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The ultimate reading list

Six writers, whose work made an impression in 2012, pick the books they've enjoyed this year.

books Updated: Dec 28, 2012 23:32 IST

Six writers, whose work made an impression in 2012, pick the books they've enjoyed this year.

The mysterious draw of a name
My favourite read of the year was The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt. I had never heard of Nikola Tesla until I chanced upon this book. It wasn't as if the book leapt out at me from the bookshelf. Instead, it was the name Tesla that drew me. Suddenly, it seemed that Tesla and I had a mysterious connection. A night ago while channel surfing I paused to watch an episode of Criminal Minds, and Tesla was mentioned by a character. That morning, someone had posted a link about Tesla on facebook: Curiouser and curiouser.

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt is a splendid book. While there is the inventor Nikola Tesla, who was the brain behind alternating current, radio, wireless communication and remote control, Mark Twain's friend and Thomas Edison's enemy, we also see the confused genius in love with a pigeon and with a room with ceiling-to-floor draws in which he kept his papers, his secrets, his life… and this novel follows Tesla's story in every direction. But it is more than just the character of Tesla that made this book outstanding. Samantha Hunt also introduces us to Louisa, a chamber maid at the hotel where Tesla has been living for many years. There is an unlikely friendship that blossoms. There is Louisa's own life -- her father, his inventor friend, and Louisa's quiet but heart-wrenching romance. The book pulses with life and heart; and demands to be recommended.
-Anita Nair, author of, most recently, Cut Like Wound

In praise of beauty… and profundity
Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head is a mysterious, profound and beautiful book; I found myself re-reading some of its passages over and over. Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton received some mean-spirited reviews, but I found the book to be a great read, and wise and often aphoristic (in the best sense of the word). I've read a lot of books that try to analyse and understand the 2008 financial crisis, but few are as insightful as Adair Turner's Economics After the Crisis. In crisp, elegant prose, this short (128 pages) book explains how the crisis calls into question so much of what we have come to accept as conventional wisdom; it is really a testament to the dangers of group thin. Finally, I very much enjoyed Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People. His witty, darkly humorous voice is utterly original in the somewhat crowded marketplace of Indian fiction.
-Akash Kapur, author, India Becoming

Of Dickensian Mumbai
Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography is the summation of a lifetime of study, observation and travel. Some readers might feel that her study of India's sacred geography says too little about the sacred sites and pilgrimages of Indian Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains in its overwhelming concentration on places of Hindu worship, but this book remains a landmark of scholarship and learned empathy. It is also beautifully written.

Kate Boo's brilliant Beyond the Beautiful Forevers examines the lives and dreams of the ragpickers of the Bombay slum of Annawadi, a suffocating "sumpy plug of slum" that squats between the glossy luxury hotels around Mumbai Airport and a fetid lake of raw sewage. The irrepressible hopefulness of her characters, shown silhouetted against the looming tragedy of their dispossession, has echoes of Steinbeck's hungry but ever-optimistic migrants in The Grapes of Wrath or to Dickens's ragpickers in Our Mutual Friend.

Among history books, I enjoyed Faramerz Dhaboiwala's The Origins of Sex-- a fascinating look at the eighteenth century sexual revolution -- and John Zubrzycki's The Mysterious Mr Jacob, about one of the most intriguing characters in early 20th century India, a diamond dealer, spy and fixer who inspired Lurgan Sahib, one of the central characters in Kim. They are both my favourite sort of history book where detailed primary research is wrapped in fine prose and an effortless sense of narrative. I'm much looking forward to hearing Eck, Dhaboiwala and Zubrzycki speak at the Jaipur Lit Fest in January. My favourite novel was The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a clearly autobiographical first novel of pellucid and poetical beauty set in the Iraq war which reads as if Cormac McCarthy had just been enlisted in the US army. It's an utterly brilliant book and a very worthy winner of the Guardian First Book Prize. Read it.
-William Dalrymple, author of, most recently, Return of a King

Reading music; listening to books
Don Winslow's jagged and synaptic prose in Savages satiated my fiction craving for the year. (However, I'm not looking forward to watching Oliver Stone's movie based on the novel.) I've just begun reading Nagarkar's Cuckold and I can already see it becoming one of my favourite books of all time.

I travel to work and back in auto-rickshaws. It's impossible to read in a three-wheeler as it navigates Mumbai's roads. So I use the commute to catch-up on new music. I've begun "reading" music albums the way one "listens" to novels. An Awesome Wave by Alt-J, The Idler Wheel is Wiser by Fiona Apple, BBNG2 by Badbadnotgood, and The King of Limbs by Radiohead are some of the albums I enjoyed this year. Each of these possesses a narrative sweep and cohesiveness coupled with very vivid musical and lyrical imagery.
-Altaf Tyrewala, author of, most recently, Ministry of Hurt Sentiments

The keeper of records
Among the books I enjoyed reading this year is Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, which is a heartwarming, touching and funny take on life from the point of view of a young girl and a middle-aged spinster. The Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr has riveting detective stories set in Nazi Germany and is a masterful exploration of fascism.

Jyotirmaya Sharma's Hindutva, which comprises short essays on figures from Savarkar to Vivekananda who have shaped the Hindu right, has been very useful for my work.

In Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, the loneliness of the protagonist is revealed through memories.

In Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, I was fascinated by the detailed records he had of every critique or comment about him and his work! As a Rushdie fan, I was fascinated by the story of his years in hiding. Right now, I'm reading Return of a King by William Dalrymple. It's terrific and I intend to finish it over the New Year break.
-Saba Naqvi, author, In Good Faith

Beyond the cult of fame
Joseph Anton starts with the descent of the Furies, as though the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie also gave him a new, bloody date of birth: Valentine's Day, 1989. It was a rare instance (in modern times) of a writer being sentenced to death for his words. Critics have focused on Rushdie's celebrity life, which might be read as a cautionary tale about what happens to writers who buy into the cult of fame. But to read Joseph Anton only through that lens is to miss the best: Rushdie's impassioned arguments for the freedom of people to write, read, think and choose for themselves, and the moving stories he tells about the great myths that helped him become a storyteller.
-Nilanjana Roy, author, The Wildings