Fiftyfiftyme: My Year in Books

I started blogging this year with the intention of only posting occasionally and only about subjects related to Indian cinema. The fiftyfiftyme challenge changed all that, and taught me a lot along the way. This excellent post makes a distinction between a blogger and a writer, and I’m definitely no writer. But I have found that blogging about the books I’ve read over the last 9 months has proved to be an excellent memory aid, a way to keep track of my progress through a challenge I wasn’t sure I could meet. Now that I’ve met the challenge, it’s time to savour my achievement by reflecting on the highlights.

 

FAVOURITE BOOK / BEST BOOK

There is no contest here. By far the favourite book I’ve read as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge was the biggest book I read, by far. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was an amazing experience, and one of the reasons I’m most grateful to Katherine Matthews from Totally Filmi for mentioning the fiftyfiftyme challenge to me. The challenge provided just the spur I needed to finally get through this mammoth masterpiece. A treasure trove I look forward to revisiting.

REGIONAL WRITING

A Suitable Boy was also one of several books in my list that are set in or related to the subcontinent. The list includes not only my favourite book of the year, but one of the runners-up, the fascinating Life of Pi , a vivid examination of faith that I’m sure the movie will not do justice to. As if to balance the scales, the land of my fathers also supplied my most disappointing and least pleasurable  reading experience. I desperately wanted to like Midnight’s Children, but its self-confessed delight in focusing on and revelling in ugliness, pain and misery made reading it a task to be endured, not enjoyed.

Apart from that bitter read, the rest of my subcontinental reading was a positive experience. From learning much more about the origin and evolution of Hindi-Urdu to a wonderful companion book for my favourite movie of all time, and the delightful return of one of my favourite fictional detectives, India supplied much of my favourite reading. So did the fabled island home of Raavan. A generous Twitter friend gifted me Chinaman, a serendipitous read in every sense of the word, spinning Cricket and Sri Lankan history into a moving and satisfying story.

FAVOURITE NON-FICTION

One of my goals in the challenge was to read five books about linguistics, but my favourite non-fiction read of the year was not one of them. It was a very close call between two exceptional books but in the end, the non-fiction book I enjoyed the most was Reza Aslan’s No God But God. This examination of the history and development of Islam was both fascinating and sad, teaching me much I didn’t know, and providing an insightful look into what happens when a faith becomes a religion.

The book that only just lost out was one that perhaps should have won. Michael King’s History of New Zealand  is truly a must-read for anyone interested in these Shaky Isles. Written for the non-academic public but not dumbed down, reading it was an embarrassing education for me, one that made it obvious why so many New Zealanders have bought it, to finally understand our home better. It really was full of “stuff they didn’t teach in school”.

The only three things I lack to be a writer are in equal measure talent, imagination and discipline. Despite that, I love language and reading about language.  Every gifted producer needs eager consumers, and Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass  was a pleasure to devour, examining the chicken-and-egg  question of whether our perception influences our words or vice-versa.

FAVOURITE DISCOVERIES

One of the rules of the fiftyfiftyme challenge was that all books read must be first time reads to count. By the end of the year, I had come to love this rule. It made the challenge about discovering new authors and not about ticking off numbers. Sure some of the acclaimed classics, like Thoreau’s Walden turned out to be as dull as dishwater and almost as tasty, but  the number of newly discovered authors I know I’ll be returning to more than makes up for the duds.

The challenge of reading fifty books in nine months (thanks to a late start), meant that after the big books early on, I turned to shorter and lighter reads to make up the numbers. In doing so, I reconnected with two of my favourite genres, science fiction and mystery stories. Two authors I’d never read before are now firm favourites, John Scalzi for science fiction,  and Louise Penny for her Chief Inspector Gamache series of mystery novels. The pleasure I got from their works has filled me with anticipation for next year’s fiftyfiftyme.

FAVOURITE FIVE

After looking back through my year’s reading above, here are the books that I think are the stand-outs for me, the ones that made the biggest impression and that I enjoyed the most:

2. No God But God

3. The Life of Pi

4. The Penguin History of New Zealand

5. Bury Your Dead

To all the masochists who’ve waded through my waffle this year, thank you so very, very much, especially to those who’ve gone above and beyond by leaving comments. I am just a playwrite, but knowing that Google Translate’s webcrawler hasn’t been the only visitor is very gratifying. If anybody has discovered a new author or enjoyed a new book as a result of  reading my ramblings, then some good has come out of all the blather. To the wonderful @kaymatthews  profound thanks again for pointing me to the challenge, and to anybody thinking about trying a similar challenge next year, I conclude with the famous words of the ancient Greek God of sportswear: Just do it!

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