As 2018 draws to a close, here is a look back at the wonderful reads that this year offered to us. Some of the books on this list are perhaps stories you have already read, others you might have read about because they were popular and had won awards. We have also found a few lesser-known gems that should definitely find a place on your bookshelf and your TBR list. In all, we have curated a list of 20 books from different genres, written by authors from different countries, backgrounds and ethnicities, to show you the varied literary offerings 2018 gave us.
1. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso: This graphic novel has already created history by being longlisted for The Man Booker Prize this year. Sabrina has all the ingredients of a crime story — there is murder, abduction, and conspiracy, but this book is a lot more than that. Drnaso’s book produces a chilling replica of the hellscape of disinformation, fake news, and a media-propelled climate of fear, which we live in. In the novel, the death of the protagonist character, Sabrina, depicts the cycle of online conspiracy theories, talk show speculations, and the whole circus that instantly take over anyone’s personal loss, in this modern age of digitization. The judges of the Man Booker Prize called Sabrina an ‘Oblique, subtle and minimal’ novel.
2. Art Matters by Neil Gaiman: “Make good Art. I’m serious.” is Neil Gaiman’s sage advice in his charming book, Art Matters, which is as much for your kids as it is for the adults who have forgotten the value of creativity. Gaiman’s prose flow effortlessly in this little book, accompanied with illustrations created by Chris Riddell. Simplistic, lyrical and very wise, this book makes a strong case in favour of giving all your energy to your artistic endeavours. The book is a collection of Gaiman’s famous speeches like ‘Make Good Art’, which he delivered at Philadelphia University, as well as his classic, ‘On Libraries’. The book also has Gaiman’s poem on the happiness of creating a new thing called, Making a Chair.
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama: Becoming is a witty, engaging and deeply revealing portrait of a woman who has lived her life on her own terms, constantly defied stereotypes and was never afraid to speak her mind. Michelle Obama, who is one of the most influential women in the world, and the former First Lady of the United States, in her memoir, gives the readers an up-close view of her world. She takes us back to her childhood home on the south side of Chicago and shows us how her years were, as a wife of an extraordinary man before he became famous. She talks about how she coped with the demands of a job and motherhood, and also about her time spent at the White House. Unapologetically honesty and full of charm and warmth, this memoir describes her victories and failures, both publically and privately. It’s a very engaging read.
4. Ordinary People by Diana Evans: John Legend’s song, Ordinary People serves as the inspiration for the title and theme of this book by Evans which explores the midlife relationship rut of its two main characters, a couple — Melissa and Michael, who were madly in love once but are now coping with their parental duties, spiraling sex life and lack of freedom because of their new responsibilities. The book is speckled with pop culture references and uses big celebrity related events — like Obama being elected President in 2008, Michael Jackson’s death — as bookmarks for the timeline of the relationship of Melissa and Michael. Their relationship which is tethered by a thin unravelling thread, however, comes undone when Melissa in her anxiety of not being able to pursue a career and being bogged down by motherhood, begins to think that the house they live in is actually haunted. Things turn deliciously darker from there.
5. 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari: In this book, historian and philosopher Yuval Harari tries to investigate some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. The book covers a varied range of topics from contextualising nationalism, religion, and liberalism to dealing with ultra topical and relevant challenges like fake news and immigration. Harari, however, harps on issues that need urgent actions like climate change, wars, terrorism, and the rise of A.I. with many interesting, lesser-known facts, which makes the book an engaging read. Harari’s writing is easily accessible but never devoid of literary flair, and at the end of each of the twenty-one chapters, the philosopher always leave you with much to meditate upon.
6. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer: This book by the New York Times‘ Science Writer, Carl Zimmer, is a wonderful scientific and personal exploration into the history of heredity. Zimmer, through his simple prose, gently investigates some long-standing notions about what we pass down to our generations, and also what role heredity plays in today’s world where surrogacy is commonplace, and gene editing is increasingly becoming a real prospect.
7. Milkman by Anna Burns: This year’s winner of the Man Booker Award, Anna Burns’ book Milkman is the coming-of-age story of a woman — who is identified as the ‘middle sister’ — falling for a married man, in a politically and socially turbulent Northern Ireland. The book shows us in horrifying detail how sneakily oppression seeps into our daily lives and in Burns’ strong voice this story makes for a chilling read. Even more frightening about this book is that although the oppressive regimes sound a lot like the past regime of Stalin or tribalism, as we move through the book, we realise that it is actually set in the future.
8. Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris: In this book, Malcolm Harris tries to dispel some of the myths constructed about millennials in the popular narrative. While the generation is often portrayed as lazy and clueless, Harris, who is a millennial himself, says that this perception is far from the truth. Through data-driven analysis, Harris shows millennials are actually more educated and hardworking than their predecessors, but are often overworked, and stressed. While he makes many arguments in favour of his generation, some of which you may want to take with a pinch of salt, his book is indeed an interesting take on millennials.
9. Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney tells an exquisite tale of young love, that is not only sharp, and evocative but also very sensitive and subtle. Young love is often the fluff served in corny romance novels, but in Rooney’s expert hands, the novel is a much deeper exploration, a far more complex story of the everlasting psychological impact two people have on one another when they fall for each other. Through the two main characters — Connell and Marianne, and their time in school and then in a college in Dublin, Rooney explores flush of young love, and the complexities of class differences wonderfully.
10. The Overstory by Richard Power: Longlisted for the Man Booker this year, this book is a wonderful specimen of environmental fiction, as Power explores our place in nature, and introduces us to trees as living and engaging characters in his book. The book retains its fable-like quality while combining data, and urgent arguments about climate change. The Overstory is a remarkable piece of literature, heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time.
11. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: A sleeping beauty, who is too tired of this world, thinks it is better off if she induces sleep through narcotics and just snoozes her days away. To that effect, she finds a doctor from a phonebook, who has an endless supply of antidepressants that he is willing to share, and thus starts Moshfegh’s heroine’s year of glorious slumber. This book is cool and deliciously dark and although it may stagnate a little, Moshfegh keeps her readers engaged with her perfect prose, and dark humour.
12. American Prison by Shane Bauer: Investigative journalist Shane Bauer gives an in-depth look into the private prison system of the United States, after spending four months undercover as an entry-level prison guide at one of the private prisons. Bauer, through his investigation, finally concludes that not only do these prisons have deplorable conditions but also lack in security and have staff shortages as private companies constantly try to save up on cost. Not just that, they even refuse to set people free, even after their release date, and continue to make money by keeping them locked up.
13. How To Change Your Mind By Michael Pollan: Pollan’s book is as much about mental exploration as it is an investigation into one’s own self. In his trippy, gripping novel, Pollan explores the history of psychedelics drugs such as LSD, Magic mushroom, and how they can be used to treat people with different conditions like addictions, depressions and other mental health issues. In this unique example of participatory investigation, Pollan embarks on a journey to truly understand how these psychedelic drugs impact our subconscious, adding a personal perspective to this scientific exploration.
14. The Tandoor Murder by Maxwell Pereira: Pereira, who led the real investigation in the Tandoor murder case, has written a racy, tight insider account of how the case went through the police and legal department, and finally brought the youth Congress leader, Sushil Kumar, to the justice system, for murdering his wife, Naina Sahini, and trying to dispose off her body by chopping it up and stuffing it in the tandoor grill of a Delhi restaurant. The book is frank and detailed but steers clear of being voyeuristic. Pereira’s voice is not only engaging but also funny, making the book an interesting read.
15. Why I Am A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor: This book by Tharoor is not only very relevant but also acutely necessary to understand the religion and politics in contemporary India. Tharoor’s book moves from personal anecdotes of what Hinduism meant to him growing up in a Hindu household to a larger narrative on the history of Hinduism. He stresses the pluralistic approach of Hinduism and goes on to talk about the politics of religion. This book surely gives you food for thought, is a quick read (only 300 pages long), and encourages you to understand Hinduism through methods of citations and case studies.
16. A Century Is Not Enough by Saurav Ganguly: It is needless to say that this one is definitely for the sports fans. But, even if you were never a big fan of Ganguly, this book gives you a chance to truly know the man behind the cricketer. Ganguly’s book chronicles his days from being a newcomer to becoming the captain of the Indian team, his ugly fight with Australian coach Greg Chappell, and his unfailing enthusiasm and determination to make comebacks. It gives you a clear insight into the psyche of the man who reshaped the Indian cricket team and led the country to many victories on overseas pitches.
17. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee: Through five different characters, Neel Mukherjee explores themes of migration, class and cultural differences, as well as alienation in this novel. Although this book has received mixed reviews, A State of Freedom is very moving, original and very topical. A State of Freedom is Mukherjee’s tribute to VS Naipaul’s In A Free State, in which the author not only replicates the format of Naipaul’s novel but also borrows themes of colonialism, and poverty to present a searing portrait of modern India.
18. Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla: US-based Dalit writer Sujatha Gidla’s debut book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize this year. Gidla’s book is a memoir, in which she presents vivid descriptions of lives lived in abject poverty, in the midst of violence, and caste and gender-based discrimination. Gidla also recounts the struggles of women like her mother, who strived to have careers, despite many hindrances.
19. Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar: Kumar presents a vividly detailed, and honest insight into the life of an immigrant grad student in America. The book is witty, funny, and very entertaining with some unexpected twists and turns, that helps Kumar weave an inventive tale of love, identity, race, belonging, and the cultural flux that an immigrant often experiences.
20. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali: Sohaila Abdulali is the first Indian survivor to speak publically about rape, after being gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai. Almost three decades ago, when the incident happened, Abdulali, indignant at the silence on this issue wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how rape and rape victims were perceived in India. Somehow, the same article went viral after the 2012 Delhi rape case. In her thought-provoking book, she talks about sexual assault from not only the perspective of a survivor but also of a counsellor and activist, drawing from instances of hundreds of other survivors, with whom she worked with. She also asks uncomfortable questions about rape, which we seldom ask — is rape always a life-defining event? Does sexual assault always symbolize something, and if it is worse than death?