Another year has rolled around. I asked for your lists of the best books you have read in 2022, and as always, was overwhelmed by your response.
There is something for everyone here. Fiction choices include novels about Argentina’s brutal dictatorship, India’s partition, unkept promises in South Africa, stories about African-American women, and a Nigerian soap opera-type novel originally written in Hausa.
Under fiction, we have crime fiction, as always. However, this year there have also been a few books that fall under science fiction and/or climate fiction. I have grouped these under a single heading. Subjects relating to nature are listed under non-fiction.
In non-fiction, there is a mix of politics, history, nature, memoirs, travel and much more. These include books on how the KGB took on the West, the history of clothing, the story of India through its languages, essays reviewing the human experience, and finding joy in difficult times. There are memoirs by playwrights, musicians, actors, MPs, and a woman growing up in Albania before it opened up to the world, and biographies of two great Indian emperors.
If you are an armchair traveller, there is plenty for you, including books about Nellie Bly, who circumnavigated the globe in 1888; the search for lost pianos brought to Siberia by exiles; a trip around the border of Russia; and a journey to the Himalayas. There are also books that combine travel and memoirs.
The books are arranged by category, year of publication (for translations, I have used the year of publication in English), and author. In the case of a series of books, I’ve picked the publication date of the most recent book. Audiobooks have been included in the appropriate section. In the case of overlaps, both reviews have been included.
Links lead to reviews on this blog or to my reviews of travel books for the website Women on the Road.
A big thanks to all of you for your lists! The 2022 contributors are: Abbas Hassan, Caroline Dommen, Chanis Fernando-Boisard, Imran Ali Khan, Jenifer Freedman, Jo-Ann Crawford, Joannah Caborn Wengler, Jordi Vaqué, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Katrien de Moor, Kristine Goulding, Leslie Jones, Mohan Raj, Naheed Bilgrami, Nora El Qadim, Petra Marshall, Rishad Patell, Sadhana Ramchander, Sally-Anne Sader, Shubha Menon, Sita Reddy, Suroor Alikhan, Susan T. Landry, Tejah Balantrapu, Thomas Fitzsimons, Usha Raman, and Will Fihn Ramsay.
To help you navigate this long list, I have added links that take you directly to various sections: Fiction / Crime fiction / Science fiction/Climate fiction / Poetry / Non-fiction / Memoirs, auto/biography / Nature / Travel.
The Selfless Act of Breathing: J.J. Bola (2022)
A man makes up his mind to die. He takes a flight from London to the US with all his savings and decides that when his money runs out, he will take his own life. The book moves back and forth between his journey through the US and his earlier life in London, where he was a teacher in an inner-city school. Bola writes about loneliness, despair and the pain of living, and the feeling of not belonging anywhere or to anyone. Very moving.
The Lost Daughter: Elena Ferrante (2012; translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, 2022)This is Ferrante at her most unsparing. Motherhood and ambition collide as Leda finds herself trying to escape domesticity, yet being drawn to the spectacle of an Italian family playing out their intimacies on a beach where she is holidaying.
The Other Black Girl: Zakiya Dalila Harris (2022)
A psychological thriller that combines a critique of the book publishing business with what we might call “benevolent racism”. Nella is an editorial assistant in a major New York publishing house and the only black employee (a “diversity hire”) until the suave, accomplished Hazel arrives to pull the rug from under her aspiring feet—and all assumptions are off the table!
Nuestra Parte de Noche: Mariana Enríquez (2021; translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell as Our Share of Night, 2022)This novel, set during the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath, is about broken families, cursed inheritances and a father’s sacrifice to save his son. Haunting.
Grey Bees: Andrey Kurkov (2018; translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk, 2021)
Sergey is a beekeeper who lives in a village in the grey zone in the Donbas region: a no-man’s-land, with the Ukrainian forces on one side and Russian separatists on the other. In spring, Sergey sets out to take his bees to a safer place so they can collect pollen. Grey Bees is made powerful by the fact that there is an innocent—Sergey—at the heart of this very political story. This novel, written after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, feels particularly relevant now.
Count the Ways: Joyce Maynard (2022)
A beautiful and moving story about a family.
The Perfect Golden Circle: Benjamin Myers (2022)
This is an uplifting exposé of male fragility, demonstrating how shared passions can create unlikely human alliances in a childlike pursuit of remarkable ephemeral achievement.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies: Deesha Philyaw (2022, read by Janina Edwards)
This was my favourite book of this year, a combination of amazing writing and fantastic narration. It is a collection of short stories about African-American women, not all of them church-going, despite the title. As with the best short stories, each reveals hidden depths in the women in question, but with an elegantly delicate touch, and sometimes a rather subversive sense of humour. I liked how class, in addition to race and sexism, played a role in these deliciously enjoyable stories.
I Must Betray You: Ruth Septys (2022)
A harrowing story around the overthrow of Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator. Very moving and well written.
The Island of Missing Trees: Elif Shafak (2022)
A profound, sensitive book. It is about migration, about a family’s move to London against the backdrop of the recent history of Cyprus. The natural world plays a very important part, and there is a lot that one learns from the wise fig tree, which is the central figure in the novel.
Companion Piece and The Seasonal Quartet—Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer: Ali Smith (2022 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020)
Ali Smith’s brilliant state-of-the-nation series. A friend advised me to read the Seasonal Quartet one after another. She was right: reading them together brought out the common threads, and I recognized characters from earlier books in some of the later ones. Smith followed up her quartet with Companion Piece, which, in a sense, winds up the series. This is a look at the big issues in Britain in the late 2010s to early 2020s: Brexit and the growth of nationalism, the refugee crisis, and the pandemic, and how they impacted on the lives of ordinary people.
Hyderabad—The Partition Trilogy Part II: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar (2022)
India has just become independent and the princely states that have so far been aligned with the British must choose which country they will merge with—Pakistan or India. Hyderabad, located in the centre of India, has a Muslim ruler and a predominantly Hindu population. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel want Hyderabad to accede, but the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, has his own ideas. He tries to resist becoming part of India, keeping jewel-laden trucks ready for flight. Meanwhile, the Communists react by mounting a state-wide uprising. Violence escalates and lawlessness mounts. Caught between the Nizam and India, Hyderabad is in the eye of the storm.
