January issue 2017
2016’s Favourite Reads
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Readers of Orhan Pamuk never cease to marvel at the writer’s limitless capacity to keep them mesmerised with his storytelling. Very few novelists could keep readers riveted to the story of a poor yoghurt seller in Istanbul – and for almost 600 pages! But Melvut is more than a yoghurt seller. A migrant to Istanbul, he is a keen observer of the changes sweeping across not just the city, but Turkey as a whole.
The novel is set at a time when the rise of Islamist politics was looked on with suspicion, a threat to Turkey’s secular identity. Melvut grapples with the dilemma of his inability to condemn the Islamists, while perplexed by their violent tactics. In his naivety, he even attends meetings held by The Holy Guide, a shadowy Islamic scholar. It seems Pamuk wishes to share with readers his premonition of things to come. Sleepwalking to
Surrender by Khaled Ahmed: An insightful analyst of the country’s descent into extremism, Khaled Ahmed takes the reader through the entire gamut of capitulation to religious militants, both by governments and the military in Pakistan. It looks closely at the repercussions of kowtowing to militant forces, both in terms of the weakening of the state and the tragic loss of human lives. While most of the events recorded will be known to readers, their chronicling deepens the realisation of the crisis the country faces.
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez: I discovered this powerful novel by the Colombian writer through a review in The New York Times. Protagonist Javier Mallarino is the country’s foremost political cartoonist, uncompromising in his attacks on its leaders. Seen as Colombia’s ‘moral’ voice, he suddenly finds that his personal and professional lives take a dramatic turn when a young woman turns up at his home.
Nazli Jamal is author of Paracha – HM Habibullah’s Journey Across the Silk Road and Beyond, a contributor to a short story anthology published by OUP, Karachi, and currently working on her third book.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman: Beautifully written, this book describes a community in West Australia that is grappling with the death and maiming of many of its young men in the First World War.
Tom returns from the war to become a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island, hoping to nurture his psychological wounds in isolation. His wife, Lizzy, is grappling with her own trauma, the loss of two brothers in the war and repeated miscarriages. On a fateful day, a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a baby. Seeing this as divine intervention, Lizzie persuades Tom to bring up the baby as their own. Their ecstasy, followed by the agony of consequences, makes this a heart-rending story.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: A witty, charming and very funny book about Don Tillman, a handsome 39-year-old geneticist who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, similar to autism, contributing to his general social ineptness. Nonetheless, he is determined to find himself a partner relying on purely scientific data.
When he meets Rosie, it is plain that they are totally incompatible. She does not meet any of his criteria. Yet, something compels him to set aside his own wife-finding project in favour of applying his professional expertise towards a personal quest that she has set her heart on. In the process, Don’s structured life falls apart as he discovers that love defies scientific data.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: A love story that raises the moral issue of euthanasia. Will is a young, self-made millionaire who has lived a very full life before a tragic accident renders him a quadriplegic for life. Lou Clarke is a lively and sensitive middle-class girl who starts work as a care assistant to the disabled millionaire, to support her family. She is able to look past his rudeness to the man within a broken body.
Shocked to learn that Will is seeking assisted suicide in a foreign clinic, Lou tries to organise activities and outings, hoping to prove to him that life is still worth living. They end up enriching each other’s lives, even though their falling in love makes the eventual end all the more heart-breaking for both of them.
Paaon by Irfan Ahmad Urfi: Although Urfi has been writing fiction since 1980, this is his first collection of short stories. An eminent script writer of TV drama and film, his anthology of 11 short stories has won plaudits from senior writers and critics of Urdu Literature. The themes of his stories range from nostalgia for the good old days to modern-day politics and the fallout of 9/11. While most stories follow a linear style, some are steeped in symbolism. But both are equally powerful.
Mushkpuri Ki Malka by Atif Aleem: This is Atif Aleem’s second book of fiction. His first was an anthology of short stories, Shamshaan Ghat. The story begins in the mountains of Mushkpuri, where a female leopard is wounded by the gunshots of two hunters. They also take her two cubs away from her. This incident leads to horrific consequences. The writer tightens his grip over the narration as he takes the reader through a shocking chain of events, one after the other, against the backdrop of the dense forest, with its flowers, fruits and fragrances.
Shah Moosh by Saima Erum: In her third collection of short stories, Saima Erum’s pen appears to be bolder than that of many a male fiction writer of Urdu. She depicts both cruel and complicated realities of rural and urban Punjab. She portrays the problems, frustrations and anxieties of the common man. Published by the City Press Book Shop, Karachi, both Shah Moosh and Muskpuri ki Malka will appeal to the common reader.
Javed Jabbar is a well known, pioneering advertising executive, writer, politician, intellectual, development activist and former information minister.
Laughing all the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz: An absolute delight. By the principal creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, the longest-running serial on Canadian Public Service TV, an early autobiography that is hilarious – without being heretical – about solemn attitudes and rituals.
Sawdust Castles– a memoir by Omar Khan: Part of a genteel family which moved at Independence from Lucknow to Gawalmandi, the debut-author candidly, absorbingly, evocatively, absorbs the culture shock as he goes through an eventful youth to become a successful banker. Surviving the
Wreck by Syed Munir Hussain: A retired, reputed CSS official recording his professional services in diverse capacities for over 35 years, reveals some exceptionally interesting episodes.
