Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bye Bye 2005

Like every year 2005 too had its share of good reads. Time magazine and the AV club (AV is the Onion's books/music/movies review division) came up with their list of the best of 2005. So did the Guardian, although the listing was that of the readers'.

My "2005 resolution reading list" lies incomplete, and several titles will have to be moved to this year or the next. However, from what I've been able to read, here's a short list of my best books of 2005. These are arranged alphabetically.

1. Collapse (Jared Diamond)

With its release date of 29 Dec 2004, Jared Diamond's book should technically have featured in the 2004 list. But I included it here because it hit the stands around Jan 2005.

In one word this is vintage Diamond at his very best: weaving ecology, anthropology and history with spellbinding prose. In Collapse, Diamond points to five key factors that ultimately govern a society's fate. Armed with information of societies that collapsed in the past-the peoples of the Easter and Polynesian Islands, the Anasazi of Mexico, the Maya, and the Greenland Norse- and societies that were success stories-Japan (of the Tokugawa era, i.e. 17th to mid 19th century), Pacific islands of Tonga and Tikopia- Diamond shows the emergence of a pattern. Diamond's five factors that can signal a societal extinction are environmental degradation, climate changes, hostility of neighbors, irregular trade relations, and society's response to its own problems (environmental or otherwise).

2. Evolution in Four Dimensions (Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb)

This book has been discussed in an earlier blog-post (Thu, Nov 10). The book posits that in addition to genetic systems in evolution (i.e. information passed through the DNA) other non-DNA inheritance modalities such as those based on epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic (language and culture based) forms also exist. Together these four provide all the variations within which natural selection acts and evolution proceeds.

3. Istanbul: Memories of the City (Orhan Pamuk-translated by Maureen Freely)

While great literature comes from fractured identities (Naipaul), exile (Kundera,Kadare) and living in many worlds (Rushdie),it can also come from staying on. As Orhan Pamuk says "The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy." The city of his birth is the city of hüzün (hüzün is the Turkish world for melancholy). Yet Istanbul brings out the best of Pamuk's art. An interview with Pamuk is available here.

4. Never Let me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Kazuo Ishiguro, born to Japanese parents in Great Britain, tells a simple story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, children of Hailsham house. Yet this school, with its strong emphasis on physical and mental health and extensive medical check ups, is a place where everything is horribly wrong. Ishiguro's prose succeeds in conveying the feeling of something being abnormal and disturbing much before the actual and terrifying truth is revealed.

5. The Argumentative Indian (Amartya Sen)

Nobel laureate and distinguished academician Amartya Sen's collection of essays analyzes various aspects of Indian history, religious and social tradition, culture and identity. Although it has faced some criticism for oversimplification of India's historical complexity and legacy, Sen's work is indeed a treat for readers. Here is the Outlook Review and a gentle criticism by Tariq Ali in The Nation.

6. The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh)

It has been said of Amitav Ghosh (and rightly so) that his only companions on the first class coach of Indian writers writing in English are Mistry and Rushdie.

After Glass palace, an epic spanning decades and continents, the Hungry Tide set in the Sunderbans would seem like a small canvas. But Ghosh does not think so. For a review of the book read here.

7.The Kite Runner: (Khalid Hosseini)

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, the skyline of Kabul was dotted with kites as people returned to kite flying, the favorite Afghan pastime, with a vengeance. This bond of kite flying can perhaps unite Afghans strewn across lands and rekindle lost dreams and hopes, like nothing else can.

I came across Khaled Hosseini's biographical work at an author event. Hosseini's description of the Kabul of his childhood (early 70s) seemed so charming that one was immediately tempted to pick up the volume. The story follows Amir and Hassan, two boys in Kabul, in the early seventies. With the Soviet invasion, Amir, son of a wealthy widower leaves Kabul and moves to the US, while Hassan born of a employed domestic lives on in war torn Afghanistan. Yet their fates are intertwined and decades later, Amir, now a well settled doctor in San Francisco, unearths the truth of Hassan's parentage.

8. The Husband of a fanatic (Amitava Kumar)

Married to a Pakistani lady, Amitava Kumar sets out to understand what it means to be an enemy.

9. Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)

The book begins with the murder of diplomat Maxmilan Ophuls, in his Los Angeles home by Noman Sher Noman. As the story unfolds, it turns out that Ophuls, during his years as an ambassador to India had fallen for the charms of Boonyi Kaul. Boonyi is the wife of an acrobat dancer, Shalimar (also known as Shalimar the clown) in Kashmir. Boonyi leaves her home with Ophuls, and the inevitable revenge by Shalimar aka Noman Sher Noman follows. Interspersed with the romance and love are the political and diplomatic events, the violence in Kashmir, the terrorism, Max's life as a resistance fighter in war torn Strasbourg in World War II and his daring escape in a Bugatti plane.

This moving across continents, cultures and worlds with elan and ease in the narrative is what sets Rushdie's work apart.

10. Voltaire in Exile (Ian Davidson)

Francois Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694 and assumed the name Voltaire in 1718. In this biography, Ian Davidson recreates the period of Voltaire's life from 1753 to 1778, when one of the most famous figures of the Enlightenment was forced to spend his days away from his home and land. To read more on Voltaire click here.

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