Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla: A New York subway conductor writes the history of her Dalit family’s life of grinding poverty and intellectual ambition in rural Andhra and Telangana. Telugu Dalit literature has a trailblazing history, but the intimacy of Gidla’s writing is unmatched. No other book by an Indian this year will make you doubt your place in the world, and your assumptions about life in this country, like this one.
Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang: If you’ve ever wondered - or tried to remember - what it’s like to be a teenage girl, Jenny Zhang’s 2012 essay on her life as a Hanson fangirl is the greatest answer available on the internet. That spiky, savage imagination enflames the pages of Sour Heart, her collection of short stories about the lives of young Asian-American immigrant women. Inventive, pitiless, horrifying and loveable, just as girls are.
Against The Grain, James C Scott: Paleo diets and Yuval Noah Harari don’t cover the half of it: the Yale anthropologist James Scott wants to convince us that our whole lives as civilised animals are a lie. He shouldn’t succeed, but his sly, elegant “deep history” of how we went from being smart, self-sufficient hunter-gatherers to slaves in chains, harvesting grain for tax collectors, is annoying, argumentative and oddly, appealing as hell. If human civilisation is so rotten, after all, we shouldn’t miss it when it’s gone.
Political Violence In Ancient India, Upinder Singh: Boring title, should have been a boring book. Instead, Upinder Singh’s investigation of how ancient Indians tried to cover up their instinct for violence to propagate the idea of a syncretic, peace-loving civilisation is eye-opening from first page to last. Singh’s low-key graceful style and earnest clarity also make her book astonishingly readable.
Leila, Prayaag Akbar: A bleak story about life under a religious dictatorship in a segregated Indian mega-city, Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel is set in the future, but is meant to make its readers uneasy - and dreadfully so - about the present. Short, sharp and full of heartache, this story of a woman’s search for her lost daughter has haunted us all year.
Kaukasis, Olia Hercules: Central Asian cookbooks and Georgian food are very on-trend, but this cosy book of recipes from Georgia and Azerbaijan is just what we needed to make it more about taste and less about fashion. Olia Hercules’ sweet, hearty sentences (“This dish used to be made with mayonnaise throughout the ex-Soviet Union, but thank goodness that’s all over and we can now use traditional premium dairy”) and recipes full of vegetables, herbs and yoghurts warmed our smoggy hearts.
PS. We’d have picked this year’s big blockbuster, Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, but we’re still trying to find Diamond Crystal kosher salt at Neelam Foodland.
Autumn, Ali Smith: 2017 was definitely our Ali Smith year, right from when we stumbled upon How To Be Both at a little bookshop in Venice to her latest novel Autumn, which apart from being the first post-Brexit novel to come out of Britain, is also just really terrific – imaginatively loopy, luminous and chockful of relationships that are yummy enough to eat with a spoon.
Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders: One of the biggest books of 2017, this one is worth every bit of swooning praise, a huge, messy, mesmerising novel by a master of short stories. Saunders infuses everyone in Lincoln - the shambling, grieving Abe Lincoln, a pair of hapless ghosts, a recently dead toddler - with his famous sense of compassion, but also a sly sense of humour and a strong idea of their place in history. If you don’t have a New Year’s Eve plan, may we suggest that you get into bed with this and a wee dram?
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward: An astonishing reinterpretation of the roadtrip novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing is unrelentingly, unflinchingly dark, but also compassionate enough to make you care about an abusive, drug-addled mother who drags her teenage son and toddler daughter through the Deep South. It’s a sleight of hand that only a writer of Ward’s calibre can accomplish.
Temporary People, Deepak Unnikrishnan: Indians in the Middle East don’t write novels about mango orchards and grandma’s sarees: they write about heat, dust and life as a daily danger. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s stories set in the Emirates are short, strange and violent: they’re also the most playful and technically dazzling stories an Indian writer has published in a long time. Keep a large slosh of whisky close when you read “Mustibushi.”
Photo Credit: Elena Heatherwick for Kaukasis, published by Octopus Publishing.
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