Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009: A year in reading

Yes, it is officially over. The holiday lights are down. The morning brings my first full day at work in a fortnight. The half melted snow outside, no longer a cheerful yuletide prop, looks vaguely pathetic. 2009 is officially over.

Looking back, it was a pretty fantastic year in reading. In sheer numbers, one of my better years in recent times. And in there were some amazing books. Books I would heartily recommend to Brick and Rope readers.

Last year, I had written up my annual list of recommendations under the title In Defense of 2009. I had recommended five books, four non-fiction and one fiction. This year, I want to go a slightly different direction. One of the things I have come to realize over 2009 is that the readers of Brick and Rope form two distinct groups - one that strongly prefers non-fiction and another that is mostly interested in fiction. To make this 'Best of 2009' post meaningful to both these groups, I am recommending five books each in fiction and non-fiction. Just like last year though, these recommendations are from books I read this year, not books that were necessarily published this year.

Here then are my ten favorite reads from 2009 (with links to my original reviews):

  1. India after Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha (other posts inspired by this book here and here): By far the most interesting, thorough and readable history of post-independence India that I have come across. Clearly my favorite book of the year. Formidably long, but incredibly engrossing. If you are interested in understanding India, you have to read this book.
  2. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (other posts inspired by this book here and here and here): 14 Billion years of existence of the universe, 500 pages in the book. Do the math. Geology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, paleo-anthology. Every branch of science that has a bearing on the story of the life of the universe is here. Made fun. My science pick of the year.
  3. Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely: This was the first book I read in 2009. So it feels like an ancient pick. Behavioral Economics is getting bigger by the day. A few years from now, when it is being used in every sphere of business, you would be glad you read Dan Ariely's immensely interesting and educated take on it.
  4. A Little History of the World, by E.H.Gombrich (another post inspired by this book here): If any book puts an exclamation point on my observation earlier that this list isn't necessarily made up of books published this year, this is it. A Little History was published first in 1935. History is not my strong subject. So this book is a gift from above. For all the questions on world history you are too embarrassed to ask anyone, pick up this small volume. History going on poetry.
  5. In Fed We Trust, by David Wessel: In a year when writing a book about the economy was as original as turkey on Thanksgiving, Wessel wrote a great one. A part of both The New York Times and the Washington Post 'Best books of 2009' list, In Fed We Trust is an inside account of Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve as it made one ad-hoc move after another to try and stave off a repeat of the depression. Must read, in order to appreciate the Fed's part in what happened over the last two years.
  1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (a post on my first stunned impression of Chabon here): My first Chabon. Will be the first of many. Verbal imagery at its greatest. Chabon is an author with unreal ability. If you are the kind of reader that likes simplicity in prose, this might not be for you. But if you luxuriate in an elaborate metaphor, revel in the patient build-up of a set-piece, treasure grand, poetic prose, go ahead - read this book.
  2. Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra (a Bollywood related post inspired by this book here): Vikram Chandra is one of my favorite Indian authors. Sacred Games is, in my opinion, his best book to date. Gritty Bombay narrative, not for the faint-hearted. Ganesh Gaitonde is one of the most unforgettable characters you will come across.
  3. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro (my bewildered post half-way through the read here): I read two Ishiguros this year. When I started writing this post, I promised myself I wouldn't put both of them up on this list. I have mentioned this multiple times on Brick and Rope - Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors of all time. The Unconsoled is one of his masterpieces (note, I said 'one of'). Without doubt the most difficult and frustrating Ishiguro to read, The Unconsoled is a book you are unlikely to forget, once you 'figure out' the book. If you have never read Ishiguro - DO NOT start with this one! You will probably hate it.
  4. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: Junot Diaz is like the Dominican version of Vikram Chandra. Replace Chandra's coarse Hindi with Diaz's Spanish and you probably get a similar book. Oscar Wao is a book of breathtaking violence, and equally breathtaking beauty in prose. Have a Spanish dictionary close at hand!
  5. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, audio CD, narrated by Stephen Fry: This is a first for me, recommending an audio book. 2009 was the year I started seriously listening to audio books. I thought I should make one recommendation from the books I listened to on CD. Hitchhiker's Guide is probably my favorite funny book of all time. I have read it enough times to have my own mental impressions of how different characters speak and behave. Despite which I found the audio CD to be a blast! Stephen Fry is a supremely talented narrator. He does to Douglas Adams what I thought was impossible - he makes him funnier.
So there they are - my favorites from 2009. I hope 2010 turns out to be as good!

1 comment:

  1. Wondering wondering. Shall I buy 'India After Gandhi' or just borrow it from you ?
    :-) Zen