Poeta Chileno: Alejandro Zambra (2020, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell as Chilean Poet, 2022)
Alejandro Zambra writes about the small moments—sexy, absurd, painful, sweet, profound—that make up our personal histories. He looks at how we betray our families and what it means to be a man in a relationship, whether it is a partner, father or friend. A bold and brilliant work.
A Passage North: Anuk Arudpragasam (2021)
While I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the book—a long internal journey set in the years after the Sri Lankan civil war—but in the end it offers something, a way of existing in the world, of making sense of it. The book maps the life of Kishan, the protagonist, and that of Rani, his grandmother’s carer, as he travels to her funeral. What I particularly enjoyed were the retellings of Tamil and Sanskrit epics that are embedded in the narrative.
Keeping the House: Tice Cin (2021)
The Guardian called it “a cult classic in the making”. It is a gritty portrait of the Turkish Cypriot community in London, the drug trade and the undercurrents of survivor trauma, told in an experimental style that is part poetic prose, part cinema verité, forcing engagement even when it’s puzzling at times!
S’adapter: Clara Dupont-Monod (2021)A family welcomes a new child, born with an extremely incapacitating disability. This is the story of how his parents and siblings love him and adapt their lives to him, and of how they have to adapt again after he dies. Narrated by the stones of the old walls in the yard, the style is simple and direct and the book stays with you for a while.
The Promise: Damon Galgut (2021)
A South African family falls apart over the years in post-apartheid South Africa. The promise in the title refers to both a personal promise of reparation made to a family servant, and the larger promise of a better future for the country. Neither is quite fulfilled.
Morningside Heights: Joshua Henkin (2021)
A tender, moving, yet unsentimental story about marriage and family set in the New York neighbourhood of Morningside Heights. Pru moves to the big city and falls in love with her English professor, Spence, who has a troubled relationship with his son from an earlier marriage. When Spence is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, Pru must grapple with the responsibilities of care and her need for intimacy and emotional support. Some lovely prose and great dialogue make this a story that seeps into your mind.
Small Things Like These: Claire Keegan (2021)
This short, elegant story depicts the holiday rituals as carried out by an Irishman on a snowy ramble through his village of neighbours. A deeper tale is slowly revealed.
Whereabouts: Jhumpa Lahiri (2021)
A very short book, originally written by Lahiri in Italian. We follow a woman and her sense of place. It is hard to describe, but it really captures you.
How to Kill your Family: Bella Mackie (2021)
Not the sort of book I would have been attracted to as the main character is a psychopath, and being in her head is rather disturbing sometimes. I did love the twist and turns. Does she get away with murder?
Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu (1990, translated from Hausa by Aliyu Kamal, 2021)
An unusual book from Blaft Publications with Tranquebar. Based in Kano, Nigeria, this is the first full-length novel by a woman writer ever translated from Hausa into English. Beginning in the later 1980s, Northern Nigeria saw a boom in popular fiction written in Hausa. Known as “littattafan soyayya” (love literature), these books are often inspired by Hindi films—which have been hugely popular with Hausa audiences for decades. Sin is a Puppy is an Islamic soap opera complete with polygamous households, virtuous women, scheming harlots and black magic.
Beautiful World, Where Are You: Sally Rooney (2021)
Rooney’s books, all set in Ireland, brilliantly explore the complications of contemporary relationships. This latest one, about two female friends and their romantic partners, also deals with larger political, philosophical, ethical and environmental concerns.
Tomb of Sand: Geetanjali Shree (2018, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, 2021)
A story about an old woman who gives up on life when her husband dies, then decides to live life her way, no longer as mother or wife but as herself. She leaves the home of her older son and moves in with her single daughter. Her best friend is a hijra, a transgender person. Then one day, the mother takes her daughter and goes back to Pakistan to track down a lost love from the days before Partition. A polyphonic narration by several characters. Shree captures the dynamics of Indian families beautifully. I also loved the fact that the two main characters are an old woman and a hijra, who do not often get centre-stage roles in fiction.
Lahore—Book 1 of The Partition Trilogy: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar (2021)
The book captures the events in the months leading up to India’s independence. In Lahore, a Muslim and his Hindu best friend come face-to-face with the forces that are trying to rip the subcontinent apart. A Sikh family finds itself isolated in their own neighbourhood. Meanwhile, in Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel are engaged with British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, negotiating the future of the country. Set in parallel threads across these two cities, Lahore takes readers back to a time of great upheaval and turmoil. Extremely well-researched, the book reads like fiction while giving you the facts.
Still Life: Sarah Winman (2021)The story starts in Florence in 1944 at the end of the war, with an unusual encounter between a young English soldier and a 64-year-old art historian, Evelyn Skinner. It then takes us through their lives in England and Italy all the way to 1979. It made me fall in love with Florence again and broke my heart a few times. I appreciated the friendships and loyalty throughout.
We Are All Birds of Uganda: Hamza Zayyan (2021)
This is the story of a Ugandan family of Indian origin, told from the perspectives of two men. In Kampala in the 1960s, Hassan writes letters to his dead wife about his life in Uganda. After Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians, Hassan moves to the UK but never really feels at home. In the mid-2000s, his grandson Sameer, a young ambitious man living in London, decides to return to Uganda—with life-changing consequences. Beautifully written.
The Doctor of Aleppo: Dan Mayland (2020)
This is a wartime adventure of survival, fortitude, and chance. It was great to read but after several months, everything about the novel has grown hazy in my memory. If you get delirium tremens without a book for the night, I’d say, go for it.
Love after Love: Ingrid Persaud (2020)
A novel set in Trinidad about three people who deal with loneliness and pain. Betty is the widow of an abusive man, who lives with her son Solo. Their lodger is Mr. Chetan, a gay man hiding his sexuality. The three of them become a family, until one night, Betty has a little too much rum and confides an explosive secret to Mr. Chetan. Solo overhears the conversation, and unable to forgive her, leaves to stay with his uncle in New York. Heart-breaking and powerful.
Annette, Ein Heldinnen-Epos: Anne Weber (2020, in German and French)
This author fascinates me because she writes in German and in French; this book is available in both languages, both by her, but it is not a translation: she refers to the French version and the German version. I went to see her at a reading and she explained that for this book she wrote the German first, and then did the French version and they are close but not identical, as she works as a writer in both languages.
