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MBRB Best of 2014: The Best Old Books

In which we follow a century old female detective and a girl named September

From fantasy to non-fiction and everything in between, the best old books we read this year

If you are a voracious reader, there are certain things that are a given. You will definitely have books spilling out of every orifice of your home, including places ranging from the microwave to the bed mattress. You will most certainly have an ever growing pile of unread books – and the Kindle only makes these tougher to track, and crack. You maintain a list of books to buy, which is meticulously culled from your favorite websites, publications, booksy friends and countless visits to your favourite bookshop. And while stumbling upon a 500 rupee note amidst the carefully assembled clutter of your clothes will make you smile, it will pale in comparison to the joy of fishing out the battered copy of a much loved book from the depths of your bookcase (or the bottom of the laundry basket).

For years, I lived in envy of those who have made a career out of reading books. Worse, I fretted about all the Classics and “Best Books of the Year” that I haven’t had time to read, or have abandoned midway. This year, I have been telling myself every year for the last decade, this year I will ensure that I have read the latest Mantel and Murakami and Mitchell and Waters and Gaiman and all the other awesome books that are published during the year.

But how is that even remotely possible, when I have also promised myself that I will read at least six books lying unread on my bookshelf (crying for my love and attention!), when there are days when the only thing I can bear to read is Neruda’s poetry or Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, and when my bookstores keep distracting me with several other books that I must read right now (you are also to blame, Amazon)?

You’ll find zillions of lists telling you about the best new books of 2014. But if you’re in the mood for some finely aged wine – some still in the flush of youth, others well preserved even a century after their creation – here is a list of the best old books that we read this year. Keep returning to MBRB as we look at some of the year’s most memorable moments in the world of books, pop culture, travel and more.

Where’d You go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012)

Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life

Bee “Balakrishna” Branch is a remarkably gifted 15 year old born to equally gifted parents – her father is a top executive with Microsoft, her mother a one-time architectural genius. She lives in the perfect Seattle neighbourhood and goes to one of the most prestigious schools in town. But just as she is gearing up for a vacation to Antarctica with her parents, her mother, Bernadette, goes absconding. Bee’s search for her missing parent reveals the true side of Bernadette and American suburbia. A delightful romp.

The Fabulous Feminist by Suniti Namjoshi (2012)

‘And what do you want?’, he said to the girl.

‘I want human status.’

‘Ah, that is much harder’, and the god hedged and appointed a commission.

We’ve already recommended Suniti Namjoshi in our Five Indian Feminists to Read. Whether you’re new to Namjoshi or a life long fan, this book is a must have for anyone searching for feminist reading with Indian tadka. What sets apart Namjoshi from other writers of her ilk is her fables – quirky twists on myths and tales that make you pause and think about gender labelling and discrimination. Think of them as Beastly Tales with a feminist twist, and oodles of wit.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance

The MBRB Editors don’t often read non-fiction, but anything on behavioural economics usually has us hooked. Daniel is possibly the first practising psychologist to win a Nobel Prize for Economics. He is also one of the rare academics who is able to distil massive research and complexity into something that a layman can not just comprehend, but also enjoy. Read this to understand how we think and how that impacts our actions and decisions.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them

Just when we were drawing up a list of 10 kickass girls from the world of children’s fiction, along comes September, the 12 year old from Nebraska, Omaha, who “disapproves deeply of pink-and-yellow teacups and also of small and amiable dogs” and loves nothing better than flying off on an adventure. Along the way, she repeatedly comes to the rescue of her new friends, and ultimately saves Fairyland from the machinations of the wicked Marquess. Valente gives us a modern day Alice in Wonderland with a heroine who would make Hermoine proud, while the wizardry of her prose gives us a shining new name to add to our Witty Authors List.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi (2009)

Why did I do it? I had no choice. The reason I do everything.

