Monday, January 02, 2006

Belated books list 2005

Having begun my last post with the sentence “Bollocks to book/film lists”, here’s my contribution to the clutter (you didn’t really think I was going to abstain!). Disclaimer: this isn’t an attempt to be comprehensive. I read much less this year than I’d have liked and this is just a record of some personal favourites. Also, where I’ve blogged about a book before, I’m keeping commentary down to a minimum and simply linking to the earlier post.

Arthur & George (Julian Barnes)
One of Barnes’s very best works and it’s a shame he missed out on the Booker. A beautiful fictionalisation of an early 20th century case where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle defended a young solicitor accused of animal-slaughter, this is as much an examination of the relationship between blind faith and rational knowledge as it is a study of two very different men.
(Full review here.)

Snow (Orhan Pamuk)
(Not strictly a 2005 book but close enough.) Pamuk’s iconic work is still My Name is Red, and for easily understood reasons – but Snow is my personal favourite. The melancholy poet Ka, caught in a crossfire between secular and fundamentalist Islamists, gets my vote as the most unforgettable fiction character of the year. A great absurdist work, which doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.
(Related post here.)

Pundits From Pakistan (Rahul Bhattacharya)
Just when I’d made up my mind never to read another cricket book published in India, along came this enlivening account of the 2004 India-Pakistan series, which eschews the tired match-report narrative style and provides a compelling account of what was happening off the field. Bhattacharya’s enthusiasm as a young reporter on the tour of his life shines through on every page.
(Full review here.)

The Argumentative Indian (Amartya Sen)
Whatever you think of Sen’s central thesis that India’s long tradition of constructive debate is responsible for the country’s pluralism, the essays collected here are mind-expanding; here’s an academic who can write forcefully and lucidly, without resorting to the kind of jargon that drives the casual reader away.
(Longer post here.)

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)
A dark horse of a book that just continued to grow on me against all expectations – until the silly-ish ending. This is the Dracula myth reworked, with the 15th century ruler Vlad the Impaler in the starring role. Loved the leisurely pace at which the narrative unfolds (and this is coming from someone who usually has little patience with long-winded stories).
(Full review here.)

Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (Bernard Henri-Levy)
Renowned French philosopher/former war correspondent (!) Henri-Levy pulls no punches in this recreation of the kidnapping and brutal assassination of the American journalist in 2002. The conclusion, and the author’s outright condemnation of Pakistan, were too unequivocal for my liking but this gets top marks for his depiction of the inner workings of terrorism, and especially for his portrayal of the monstrous Omar Sheikh.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol II (Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill)
Brilliant sequel continues the adventures of the unlikely group of heroes from late 19th century fiction. Sherlock Holmes shows up in a flashback, but Mr Hyde is the star here.
(Longer post here.)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
Didion’s “year of magical thinking” was one in which her husband of 40 years, the novelist/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, suddenly collapsed and died of a coronary, while their daughter came out of an induced coma only to undergo major brain surgery a few months later. This territory – the nature of grief – has been covered before, but rarely with such power and honesty.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Not my favourite Ishiguro by a long way, but can’t leave him off this list.
(Full review here.)

And if I had to pick one favourite:

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
The most viscerally effective, thought-provoking book I’ve read in the last year, even when it skirts slasher-movie territory. The first 100 pages in particular provide a searing look at the mindgames that go into a couple’s decision to have a child, even when one of them isn’t ready for it. As powerful and illuminating as any of the non-fiction by Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker, which covers similar territory.
(Full review here.)

And because I'm running out of time, others in the top 20:

The Manticore’s Secret (Samit Basu)

Tigers in Red Weather (Ruth Padel)

Patna Roughcut (Siddharth Chowdhury)

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (Alexander McCall Smith)

The Kapoors (Madhu Jain)

Out of My Comfort Zone (Steve Waugh)

Surface (Siddhartha Deb)

On Beauty (Zadie Smith)

(And my 2004 list here.)

Update: just for the record I finished 98 books in 2005, well below my earlier average and also, in tragic Bradman-like fashion, falling short of a crucial century. My favourites among the older books I read for the first time include Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip Roth's The Counterlife, Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil and Gaiman's Sandman 4: Season of Mists. Too lazy to link - go look them up yourselves.


  1. Good to see you were too busy bonking/drunk or both to be forced to post this list late! Heppi 2 U

  2. First of all, Happy New Year!

    And now, jeez! And you said you didnt read enough??? 2005 has been the worst year for me in terms of reading books - once a voracious reader, I must have read like 4-5 books the entire year, and thats a complete shame.

    Must check out all the reviews of all the books you mention and select some to read!



  3. Two books I would certainly have on my list would be :

    The Heart Divided - Mumtaz Shah Nawaz (a seemingly effortless blend of the politics of the time and the storyline which even now feels contemporary)

    Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts (in-credible book even if you forget for a whole that this is a true story)

  4. Smita: I was a little dissatisfied with Shantaram in the final analysis. Large parts of it were brilliant though. And whether it's a true story or not is beside the point where I'm concerned.

  5. Supremus: happy 2006 to you too. And don't worry about not reading enough - I'm sure you spent your time more productively last year as a result.

  6. Pundits from Pakistan - for me ...
    Also the reason I stumbled (googled?) upon this (and consequently a host of other blogs) .. Cheers and a Happy New Year ...

  7. jwock,

    I've said it before and i'll say it again: i found "Snow" really hard going; in fact i gave it up midway after much effort.

    "On Beauty" was Ok but no top 20. What about "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian?" I hope my old fave Jonathan Strange was included in your best of 2004 books.

    btw, i saw a Hotel Rwanda review on your blog - did you read Philip gourevitch's "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed Along with Our Families"? Its a searing book.


  8. Did you read Kafka On The Shore? What did you think about it?

    Cool list. Next year, you should separate the wheat from the umm... I mean, separate non-fiction and fiction.

    I thought On Beauty and Gilead were top-ten material, but then I haven't read everything you have on your list, so I can't say for sure. (Which makes the whole comment pointless, except for the "Cool list" part.) So once, again cool list. And I say it without any jealousy whatsoever - I got to read Java for Dummies and I am pretty happy about that.

  9. Sfx: Happy new year to you too!

    Neela, Karthik: I didn't read anywhere near as much as I would've liked to last year (didn't manage Short History of Tractors... and dozens of other books I'd been looking forward to). Nor was this list prepared with much care - I plain forgot to include Kafka on the Shore and McEwan's Saturday among others. Vikram Seth's Two Lives would probably also have squeezed into the top 25.

    Neela, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is there in the 2004 list, which I've linked to at the end of this post.

  10. what? no ON@T2C? ;)

  11. Am reading Snow right now, and I find it wonderfully haunting. Am looking for other Pamuk books at the British Library.

    And hey! Season of Mists is my favourite Sandman collection too.

    But I have to admit I haven't read a single one of all the other books you mention. *hangs head*

  12. Coincidentally, Snow is at No. 2 on my list too.

  13. Good list - much fine reading.

  14. the translator of pamuk's books was my tutor at the writing course at uni! speaking of which, (writing, i.e) may i glower at you for not reading my (tiiiny compared to any of these tomes) short story?

  15. Hello from Turkey,
    I'm reading Snow at the moment so I was just googling to see what foreigners thought about the book. Then I found myself here on your blog.I haven't yet read all of his books but Istanbul and My Name is Red were also haunting.