If variety is the spice of life, then this past year has indeed been very spicy for us as a reading group. Our readers have failed deadlines, disappeared for short intervals, but never misunderstood the importance of being earnest. So, after forty blog posts and a phenomenal year, here we go, with five of our best picks from 2018, as suggested by our five members of the club.
Do spare a thought for these lovely little wonders, and be drunk with your love for reading this coming year. Be shaken, be stirred…
Siddhartha Dey picks Gavin Francis’s SHAPESHIFTERS: ON MEDICINE AND HUMAN CHANGE…
You become acutely conscious of ‘change’ when you are changing the least.
Approaching 30 with the basics settled, I have been meditating on mutability for the last couple of years or so. Having seen close ones drift apart, emotions fade and hopes sag, I have developed a conviction that reality itself is in flux.
Small wonder, then, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gavin Francis’s SHAPESHIFTERS: ON MEDICINE AND HUMAN CHANGE and would pick it as the best book I read in 2018.
Francis, the doctor with a chequered career and varied experiences (including a 10month stay in Antarctica) draws from all of that and adds to it his rich knowledge of literature and cultures of the world in a series of meditations that focus on different changes, the human body goes through, such as, birth, puberty, hallucination, pregnancy, menopause, castration, amnesia and so on. While bringing out the wondrous in the everyday mechanisms of several bodily processes, Francis also relates the cases of some extraordinary patients, the one who imagines himself to be a cat or the one who gets pregnant at 14. He connects them masterfully with literary works and historical figures, his allusions ranging from Heraclitus to Ursula Le Guin and from Mary Antoinette to Friedrich Nietzsche. And all these observations are loosely connected by the single dominating theme of this book — change; changes that are natural, like adolescence and aging and changes that are artificially brought upon oneself in the form of tattoos and steroids.
Reading this book is bound to change the way you look at the human body and the world that surrounds it.
Sudip Bhattacharyya writes about The White Book by Han Kang…
I have always been a fan of minimalism, and when I saw that Han Kang had produced this amazing little book, I just had to pick it up. It’s my favourite book of the year because of the immense heart and soul that has gone into writing it; it’s just such a genuine book. I read better stylised books this year, I read some of the most commendable fiction of 2018. However, Han Kang’s work this time around seems almost effortlessly formed, as if the white book wrote itself out of a personal strife. It’s less of a “text” per se and more of an experience. I also feel that it was a risky project for the writer herself, in this age of Instagram poetry and Rupi Kaur. “Confessional” writing has to be taken with a pinch of salt these days, but not when it is as genuine as Kang’s. In her writing, the simply formed sentences don’t seem inadequate. It is as if they aren’t stylised to seem inadequate and incomplete. The narrative naturally progresses, fragmented yet following a simple pattern, and she moves from non-fiction to fiction to non-fiction again with ease. Flights by Olga Tokarczhuk tries something very much like this; while it is also a brilliant book, it didn’t have the simplicity of The White Book. Han Kang leaves the last few pages of her “text” (I am still undecided on whether to call it a collection of prose pieces, blank verse poetry, or a fragmented novel) blank. This is not an intellectual/pseudo-intellectual exercise. This isn’t yet another way writers (the prideful creatures they are) seek validation through experiments. I don’t think there was a deeper meaning to these blank pages, I think it’s just beautiful.
Suman Mukherjee recommends Funny Boy by Sam Selvadurai…
Earlier I have read Selvadurai’s HUNGRY GHOSTS and that too had my attention. His novels are ‘pleasant’ and never have I found a single hindering expression that stifles emotions and ill-conveys the mood.
