘guilt’. Remarkably cunning in its humor.

Orhan Pamuk – I read two of his works, actually one and a half, for I have not finished The Black Book yet. I enjoyed the exceptional story telling in My Name is Red, it was another complicated tale, and the mixed narration was a real joy. The more confusion in the story, the better. Both these books are mysteries, and weave the Turkish life in their stories, which seems to be flavored with a lot of coffee houses, gossips and unreturned loves.

Evelyn Waugh – I like his satire for it offers a freshness from the desperate tales that I read otherwise. This year I read the twin books of Decline and Fall & Vile Bodies – both of them a mockery of the elite British society

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky – Now why didn’t I read Dostoevsky before? May be the book’s daunting size has the answer, but it was 1100 pages well spent.

WG Sebald – He is certainly the ‘find’ of the year, the way Saramago was last year. I simply enjoyed curling up to Austerlitz and then was overwhelmed by Rings of Saturn. I am resolved to make one of his foot journeys and then hope that I can write something like that. He is completely different from what I mostly read and describes a melting, disintegrating world, which makes you want to curl up your legs and weep, and at the same time also take off on the lonely road and crash with the breaking world. Funny that I should love such a heartbreaking imagery!

Other noteworthy reads were a couple of autobiographical works – Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende. Also liked Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

3 comments:

Alok said...

I haven't read many from your list though I am somewhat familiar with most of them. I have tried reading one of Evelyn Waugh's books (I think it was Decline and Fall) and also Midaq Alley but got sidetracked by other things and couldn't finish either.

The author I want to read most from your list is Saramago. The only novel of his that I have read is Blindness which I liked a lot because of its style. I will try to get to his other books soon, specially The Double.

I also wanted to comment on your Brothers Karamazov post but then forgot. I was surprised that you started reading Dostoevsky with this book. Generally people read Crime and Punishment first. His short novella Notes from Underground is a great work too. I actually love those fat nineteenth century Russian novels a lot, in fact I used to be obsessed with them for a long time. Dead Souls by Gogol, Fathers and Sons, First Love and many other novellas by Turgenev and of course Tolstoy and Chekhov too. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych, Kreutzer Sonata, Master and Man are all beautiful short stories or novellas. I never finished War and Peace though Anna Karenina was great. Pushkin's great novel in verse Eugene Onegin is a huge personal favourite too.

Madhuri said...

I think you may pass Waugh, but Midaq Alley is a good read. If you liked Blindness, then you should definitely read other Saramago's.
I did read Notes from the Underground a long time back and liked it, but after that never got around to Dostovsky for some reason. Is there any particular reason for picking up Crime... first? I loved Anna Karenina, though War and Peace is also on my unfinished list.
One disadvantage of making a list before 31st is that you are unable to classify the books you read towards the end in either years. I could not mention In Patagonia by Chatwin that I am currently reading. It has climbed up to my top favorites of the year and I am enjoying it a lot.

Alok said...

I have not read In Pantagonia but have heard about it. There is an essay on Chatwin in Sebald's essay collection Campo Santo too.

Crime and Punishment is a more popular sort of a book- mostly because, well, it is a crime story. It reads like a detective thriller.