Pakistan – the formative phase by Syed Fida Hasan: Former ICS officer, former Principal Secretary to Field Marshal Ayub Khan. An unavoidably incomplete, yet engaging, narrative on important public affairs from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Surkh Salaam – Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan 1947-1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali: Extensively researched first-ever book in English on this subject by an intrepid scholar, presently heading the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin.
Cover Point by Jamsheed Marker: A series of revealing vignettes and informative passages. This outstanding Pakistani diplomat was a direct witness to several decisive moments in Pakistan’s history, featuring both military rulers and political leaders.
Prison Journey by Brigadier (r) F.B. Ali: A distressing, gripping account of how a courageous army officer attempted to challenge the inept decisions taken by GHQ under General Yahya Khan in November-December 1971, both in East and West Pakistan. And how he was unjustly condemned to life imprisonment – until his sudden release in 1977. Simple, direct, poignant.
Samandar Par by Tariq Alexander Qaiser: A versatile architect, a photographer, a poet in English and in Urdu, he also writes fine prose to convey memorable experiences encountered as a passionate sailor-observer of the sea and the sky off the Karachi coastline.
Not having kept a reading diary and being a philanderer in my literary affairs, I find it difficult to make the 2016 choice. One problem is the books that I have to read for professional reasons – to review them or to wade through the entries for a prize, as a jury member. Another problem is that at my age, I am becoming fond of re-reading the books I had loved many, many years ago.
Tehri Lakir by Ismat Chughtai: To begin with the past, this is the book that I was thrilled to rediscover this year, a novel she wrote in the forties. It remains a revelation. Similarly, I had a great time re-reading Aag ka Darya and Udas Naslain by Abdullah Hussain. Another passion that has reawakened is poetry – Urdu and English. So, Muneer Niazi or Yeats, any time.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Strangely, my selection from serious contemporary fiction is also located in the past – the kind that threatens to return. It concerns the life of a Soviet composer. I am a Barnes fan and this is his first novel since his Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending. Frankly, it introduced me to some aspects of Soviet history that I was not familiar with, because of my relative ignorance of modern classical music. Dmitri Shostakovich’s story is well-known. As The New York Times said, it is a meditation on the role of art. T
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawking: In the category of the quick-read, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and was tempted by its best-seller credentials. This mystery novel, published in 2015, has now been released as a movie in which the location of the story is shifted from the London suburbs to somewhere near New York. It is a mystery with a literary flair.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Finally, I need to mention a short book that I was pushed into reading by the impact it has created in the United States, and it mattered that I read it when the campaign for the presidential election was at its peak. I have been deeply interested in the experience of the black people in America and this subject has become more compelling after Trump’s unexpected triumph. It is a black father’s letter to his teenage son about what it means to be black in America. The writing is truly great. And disquieting.
This year I found myself inexplicably drawn to the female coming-of-age story, some works that retain their poignancy well into adulthood.
The Girls by Emma Cline: One of the most anticipated debuts of 2016, this story took inspiration from the Manson family murders, to tell a story of wasted youth. Fifteen-year-old Evie is neglected by her divorced parents, and crippled by a sense of isolation. Boys, parents and men who either fear or desire her burgeoning sexuality frustrate her fragile and clumsy attempts at maturity.
Evie begins to battle the ennui of her middle-class existence by participating in petty crimes against her neighbours, led by Manson-esque cult-member Suzanna. Her involvement with the group deepens when cult leader, Russell, begins to groom her to not only overlook, but invite, abuse in order to attain a ‘higher state.’ The Girls plays with the dichotomies that shook America through the murders. The pure evil that found space to blossom during the summer of love; the pretty young things capable of gruesome executions and the untouchable celebrities decimated at the hands of the reviled.
The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher: The book shares a similar sense of bewilderment as The Girls, but with a far chirpier outcome. Written during the filming of Star Wars, we meet a fresh-faced innocent 19-year-old, chronicling her adventure with amused fascination. Born into Hollywood royalty (daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher), and familiar with its fleeting and scandal-hungry nature, Carrie did not so much pursue, as fall into infamy.
Fisher is artfully self deprecating about her younger self, endearing herself to the reader and softening us up for the big revelation: her affair with Harrison Ford. The love affair seems locked away in 1977, when a 33-year-old married leading man couldn’t be held accountable for seducing a very inebriated 19-year-old. Fisher humorously shares familiar adolescent discomfort, the brief struggle with her weight which she ultimately failed to lose for Star Wars, the absurd hairdo and metal bikini which are now a part of her own myth and the awkward morning afters with the monosyllabic Ford. Sadly, she passed away on December 27, just a few months after her memoir was published.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: This is an ambitious debut born of an unambitious stint as a part of the waitressing staff at an upmarket restaurant in New York. Danler fictionalises her experience to give us a contemporary coming of age novel where frankly nothing much has changed. New York feeds and tests Tess’s appetite for adventure, but what it does for her appreciation of food is ultimately of more significance to the reader. This is a beautifully crafted and deeply satisfying book that will strike a cord with many.