FUNNY BOY is not funny at all. In fact, it is very serious. All six interwoven stories that construct the wholeness of the narrative, deal with utterly serious issues. The boy Arjun, nicknamed Arjie is at the center; the story revolves around him and sometimes he weaves it around others. Arjie tends to be girlish as he prefers to play the indoor games with his sisters and cousins over going to the cricket field with his brother. Once while playing ‘bride-bride’, he is caught donning a sari and is dragged amidst the rolls of laughter that bruised both his body and mind. He realized that he is deemed as ‘funny type’, akin to a girlish boy who goes to participate in prostitution. The story takes a turn from the unquiet domestic arena to the turbulent political situation of the country. The ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Singhalas come to ahead after the riots broke in. gruesome events followed after.
Fun in FUNNY BOY is always threatened by violence; silently it strangles all incongruity. All the stories are strained with the tints of suppressed wishes that never saw daylight. While reading this novel, I did not anticipate the landmark judgment to de-criminalize homosexuality as a panacea of the stigma. The young boy Arjie is indifferent towards the liberated sexual choices in the society. But I am quite sure his heart dances in joy when he finds out that from now on, no two lovers will be separated because their bond seems ‘funny’ to the world. So, cast off the label ‘homosexuality’ that often finds itself associated with the novel, for FUNNY BOY is not about homosexuals nor it tries to define or justify homosexuality in any way. Such stances only prejudice readers for worse. FUNNY BOY tries to establish anything but prejudices. Let the New Year be free of intruding biases that plague our behaviour daily.
Arkoprobho Biswas picks Islam: The Essentials by Tariq Ramadan…
First thing first: why did I pick this book ?
Firstly, because I haven’t read anything about Islam before and quite consequently had plucked several vague ideas up regarding this religion, its practices, and most importantly its executions. And secondly, because I am an emerging reader of this ‘new India’ that bothers many other fellow citizens like me.
Customs, rules, realizations, and misinterpretations- every religion is all about that. And Islam is of no exception. Being the latest school, it is the most liberal one at its purest form, giving some unexpected rooms for an individual to interpret it. And then there is a Bang because that is the burden of mankind- the burden of ‘individual interpretation’. We all have a habit of looking at religion as something ‘collective’, ‘communal’, and ‘printed’. And thus we complicate it, taking it away from ourselves. Ramadan hits me right there. He readjusts the religion, the Prophet, and the reader in an eternal land of empathy, where you chance to look back at the faults left behind.
As a student of Humanities what surprised and attracted me the most is: the sheer ‘humane’ presentation of Muhammad in patches. Far from being a man to spoon-feed or advise you, he is a man of the soil, down to earth, a man like you- very close to you in the common journey towards a greater Truth.
‘’The loftiest and most fulfilling form of jihad is the struggle that each and every one of us must wage within and against ourselves. All the meanings and all the objectives of jihad are clearly visible when the self encounters itself…’’
Yes, Religion is about the liberation of the self. Do give it a read.
Shouvik Banerjee talks about Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie…
Kathleen Jamie’s SIGHTLINES has been more than just one among many on my dissertation bibliography.
I never imagined nonfiction could be so poetic, so poignantly observant, yet so historically heedful. Nonfiction on nature writing has been, in fact, a refreshing discovery for me this year. Between Elena Passarello’s ANIMALS STRIKE CURIOUS POSES and Robert Macfarlane’s THE OLD WAYS, I was mesmerized to find the wide range of possibilities that nature writing can actually offer. But Kathleen Jamie’s SIGHTLINES topped them all.
Her graceful diction prods and pushes at our myopic understanding of the natural world, and sets our SIGHTLINES straight. Her prose exudes a poetic elan— an uncanny profundity that guides the reader into a thoughtful pause every now and then. I have seen none capture Nature’s Indifference and variegated beauty so beautifully in one go. And her writing has an extremely delicate personal touch which adds immensely to the reading experience. Knowledge, wisdom, awareness—all in equal measure. What more can you ask for?
‘You are placed in the landscape, you are placed in time. But, within that, there’s a bit of room for maneuver. To some extent, you can be an author of your own fate. At least, that’s what I’d been lucky enough to learn’.
Title Photo by Justine Davy
Our sincere gratitude to Valentine De Gregorio
Book covers from Google