The story is interesting too: the life of a remarkable woman who was in the French resistance, then became a neurologist, an activist for Algerian independence, went to prison, was exiled, and pioneered the Algerian health service. The author met the woman when she was in her 90s and decided to write about her life. At the reading, the author recounted how the woman had read her book (the French version) and said she liked it but it wasn’t her! At first, the author was not thrilled by this, but came to the conclusion that in the end it was her version of the woman’s life, so it had to be different.
There is also an English translation of this book, although I don’t like the English title: “Epic Annette” is way too cheesy for what she did.
Valentine: Elizabeth Wetmore (2020)A first novel set in small-town Texas at the onset of the 1970s oil boom, told from the perspective of a handful of women. It’s a hard, gutsy novel that describes women’s resilience in the face of male violence and bigotry, yet told with surprising humour and compassion. A must read!
The Boy who Followed His Father into Auschwitz: Jeremy Dronfield (2019)My interest in Holocaust literature has been growing. Dronfield’s novel created memorable characters for me and drew an unforgettable picture of human endurance, the power of idealism, and loyalty. Clear prose, convincing details of “work camps”, and well-paced.
This Tilting World: Colette Fellous (2017; translated from French by Sophie Lewis, 2019)
A woman looks back at her past, just after the shooting of tourists in Tunisia in 2015. Having grown up in Tunisia and then moved to France, she is caught between two worlds. She remembers her father and the lives of people who have told her their stories. A mix of fiction and memoir. Lyrical.
Of Strangers and Bees: Hamid Ismailov (2001, translated from Uzbek and Russian by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, 2019)
A book by an Uzbek writer. A sort of One Thousand and One Nights, it has three threads: one is about an Uzbek writer exiled in Europe; the second follows Avicenna, the Persian-Uzbek thinker, physician, astronomer and writer of the first century as he goes through the centuries in various reincarnations; and the third is the story of a bee as he grows up in a hive and becomes a soldier. All three are exiles and looking for something bigger than themselves. It is unusual and immersive.
Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead: Milan Kundera (1969; unknown translator, 2019)
It’s been so long since I read Kundera that I wasn’t sure if I would feel the same way I did about him when I read him 20 years ago. But this little story is an excellent read. And as with all of Kundera’s books this one makes you slightly uncomfortable and I spent the next few days thinking about the ideas that he touches on—relationships, memories, mortality, notions of beauty etc. The book tells the story of a chance encounter between a man and a woman over the span of a single afternoon. (I can’t tell you more about it without giving away all of the story!)
Lanny: Max Porter (2019)
A wonderfully inventive little book about a child missing from a village, it mixes folklore, magic, and poetry and is told through multiple voices.
Lampedusa: Steven Price (2019)
An exquisite evocation, suffused with melancholy and regret, of the last years of the Sicilian author and aristocrat Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose classic Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) was published posthumously to great acclaim.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: Ocean Vuong (2019)
A son writes a letter to his mother—who cannot read—which unearths their family history from before the time he was born. It is about Vietnam and the impact of the war, and how his family tried to rebuild their lives.
Checkpoint: David Albahari (2010; translated from Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, 2018)
A group of soldiers is sent to guard a checkpoint. They don’t know why they are there, nor who the enemy is. They don’t even know where they are, as they were driven there at night. By stripping the situation of any information about who is fighting whom or why, Albahari highlights the pointlessness, brutality and absurdity of war.
How to Behave in a Crowd: Camille Bordas (2018, read by Adam Alexi-Malle)
A quirky book about a quirky family, superbly structured, intelligent and moving. The narrator is a 12-year old French boy whose older brothers and sisters are all gifted academics, while he is just trying to get by at school without being bullied too much. Wry humour all the way, slowly revealing the others’ flaws and quietly turning the tables on them. Loved it! The author is French, and this is her first novel written in English.
Less: Andrew Greer Larson (2017)
Loved it. A satirical comedy novel, the plot follows writer Arthur Less as he travels the world on a literary tour to recover from a broken heart. Won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So enjoyable, laugh-out-loud funny in parts.
The Death of the Perfect Sentence: Rein Raud (2015; translated from Estonian by Matthew Hyde, 2017)
A novel about the days before Estonia became independent. The story moves from young Estonian freedom fighters, to CIA operatives and Russian dissidents, interspersed with boxes of comments by the author. Unusual. I enjoyed it, although I had a little trouble in the beginning remembering the characters.
Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders (2017)
Part choreography, part poetry and part historical testimony, this is a tender and whimsical masterpiece, truly unique in style and in the story it tells. It builds on a historical fact: President Lincoln’s return to the cemetery where his 12-year old son Willie lay, in the days after the boy had died from typhoid. Through the voices of cemetery occupants who observe Lincoln’s visits to his deceased child, George Saunders touches on topics of friendship, humanity, hope and the difficulty of letting go. The cemetery occupants are mostly reluctantly deceased, existing in a state between life and death (a state that Tibetan Buddhists call the ‘bardo’) and not yet ready to come to terms with their need to pass through the evocatively named matterlightblooming phenomenon into the world of the dead. Saunders interweaves the occupants’ own stories with their attempt to intercede to enable Lincoln father and son to attain closure. The imaginary cemetery life is interspersed with short extracts of factual accounts of White House life and the anguishing reality of Willie’s sickness. The book is poetic, amusing and touching. It achieves a light-hearted and sometimes comical tone—with characters such as the bachelors who throw hats around wherever they go—while touching on the serious topics, such as how we take leave of our loved ones and the difficulties of accepting death’s finality. And its quiet closing lines that open a whole new perspective on key achievements of Lincoln’s presidency took my breath away.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: Joël Dicker (2012; translated from French by Sam Taylor, 2014)
This is already quite a few years old but I really loved it. It’s an amazing story with strong characters and is so fluidly written.
The Testament of Mary: Colm Tóibín (2014, read by Meryl Streep)
Mary, the mother of Christ, tells her side of the story, movingly human and heart-wrenching. Describing the transformation of her son into a “king of men”, she suggests that it “was not worth it”, all this suffering and pain, to save a world that refuses to see the light.