It’s become de rigueur for every sports-person worth her salt to write an autobiography (or an authorized biography), but it is rare to find the kind of honesty that Agassi brings to Open. That Agassi remained conflicted about tennis throughout his life, yet managed to leave behind a legacy that guarantees his place amongst the game’s Greatest Evers, makes this an even more fascinating read. Co-written with Pulitzer prize winner  J. R. Moehringer, Open is one of those rare books that is not just about a great man’s life – it is also a great piece of writing. No wonder it makes to our Sporty Books List!

Acqua Alta by Donna Leon (2004)

Non-Venetians thought of it as a city; residents knew that it was just a sleepy little country town with an impulse towards gossip, curiosity and small mindedness…

We’ve talked about crime fighters and their Sin Cities in the past, which is why we have been trying to lay our hands on Donna Leon and her Venetian tales for a while now. In Acqua Alta, Leon serves up the usual – a mouthwatering mystery and a suitably enigmatic detective (Commissario Guido Brunetti). But it is her description of Venice – living in a city that is the most visited in the world but has no motorized transport, the Italian way of life (alarmingly similar to India), the North vs. the South – that makes this stand apart from the regular Mystery fare.

Lifting The Veil by Ismat Chugtai (2001)

‘The world is also littered with filth’, I said in a feeble voice.

‘Is it necessary to rake it up, then?’

‘If it is raked up it becomes visible, and people feel the need to clean it up’

A doyen of vernacular writing, Chugtai’s genius lies in describing the everyday minutiae of various sections of Indian society, from the affluent zamindar to the poor charwoman. In doing so, she exposes not just the inequality that society imposes upon women, but also the two-facedness of identity based politics. Whether she is talking about the one-eyed Jackson Saheb or the homemaker Lajo, discussing her relationship with Manto and her elder brother Azim, or describing the court proceedings in the obscenity case that was brought against her, Chugtai’s mocking humour is never far from the surface in this fine collection.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

Bunty’s attitude to pain, or indeed, emotion of any kind, is to behave as if it sprang from a personality disorder

No one, absolutely no one, does dysfunctional English families as well as Kate Atkinson. Narrated by Ruby Lennox, Behind the Scenes traverses over 40 years of Ruby’s life, starting with her conception in York (‘I exist’, declares the opening line). By using flashbacks, Atkinson introduces us to Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice, her grandmother Nell, her mother Bunty and her two sisters, Patricia and Gillian. Along the way, she not only gives us a historical tour of one of our favourite British towns, but also provides a glimpse into tragedies personal and global (such as the two World Wars) and creates a fictional family to rival the Bennets.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1960)

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Anyone who has listened to classical music would remember a live performance that was absolutely perfect – an assortment of violins and violas and trumpets and trombones coming together to create what can only be called magic. The Leopard is not just one of the most important books about Italian history, it is also the perfect concert that every conductor and musician dreams out. Not a word is out of place, and every single word is just right, resulting in a harmony that gives a new meaning to the phrase “well written”. Forget the LP Guide to Sicily, read this instead.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard by Emmuska Orczy (1910)

My firm belief is that we shouldn’t have so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation

If you, like us, have a soft spot for Victorian & Edwardian writing, here is a new series to add to the canon of of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers,  Ngaio Marsh and Georgette Heyer. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard may not have the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot, the cold rationality of Sherlock Holmes or the charm of Lord Peter Wimsey, but she has enough cunning and intuition to outsmart any of these legends in a battle of wits. Aided by her assistant Mary Granard, who is also the narrator, Lady Molly is the one the Chief turns to when in a bind. We can’t help but applaud Orczy for creating one of the first female detectives in English literature -and one with oodles of chutzpah – at a time when women were mostly expected to blend into the furniture.

What are some of the great old books that you read this year? Tell us in the comments below, or share your recommendations Facebook or Twitter. And keep returning to MBRB as we look at some of the year’s most memorable moments in the world of books, pop culture, travel and more.

Image courtesy: Starzyia via Compfight cc

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