To start with, this is MY list. So replies like, “Why didn’t you include Atlas Shrugged?” or “Time Traveler’s Wife is boring,” are redundant. I say that at the start. That this is a list of books I have read, enjoyed, loved, and often gifted to other people, who have loved them equally. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone will love them, and that’s fine. It is why Chetan Bhagat is big, though most of us can’t see why. If you like some of these, you will probably like most of them. If you’ve read none of them, by all means, use this list! But then I would say that…it’s MY list after all. They’re listed in no particular order. Enjoy!
1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
What does one say about a book that has been commented on by every single literary person of worth? That it is perfect? That it is possibly the most phenomenal plot ever? That that fact combined with a heart-wrenching love story might make it one of the best books on the planet? It’s funny how many different kinds of people I know who like this book. It’s odd how many boys I know, who keep a copy on their bedside table. My mother gave it to me telling me, “I promise you, it’s not cheesy.” That’s the best I can say too. Henry and Clare’s story is one that will survive trends and critics, for years to come. Because everybody wants a love like that.
2. Emergency Sex by Cain, Postlewait and Thomson
A book that follows three UN/Red Cross volunteers through ten years of conflict, including Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia and Cambodia, it reads like dynamic fiction but is very, very real. In fact, while reading it, one needs to remind oneself that these are real events, with real consequences, and then the effect on the system is jarring. If you think politics is a boring topic, this will change your mind and make you want to hop on the next flight to the most terrifying, war torn country you can currently find on the globe.
3. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Written in Rushdie’s usual cheeky style that I found ‘self indulgent’ when I was a teenager, the book is a rock opera of words and wonder. A book which serenades the sixties, rock and roll, Bombay before it was Mumbai, alternate realities and photography, it is both historical and lyrical as well as a love story that stretches beyond one’s wildest imagination. Though I love Shame, for me, this far surpasses it.
4. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
Tom Robbins is a genius. There are no two ways about it. A lover made me ‘swear’ I’d read Jitterbug Perfume, and being heady in lust and full of faith, I went straight to a bookstore. The boy is now long gone, but the book remains and it’s a romance that will last me, forever. By far the most ‘conclusive’ of Robbins’ books, this made me believe that God might, after all exist and that Robbins might even be Him. For me to begin telling you even part of the plot would be like inviting you to a Rolling Stones’ concert saying the plan was to “Go hear some music by a really nice band.”
5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Better known for the book they made into a film, The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides writes one book every ten years (or something close to that snail pace). When you read Middlesex, you’ll understand why. It traces the life of a hermaphrodite, Calliope Stephanides, from 1960 onwards and is unlike anything you have ever experienced, simply because Eugenides is not scared to take the road less travelled, where writing is concerned.
6. Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan
If you like the weird and wonderful, you will love this. Padmanabhan creates a world for you in which only one woman remains. On her 18th birthday, her uncles who have protected and hidden her for almost two decades decide to help her escape to a world where women might still exist. A courageous, philosophical and wholly feminist book, Escape is as much an action thriller as it is a serious ode to women.
7. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t let the size put you off. Read till the very end, and read every word, because it is worth it. Kingsolver writes about Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as if they were her friends, and she has been in their kitchens and bedrooms and studios, as a fly on the wall, a spy in the house of love. A fantastic, fictional biography that makes you feel very much a part of history, and as if history itself had come alive. Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on the Mexican Revolution, and all that followed it.
8. Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
A book of loss, heartache and immeasurable pain, Maps… tells a story we all know too well. It sings the unsung song of every lover who has been parted from their beloved, for reasons as base as caste or religion. Though Aslam’s each sentence requires attention in order to read it, his words are, for the patient reader, a reward for surpassing the riff raff of regular writing.
9. The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
Yes he gets two books on my list, and yes, he is the only one who gets that. If you found Maps For Lost Lovers difficult and depressing, you will find The Wasted Vigil twice as much so. But fear not, it has hundreds and thousands of beautiful reasons for you to buy and read it. To start with, the book opens in a house in Afghanistan where every book has been taken off the shelves and nailed to the ceiling, to save the literature from the hands of the Taliban. Such sad yet vivid imagery is the staple of Aslam’s books. Less rounded off and romance-driven than Maps For Lost Lovers, this is a harder book to read, but that is nothing, when compared to how hard it must have been to research and write it. A stark portrait of Afghanistan from the 1970s up until present day, Aslam wrote the book in a house where the windows were all covered in black paper, to allow him to lose himself entirely in his story. When he came out once in the middle, he couldn’t understand why the weather did not match that of the chapter he was then writing.
10. Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
I avoided the book for so long, because I had seen the movie and couldn’t shake the memories. Wanting my thoughts on the book to be fresh, I kept avoiding it. I had nothing to fear. Seven Years In Tibet paints such a vibrant image of the Land of Snows, that in retrospect I see how no movie could have actually represented Harrer’s story accurately enough. Far sadder and more relevant now that the Tibet of his time is a distant and fast fading dream, Harrer’s book, an account of his escape from India to Tibet on foot, and his subsequent time as a resident of Lhasa is anything but boring mountaineering chatter. In an interview once, Harrer spoke of the book and its relevance, saying, “Satellites cannot discover souls and languages and legends of culture.” He writes, “Though the aircraft had finally opened up the world, one last mystery remained: a vast country on the roof of the world, a country of marvels and wonders where monks could part their souls from their bodies to hover in the air, and oracles determined the course of events. That land was surrounded by the highest mountains on Earth, and the ruler of the state was a living god dwelling in a citadel of incomparable beauty built on a red rock. It was a forbidden country, and the capital Lhasa was closely guarded by monks. For romantics, there was even the attraction of the blue poppy that flowered in secret beyond the mountains.”
11. Freedom In Exile by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
For me, this acts as a sister book to Seven Years In Tibet. The Dalai Lama tells the story of his being found at the age of two and subsequently raised by the Tibetan government to be the spiritual leader and head of state of Tibet. He takes you with him as he escapes Chairman Mao’s Communist Chinese regime in Tibet, for India, where with Nehru, he set up the Tibetan Government In Exile. A remarkable story where the esteemed author is humble and accessible at all stages, it once again gives one a telling picture of a culture that is now all but lost.
12. Oil by Matthew Yeomans
Subtitled ‘A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth’, Oil takes you through the history, significance, use and consequences of the product. The best part about the book is that it treats oil not as a commodity, but as a protagonist. What I like most about Yeomans’ work is that it wasn’t intimidating. I bought it to better my knowledge of something that was only becoming more and more significant and found myself deeply engrossed and intrigued. Though I doubt Yeomans aimed for it, he has indeed created, of all the unlikely things to call a book on oil, ‘a page turner’.
13. Illywhacker by Peter Carey
My friend Neha Kaul Mehra bought me the book. I’m a book snob, but then so is she, so I put it on my shelf and waited for a time when I could really get into it, to read it. When I finally did, it completely overwhelmed me. It made me laugh out loud and cry and feel for the characters. It made me want to lap it all up and then slow it down so that it would never end. Peter Carey might be the best, most engrossing ‘story teller’ I have ever read. Do yourself the favour Neha did me, and go out and buy this book.
14. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver is a witch. She gets under your skin and into your veins and haunts your sleep and rocks your stomach. And she does all this while using a vocabulary that requires you to keep dictionary.com open for the entire duration of your reading her book. The only way to rid yourself of the evil part of her spell is to get through the book. It isn’t me who says this. It’s everyone. Few authors can do that, and she does it, book after book. We Need To Talk About Kevin is where she does it best of all. Haunting, precise, animated and dark, it traces, through a series of letters written by Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, the life of their son Kevin. Kevin lives nearby in a juvenile detention centre, for having murdered nine people at his high school. An important book about family and society, its conclusion will chill your blood.