The Garden of Evening Mist: Tan Twan Eng (2013)
It took me a very long time to get to this book only because I had watched the film (I recommend the book over the film). A beautifully complex book about relationships, nature, gardens, love and death. The story describes the life of a woman who sets out to create a garden in memory of her dead sister, who had been killed at the hands of the Japanese during a brutal occupation of her country. Set in the highlands of Malaya, Yun Ling finds herself in the Garden of Evening Mists with Aritomo the gardener. Aritomo, once the gardener to the Emperor of Japan, takes on Yun Ling as an apprentice. The book traces their journey in the creation of a garden set against the rolling hills of Malaya.
Look at Me: Jennifer Egan (2009)
A complex story of self-discovery, identity, reinvention and an inversion of the American dream, traversing the lives of three individuals. Charlotte is a model whose face is reconstructed after an accident; as her new, unrecognized self, she travels through memory and loss. Her namesake, a childhood friend’s daughter, is a disaffected teenager in search of transgressive excitement. Z is an anger-choked would-be terrorist who buries himself in the American heartland. Chilling, satirical, absurdist—it’s a compelling portrait of our times.
The Road: Cormac McCarthy (2006)
A gruelling post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son trudge through a devastated landscape, battling the elements and other desperate survivors in order to live another day.
The Piano Tuner: Daniel Mason (2002)
This was the most atmospheric lyrical prose I have read for a long time. I lived in Malaysia for two years, and this novel took me back there, hearing the sounds and feeling the textures of the rain forest as I read through this languid, beautiful story.
By the Sea: Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001)
A novel that explores themes of exile and remembrance amongst others. Two Zanzibaris, one of them a recent asylum seeker and the other an established academic, encounter each other in England. Each has a different interpretation of their shared past.
Nervous Conditions: Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)
A pleasure to read and often subtly humorous, this is the deceptively simple story of a girl in an African village who yearns to go to the missionary school in the nearby town. The book is an account of her progress towards school and during it, and the relations between members of her family. Her spirited voice draws attention to the disadvantages women face and finely sets out the ways in which a Christian education and European way of life are both desirable and destructive. A main character appears as a powerful metaphor of this. His portrayal as benefactor—although he is equally destructor and oppressor—is one of the many instances of Dangaremba’s exceptionally skilful storytelling.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies: Italo Calvino (1973; translated from Italian by William Weaver, 1976)
A weird and wonderful tale. Two tales actually that are put together in this one book. It recounts a meeting among travellers who are unable to speak after passing through a forest, and who recount their tales via tarot cards, which are reconstructed by the narrator. The deck scatters at the end of the novel, as do the characters’ identities.
The River Between: James Ngugi (Ngugi wa Thiong’o) (1965)
The book portrays the temptations of a Christian European education and how its power affects the communities on which it increasingly imposes itself. Beautifully written, it made me even more keenly aware of the many intractable problems that colonialism created.
My Bones and My Flute—A Ghost Story in the Old-Fashioned Manner: Edgar Mittelholzer (1955)
I enjoyed this ghost story from Guyanese writer Edgar Mittelholzer set in the early 1930s. Ralph Nevinson is haunted by the ghost of a long-dead Dutchman, who was killed during the 1763 slave uprising in British Guyana. He takes his family and a friend into the jungle to try and find the man’s bones so he could give him a proper burial. This is not just a ghost story but also a social commentary on Guyanese society and its hierarchies. It is very atmospheric, and I loved the way the supernatural was rooted in the physical world.
The Daughter of Time: Josephine Tey (1951)
Revisited this old classic and an old favourite of mine, and found it still packs a punch. Beautifully written and exquisitely plotted, it’s a literary detective novel, concerning a modern police officer’s investigation into the alleged crimes of King Richard III of England. It was Tey’s last, and in my opinion, her best.
Ghost Stories: M.R. James (1931)
Ghost stories by a master. M.R. James was a medievalist scholar who became famous for his ghost stories, which he wrote to entertain friends on Christmas Eve. He broke with tradition by using contemporary settings. What I love about them is that there is a lot implied, leaving you to use your imagination, which is far scarier than having lots of gory detail.
The Bullet that Missed: Richard Osman (2022)
A group of ageing retirees assemble in their club-room to solve murders every Thursday. With that premise, Richard Osman has been putting together a very enjoyable set of mysteries, and this is the third in the series. Some chapters are comic set-pieces and the action is satisfactory, with time running out on multiple levels. Osman has managed to pack just the right combination of salt, fat, and acid to make these books a pleasure to consume.
Murder on Malabar Hill trilogy: Sujata Massey (2021/2019/2018)
A mystery series (three of them so far) that introduces gumshoe Perveen Mistry, inspired in part by the first Parsi woman solicitor in Bombay. Well-wrought and enjoyable, it is rich in historical period detail and plot structure.
Eight Detectives: Alex Pavesi (2021)
A strange book within a book that attempts a formula for the murder mystery through seven short and gruesome stories, interspersed with “conversations” between the fictional author and a commissioning editor who wishes to republish the stories.
Snow: John Banville (2020)
This murder mystery, set in 1957 Ireland, starts with the discovery of the mutilated body of a priest in the library of the home of an aristocratic family. Inspector St. John Strafford is sent to investigate. Banville takes you into what Ireland was like in the late 50s: the sectarianism and the power of the Catholic church. The reveal is not a huge surprise, nor is the reason for the priest’s murder, but I found this is a disturbing book.
American Dirt: Jeanine Cummins (2020)
This is a thriller about migration into the United States. There has been a fair amount of controversy around it: it has been accused of being a one-dimensional portrayal of Mexico. Nevertheless, it is a good read if you are willing to get caught up in the story and excuse the shortcomings.
Den sorgsne busschauffören från Alster: Hakan Nesser (2020)
Nesser has a peculiar sense of humour and a way of writing attractive plots in even the dullest of settings. (Note: there does not seem to be an English translation out yet.)
Black Rain Falling: Jacob Ross (2020)
The second in Grenadian writer Jacob Ross’s Digger Digson series, set on Camaho, a Caribbean island. Young boys are being pressganged into running drugs, men are being killed, and Digger’s partner, Miss Stanislaus, has shot a man in self-defence. How far will people go to defend the people they love? This is an excellent series.
A Madness of Sunshine: Nalini Singh (2020)
A young woman disappears without trace in a small town in New Zealand. The sole policeman—who has been sent to the small town after he almost killed a suspect—realizes that the case might be linked to three hikers who disappeared 15 years ago. This was my best crime fiction read in 2022. Singh captures the feel of a small town, the connections between people and the secrets. Characters are beautifully drawn and there is a real sense of place—and the sense of lurking menace gave me the chills.
