2016 is almost long gone but not quite.
Cups of hot adrakwali chai accompanied my quest last year to try to read more books from around the world.
The more I read, the more I was chagrined at my surprise at finding similarities among people from countries that were not my own. I was often disillusioned about the news, that tends to focus on the worst of us, and lumps together large tracts of land whose cultures are quite distinct.
The highlights of my journey were:
10. The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkey
A book by Elif Shafak, an author so eloquent that she’s featured on this list twice! A beautifully written book that is a personal narrative of two girls and their parents set against the backdrop of Turkish and Armenian relations. The book was in equal parts a joy to read and a treasure trove of historical perspective.
Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a sensitive and personal narrative of Jews in Nazi Germany. The German Jews are characterized as mice and the German Nazis as cats. It is also a biography of Art Spiegelman’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany with a combination of quick-thinking, sheer grit and a healthy dose of luck.
8. The Kite Runner
A heart-wrenching story of two boys and their lives together and apart. If there’s ever a book that I have wept over, it is this one.
7. I am Malala
Who is Malala Yousafzai? Why did she win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why does the Taliban have a death wish for a (then) fourteen-year-old?
“Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”
The story of a brave young girl fighting for education and the peace and the problematic appropriation of her story to continue cultural stereotypes.
How does one describe Auggie Pullman?
The most real character, the most heartwarming story, the best pick-me-up to convince yourself to Never Give Up, Never Give In.
I got Wonder for my little sister and ended up falling in love with little Auggie too.
“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
5. The Forty Rules of Love
Love and history. Elif Shafak masterfully intertwines the two again in parallel stories that mirror each other. And guides you to an appreciation of the great poet and Sufi saint Rumi, not just for his wisdom, but also as a person.
“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
4. Nehru: The Invention of India
If politicians were meant to be leaders and leaders are people who are meant inspire you, whose actions are meant to be examples, who you look up to and hope to emulate, then both the subject and his biographer would top my list.
A cheeky play on the title Nehru’s autobiography, “The Discovery of India”, Tharoor once again writes an eminently readable book on the history and politics of India.
This is it. The inner sanctum. The top 3. All of them were equally brilliant in different ways and did what a great book is supposed to do: Change one’s life.
3. Palace Walk
Literature is an art and you see why when Mahfouz writes. Every word is a brushstroke, every carefully crafted turn of phrase observed with painstaking precision the edging of detail, and the story blooms into an exquisite masterpiece, a work of art.
The story of Egypt on the brink of forcefully ejecting the ruling squatters.
2. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters
“In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.”
His words and paintings speak for themselves. Is there anything left to say?
The book that started it all. The revolution in Iran, the internal struggle of a liberal population stuck in a conservative country, a love note to a land of immense history and culture, and in the midst of all that, the ecstatic highs and depressing lows of growing up and figuring life out. Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of her memories of her beloved homeland, flaws and all, love and torture, too-quick marriages and political coups, Iranian autocracy and British-American chicanery, is a must-read.
Read one book this year. Make it this one.