A year of reading that begins with Jared Diamond has to be a good one. Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is technically a 2012 publication, since it’s releasing on December 31, 2012.
He starts with the evolutionist’s idea that yesterday was only 11,000 years ago, and steps back into the past to ask what we might learn from traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Diamond probably has one of the most interesting minds around, and his easy way with complex arguments will make this another bestseller.
The growing popularity of mainstream histories of economics and banking continues, with Neil Irwin’s The Alchemists promising to be one of the better books of the year. Irwin’s non-fiction opus studies money through a careful examination of three of the world’s most powerful central bankers. And in March, Fractured Spring brings together the final writings of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm — short studies that span the 19th and 20th centuries. Malcolm Gladwell, who spawned a mini-industry of imitators, is back with David and Goliath, asking an interesting question — why does the underdog so often win, and how do you assess who really has the edge in any contest? He focuses strongly on classic confrontations — the little rebel against the big dictatorship, the whistleblower who goes up against big corporations — but broadens the scope to make this a wide-ranging enquiry into all kinds of power struggles.
Lance Armstrong called him ‘The Little Troll’, and David Walsh’s obsession with the cyclist was, by most standards, not normal. It was about 12 years ago that Walsh formed his suspicions of Armstrong, and he spent much of that time trying to gain evidence that the world’s most famous cyclist was cheating by using performance-enhancing drugs. Seven Deadly Sins is likely to be an interesting read, a record of how Armstrong got away with it as much as a diary of where one man’s obsession finally took down a world icon.
The India story
Indian non-fiction has some strong contenders — Sandipan Deb’s book on Rajat Gupta, Fallen Angel, should be out in the first few months of the year. Expect Deb to have a sharp, informed take on the rise and fall of Gupta after his conviction on charges of insider trading. By midsummer, John Keay’s book on Begum Sumroo should be out from HarperCollins. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze look at the China experience to see what India might be able to learn about public policy, especially in education and healthcare, in An Uncertain Glory (Penguin). Given recent debates on censorship and the Internet, eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee’s Voices of Dissent (Roli Books) might be a necessary read.
Veteran journalist Barkha Dutt should be out with her memoirs in 2013 too. This Unquiet Land: Dispatches from India’s Fault Lines (Aleph/ Rupa) is likely to go back over more than a decade of contemporary Indian history, from Ayodhya to Kargil. Two unusual biographies signal the shift in Indian writing, as non-fiction opens up into wider and less well-trodden ground. Amit Chaudhuri’s book on Calcutta is not likely to be a conventional history of the city — Calcutta: Two Years in The City (Penguin) will be a much more personal account from the writer who is probably one of India’s best literary critics as well. (Chaudhuri had also edited an anthology of writings on Calcutta which was well-received.)
Rajmohan Gandhi’s history of Punjab is expected to be a thoroughly researched, fluent biography of a state, from the man better known as the chronicler of M K Gandhi’s life. A different take on the Mahatma might be found in Gandhi’s Printing Press by Isabel Hofmeyr (Harvard University Press), which looks at the history of his experiments with newspapers in South Africa. And from the academic press Permanent Black, expect the definitive compendium of writings on caste. Compiled by Tanika and Sumit Sarkar, Caste In Modern India: A Reader runs to over a thousand pages, according to the publishers, and should be on everyone’s list of indispensable books about modern India.
The first books from the Murthy Classics Library should be out in 2013. This is one of the most ambitious publishing projects to have come out of India, an update of the original Clay Sanskrit Library classics. The aim is to bring all of India’s classics — from every Indian language, in every era — back into print, in definitive, illustrated editions. The project was announced in 2010; in order to make sure that the works, ranging from the Rajatarangini and Shakuntala to Dandin’s stories, were perfect, the Murthy Classics Library project pulled in over two dozen academics and scholars. That’s two millennia worth of great writing, and it fills a longstanding gap in both India’s memory of itself, as a forgotten past comes back into relief.
Mohsin Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Penguin) is about one man’s life, but, Hamid said in an interview with the New Yorker, “because it’s all set in the historical present, it could also be the stories of a dozen different people at a dozen different levels of society, all occurring right now”. Hamid’s Moth Smoke was one of the most interesting novels to come out of Pakistan in recent times, and this return to the country, in more experimental form, should be intriguing. Manil Suri imagines a Bombay emptying out under nuclear threat, and follows the slightly melodramatic story of Karun and Sarita, in The City of Devi (Bloomsbury). Khaled Hosseini follows the success of The Kite Runner with And The Mountains Echoed (Bloomsbury), touted in those chilling words: “a multi-generational saga”. Fans of Hosseini’s Kite Runner, however, have waited six years for this book; they won’t be deterred.
Pulp and fantasy
Among the best of next year’s pulp and fantasy fiction, you have the Unholy Trinity of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. Stephen King’s recent horror fiction has been raising the bar for pulp — he was practically literary in Lisey’s Story — but few of his books will have been anticipated as greedily as Doctor Sleep, which picks up the story told in his 1977 bestseller, The Shining. More controversial is A Memory of Light, the final book of The Wheel of Time, completed after Robert Jordan’s death in 2007 with the help of Brandon Sanderson. While some manuscripts have had posthumous editors/ co-authors, this is a rare instance of a co-author attempting to catch up and close a series — in this case, one of the most iconic fantasy series of modern times. Jordan’s legions of fans will be hard to please, but A Memory of Light should fly off the shelves anyway.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane begins with a narrator facing “primal menace”. His only defence are the three women who live down the lane: “The youngest claims that her duckpond is the ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.” Pullman seals the deal, with The Book of Dust, a return to Lyra’s world from his gamechanging fantasy series, His Dark Materials. Pullman said that while it’s set in the same world, it will feature other characters and scenarios. May his daemon shine on.
On the literary front, there’s an embarrassment of riches. JM Coetzee, who has a novel out in 2013 — The Childhood of Jesus —also contributes half of one of the year’s most anticipated books, a collection of the letters between two very private men, J M Coetzee and Paul Auster. They write to each other as fans, as friends, as fathers, and as writers. The Childhood of Jesus has the feel of a parable with its feet firmly set in the real world. A boy crosses the oceans, and makes a friend, Simon, before he arrives in a new country with no papers and no parents. In order to make their way in this new land, David and Simon have to learn how to live with a past history that is no longer of any importance; from here, Coetzee moves into an intricate exploration of childhood, a country distinct from adulthood.
A generation down from Coetzee, expect interesting new work from Chimamanda Adichie, out with a new novel, Americanah, and others. The title of Adichie’s novel comes from the Nigerian term for those who’ve been to America and returned with an accent and an attitude. It follows two teenagers as they meet and fall in love in a Nigerian school; one leaves, one goes to London, and when they meet again, it’s with new histories in a new Nigeria. Watch out, too, for Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives. Non-fiction written with the lyrical rigour of fiction, it begins with a profile of his professor, Nikola Koljevic, teacher, friend, pianist, burner of libraries, war criminal.
Jamaica Kincaid has a new work of fiction out, after ten years. See Now Then hovers around the inner life of Mrs Sweet, and the Sweet family, and their sweet-sour lives. “Writing isn’t a way of being public or private,” Kincaid had said in an interview. “It’s just a way of being.” William Gass, the thinking person’s J D Salinger, has a novel out after 15 years of silence — Middle C. Many readers and writers have built a shrine in their lives to Gass, but he had a slightly more dour view of his abilities. “I write slowly because I write badly,” he said to The Paris Review. “I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity.”