The Widows of Malabar Hill: Sujata Massey (2018)
A whodunit set in 1920s Bombay during the British Raj. The protagonist, Perveen, is based on an actual person, India’s first woman lawyer. Perveen has a degree in law but as a woman, is not allowed to argue cases in court. She works with her father in his law practice. When a Muslim client of theirs dies, leaving behind three widows in purdah, Perveen persuades her father to let her talk to them. I enjoyed going back in time to a city I know quite well. It also made me realize just how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights.
The Cry: Helen Fitzgerald (2013)
This is a chilling story of a woman accused of murdering her baby son and the effect it has on her marriage.
Whatever You Love: Louise Doughty (2010)
This is a well-written psychological thriller about the death of a child and a mother looking for revenge.
The Devil’s Company: David Liss (2009)
A gripping tale set in 18th century London. Benjamin Weaver, the thief-taker (this was before the police force existed) is forced to work for a mysterious man called Cobb, who asks him to infiltrate the offices of the East India Company and find out about the death of a man named Ambrose Pepper. A tale of betrayals, espionage and greed.
The Bangalore Detective Club: Harini Nagendra (2009)
The first in another historical mystery series set in 1920s India. This one—whose detective is a newly married bookish and mathematics-loving young woman who moves to Bangalore—has been winning international accolades but in my opinion is less assured and not even as well written as the Sujata Massey series.
We know Harini as a passionate nature lover who wrote books on trees—Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. I was also a moderator on a panel at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2020 with Harini and Nirupa Rao. So it was with much interest that I learned that she reads a lot of murder mysteries and has now written one!
The BDC is a light and fun read. Set in an elite society of pre-Independence 1920s Bangalore, with a plucky and rebellious Kaveri as the protagonist/detective, the book is about a murder in the Bangalore Club attended by British and Indian doctors and their spouses. Kaveri is not the docile housewife she is expected to be and works actively to solve this mystery. She perks up especially when a vulnerable woman—Mala—becomes the prime suspect, for good reasons. Is Mala the murderer?
Harini’s recreation of Bangalore of the 1920s evokes nostalgia and her description of plants and trees reminds us of her other passion! A fun read, definitely. Quite sure other mysteries will follow.
Science fiction/Climate fiction
Note: I grouped these two genres under one heading because to an extent, they overlap. Although some of the climate fiction is fast becoming reality.
The Anomaly: Hervé Le Telier (2020; translated from French by Adriana Hunter, 2022)
During a storm, a strange thing happens to Air France flight AF006 from Paris to New York. When it comes out of the storm, the plane has been duplicated, and there are now two versions of it, including its passengers. Mind-bending and gripping.
Sea of Tranquility: Emily St. John Mandel (2022)
An intricately plotted novel set in different time periods, from the early 20th to the 25th centuries, linked by a time traveller and by a certain space-time glitch that occurs periodically. The novel explores the idea that we are living in a simulation, and the possibilities and limits of human resistance against technology and artificial intelligence.
Leave the World Behind: Rumaan Alam (2021)
Science fiction? Climate fiction? Two very different families find themselves in close proximity, confined within a house that one owns and the other is visiting, in the middle of a world gone silent. A holiday goes slowly, gently, horribly wrong as something like an apocalypse strikes. A beautifully written, closely observed novel that traverses themes as wide-ranging as racism, parenting, urban decay—all against the backdrop of climate catastrophe.
XX—A Novel, Graphic: Rian Hughes (2021)
An incredible book, an almost 1,000-page tome with so many different elements that cohere. A signal is beamed from outer space and a group of people try to figure out what it means. In the meantime, an astronaut finds a spaceship that has crashed on the dark side of the moon. This is a book about the power of ideas. Original and mind-blowing. Hughes uses several elements, not just narrative text: artwork, Wikipedia pages, journal articles, emails, as well as different fonts and layouts. He is also a typesetter and created many of the typefaces used in this book.
Bewilderment: Richard Powers (2021)
A touching and sweeping fable for our times, blending fact and fiction in a way that demands that we confront the urgent questions on which the fate of our planet turns. A neurodivergent child and his astrobiologist dad grieve the loss of a mother and wife against the backdrop of a planet gone to ruin.
The Ministry for the Future: Kim Stanley Robinson (2021)
From last year but such a good read. Stanley Robinson tells the story of how global warming leads to an extreme heat event in India which kills hundreds of thousands of people. The event finally triggers a global response to the climate emergency in the form of a multilateral body with the mandate to push through radical policy and initiatives to decarbonize and bring down global warming—the so-called Ministry of the Future. The book has become a classic of cli-fi (climate fiction). But is it fiction? Set in the near future, the book describes what is already happening to the planet and what we can do about it. A book of hope that describes how we could actually get our act together and save planet and people from looming catastrophe.
The Transmigration of Bodies: Yuri Herrera (2013; translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, 2016)
A post-apocalyptic noir set in Mexico in the aftermath of a plague. Quite extraordinary, like a drug-fuelled fever dream.
My Hollywood and Other Poems: Boris Dralyuk (2022)
These poems are about Hollywood, but not the glitzy film world: this is the Hollywood of faded glamour and émigrés, of forgotten statues and old denizens. Boris Dralyuk’s writing conveys a real sense of place.
Winter Morning Walks—One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison: Ted Kooser (2001)
I had never read this poet before and was deeply moved by his observation of nature and of the simple magic in morning walks.
Liberalism and its Discontents: Francis Fukuyama (2022)
Liberalism should work, but it has been threatened by the complex nature of societies the world over since the Second World War, which obscures what it really means. Fukuyama, an authority on this subject, reminds us about what liberalism truly is and posits his take on the current threat it faces.
Worn—A People’s History of Clothing: Sofi Thanhauser (2022)
This remarkable book is a trove of fascinating detail about the powerful cultural and political forces behind what we wear, from early times through today.
The Anthropocene Reviewed—Essays on a Human-Centred Planet: John Green (2021)
The Anthropocene is the current geological age in which human activity has profoundly shaped the planet and its biodiversity. This book comprises a series of essays that review different parts of the human experience. Originally a series of podcasts, they have been turned beautifully into a collection of digestible but deeply emotional and philosophical essays. Green’s focus is on tiny, seemingly insignificant things, but he also tackles the major questions, like how the internet has changed us as a species. Although, as the title would suggest, many essays lean more towards critiques, there’s no bitterness here. That’s what truly made The Anthropocene Reviewed special—regardless of the subject, you can still feel the wonder and hope in Green’s voice. Highly recommended.