15. The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal
I don’t like most Indian authors. There I said it. And I don’t think very many of my friends do either. We’re not trying to be ‘cool’ or international, we’re just baffled by what Indian authors write about. (Kiran Desai I don’t mean you.) There was a time when I thought, ‘If I read one more book where a woman raises her pallu, flips a chapatti, applies kohl/sindoor deftly and has a story dating back to 1947, I will cry.’ Who are these stories being written for? Who on earth is writing them? Before you point out the obvious class difference between the people the stories are about and those who are reading them (i.e. you and I), let me point out this too that most authors writing about ‘far off villages’ in India where women are beaten for having birthmarks/spilling dal/being widows, have most often and obviously done little research about the rural life they so eagerly romanticize and misrepresent. Stories like this insult both rural and urban India, and reinforce tired ideologies in a way that has just become boring to read. Tejpal is refreshingly dissimilar. He writes about sex, journalism and life in Delhi with wit, sieved by reality. It was exactly this raw tone that made my 518-page version seem like a breeze.
16. A Night Without Armor by Jewel Kilcher
I love my Neruda, Rumi and Dylan Thomas, but really, this book surprised me. A collection of poems by Jewel (yes, the folk singer) from when she was in her early twenties, the poems read like scribbles, but reveal a maturity impressive for a 23 year old. Like this:
we are a pair
two knives, two flags
two slender stocks of wheat
And the song that sleeps
inside your mouth
is the song which bids
my heart to beat.
17. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
You want to read one book on acid, read this. No wait, read Acid Dreams. Okay no, read this one. I’m a junkie for anything sixties, but this book…sigh…this book makes you want to do drugs. This book follows author and acid pioneer Ken Kesey, beatnik legends Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, The Hell’s Angels and The Grateful Dead amongst other ‘merry pranksters’ as they experiment with LSD in the sixties, often with hilarious results. Written in Wolfe’s perennially youthful style (really how is that man in a polka tie so damn cool?), it paints a clearer image of the madness of that time than almost any other book. Read this, and then read Acid Dreams.
18. Boys Will Be Boys by Sara Suleri Goodyear
One never finds this book anywhere. I bought it on a whim when I was researching Pakistani authors. Now if I see it anywhere, I buy two copies, because this slim book (120 pages) makes such a perfect gift. Suleri-Goodyear manages to write intimately about her family without ever sounding self indulgent or irrelevant. Blissfully irreverent, graceful political, heartwarmingly patriotic, modern and yet nostalgic, this book had me in piles of giggles, and made me yearn for my grandfather to come back, so I could read him the political bits. One critic called her writing ‘elegant’, and really I couldn’t think of a more accurate word to describe it.
19. No One Here Gets Out Alive by Hopkins and Sugarman
Technically, this is a Doors and Jim Morrison biography, but really, it is so, so much more. This book is why I started reading the way I did. Inspired by Morrison’s voracious appetite for literature and life, I in my teenage melodrama cut my hair short, wore my father’s trousers with white workman shirts and spent all my pocket money on books. This is the book that turned me on at 14 to Nietzsche, the beatniks (namely Kerouac), poetry, Buddhism, shamanism, music, Rimbaud, Warhol…in fact, it turned me on to life itself, while also being on of the finest rock biographies on offer. Full of a healthy mix of fact, philosophy and fandom, it has sold over 2 million copies, and continues to be the best Doors book on offer.
20. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Here’s where I admit I’d always thought Atwood was the writer of slightly smutty, old fashioned mystery novels. Can you imagine the horror when I realized what I’d been missing out on? Though a number of her books are a tad too rad for me (I’m sorry I thought Surfacing was so weird), The Blind Assassin deserved every inch of the Booker it was wreathed with. The story of two sisters effortlessly and subtly weaves through decades and drama, without ever feeling forced. And of course, as I had thought before I knew Atwood’s true depth…it actually does contain a pretty good dose of mystery.
21. Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie
And finally, the children’s classic I’ve never outgrown, Peter Pan. But it isn’t a children’s book. This for example, is about as childish as a mermaid isn’t sexual:
If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing.
There are obvious books like ‘An Equal Music’ and ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’, that I haven’t put on my list simply because most book lovers I know have read them. I’ve also tried to keep the list mainly fiction-based, but there are books like the classic ‘May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons’ that deserve a place on anyone’s good book guide. Then there are authors like Orhan Pamuk and Naipaul whom I haven’t touched yet, but eagerly wait to clear my schedule to read. This is a list of 21 books. They aren’t the 21 best books in the world, but I sincerely hope you read at least one, and that it warms your heart the way each one has done mine.