Notable books of 2012

I wrote a post, Review of Reviews in 2012, listing some of the books I read in 2012, and also the whole experience of writing reviews at the pace of one a week. In this post, I will call out what I consider as the best books I read in the year about to go by. These are in the order that I reviewed them in 2012. I had thought this list would comprise twenty books, and with much planning and figurative pats on the literal back I started tweeting this list. As I came to the last book I reviewed this year, I realized I had goofed up with the Twitter posts, and ended with 19 books. Need to go back and correct that.

1. The year started out with a review of the very, very fine "India's Culture and India's Future, by Michael Danino". Not only is it written in an easy going, engaging manner, it is also very well organized, and gives all the hyperbole one has come to expect from books that talk in a positive light about India. The book is short enough to be read in one sitting, and it is a pity it has not found a wider audience.
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2.While Michael Lewis' "The Big Short" was also a look at the origins and some of the players in the makings of the financial meltdown of 2008, his latest book, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis", is a travelogue, a disaster tourism travelogue if you will, among countries as they cope with the aftermath of the financial meltdown - and it's not a pretty picture that stares us in the face. Lewis' wit and tombstone humour alleviates what could have been an otherwise a very dirge of a tale.
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 3. I forget how, but somehow, somewhere, I learned of an ongoing translation of the Mahabharata - the whole nine yards, mind you, and in this case this would be the whole 80,000 shlokas that form the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata - by economist Dr. Bibek Debroy. I bought the first two volumes (there's a story there too - I ordered the second volume, then realized my mistake, and I could not find a way to cancel that order, and therefore ended up ordering the first volume too). I read them every night till I had finished both, and then was on to the third and fourth volumes. For someone with the gumption to persevere, I believe this is the most approachable translation yet of the entire Mahabharata. It avoids the faux-archaic usage of words like "thee", "thine", "thou", which I have always found to grate on my palate - even when encountered in a Shakespeare play, yes! Short footnotes every now and then help clarify some points. Six volumes have been published thus far, taking us to near the end of the Kurukshetra war, and a further six are planned, including Hari Vamsa and some stories from the epic that have been excised from the Critical Edition. These six volumes are also available as Amazon Kindle e-book editions, so  you can now carry an epic on a phone.
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4. Perhaps the only way one can tell the history of the subcontinent, or a country in it, like Pakistan, without completely going insane with frustration, is by taking refuge in humour. In "The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power", author Tariq Ali does just that, and the result is an unputdownable mix of information and at times rib-tickling humour, laced with the pickling acid of sarcasm.
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5. How much do we lie? When do we lie? What about when people are looking, and what about when we can get clean away with cheating? "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves, by Dan Ariely" uses results from real-life experiments run by the author and collaborators and others to look at these very pertinent issues. In some ways this book is also somewhat of a sequel to his earlier book, "The Upside of Irrationality", which covered similar ground, but only in passing.
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6. The skewed gender ratio in much of the developing world, especially India, has been the focus of much hand wringing. "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl" is a simply amazing book on the issue, and uncovers causes you would not have thought of - like colonialism, that instituted so-called land reforms that excluded women from inheriting property, or western institutions and governments that equated a burgeoning population with an increased threat of communism. It forces you to think about the skewed gender ratio in a more informed light. Possibly the best book I read in 2012.
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7. This book - "The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie" - is as much about 1975, the year India lost her Fundamental Rights for a year and a half, as it is about 2011 and 2012, that saw India battle an increasingly autocratic government and a spate of corruption scandals. Arun Shourie walks us through debates in Parliament that preceded the passing of  amendments to the Constitution, meant to help one and only one individual - Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister, and the uncivil statements made during the course of those farcical debates.
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8. The only thing more heretical than writing a book trashing Mother Teresa's reputation has to be to write a glowing review of the book. Christopher Hitchens has penned a short polemic, a takedown of sorts, of Mother Teresa, in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Read it as much for the use of the English language as for its sarcasm laden wit against the Mother.
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9. I found "After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, by Lesley Hazleton" to be a short and eminently readable introduction to the origins of the Shia - Sunni split in Islam. While the book gets overly melodramatic at places, it is still a stirring and moving account, especially of the adopted son Ali, and that of his son, Hussain. It doesn't quite explain why the Shias and Sunnis should have developed an all-encompassing, visceral hatred of each other as they did, but it provides some pointers for sure.
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10. The whole genre of mythological fiction has left me untouched, and the first in this series that I read was proof that this was a genre best left alone. Then Dr. Bibek Debroy recommended I try "Bali and the Ocean of Milk, by Nilanjan P Choudhury", and I did. After reading this book I could not understand why this book did not receive more attention than it did, and why this book was not a blockbuster bestseller. I suspect people went for looks - the looks of the cover - and they found it confusing. The cover hints at a story that is wholly different from what it actually was. I hope the author writes another book; the genre deserves more books such as this.
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11. Islamophobia is a term thrown about fast and easy against anyone who writes about the dangers of Islamic fanaticism. Such is the case in India for sure. "Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips" deserves a careful read. It deserves attention and its context is valid even more so in India. There is a tinge of the extreme in the author's book, to be sure, but you have to filter that out. If you do, what is left should be food for thought for everyone. The author brings together several strands of thought, including anti-Zionism, liberal philosophy, judicial activism, and more, to argue that a systemic bias against Judeo-Christian ethos pervades British society. Strong words.
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12. Why yet another Ramayana translation? Well, how about an abridged translation, from a scholar who brings empathy and wisdom to the translation? "Valmiki's Ramayana", Translated by Arshia Sattar renewed the epic for me, and also, for the first time, brought me closer to the Baroda Critical Edition. It is however not a soulless abridgment - it has an emotional and devotional core that is preserved in this translation.
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13. Why do vaccines scare us? And why do people feed on that fear using pseudo-science, quackery, fear-mongering, to put the lives of millions of children at risk? Without remorse. With a fanatical passion that is resistant to facts and reason. "Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All", by Paul Offit is a fact-laden takedown of the anti-vaccine cult, and is written in a mostly approachable manner for the  lay reader.
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14. "Time Stops at Shamli, by Ruskin Bond" is the kind of book you would want to read just about anywhere, anyplace. The title story is perhaps the best, while the others are also very, very readable. Some are as short as two pages, while most are four to five pages long. There is a near-total absence of overwrought phrases or adjectives dripping with desperate exertions.
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15. What use are children if they cannot be sold to, if useless baubles advertised to them. And what use is childhood if one cannot profit from it. "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture", by Peggy Orenstein is a useful and well-written book on the topic of commercial exploitation of children.
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16. As time goes by, as one gets older, wiser perhaps, appreciation for the Peanutes series and the genius of Charles M Schulz only increases. "Good Ol Charlie Brown, How I Hate Him!" is the first book in the very ambitious project to publish every single Peanuts comic strip, and the evolution of Charlie Brown, his angst, his insecurities are all there for us to see. Truly a great comic strip.
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17. What happens when you yearn for intellectual acknowledgment, but lack the insights to contribute in any meaningful way to the discourse on the impact of technology? "The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov" documents these foibles of putting technology front-and-center - "technology centrism", of trying to seek false equivalence between political and social movements more than two decades ago.