Aftermath—Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945-1955: Harald Jahner (2021)
A book that explains how Germany grappled with its present after Hitler’s death, and it division by the victor countries. Written with lots of insights and first-hand reporting from that period.
Wanderers, Kings, Merchants—The Story of India through Its Languages: Peggy Mohan (2021)
A book on the interlayers that build modern Indian languages. Peggy Mohan shows that this interlayering is as old as the Rig Veda, and explores how two distinct linguistic complexes come together, sometimes violently, to produce an intermixing (a “tiramisu bear”). The book explores the words and syntax of the Indian languages of Sanskrit, Marathi, Hindi-Urdu and Nagamese to see if we can unpick them and understand the forces that led to their formation. Mohan’s ideas open up new perspectives on how languages come together and take root.
Putin’s People—How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West: Catherine Belton (2020)
An investigation into the events and people who brought Putin to power, and those who still help him keep it. A result of copious amount of research and interviews from several people who directly or indirectly knew the insiders or were insiders themselves.
Humankind—A Hopeful History: Rutger Bregman (2019; translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore, 2020)
As the title suggests, the book makes a compelling argument for an optimistic view of human nature and human capability. Basing his argument on the opposing views of humanity presented by the political philosophies of John Hobbes and Jacques Rousseau, Bergman presents numerous examples from human history, both ancient and recent (including news items), to draw the radical conclusion that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”. He buttresses his argument with conclusions drawn from various academic studies in sociology and psychology. Yet it is done in lucid and understandable language, which non-specialist readers can follow. I found it a fascinating read, perhaps best approached in relatively short bursts or instalments.
Kindred—Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art: Rebecca Wragg Sykes (2020)
I have a passion for learning about early man/woman. This is a brilliant updating of current findings about our brethren.
La fin de l’homme rouge—Ou le temps du désenchantement: Svetlana Alexievitch (2013; translated from Russian by Sophie Benech, 2013; translated into English by Bela Shayevich as Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets, 2016)
A book about the end of the Soviet Union—as an ideal as well as a ruthless system, by Belarusian Nobel prize winner Alexievich. It gets gloomier and gloomier as you read on, which makes it a little long, but it is a fascinating kaleidoscopic account of a variety of lives in different areas of the former USSR.
The Book of Joy—Lasting Happiness in a Changing World: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (2016)
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu met for a week in Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives, to talk about finding joy in difficult times. Abrams not only asked the questions but also wrote the book. The Book of Joy is meant for a wide audience, and the conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu is punctuated by the science of emotions. These are two men I admire: they have been through some difficult times, but are still able to find a sense of joy and compassion. There is a lot of wisdom here. This is a book to keep by your bedside.
Madly, Deeply—The Diaries of Alan Rickman: Alan Rickman (2022)
A wonderful glimpse into a brilliant actor. From the inner awareness of socialism versus fame to the understanding of his distanced self, to the warmth of encouragement that Rickman offered young actors. A very interesting diary.
This Life at Play—Memoirs: Girish Karnad (2002; translated from Kannada by Karnad and Srinath Perur, 2021)
Girish Karnad is a popular writer, playwright and actor in Kannada and Hindi theatre and cinema. A candid and simply written account of a very interesting and extraordinary life. The book covers the first half of Karnad’s life—from his time at Sirsi and his early engagement with local theatre, his education in Dharwad, Bombay and Oxford, to his career in publishing, his successes and travails in the film industry, his writing and his personal life. Moving, humorous and insightful, these memoirs provide an unforgettable glimpse into the life-shaping experiences of a towering genius, and a unique window into the India in which he lived and worked.
Free—Coming of Age at the End of History: Lea Ypi (2021)
I reluctantly took a hardback work of non-fiction for my summer holiday reading. I was in the mood for a light read but my book club’s choice for August was a learned academic’s description of her childhood and teenage years as Albania transitioned from communism to capitalism. My heart sank as I started Free by Lea Ypi as the title word—free—appeared repeatedly in the opening paragraphs. But I rapidly got caught up in the author’s very relatable and lively recollections. She writes about the warmth of her family, teachers and neighbours, and the mercilessness of a system in which hunger was frequent and in which a misplaced word or friendship could cause friends or neighbours to be assigned work that was unsuitable or far away, or to disappear to “university”. And the risks and privations in Albania after the end of capitalism were just as cruel but even more nonsensical. By the time I had finished, I had turned down many pages’ corners to indicate particular phrases or observations of Lea Ypi’s that were particularly astute. This is an eye-opening and thought-provoking read, presenting deep and current issues in a way that is not only accessible but enjoyable. This is my best read for 2022 and I would most readily recommend it to others.
Everything She Touched—The Life of Ruth Asawa: Marilyn Chase (2020)
I happened on Asawa’s art in a museum show and was fascinated by it. This visually rich biography is not only one artist’s story, but also an account of the USA’s shameful treatment of Japanese immigrants.
King Kong Theory: Virginie Despentes (2006; translated from French by Frank Wynne, 2020)
Powerful, provocative, and personal, King Kong Theory is a candid account of how the author came to be Virginie Despentes. Drawing from personal experience, Despentes shatters received ideas about rape and prostitution, and explodes common attitudes about sex and gender.
To the End of the World—Travels with Oscar Wilde: Rupert Everett (2020)
I had no idea what to expect, but fell in love with this book. Rupert Everett writes the way he speaks—he is self-deprecating, funny and charming. The story of his long and arduous journey to get his movie on Oscar Wilde made, this book delves into the complex world of theatre actors, agents, Hollywood and all the grimy bits of film production. It’s all a bit of a European tour for years on end, with Rupert giving us the gossipy dramatic version of how he got to make his film.
Akbar, The Great Mughal—The Definitive Biography: Ira Mukhoty (2020)
Good fun, even though this could have done with a solid edit. Mukhoty is a good storyteller, and she does Akbar no disservice in this long but well-written book that is half historical biography, half public-facing presentation of one of the greatest of the great Mughals to a contemporary audience. I could have done with less connections drawn to the present-day world, but that’s me. I like my historical biography straight up! For me, this one was extra enjoyable as I read it while visiting Sikandra, Akbar’s beautiful tomb in Agra.
