Last year, I found it extremely satisfying to put together a list of the ten best new books of 2010 I’d read. So I decided to do it all over again. Presenting the ten best new books of 2011 I’ve read:
The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Siddhartha Deb) A few months ago, I went to see Deb and Aatish Taseer discuss the future of India and Pakistan at a Granta magazine event at 192 Books. It was the most heated (and completely riveting) debate I’ve ever heard on the subject; Taseer and Deb are both very passionate about the subcontinent but think about it very differently. This book illustrates Deb’s perspective through a compilation of profiles — of Indian call center employees, middle-class engineers, shady magnates, struggling waitresses, Marxist farmers, idealistic inventors, and others. Deb doesn’t always find clear answers to the very good questions he asks about who the real winners and losers are in India’s recent economic surge. Nevertheless, his investigations provide a rich picture of what life in today’s global India is like for the filthy rich and the hopelessly destitute, as well as those who fall somewhere in between.
Noon (Aatish Taseer) Although I followed news of the death of Salmaan Tasseer (governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province) rather closely last year, I didn’t know who Aatish Taseer was til I came across an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why My Father Hated India.” After seeing Taseer at 192 Books, I picked up Noon mostly because I was curious to find out more about his life and perspective. I wasn’t disappointed. Like its author, the novel’s main character (Rehan Tabassam) is the son of a Pakistani powerbroker and a cultured Indian mother who have a brief affair; he has a privileged upbringing but no real relationship with his father til early adulthood, when he travels to Pakistan seeking out his extended family. The novel’s biggest strength — and weakness — is that it sticks closely to what the narrator perceives and experiences. This means the big political and cultural questions the story touches on are only ever examined fleetingly, as Rehan struggles to sort out his own place as a man, a son, an Indian and a Pakistani. Though the book seems to fall short of its own ambitions, it still offers a valuable glimpse into two dynamic countries in transition.
Guadalajara (Quim Monzó) Entrancing, fun, and unique. Months after reading this book, I find myself still thinking about the swiftly-drawn characters of these stories and their strange predicaments.
Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin) I fell for this book immediately when I read it. I fell for this book a second time when I read the responses it evoked from other readers as a judge for the Korean Cultural Service’s essay contest earlier this year. I fell for this book for a third time after discussing it with my mom when her book club read it last month.
Lee Krasner: A Biography (Gail Levin) The Brooklyn-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, by the time Lena Krasner was thirteen, she knew she wanted to be a painter. An early abstract impressionist, Krasner was already peers with artists like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Piet Mondrian, when she met and married Jackson Pollock. As Pollock’s career took off, Krasner directed her considerable energy and talents towards promoting his work and trying to keep his destructive alcoholism in check—while dealing with the frustration of suddenly being known simply as “Mrs. Jackson Pollack” (later critics would acknowledge that the marriage was “at once the greatest single advantage and the greatest handicap to her career”). No portrait of Pollock—or the abstract expressionist movement at large—is complete without a picture of Krasner’s life, but her life story is also very much a story about feminism’s early battles, a struggle best summed up by a few lines of French poet Arthur Rimbaud painted on her wall: “To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? … What lie must I maintain?”
The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness, and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard) Candice Millard brings a relatively obscure chapter of history to life in this nonfictional account of the assassination of President James Garfield. History textbooks don’t have much to say about President Garfield because his time in office was so short, but there’s a lot to admire in his life story, from his stint as his school’s janitor to his abolitionist views and composure through terrible pain on his deathbed. A bit of trivia in the book that especially captured my imagination has to do with Chester Arthur, the man waiting in the wings. A product of the spoils system, Arthur’s political ascendancy was entirely the result of ass-kissing, and popular sentiment widely regarded him as unworthy of the presidency. Arthur knew this about himself, and as the much-loved President Garfield lay dying in the White House, his vice-president fell into a deep despair. Then, at his lowest moment, Arthur got a letter from an unmarried 32-year-old invalid named Julia Sand. “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life,” she wrote. “If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you — but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!” Arthur was moved by this vote of confidence, and took her advice to heart. Millard cites Alexancer McClure for this summary of Arthur’s time in office: “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”
The Valley of the Masks (Tarun J. Tejpal) In this haunting, mesmerizing book, Tarun Tejpal creates an entire mini-civilization hidden away somewhere on the Indian subcontinent; the novel is narrated by one of its former inhabitants recounting his life story. I was particularly taken by the way the book enters into a dialogue with The Mahabharata — the protagonist, tellingly, is given the name “Karna” by his mother — as it considers twisting questions of ethics, morality and how to live. In some ways, the book’s message against the evils of totalitarianism and the fundamentalist thinking (“quest for perfection”) is a simple, familiar one. But the combination of discipline and credulity of the book’s narrator, as well as the poetic richness of the elaborate world he inhabits take this book to another plane.
The Sly Company of People Who Care (Rahul Bhattacharya) A rambling, vibrant account of the year a young cricket journalist from Mumbai spends looking for adventure in Guyana. A little unfocused but full of life and thick with sensory description. Bhattacharya dives in deep.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick) This book wasn’t published in 2011, but I’m making an exception. I happened to read this six months before Kim Jong-il’s death; nothing I’ve seen or heard about North Korea from any other source (including “Kim Jong-il’s guy in New Jersey”) has been more incredibly eye-opening. Barbara Demick spent years interviewing North Korean refugees — focusing on those who left one particular town, Chongjin — to piece together a detailed picture of life under Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-Il. Demick’s six main characters each left the country in very different ways for very different reasons. The world they find beyond North Korea’s borders startles, amazes and sometimes confounds them. Demick’s description of a young North Korean girl eating a banana for the first time (in The New Yorker and on The Takeaway) is what first drew my interest to this book, and it proved to be a good measure of what the experience of reading the entire book is like. Nothing to Envy is full of one astonishing — and very real — moment after another. “Horrifying” sums up much of life in North Korea, but the stories in this book demonstrate the tremendous resilience, bravery, romance, and fortitude of its people too.
El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Ioan Grillo) Take even a cursory look at Mexico’s drug war and you’ll quickly find support for the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Grillo has spent more than a decade in Mexico, and this book piles on one wild – historically verifiable – tale after another. Though Grillo’s anecdotal style comes off as clumsy once in a while, the conversational tone he takes in his extensive, substantive journalism is refreshing overall.
Finally, here are five books of 2011 I’d like to read but haven’t yet gotten around to: The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht), Bossypants (Tina Fey), The Folded Earth (Anuradha Roy), Room For Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports (John Casey), The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides).