A year in books: What writers read in 2019

December 29, 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, we reached out to some of our favourite authors to tell us about the books they read and loved this year and would like to recommend to our readers. Here, in alphabetical order, is what they had to say

Anam Zakaria (1971)

This year I mostly surrounded myself with books on the 1971 war and the birth of Bangladesh as I was researching for my latest book, 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. One of the books that left an impact on me was Yasmin Saikia’s Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh. The book focuses on what the war meant for women, powerfully bringing forth the human dimension of the conflict and the gendered impact of violence. Another book which I took away a lot from is Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound. The book provides an exceptionally perceptive and valuable ethnography on public memories of sexual violence. These, alongside several other instructive books on 1971 - such as Gary J Bass’ The Blood Telegram and We Owe Bangladesh an Apology, edited by Ahmad Salim – have left a lasting impact on me and my understanding of the birth of Bangladesh. They have enabled me to move beyond official memory as promoted at the state-level through school textbooks and other state-endorsed literature on 1971 to understand the nuanced experiences of people and how they suffered and survived the war.

Awais Khan (In The Company of Strangers)

Books are strange creatures. They lure you into their world and have the power to leave a deep impact on you. I read over fifty books in 2019 and loved most of them. However, there were a few that left a lasting impact on me so much so that I can’t stop praising them wherever I go:

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton: On the surface, it may look like just another historical novel set in Victorian England, but once you open it, you’ll find that you quite lose yourself in its pages. This book is about the Spitalfields silk market at the height of its success and about Esther Thorel whose life is irrevocably changed when she takes in Sara Kemp, a woman she saves from a brothel. This book is about the strength and conviction of women, how despite all odds, Esther learns to weave silk which sets into motion events that lead to a compelling denouement. Richly layered and atmospheric, this is a novel that stayed with me for a very long time.

Woman on the Edge by Samantha M Bailey: Take my baby. Morgan’s life is changed when a stranger whispers these words to her before thrusting her baby in Morgan’s arms and jumping in front of the train. So begins a race against time where Morgan must prove her innocence, for nobody is willing to corroborate her version of events. Woman on the Edge is a compelling thriller full of twists, but it isn’t just any thriller. It is also an examination of human nature and how far people are willing to go for those they love. It is a story of loss and depression but also, of hope in chaos. It is an unabashed look into the deepest and darkest recesses of our minds, of the power of fear and paranoia and how one mistake can make or break lives.

Bina Shah (Before She Sleeps)

Each of these books had an impact on me, showing me sides of the world I had never considered or been exposed to before.

Silence is My Mother Tongue by Suleiman Addonia is set in a refugee camp somewhere in East Africa filled with refugees from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Addonia, himself a refugee now settled in Brussels, plays with both time and morality, stretching them out and changing them, as neither can be the same inside the camp, to tell a moving story about desire – the desire for life, for freedom, for education, and of course, love.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi won the Man Booker International Prize for 2019 with this novel about Oman of the past and present. But more than that, it is a satisfying, circular tale of a village and its inhabitants, with some of the most stunning writing I’ve read this year, using the metaphor of planets in orbit in a masterly way.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a deep dive into the lives and loves of Black British women. Evaristo won the Booker Prize this year for this novel which is a part song, part poetry, using the voices of twelve different characters to testify about the composition of modern Britain.

Fatima Bhutto (New Kings of the World)

I read a lot throughout the year, so it’s difficult to narrow it down to a few books but This House of Grief by Helen Garner is an acutely observed book about a murder trial, the intimate, violent betrayals between people and grief. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keef were also high on my list.

Moazzam Sheikh (The Idol Lover)

My current list is prejudiced in favour of fiction. The non-fiction books which I feel like sharing are Greenhorns: Foreign Filmmakers Interpret America; The Philosophical Writing of Descartes; and Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, which explains why no one could do anything despite everyone in the top political echelons in the US knowing that the CIA was behind the murder of the two Kennedys.

In fiction, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved for a presentation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on the movie based on the novel and was amazed at the novel’s inventiveness with regards to language, its music and rhythm.

Confessions of the Lioness by the Mozambican author Mia Couto and Meeting with My Brother by the South Korean author Yi Mun’yol brought to light why American fiction, despite being good and all, doesn’t have the same depth. I am reluctant to put all the blame on MFA programmes.

The novel that surprised me the most was The Sympathizer by Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, a turning point as it announces that Vietnamese American writers don’t have to impose self-censorship when criticising America’s imperial behaviour.

The novel that perhaps impressed me the most was the Israeli author Assaf Gavron’s Hilltop. The thesis it posits is that the settlements by the rightwing Zionists and the kibbutzim, inhabited by left-leaning and socialist-minded, are not that different. Stolen land is stolen land. Zubair Ahmed’s Paani di Kandh was a delight to read.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar (Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab)

I read several books during this year but only a few of them have left their imprint on my mind. The first one of those was The Written World by Martin Puchner. Mentioning stories of Gilgamish to Buddha to One Thousand and One Night to Postcolonial Literature, the author seeks to describe how texts have formed our vision of the world we live in. Dozakhnama, Conversation in Hell, is a novel by Rabisankar, a Bengali novelist, that impressed me immensely. Ghalib and Manto – both representing their brand of modernity – are shown engaged in conversation in hell on existential, cultural and historical aspects of their respective ages into forming a holistic picture of South Asia. Man for Himself by Eric Fromm, Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons For 21st Century and Homo Deus were interesting reads.

As for Urdu books, I must mention Pari Naaz aur Parinday, and Tooti Hui Tanab Udhar by Anis Ashafaq and Asghar Nadeem Sayyad respectively. Of books featuring short stories that I happened to read, Masood Ashar’s Sawal Kahani and Hameed Shahid’s Saans Lainay Mein Dard Hota Hae are worth mentioning. Urdu translation of Alys Faiz’s autobiography Kab Yaad Men Tera Saath Nahi also made an unforgettable impression on my mind. Ikarmullah’s autobiography Jahan-e-Guzran is another book that I would love to read repeatedly.

Sana Munir (Unfettered Wings)

A good book to me is one that takes me to new places or one that helps me learn about human nature, history and/or tells stories of women, irrespective of genre.

For 2019, my favourite books, include, We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age Of Discontent by Nesrine Malik, which discusses at length, the falsehood of the current mythical discourse. Argumentative and robust in style, Malik does justice in ‘challenging’ and ripping apart the myths of gender equality, political correctness, altering history, the myth of free speech, identity politics and the need for a reliable voice in today’s narrative building and everyday discourse. Malik’s recollection of her African childhood resonated with mine, so the book became more relatable.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali by Uzma Aslam Khan takes the reader to the pristine Andaman Islands to recollect a disturbing history of the island that housed a prison used by the British first, and the Japanese later. The horrifying tales of the inmates are in comparison against the beauty of the Andaman, where parts of the prison still stand as a memorial. The story of Nomi and prisoner 218D touched my heart and they both stay there.

Next, Sanam Maher’s biography of Qandeel Baloch, A Woman Like Her, reads as a critical commentary of the Pakistani society and makes the reader go into retrospect, question themselves, to find answers in empathy.

Lastly, Navid Shahzad’s debut, Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television and The Rise Of The Muslim Hero, explores the intricacies of Turkish politics and culture, the connection of literary [English] and screen [Turkish] narratives, misrepresentation in media and the subsequent rise of the Turkish hero/drama as a success story.

My educational background in screen narratives and English literature, both made this book a joyous read.

Sara Naveed (Undying Affinity)

Thanks to Faiza Sultan Khan’s Instagram feed, I came across this incredible book, The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa. The young and ambitious female protagonist of this book—Bontle Tau had me in awe all along. I couldn’t help but grin at the way she behaves and talks to people. How impressive her character arc is. The book was a page-turner for me only because of Bontle Tau.

I was fortunate to have won a signed copy of Verity from one of my favourite authors of all times—Colleen Hoover.