Me: Elton John (2019)
A rollicking autobiography with drugs, sex and music! But it’s also much more than that. Elton John comes across as honest and thoughtful, with an ability to laugh at himself. He’s also very funny and I found myself laughing out aloud at his stories. He writes about his difficult childhood, his addiction to alcohol and cocaine which often led to outrageous behaviour, and then how he finally went into rehab and pulled his life together. Not to mention, of course, all the wonderful songs.
Jahangir, The Story of an Emperor—An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal: Parvati Sharma (2018)
A work of popular history, in which Sharma tells a compelling story of one of the most fascinating and undervalued rulers of India. It is a literary and psychological character study of Jahangir, as well as a biography.
Educated—A Memoir: Tara Westover (2018)
Westover’s memoir of growing up in a highly restrictive Mormon family in Idaho has received a great deal of attention, both for its shocking revelations about her upbringing and also for her astounding resilience. Mesmerizing; it took me deep into a culture I knew little about.
Life in Anantharam: Devulapalli Krishnamurthy (2009; translated from Telegu by Gita Ramaswamy, 2016)
This is the memoir of Devulapalli Krishnamurthy, recounting his years growing up, and his political and social education in Suryapet in Nalgonda district of Telangana. The everyday life during the 1940s and 50s is recreated vividly in great detail, and apart from the difficulties, the charms of rural living are captured in a simple yet brilliant way. It is almost like watching a film.
In the Café of Lost Youth: Patrick Modiano (2007, translated from French by Chris Clarke, 2016)
If you are like me, and save up your money and head for Paris whenever possible, you will understand why Modiano’s dream-like walks around Paris—and the resulting stream of memory he recounts as he wanders—are so compelling.
The Favored Daughter—One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future: Fawzia Koofi with Nadene Ghouri (2012)
Fawzia Koofi was an Afghan MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament before the Taliban returned to power in 2021. These are her memoirs about growing up in Afghanistan and the path to her becoming an MP. It is a harrowing read: she lived through the Soviet invasion, civil war and Taliban rule. Her father, also an MP, was killed by the Mujaheddin, and she also lost her brother and husband. An incredible story about a strong and undaunted woman.
Basquiat—A Quick Killing in Art: Phoebe Hoban (1999)
I lived around the corner from Basquiat for years, knew his artwork, but little about his life. This frisky biography is like taking a trip back to the 1980s.
Dictee: Theresa Tak Kyung Cha (1982)
I am still reading this book; it is unusual in style and impact, and although small in stature it is to be savoured, absorbed slowly. It is an experience, not a story.
Naturalist Ruddy—Adventurer. Sleuth. Mongoose: Rohan Chakravarty (2021)
A delightful comic book about the many intriguing happenings and mysteries in nature. Naturalist Ruddy, a mongoose, is a detective solving these mysteries, which are presented as cases: the case of the “UFLs—Unidentified Flying Leaves”, the case of the “Mummified moths”, “The flying dragon’s secret” and so on. In between are puzzles for the reader to solve. Laced with tasteful humour, the book is also packed with a lot of information. Rohan Chakravarty is known for his brilliant cartoon feature titled Green Humour.
The Nutmeg’s Curse—Parables for a Planet in Crisis: Amitav Ghosh (2021)
A successor of sorts to A Great Derangement, it’s a powerful work of history, essay, testimony, and polemic, in which Ghosh traces our contemporary planetary crisis of climate change back to the colonial plunder involved in the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Indian Ocean. The focus here is the violent and destructive spice hunt for nutmeg in the Banda Islands (hence the title). Ghosh’s usual lyrical prose, if a trifle plodding and repetitive in parts.
This is Your Mind on Plants—Opium-Caffeine-Mescaline: Michael Pollan (2021)
The book is about Michael Pollan’s experiences with three psychoactive plant-based substances—opium, caffeine and mescaline. By engaging with these plants, he says we are engaging with nature in the most profound way we can. He grows opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in his garden, and discovers that in the US it is a federal crime to grow poppy and to make poppy tea. He writes about his experiences with these strange laws.
The Plant Hunter—A Scientist’s Quest For Nature’s Next Medicines: Cassandra Leah Quave (2021)
A double story here: a ground-breaking scholar coming to terms with her physical handicap and her scientific enthusiasm for discovering and researching the medicinal power of plants.
Finding the Mother Tree—Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest: Suzanne Simard (2021)
A memoir from the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest through, among other things, underground mycorrhizal networks. A moving, deeply personal journey of discovery from a scientist whose story has been the basis of many fictional characters (such as Richard Powers’s amazing Overstory).
The Hidden Horticulturists—The Untold Story of the Men Who Shaped Britain’s Gardens: Fiona Davison (2019)
In 2012 Fiona Davison uncovered some letters and notes from the archives of the Royal Horticultural Society’s library where she worked at the time. The notes trace the early years of the gardeners employed in the Society’s gardens. This is a delightful little book not only about the history of British gardens but the people who shaped them and the impact they would have on other gardeners around the world. For a change, the book is about the real gardeners who spent their time getting their hands dirty. The book not only tells us about the lives of these early gardeners and their gardens but also on the impacts of colonization on garden design and creation.
Underland—A Deep Time Journey: Robert Macfarlane (2019)
A sequel to his Old Ways, in which Macfarlane offers an epic, “deep time” exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Beautifully written, sometimes bone-chilling, it takes the reader on journeys into underworlds as varied as sewers and caves. A very rewarding read.
Ladders to Heaven: Mike Shanahan (2016)
This is the ultimate book on the incredible and mighty fig trees (Ficus)—trees of life and trees of knowledge that have been around for 80 million years! This keystone species has affected and continues to affect humanity in profound but little-known ways. Ladders to Heaven tells their amazing story from the relationship between the fig wasp and the trees, to the history, culture and mythology surrounding them.
Wattana—An Orangutan in Paris: Chris Herzfeld, (2012, translated from French by Oliver Y. Martin and Robert D. Martin, 2016)
I loved this immersive true story of an orangutan in the Jardin des Plantes Zoo in Paris. Wattana’s intelligence and rapport with her keepers are remarkable. As her story unfolds, it is impossible not to see how closely related we are to such so-called “wild animals”, with whom we share a deep and mutual empathy.
