The Best Reads of 2019: Books Writers Loved this Year
Compiled by Mitali Chakravarty
And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns,1788
It is that time of the year again when we bid adieu to the old and party to welcome the new. And this year it is not just an old year but the old decade that ends – this new year we start the third decade of the second millennia. With much goodwill, as the poet Burns says, we asked some writers who have featured on our pages to contribute two of their favourite reads from this year and they obliged… A huge thanks to all these fantastic writers who share what their favourite books have been this year.
We start with Suzanne Kamata, an award winning writer from Japan, who has been a part of our magazine and the first Best Asian Short Stories in 2017. This is what Suzanne wrote: “One book which particularly impressed me was Under the Broken Sky, a novel-in-verse by Mariko Nagai, about a Japanese girl stranded in Soviet-occupied Manchuria. Although we often hear and read about the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in Asia, we rarely hear the voices of the innocent bystanders, like children. Nagai manages to distill complicated and difficult events into crystalline free verse. Although this book was written with middle grade readers in mind, I would recommend it to adults as well.
“Another novel which moved me greatly was Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (translated by Allison Watts). It involves the unlikely friendship between an ex-con, an elderly woman who was formerly isolated due to Hansen’s disease, and a troubled high school girl. A best seller and the basis for a popular movie in Japan, this novel sheds light on the enduring discrimination against those who have suffered from Hansen’s disease (previously known as leprosy).”
Tunku Halim, a famed Malaysian writer who was also part of the Best Asian Speculative fiction in 2018, and has recently published a new book with SEA Penguin, Scream to the Shadows, gave a brief response He said his favourites were from Malaysia and Korea.
“Ronggeng-Ronggeng: Malaysian Short Stories (edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani) compiles a wonderful selection of diverse and interesting Malaysian stories from1959 till today and so provides a panorama of short stories within a historical context.
“The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a South Korean novel. It has been divided into three distinct sections that engage the reader in a distinctly bizarre yet artistic way.”
Then, the man who made it big in the Asian Age Best Seller list, right to the top, beating The Anarchy by William Dalrymple to the second spot with his non- fiction, Dara Shukoh, Avik Chanda writes: “Among the many books I’ve read (and re-read) this year, the two Asian books that really stand out are Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, and Ravi Agarwal’s India Connected.
“One of them deals with the travails of objectivity with regard to chronicling the distant past, while the other focuses on a ‘technological revolution’ of the dynamic, ever-changing present. And so, I feel as if between them, these two works straddle an enormous expanse of time as well as subject matter.
“The joy of reading apart, each of these books has been of definite utilitarian value. Prof. Chakrabarty’s book opened up keen insights for me, in drawing out the relationship between identity and history, the scholar’s pursuit of historical authenticity, and the business of writing history – based on evidence and logic – marred, however, by ideological colourations. This book thus served as a kind of coastline dotted with lighthouses, helping me navigate through my book, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King.
“Ravi’s book is an engaging and informative look at how the smartphone has irrevocably changed the lives of millions of Indians across all demographic, socio-economic and cultural divides. But given the incredible pace of change in our current world, it also throws open fresh questions to be answered. For me, this is the sort of book that’s an invitation for an author to think anew, research and create on his own.”
Elaine Chiew, a Singaporean writer who debuted with her first collection of short stories, Heartsick Diaspora, picked writers who have acclaim in the West and the East. Here are the books she chose: “On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019) has themes of war, the Vietnamese diaspora, mother-son relationship, falling in love and accepting one’s sexuality, the depths of feeling Vuong conveyed within these moment-to-moment experiences push language to extremes, and when the words yield, their meaning makes you gasp, with wonder and pain.
“Delayed Rays of A Star by Amanda Lee Koe (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) is a wild, daring, and virtuoso exploration of the lives of three female film stars of an era — Leni Riefenstahl, Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich. Koe weaves in the performative elements of their lives with their sadder realities with wit, intelligence and supple prose. So much about World War II has been covered, so this is a fresh, original angle. Koe’s cinematic knowledge is nonpareil.”
Another author who has been befriending Kitaab for some time and has eight novels and her recently published one, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, Anuradha Kumar, chose a novel and poetry. She wrote: “Early in February, Amit Chaudhuri had a reading at Strand Books, New York, where he talked about and read from his new novel, Friend of My Youth (NYRB publication). It is an unusual work, pensive and meditative. In some 150-odd compelling pages, he takes you not just into a detour of familiar places of largely south Bombay, but also into the nature of memory, the act of remembering, and friendship. Places once known become alive, but the book also told me that remembering and returning to a city can make you see yourself, your life and how you remember in turn, very differently. There are cities we carry in us, that make us, and that we can never let go of.
