Dec 16, 2008

Books - Year's best non-fiction

Nilanjana S Roy

What was the world interested in this year? War, Barack Obama, the politics of food, V S Naipaul and how to get rich when the markets were doing their celebrated imitation of the walls of Jericho. Here’s a brief and very personal list of favourites—enjoy the browsing.

Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century rounded off a year of consistently bad news with a road map that is unsurprisingly workable, as you would expect from one of India’s most respected entrepreneurs. Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life offered a detailed look at the success and strategies of one of the world’s richest men. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money was a triumphalist look at global capitalist markets—unfortunately, it came out just as the markets went into meltdown, though Ferguson’s historical perspective still makes for an interesting read.

Just how do you get to be a Buffet or a Nilekani? Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and Tipping Point, offers some tips in Outliers: The Story of Success. While this sometimes reads like the thinking person’s version of The Secret, his case studies are fascinating. His suggestions range from the obvious—hard work and practice—to the surprising: your year of birth, for instance, can matter more than you realise, and that’s not just Chinese astrology at work.

Among the best reads of the year were three unusual books on literary subjects. Patrick French’s majestic research on V S Naipaul gave us a searing, no-holds-barred look at the personal and literary life of one of the world’s best-known, and possibly grumpiest, writers. Part catharsis, part analysis, The World Is What It Is was always honest. James Wood, one of the few truly brilliant literary critics of our time, offers up his credo in the magnificent How Fiction Works: “To deny character is to deny the novel.” For a lighter but thoroughly engaging read, try Roy Blount’s Alphabet Juice. Its exuberant subtitle gives you a taste of the delights to come: ‘The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory.’

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night was one of the surprises of 2008: His moving account of growing up in Kashmir and the interviews he did for this memoir make it a truly memorable read. Read it alongside Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, a stellar chronicle of the war and everyday life in Afghanistan. Aids Sutra put together 16 of India’s more interesting writers to capture the reality of living with Aids in India: From Kiran Desai to Salman Rushdie, Siddhartha Deb to Sonia Faleiro, this is a gripping book, and they record their experiences as they travel to separate parts of the country with vivid fidelity.

Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (released in 2007, but available in India only in 2008) captures a different kind of war. This Italian journalist’s gritty account explores the world of the Camorra—the mafia in Naples, whose threats forced Saviano into hiding after the book came out. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher takes on the murder of a young child in the 1860s in an upscale Victorian neighbourhood. It also destroys the career of a respected detective, and Summerscale captures the contrast between the sedate world she describes and the horrifying violence within perfectly.

If all of that seems like too much gore to absorb, try something more meditative. Pico Iyer’s The Open Road captures not just the life of the Dalai Lama, but Iyer’s elegant musings on Buddhism. Michael Pollan invites us to meditate on something more concrete: The way we eat, and why our food habits are destroying us, in the very influential In Defense of Food. Indian readers, however, are likely to have a very special fondness for The Wit and Wisdom of P G Wodehouse, including such gems as his advice to writers, “I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”

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