18. Certainly one of the more anticipated books of the year, "How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough" is certainly a good read, but at times accounts of the persons seem to suffocate the underlying message and information that needs to stay on top. Adverse experiences in childhood, too protective a childhood, a lack of focus - all can affect our chances of success, of happiness in life.
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19. One of the most anticipated books in India in 2012, "Durbar, by Tavleen Singh" is a journalist's retelling of a pivotal 25 year period in India's history, from the imposition of Emergency in 1975 to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The underlying thread that runs through the book is not only the insidious reach of a select clique answerable to no one, but also the hand of Rajiv Gandhi in so many decisions that went bad, and the results of which are still being suffered by this nation.
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20. There are only so many ways you can retell the Mahabharata. So I thought. Then came "Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, by Amruta Patil", which is a spectacular graphic retelling of the epic. To be accurate, it is only part of the first parva of the epic, the Adi Parva, and is the first in a planned trilogy. Also, it is much more graphics, illustrations than words. And this works just very well with the book. The drawings, color as well as charcoal black-and-white, evoke certain feelings, moods, and invite you to gaze and ponder at the illustrations, adding to the words and drawings what your imagination brings to the pictures. If you like this book, I venture you will return to this book several times. At Rs 799, it is not cheap, but this is a lavishly produced work of art. As for the price - there are always online comparison sites to look for discounts and bargains.
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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.