This is the first time she stepped into the romance psychological thriller genre and I must say she impressed me right off the bat. Everything about the book is amazing, right from the immersive plot to the mysterious characters to the spellbinding twists and turns.

It was only because of this book that I mustered up the courage to explore the genre myself. Currently, I’m working on a romance psychological thriller and I hope it can be as good as Hoover’s. (sigh!)

Soniah Kamal (Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan)

My huge-impact-on-me fiction read yet again is the short story anthology Angaray published in 1932 India, especially Sajjad Zaheer’s story A Vision of Heaven where a priest has an odd dream and Ahmed Ali’s story A Night of Winter Rain where the protagonist questions God. Both remain essential reads for building a tolerant Pakistan. I taught creative writing at Emory this year and assigned a wealth of short stories from around the world with an eye to universality across eras and cultures. Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s quietly devastating story, Lullaby, addresses imperial power and finding a home in the absence of linguistic history.

African American Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, told with such wit, explores identity through an heirloom quilt and whether it belongs to the sibling who leaves home or the sibling who stays home. I love pairing Chinese writer Bi Shumin’s 1992 story Broken Transformers with French writer Guy de Maupassant’s 1884 story The Necklace. Both tenderly expose the loss of innocence and show that human is human no matter time or nationality.

A favourite laugh-out-loud story for me was British writer Nick Hornby’s Nipple Jesus in which a bouncer turned museum security guard comes to terms with himself as he watches over, let’s call it, a naughty art exhibition. Apart from these short stories, Iraqi-American writer Huda Al-Marashi’s memoir, First Comes Marriage, is a smart, fun and bravely candid exploration of her nuptials in terms of arranged marriage, settling, expectations and what that means for the story that is falling in love.

Sanam Maher (A Woman Like Her)

I started the year with Fatima Bhutto’s New Kings of the World - because of restrictions on books from India, its release was delayed in Pakistan, but it is finally available this month - and it is a thoroughly researched, clever look at how Bollywood, K-Pop and Turkish dramas are challenging America’s hold on pop culture around the world. It’s not often that you’ll get to read the kind of in-depth interview with Shahrukh Khan this book has.

I’ll read anything by Leslie Jamison, so getting a collection of essays, Make it scream, make it burn, was a highlight. Read her essay on motherhood in The Atlantic for a taste of how envy-inducing I find her writing. I loved Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, a funny, beautifully written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Afghanistan.

I finally read Rafia Zakaria’s Veil for research and regretted not coming to it sooner - it’s a concise examination of the power and provocation of the hijab and burqa.

I’ve just picked up The Best American Food Writing in 2019. This diverse collection is edited by Samin Nosrat and I loved reading about her method of choosing which writers made the cut and how she ensured that the collection was as representative of contemporary American food culture as possible.

A standout piece for me was Mark Arax’s A kingdom from Dust - I wouldn’t have thought that you could make a piece about water and agriculture gripping, but I was so wrong.

Taha Kehar (Typically Tania)

Throughout 2019, the pile of books on my nightstand gradually grew into a tower. The books that stood out were either quietly moving tales set in the South Asian context or fast-paced adventures loaded with mordant wit.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s novel Nayak: The Hero, which is based on Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s 1966 masterpiece, offers a point of access to a movie that has become a Bengali classic. Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger skillfully conveys the pathos of a protagonist who makes the voyage between different cultures. Electric Shadows, an utterly enchanting collection of Hussein’s selected stories that I frequently revisited throughout the year, depicts the many flavours of love, loss and life. Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape is another collection of heartwarming stories that I dived into in 2019. The chilling climax of her story Sandalwood still haunts me.

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters has all the necessary ingredients of a book you can curl up with on a vacation. It also raises pertinent points about the challenges women face when they travel.

I came across Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels after the eponymously titled miniseries appeared on Netflix in June. Written with a Dickensian flair for storytelling, Maupin’s novels represent the exciting ways in which San Francisco has transformed through the decades. My favourite novel in the series is Michael Tolliver Lives which deftly uses the first-person account to explore the painful side of urban nostalgia.

A year in books: What Pakistani writers read in 2019