By Nitum Jain:
As we turn over the last page of the Chapter of 2013, here are 14 books that we recommend for 2014. The selection brought to you spans across different literary genres, ages and nationalities, and every title is an easy find in the nearest bookstore. The list below is in no particular order and each book was enjoyed as much as the other.
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
One of the most perfect examples of theme of Modern fragmented life, this novel by British writer and recipient of Nobel Prize for Literature Doris Lessing is a collection of “books” that the protagonist Anna Wulf keeps in a (ultimately futile) bid to keep her life in neat colour-coded categories. It deals with her struggles with every aspect of Anna’s life in microscopic detail – her romance with Marxism, contradicting ideas of sexuality and feminism, insecurities as a writer and her anxieties about herself as a person. With every step that Anna takes to cling on to some definition she can give to herself, she becomes more aware of the chaos battering her walls. Lessing displays every little cluttered object found in the hoard-house that is Anna’s life and then shows us how it can all make a warm “whole” home.
The Gospel According To Jesus Christ – JosÃ© Saramago
Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner JosÃ© Saramago is a celebrated name in the world of literature, lauded for his subversive treatment of some of the world’s biggest histories and his iconoclastic style of indifference to the rules of language and grammar. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is one among the many short, witty, comic yet provocative works of the writer. Saragamo took upon himself the task to provide an alternate version of Christ’s trajectory – a non-divine path which sometimes corroborates yet turns over its head the major events of the New Testament – where the idea of a Jesus with ambitions and sexual desires caused many a ripple in the conservative waters. This work by Saragamo is an unflinching narration of fundamentals of an individual and the society and a little sliver of Enlightenment in a highly amusing package.
The Luminaries- Eleanor Catton
This Man Booker Prize winner consummate page-turner by New Zealand-based Eleanor Catton carries “multiple storylines with deft assurance, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with secrets, sex and opium, a doomed love affair, murder and double dealing“. The writer presents a stage for one Walter Moody to stumble upon twelve characters telling their versions of events in a series of narrations and confessions, each bringing us closer or father from the truth of an unstated crime. Tethered to that one smoking room of the Crown Hotel room, they all meet to get their stories straight and to assemble a series of events to effect a happy ending; while Moody is left to discern what’s real from the conspired – all in an unusual format of 12 faces of a waning moon.
How To Get Filthy Rich In The Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid
Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid of The Reluctant Fundamentalist fame uses enticement in the format of the self-help to tell the story of a man in an unspecified corner of Asia whose trajectory from literal rags to riches is traced. This one-line summation of the plot is a gross injustice to what actually the book depicts. Like most of Hamid’s work, the words thrums with energy of a strong-willed, intelligent person hell-bent on becoming “filthy rich” in a generic Asian setup while such nations are struggling with their GDPs.
The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
Indian English writer Jhumpa Lahiri struck another load of literary gold with her second and most recent novel, The Lowland. At the heart of the novel is the forked road that two brothers find themselves in life and the consequences of the path taken by each brother form the rest of the narrative. The two come of age in the mid-1900s in Calcutta and while one involves himself in the Naxalite movement in the late 60s, the other moves to the States. The latter returns to a dead brother, a pregnant sister-in-law (whom he marries) and a conflicted heart. The words are familiar and the novel’s essence is not dissimilar to Lahiri’s The Namesake, as she immerses her readers into the best and the most selfish of human nature.
Chronicles of A Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This novella is another excellent and somewhat lesser-known works of renowned Latin America personality Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The short narrative, written in a pseudo-journalistic style, is like a detective novel inside-out. There is no mystery to discover as the very first lines of the narrative answers the questions surrounding the brutal death of young Santiago Nasar – who killed him, how he was killed, when he was killed, why he was killed and how everyone knew he was going to be killed. But it’s the genius of the literary God (Marquez) that the story is yet so compelling that each page is accompanied with frenzied nail-biting, as the reader expects one person after the other to warn Nasar. It’s a story pieced together from compounding, contradicting, truthful yet deceiving versions provided by the town’s people, bringing to forefront the traditions and prejudices that plague Latin America which seek to justify an innocent death.
One Thousand and One Nights
There are few who have not heard of the Arabian Nights – a collection of West and South Asian folktales compiled in Arabic. The compilation is the result of hard work spanning across centuries and across historians, writers and chroniclers and stands as the most wonderful pieces of early literature to exist. The frame narrative is that of the ruler ShahryÄr known for executing his wives the next morning and his latest wife Scheherazade who decides to tell the emperor a compelling story each night and withholding it’s ending to distract him so that she could survive each morning. Some of Scheherzade’s tales – such as those of Aladdin, Sindbad and Ali Baba – are stories that we have grown up with but it’s the rest of the massive compilation of over thousand tales that would open an enthralling unbelievable wealth of fantasy to the readers just as it did to the emperor.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by American novelist Toni Morrison invokes the history of slave trade to comment upon the contemporary racist state of the American society. Set shortly after the “end” of slave trade in the 19th century, Beloved is a story of an escaped slave Sethe who had started living her life at her big, old house in 124 Bluestone, only to continuously be chased by the ghost of the past (literally). It’s a story of humans de-humanized in the most inhuman manner, a mother reduced to killing her own children and a haunted woman desperate for life. Morrison plunges the readers into her characters’ mind, giving them all the ambiguities of human nature and the readers, a riot of sensations.
