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My spicy little pad thais,
I always hate best books lists that come out early on in December or even November because it’s as good as saying you won’t be reading any more for the rest of the year. I try to put my own list off as long as I can, because I am always filled with FOMO. What if, I think, what if the book I read on December 23rd is absolutely the best book I’ve read all year? This year, I went to a second hand bookstore only two days ago and bought a huge pile of books which I am making my way through. This year, I started Crime and Punishment only last week. I have a lot of reading left to do, but now, on the 27th, I realise that I probably won’t finish any of these by the end of the week and so, here we are.
I had a shorter reading goal this year than normal. I pledged to read 100 books—normally I pick 150 or 120 or whatever, but this year I’ve been so busy—we counted and we’ve been in seven different countries in 2022 thanks to my visa problems. I’m delighted to announce that that is a thing of the past. Yes, friends, one and a half years, many many emails to the German embassy and many many hours of agonising about my uncertain future later, my visa has finally been approved! This means your girl is going to be a full time Berlin resident come February (the passport might take as long as a month to be stamped, they warned me). And not a moment too soon, because I see rumblings about a new COVID wave that’s happening, so please be careful, and hopefully we won’t have to have another full on lockdown. (In Thailand, masks are no longer mandatory, but the locals wear them all the time, even outdoors, so actually we’re pretty safe—and also following suit, to fit in.)
Although seven countries was fun. I’ll sort of miss my vagabond life, but I’m so ready to start nesting.
The nice thing about travelling is that you get to read a lot. The bad thing is that you get absolutely no writing done, unless you have tremendous will power, which we all know I don’t. Still, these five weeks in Bangkok have been ideal for my book which is chugging along nicely, and I managed to read 106 new books (I don’t count re-reads unless I’ve completely forgotten the book, I’m always re-reading the same thing over and over.) This is also the year I discovered libraries, proper libraries, and while Berlin’s libraries don’t have a large English language collection, they do have variety. Plus, you’re a member of all of them at the same time, so you can borrow books from whichever branch you like. When I think about Berlin, I think most about the libraries, nothing else, maybe occasionally walking down an empty cobblestoned road with the trees high and green above my head.
Of these one hundred and six books though, when I made my list today, I could only come up with thirteen that I would absolutely recommend to you. I do mini-recommendations all year on my bookish Instagram page, but this is a best books list, not a decent-reads-you-might-enjoy list, and so, here we are. As always, these are the best books I’ve read this year, but published any year.
The most exciting book I read all year:
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: I wish I’d saved this for Thailand, but I didn’t know, way back in March that I would be in Thailand this winter, so the timing was slightly unfortunate. Then again, I did read this in a fancy Istanbul hotel where we were sadly quarantining with COVID, so I had plenty of time to devote to it between poking sticks into my nose and waiting hopefully for the results. The book is a solid romp, a journalist goes to Thailand hoping to uncover the story of an anthropologist who was jailed and later committed suicide. Along the way, there’s the heavy involvement of a missionary church. It doesn’t sound exciting written down, but trust me, by the end of it, you’ll be like, “Ooh how can I be an anthropologist too?”
The best novel about the psychology of crime:
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine: I don’t mean a psychological crime novel here, those are quite different. This was the year I discovered Ruth Rendell and promptly decided to read as much of her backlist as I could. I love here because she talks about why people do crimes instead of just the puzzle. It’s what I wanted to do as well, so she served as inspiration in a sense. This book begins with the murderer dying and then goes back in time, unravelling a story. A why-dunnit instead of a who-dunnit. So beautifully written, a story about family and sisters and parenthood.
The best graphic novel I’ve read in a long time, let alone 2022:
Berlin by Jason Lutes: A massive book, twenty years in the making, which spans the history of the city from the very beginning of the fall of the Weimar Republic till the start of the rise of the Nazis. Large panels, so much happening in each section that you can’t take in all of it at one go so your eyes go all over the page, like a child reading a picture book. Berlin was dense, full of various random characters inhabiting the city, and beautiful. I borrowed this from the public library, which made me very happy, because I had been planning on buying it in Delhi and lugging it back to Germany with me and the thing weighs like a zillion kilos. I see there’s a nice Kindle version so treat yourself.
The best romance novel that ended up as a treatise on working women in the 50s:
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: I read a lot of “trendy” books this year, by which I mean books everyone was talking about, and for the most part I was pleasantly surprised by how good they were, which makes me sound like the most appalling snob, but really, every year people dangle books in front of one and are like, “This is the greatest thing since the Iliad!” or whatever and they never are. I realised tempering my expectations was key, like they were a giant cast iron pan. I liked this more than I expected to, and that sounds like faint praise, but it was just sweet. It starts out romantic, very smart woman and very smart man fall in love and get a dog, and then the man dies, so that’s sad, but the woman has to now bring up their child alone, and then she (the woman that is) gets a job teaching cooking at a local TV studio, except she’s teaching it in a chemistry-oriented way. It was fun! And charming! Sometimes you need fun and charming. The dog character was great too.