“In November, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s long awaited book of poems, Selected Poems and Translations, chosen by Vidyan Rabinthiran, and introduced by Amit Chaudhuri, was launched. The collection includes his own and translations, including Mehrotra’s own interpretations of the mystic saint-poet of the 16th century, Kabir. Mehrotra’s essays on modern Indian literature, the evolution of Indian literature in English, have always been illuminating. And this collection is one to cherish. Besides his own poems–my favourite being the ones in the section, ‘Daughters of Jacob Bridge’ — there are translations, of Shakti Chattopadhyay (Bengali), ‘Nirala,’ Vinod Kumar Shukla, and Mangalesh Dabral. This collection–wise, humorous, quirky and irreverent–seems apt for today’s times, each one speaking to the angst and helplessness many of us feel.”
Murali Kamma, the author of Not Native and managing editor of Khabar, almost chose three books:“Most of the books I read this year were published earlier, the most memorable one being Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which I finally got to a quarter-century after it came out! My favorite 2019 novel is The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. This beautifully written novel, told in the first person by a young woman who travels to Kashmir from Bangalore, is powerful and poignant, not to mention timely. I wasn’t surprised that it won the JCB ( Joseph Cyril Bamford) Prize. I’ll be eagerly waiting for her next novel.
“My other favorite 2019 book by an Asian author: Suketu Mehta’s This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. Briskly written, it is filled with forceful arguments bolstered by carefully chosen facts and personal stories that draw readers in, showing us how migrants play an invaluable role in the host nation’s economy and society. While migrants form 3% of the world’s population, they contribute 9% of its GDP. With migrants under attack in many places, this book is also timely.”
We are again back to an author from the latest Best Asian Short Stories, 2019, Simon Rowe. Positioned in a hilly town in Japan, in the samurai castle town of Himeji, he writes fascinating short stories, some of which have been in his own anthology, Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere, and also a part of the television network. Rowe selected books from the country he has been living in — Japan.
“Research for writing my short stories has taken me all over the Japanese archipelago, which is why I enjoyed both of these books so much.
“Mishima’s The Sound of Waves is a coming-of-age love story set on an island in Mie prefecture, not far from Osaka and famed for its disappearing tradition of pearl diving. In this story, a young fisherman fights foul weather and foe for the hand in marriage of a beautiful pearl diver. Weatherby’s translation is perfect and renders Mishima’s words in simple but evocative tones.
“Manabeshima Island, in contrast, is a visual treat. Florent Chavouet is a French sketchbook artist who spent two months on Manabeshima (pop. 300), a small island in the Seto Inland Sea which divides Shikoku and Honshu. Chavouet’s sketches and notes are presented in graphic novel form and give a humorous account of his time spent among this colourful seafaring community. As an avid sea kayaker who has spent many summers paddling through these island communities, I found this book a feast of familiar detail and source of great humour.”
And last but not the least, the man behind the Best Asian Collection and Kitaab.org, who works only from shadows and has taken to making films by founding Filmwallas, Zafar Anjum, agreed to divulge his favourites. These were his choices: “Since I have mostly been reading non-fiction, I would like to mention two books that stood out for me this year from my reading pile (and they were not necessarily published in 2019).
“The first one is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by American scholar and author, Shoshana Zuboff. This is a very powerful book which puts forth the thesis that the raw material for today’s capitalism (she calls it Surveillance Capitalism) are not minerals or other material but it is the behavioural data that is being marketised. All the large corporations that are thriving today are doing so because they are successful in mining and monetising the human behavioural data. In her book, she argues that neither privacy nor antitrust laws provide adequate protection from the unprecedented practices of surveillance capitalism and many issues that we grapple with today including the assault on privacy, behavioural targeting, fake news, ubiquitous tracking, legislative and regulatory failure, algorithmic governance, social media addiction, abrogation of human rights, democratic destabilisation, and so on emanate from the logic and pervasive acceptance of surveillance capitalism.
“The second book that I read with great interest is Rafiq Zakaria’s The Man Who Divided India (Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2004), a biography of Jinnah, first published in 2001. Zakaria, who once was a deputy to Indira Gandhi and represented India at the UN many times (father of American journalist Fareed Zakaria), presents the life and times of Jinnah and then discusses the politics of his times leading up to the tragic Partition of India. Going through the chapters of the book reminded me of the interesting times we are living in and the political atmosphere of hatred and violence that prevails in in contemporary India. Zakaria makes a very touching statement towards the end of the book which I would like to share here: “The more I think of the dreadful partition and the consequent sufferings that it has brought in its wake to our two peoples, the more inclined I am to ask the question, which one of the greatest philosophers of our times, Bertrand Russell asked: ‘Are we to continue entrusting our affairs to men without sympathy, without knowledge, without imagination, and having nothing to recommend them expect methodical hatred and skill in vituperation?’ (p. 238)”
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