54 is the number of books I read this year, says my Goodreads app. That is about a book a week - pretty much what I have averaged most of my adult life. What was a bit different this year, though? My list had more non-fiction than usual. I am a fiction junkie through and through, and when I find myself drifting towards non-fiction, I worry I am growing old.
In any case, I enjoyed some great books here - Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a revelation. Who knew you could turn the story of a foolish young man into a page turner!. Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy was a five rater for me - and led me to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I have resolved to read in a more modern translation soon. Travel was a big theme. Colin Thubron’s In Siberia was a moody, dark study of post Soviet Siberian hinterland; and his Shadow of the Silk Road described his Marco Polo-esque journey through possibly some of the most interesting places in the world today. Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus was another unforgettable book, taking you through some dangerous places with fascinating histories. Chatwin’s In Patagonia was a long overdue read - and now Patagonia has become a bucket-list kind of place in my head. Other notable non-fiction reads were Sidharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History and Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, both managing to illuminate without boring you to death. Mary Oliver’s Upstream was of course another five rater for me - how I love her plush wordsmithing and her simple wisdom!
I had resolved to read more Indian fiction in translation - and I did manage a few, though nowhere enough. Basheer’s Poovan Banana and other stories introduced me to an author I had been meaning to read for a long time. Ashapurna Devi’s story collection The Matchbox was a peek into a middle class Bengali milieu, Austen-esque style.
I did re-read some old favourites - To Kill a Mockingbird felt as fresh as when I read it more than three decades ago. And the set pieces in Goldman’s Marathon Man were as horrific as the ones in my memory.
There were a number of disappointments. Sittenfeld’s re-telling of Pride and Prejudice in Eligible was pretty terrible. Anne Tyler’s re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl was slightly better - but was definitely not Tyler at her best. Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was not a patch on her Boy, Snow, Bird, one of my favourite books of 2015. Vivek Shanbagh’s Gachar Gochar was a translation I went into with a lot of hope - but was quite let down (a number of my reader friends liked this though - so maybe there was something here I did not see).
And now to my favourite fiction of the year. I finished the Ferrante books, and loved them to bits - Lila has to be one of my most loved fictional characters ever. Julian Barnes did not disappoint with his The Noise of Time, a fictional account of the life of Russian composer Shostakovich. The sense of dread he manages to conjure up in Soviet Russia is riveting. Neither did Ian McEwan with his Nutshell, a cleverly crafted re-telling of Hamlet. My discovery of the year was Elizabeth Strout. I loved Olive Kitteridge, a character that will go into my list of all-time favourites. And her My Name is Lucy Barton is such a study in compressed emotion and spare writing. Ruskin Bond’s Rain in the Mountains made me want to rush to the Himalayas right away. And what can I say about Tove Janson’s Fair Play? That was the book of the year for me - so simple and so profound, I took a day after I finished it to just soak it in!
So all in all, 2016 might have been a forgettable year for the world, but it was a good year for my reading. Now onto 2017 - and I should start to get some reading resolutions in place, I suppose.