The best soft character-oriented books about people’s long lives:
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and French Braid by Anne Tyler: This is one of my absolute favourite genres, and I find Americans do it so well. I think it’s the idea of clannishness and family in small towns. Elizabeth Strout and Anne Tyler are experts in this regard, and if I like Tyler a little more than Elizabeth, it’s probably because I’ve read more of her (since she’s published more books.) French Braid is excellent, a long family saga in vignettes, chapters set over the years. Anything Is Possible is a continuation of Strout’s Lucy Barton series, and as always, you don’t need to read one book to get fully into the next. Stories of different people who live in a small town in Maine and how their lives intersect.
The best book about a very specific sports topic:
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis: I haven’t seen the TV show! And when I posted this on my Instagram, everyone said I must, so that is a treat for another time. But the novel the show is based on: young genius orphan girl is heavily into chess and becomes a world champion was so exciting, I couldn’t stop reading, and I don’t even like chess. Then too, it’s a short novel, so perfect for your next weekend break or flight.
The best cosy crime slash epistolary novel:
The Appeal by Janice Hallet: This book tickled two of my reading soft spots: it’s done entirely in notes and emails and, and it’s all against the background of an amateur theatre group. Having been in many amateur groups myself, I’ve always thought they were a great place to observe human intrigue, and see, here I am proven right. Then too, it was funny and mysterious, with a twist you won’t see coming.
The best fantasy novel:
Fairy Tale by Stephen King: King is usually horror and creepy don’t-read-in-the-dark books, but this one is both a deviation and a delight. It’s about a young boy who discovers through his neighbour, a portal into a fairy tale world, which of course, he enters, and where he, of course, has to battle many strange things and come out a hero in the end. It’s still creepy, but fairy tales tend to be creepy, unless they’re Disney versions. I especially liked finding references to all sorts of Grimms’ tales I had forgotten.
The best book about friendship:
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: This made a LOT of best books lists so you’ll forgive me for squeezing it into mine as well. I didn’t think I’d like it, because it’s about two gamers, and I’m not really much for video games, but much like Fieldwork made me think, “Ooh anthropology!” and The Queen’s Gambit made me think, “Ooh, chess!” this sent me down the “Ooh, video games!” rabbithole as well. But mostly it’s about love and friendship, two very real people and their very real relationship with all its ups and downs. The relationships are real, is what I’m trying to tell you, not just a nice friendship lalala over the years but it felt true and authentic, the fights, the bitching, the resentment and love too, lots of love or it wouldn’t have endured. You’ll find yourself thinking a lot about your own friends after you read this.
The best book about Indian crime:
Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee: I confess, I haven’t read as many Indian authors this year as I would have liked to, and I do like to. But Upamanyu Chatterjee has always been a favourite, I’m forever recommending English, August to other people who want to know “what Indian books to read.” I didn’t like his ones in the middle so much, but this one returned him true to form. The crime of it all is a bit hand-wavy, but I liked the people very much, all the various characters coming through so clearly, like I had met them all. I liked the police procedural aspect as well (something I’m working on in my own new novel) and generally enjoyed the Rich Delhi/class wars flavours of the whole thing. (Just before I left Delhi, my friend Nilanjana Roy released Black River, her crime novel, so that’s something to look forward to as well.)
The best book about small scale politics:
Search by Michelle Huneven: Again, a subject I didn’t know very much about: church committees! Dana, the narrator, is also a food writer and is hunting for the subject of her next book. At the same time, she’s elected to join a church committee to hunt for a replacement for the minister. There’s a whole lot of Boomer vs Gen Z energy (Dana is in her 50s), plus the every day fights and quibbles of people who suddenly have a small amount of power. I tore through it, it was so good. And so unusual.
The best collection of essays:
May You Be The Mother of A Hundred Sons by Elizabeth Bumiller: I did not read a lot of non-fiction this year, but whatever I did tended to be memoir. This very old collection of essays is about women in India, whether they’re rich in Delhi or Bollywood stars or health workers or women in the village, Elizabeth Bumiller went everywhere and talked to everyone to get some sort of an idea about what it means to be a woman in India. It was published in 1991 so it’s been a while, but sadly, a lot of it still holds true.
And that’s my list! Your turn, what were the best books you read this year off the top of your head?
If you liked this newsletter—a true labour of love!—then please buy me a book so I can go on reading and telling you what to read as well.
Books I’m currently reading:
Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me which is the true story of how the writer was besties of a sort with serial killer Ted Bundy.
John Irving’s A Son Of The Circus which is the only book of his to be set in Bombay. I’ve read a lot of his books and actually owned this in hardback for a while and never read it, but then came across it at this second hand bookstore in Bangkok and it felt like the right time. It’s very good. Potboiler-y.
Crime and Punishment which will probably take me a while to finish, so it’s just going to go with me wherever I go.
Gone by Mo Hayder which is described as both “lacerating” and “stomach churning” in the blurbs.
A wrap on the 2022 season of The Internet Personified! Have a great New Year’s Eve, however you celebrate (leaning towards staying in with a movie this year, too much excitement already) and I will see you in 2023.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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