The best that we read this year
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi:
The only nonfiction book I have completed and admired this year was China Unbound: A New World Disorder (Hurst, November 2021), a chilling account of China's prominent rise to global dominance. It exposes the reader to the inhumane realities of those living under an oppressive regime whose ghosts linger within and across borders—from Turkey to Australia to the USA and Canada. The book is a testament to the phenomenon that, in the age of AI and globalisation, a government can get away with monstrosity if it harnesses its economic potential well.
On the fiction side, while I spent most of my time reading stories online (especially on adda and The New Yorker), I enjoyed whatever I read, in a very scattered fashion, from Jamil Jan Kochai's The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories (Viking, 2022). "Playing Metal Gear Solid V", "Occupational Hazards", and "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak", stories from the collection that are also online on the New Yorker, were a true delight. Loaded with non-orientalist and non-islamophobic Muslim representation, these stories are powered with a language that will sing in your head while at the same time showing you immense suffering
A Murder at Malabar Hill (Penguin Random House, 2018) is not the best whodunnit I've read—that honour goes to a Poirot or a Feluda, I am undecided which. But what it lacks in mind boggling twists, it makes up with sheer deshi magic.
Set in early 1900s Bombay, Sujata Massey pulls no punches in introducing a Western audience to colonial India, and therein lies its charm. Massay is intimately familiar with the culture of upperclass Bombay, and the issues within that class, especially in the lives of the women, and she navigates it with grace and tact—never condoning that which we know to be unjust nor admonishing to look better to the white gaze. Through our protagonist, Perveen, she pulls us into a time so richly realised it seems more like a memory. Perveen is immediately likeable, and flawed, and her sleuthing is always fun to follow, even when it becomes a bit predictable. The supporting cast, especially the women, truly do carry the story in a way I am yet to see in any Agatha Christie.
Sarah Anjum Bari
Two books blew my mind this year—Elif Batuman's novel Either/Or (Penguin Press, 2022) a sequel to The Idiot (Penguin Press, 2017), and Olivia Laing's Everybody (Penguin Press, 2017). Campus novels are a weakness for me, and in Either/Or, Batuman revisits Selin, the Turkish-American protagonist of The Idiot, who is now a sophomore at Harvard. Guided by Kierkegaard's philosophy, Selin explores the borders between living life for pleasure and for morality; she dips her toes deeper into travel, language, and fiction, and fumbles through sexual awakening. She is funny, deadpan, and increasingly confident.
If Batuman's second novel is quietly empowering, Laing's nonfictional account of how freedom embraces and eludes bodies is loud, loud strength. Laing wants her readers to "imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear". This imagination takes her through the lives of Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, Malcolm X, Nina Simone and others whose bodies have fought for and symbolised freedom in its diverse forms—political, psychological, sexual, and intellectual.
One of the best books I read in 2022 is undoubtedly The Martian (Crown, 2011) by Andy Weir. If you haven't heard about the book, you probably know about the movie starring Matt Damon. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars because of a bad storm. While his crew is hurrying to their ship as the storm worsens, Mark is hit by flying debris and his life signal reading shows him to be dead to his crew. Unable to go back without risking their lives and avoiding damage to the ship, his team leaves him on the planet.
Mark is now all alone and injured. His enemy: the entire planet. His best weapon of survival: his perseverance and his witty outlook on the whole 'man vs. Mars' situation. They say attitude is everything.
In the 23 essays of Paath: Shobdo O Noishshobder Rajnity, Professor Azfar Hussain offers a political reading of literature and culture. I admire this book for its new perspectives on Bangla literature.
Faisal Bin Iqbal:
Dhaka Comics' Protibastob (2022)–the biggest anthology of original comics in Bangladesh–cemented itself as a landmark in the comic book industry of Bangladesh.
Protibastob has some of the best comic-book details I have ever laid my eyes on. From their varying art styles to their intriguing storytelling prowess, each comic had its own vibe and appeal. The artists and publishers of Protibastob deserve a lot of credit for bringing out this collection and showing us just how much talent the Bangladeshi comic book industry possesses.
In Indelible City (Text Publishing, 2022) award winning journalist Louisa Lim gets personal and reflects on her relationship with an ever changing city. She starts from the root and writes about Hong Kong's relationship with its colonial masters—UK and China. Through Lim's narration, we get an idea of how a city deeply shapes one's identity. I absolutely loved how Lim drew from her own experiences to write about Hong Kong so personally. She talks about the defiant spirit of the city. And the prose takes you straight to the streets of Hong Kong.
I absolutely adored Ada Calhoun's Also A Poet: Frank O'Hara, My Father and Me (Grove Press, 2022). It's a hybrid, kaleidoscopic memoir that charts her attempt to write a biography of the legendary New York School poet, one that the revered art critic Peter Schjeldah, her own father, started some five decades ago.
Calhoun writes tenderly about the poet, who loomed large over her childhood and whose oeuvre acted as a secular scripture, a manifesto for a life in the arts; whereas her own experiences, living under the shadow of an acclaimed figure, became somewhat of a cautionary tale. She reconciles these two contradictory impulses, and writes a book that's as alive as O'Hara's poems.