Shalimar—A Story of Place and Migration: Daniva Quinlivan (2022)
Daniva Quinlivan family has Irish, German, Indian and Burmese ancestry. She writes about her family and especially about her links to Burma, but transposes them on her own journey as she moves homes in England, marrying and raising her two sons. The book feels like a palimpsest and is lyrically written.
Following Nellie Bly—Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World: Rosemary J. Brown (2021)
This is the extraordinary story of Nellie Bly, a journalist in New York, who circumnavigated the globe in 1888. She meant to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, Jules Vernes’s hero in Around the World in 80 Days. Not only did she beat Fogg’s record, she made the journey by ship, defying contemporary mores about what women could (or could not) do. Rosemary J. Brown follows in her footsteps, but flies instead of going by sea. This book is her attempt to “put women explorers back ‘on the map’”.
The Window Seat—Notes from a Life in Motion: Aminatta Forna (2021)
An unusual travel book, this is really a collection of essays by Forna on home, travel, belonging and a lot more. Her father was from Sierra Leone and was killed by the regime. Her mother was Scottish and she later married a man from New Zealand who worked for the UN and was posted all over the world. So Forna has lived in various countries, and this shows in her attitudes and opinions. Very enjoyable.
Outlandish—Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes: Nick Hunt (2021)
Nick Hunt goes looking for Arctic snows, primeval forest, desert and steppes in Europe. These are not landscapes usually associated with the continent, but they all exist: in Scotland, Poland, Belarus, Spain and Hungary. Beautifully observed.
I Belong Here—A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain: Anita Sethi (2021)
Anita Sethi is verbally attacked by a racist man on a train in the UK, who tells her to go back to where she came from. But she is from Manchester and as much a part of the country as he is. She deals with the PTSD that results from the incident—and others like it over the years—by reclaiming the land for herself. She chooses to walk the Pennine Way, the backbone of the country. Thoughtful, honest.
The Amur River—Between Russia and China: Colin Thubron (2021)
Thubron travels the length of the Amur River, from its source in Mongolia through Russia and China. Thubron is 80, and the fact that he makes this difficult journey is impressive in itself. He writes with great insight into the land and the peoples he travels among.
Without Ever Reaching the Summit: Paolo Cognetti (2020; translated from Italian by Stash Luczkiw, 2020)
In 1978, Peter Matthiessen wrote about his trip to the Himalayas in The Snow Leopard. Almost four decades later, Paolo Cognetti follows in his footsteps. This is, like Matthiessen’s book, a mixture of travelogue, philosophy and nature writing. I appreciated the fact that he questions the need to conquer summis, rather than just enjoy them.
The Border—A Journey around Russia: Erika Fatland (2017, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, 2020)
The full subtitle of this book is “A Journey around Russia through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage”. This pretty much describes the book. Fatland travels around the borders of Russia, trying to discover what its neighbours think of the country. This travelogue around the longest border in the world is filled with interesting encounters and historical facts.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia: Sophy Roberts (2020)
Over the years, when people were exiled to Siberia, they sometimes took their pianos with them. Sophy Roberts tries to track down the pianos scattered throughout the region, and meets the people involved. This is a different way of approaching a travel book. Fascinating.
Sovietstan—A Journey Through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan: Erika Fatland, (2015, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, 2019)
As someone with a very particular interest in the Central Asian republics, this book was something I looked forward to reading. I imagined a telling of travels through these lands with a smattering of politics and history along the way, but what I got was a very personal travelogue interwoven with culture, history, government, human rights and many interactions with the people Fatland met on her way. We travel through all the five republics and get a small glimpse into life in the “Stans”. In the extremely closed and secretive Turkmenistan, Fatland introduces us to the traditional sport of Buzkashi (polo played with a goat’s head as a ball) while in Kyrgyzstan we are astounded by the very prevalent “bride snatching” as a regular way of life—small snippets into a culture too vast for one book, but made enjoyable by her easy style of writing.
Two Trees Make a Forest—On Memory, Migration and Taiwan: Jessica J. Lee (2019)
This is a story about migration, home, belonging, family and discovering your roots. Lee, a Canadian-Taiwanese woman goes to Taiwan after her grandfather dies, to visit his grave. She then returns a few years later to get to know the country which is part of her roots. The story of her grandfather, who had left mainland China to move to Taiwan, and then had left Taiwan to move to Canada, runs like a thread throughout this book.
On a Truck Alone, to McMahon: Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1984; translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, 2018)
A writer takes a trip through north-eastern India on a whim. Sen is attending a women’s literary conference in Jorbat, Assam, when she decides to go to Tawang to visit the Buddhist monastery there that is reputed to have some ancient scrolls. This is 1977, when middle-aged Indian women did not go off on their own, especially to places that were not linked by public transport. But Sen is a force of nature, and talks her way onto a truck going to Tawang. I loved her determination and her refusal to be browbeaten by naysayers.
Africa—Altered States, Ordinary Miracles: Richard Dowden (2009)
While most books that I have read on Africa, like Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa, are comprehensive historical and political accounts of the continent, Richard Dowden’s book is more like a personal memoir. It reads as a series of articles really, written over different time periods, in different countries on the continent and with different agendas, if you will. All the stories have a personal connection with Dowden, with his journey beginning in Uganda where he worked as a teacher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then during the next 30 years as a journalist covering Africa. The journalistic form of the book reminded me of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun, both books looking not only at the big themes of Africa like AIDS and Big Man politics in these newly independent countries, but also stories of African culture that we are entirely unaware of, like the Mouride movement in Senegal or the complex workings of the Somali entrepreneurial system. Although grim at times, the book leaves one with new interesting information about this vast continent, and also a feeling of hope.
My Life in Bali—An Adorable Guide Book: Text by Sandrine Soumaud, illustrated by Edith Baudrand with assistance from Wayan Leppo (translated by Carine Thévenet and Tricia Lee Sampson, 2007)
A charming book about life in Bali, Indonesia, which answers questions about culture, festivals, religion, gods, way of life and so on that might arise in the minds of travellers to the wonderful island of Bali. The lovely illustrations accompanying the text complement the narrative.
An African in Greenland: Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1984)
I have no idea where I picked up this book, but it is a keeper. An African man, traumatized by the terrifying snake rituals of his tribe, sets out for Greenland on his own, hoping for a very different life.