No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith
This is a series of novels written by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, with the main premise of a detective agency run by the first female private investigator in Bostwana, and covers the many adventures and foibles of its characters as they unearth mysteries. Mma Precious Ramotswe has since become a canon literary character not unlike Sherlock Holmes and has been adapted in print and television multiple times over the decades. The series are light, heart-warming reads about a traditional-yet-progressive intelligent woman who meets challenges and deals with each in her own unique way. Smith, with his dabbles in Africa, has sufficiently grasped its culture and produces the environ of the Agency with all its flaws and even the trials of an enterprising female in a surprisingly aware and refreshing manner.
The Palace of Illusions – Chitra BanerjeeÂ Divakaruni
Imagine the longest epic of the world retold from the female character’s perspective. Indian poet and novelist Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniÂ did the same and gave us Draupadi’s view of the events of ancient Mahabharata – a story centered around the wars of men. From the “perpetrator” and “ill omen” of the epic war, the author makes Draupadi here the all-powerful narrator in an outstanding feminist feat by an Indian author. It’s Draupadi’s tale of her victimization which no historical record cared to mention and this Draupadi is defiant, passionate and provocative, vocal about her birth, her “marriage” to five men and her degradation by several others. Divakaruni, in her work, shows exactly how different the same set of events could become, simply by giving voice to the subaltern.
Please Look After Mom -Â Kyung-Sook Shin
This Man Asian Literary Prize winning novel by South Korean writer Kyung-Sook ShinÂ is an intensely moving tale of a family that begins a desperate search when their 69-year-old mother goes missing among the crowd of Seoul subway station. Not only is the family propelled to carry out a physical search for her but Shin gives each character a mental trajectory where they “search” who “Mom” is actually and who is she to them; discovering how less the woman who now centers their world lived on the margins of their minds earlier. The book plays upon the familiar trope of the mother being taken for granted but expands its message when it hits that the “disappearance” doubles as a metaphor for the greater erosion of values.
How I Became A Nun – CÃ©sar Aira
The novel, contrary to its title has nothing to do with religion. Argentinian writer CÃ©sar Aira chronicles a year in the fantastical internal and external life of an introverted 6-year-old called CÃ©sar, who has one big, though unstated, problem: she is a precocious little girl trapped in the body of a boy. The story begins with one cone of cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream that sets the wheels in motion. Magic Realism comes into play as the writer takes the readers through the events from the point of view a young, imaginative child, such that it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, lending a strange and sublime quality to its world. The story itself is in the metaphor of the ice cream – seemingly pink and harmless package, but equally chilling and poisonous.
Kafka On The Shore – Haruki Murakami
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s novel has been called a “metaphysical mind-bender”, has been lauded the World Fantasy Award and has succeeded to achieve cult status in many spheres. The narrative is divided in two parallel running plots of the two main protagonists which are headed for a real as well as metaphysical convergence. 15-year-old Kafka runs away from his father’s home to search for his mother and sisters, in order to escape an Oedipal prophecy. On the other hand, Nakata, an old man with the ability to talk to cats, goes far away from his home for the first time in search of one cat. The novel employs fantasy but Murakami makes his magic seem real; with excellent ability he has managed to turn the two basic themes of the novel- 1) One can run, but not escape, and life needs to be dealt, 2) That every person has a purpose and a destiny to fulfill – into a compelling piece of literature.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R.Â Tolkein
There is hardly a person who can claim to have not watched Peter Jackson’s screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s massive contribution to fantasy literature. But even Jackson’s sublimely majestic landscapes do not hold a candle to the scale of Tolkein’s brainchild. In Frodo Baggins journey from the sheltered land of the Shire across the perils of the gradually darkening Middle Earth, in order to destroy the One Ring and subsequently its Lord, Lord Of The Rings marries the worlds of dwarves, elves, hobbits, humans and innumerable myths into one seamless quest for peace. Fantasy served in its perfect form, the trilogy is the gourmet version of contemporary fantasies such as Harry Potter. Tolkein’s narrative is tinted with nostalgia which contemporary fantasies lack – the Bardic traditions, the revelry and mostly, the grandness that is hard to compress in the written word.