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It’s that time of the year again. Everyone starting from the New York Times to your friendly neighbourhood bookstore owner is bunging “best of…” lists at you. “The hundred best books of the year.” “Best of fiction.” “Best of non-fiction.” “Best short story collections.” “Best romance novels of the year.” “Best horror novels of 2015….” Because so many end-of-the-year lists are vying for your attention right now, let me be quick to clarify: this is not a list.
This is an ode to a few books that I love. Their presence gives me hope. Their pages speak to me like the voices of familiar friends. I have read them and re-read them and discovered infinite riches between the covers. Were they to disappear from my bookshelf, I would find it impossible to find my way in the world. Nothing is irreplaceable, they say. But if these books were gone (or had never been written) nothing could fill the gaping hole they leave in my life. My debt to them – as a writer and a human being – cannot be repaid.
The end of the year is as good a time as any to sing their praises. So, here we go….
The English Patient: Each time I read Michael Ondaatje’s magnificent novel, the lyrical prose lifts me up and opens my eyes to the infinite possibilities of language. “Words… they have a power,” says the central character, and the novel in itself is the perfect embodiment of that power. Love and war, betrayal and faith, brutality and humaneness, memory and forgetfulness – Ondaatje’s insights into the forces that shape our lives are stunning. They inspire me to observe the human drama more closely, to understand it with greater empathy, and to look for meaning in unlikely places.
Bel Canto: Ann Patchett’s beautifully crafted novel haunts me for many reasons. A love story unfolding with the grace of an aria against the backdrop of a terrorist strike, Bel Canto is as much a mediation on an increasingly volatile world as on basic human impulses – love, hate, fear, selfishness, tenderness – that keep us alive. Patchett’s prose captures the beat of the human heart with exquisite skill. Bel Canto thrums with music – of the human heart, of language, of lingering operatic passages. Reading (and re-reading it) allow me to savour their depths.
Maps for Lost Lovers: Are the saddest songs are the sweetest? Are the saddest stories the hardest to forget? Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers plays in my head like a song I once heard and cannot forget. Aslam crafts every line in his novel with the meticulousness of a poet. His characters are flesh and blood entities and their stories seep into my skin when I turn the pages. Their loss is my loss. Their insights leave indelible marks on my consciousness. I am under their spell forever, for good.
The Hours: Michael Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf has taught me many valuable lessons on the craft of the novel. Cunningham “digs out beautiful caves” behind his characters and reveals their depths with slow, measured steps. The stories of three women, set in three different time frames, intertwine with effortless grace in The Hours. Their voices speak universal truths to me.
Ragtime: E L Doctorow’s Ragtime reaffirms my faith in the power of the writer’s imagination. Blurring the line between fact and fiction, “real” and fictional characters march past me on the pages, gloriously capturing the twists and turns of history. Ragtime gives me the courage to experiment with form and content in my writing, and it continues to remind me that history is a rich source to be mined for a writer of fiction.
Wild Child: T C Boyle is a master of the short story and his collection, Wild Child, is a personal favourite. The narrators of the stories in this collection are often unreliable and the things they say are not the things they mean. To read between the lines is an art and Boyle’s prose lets me in on the nuances of the art with every read. His stories never shy away from harsh truths. To read them is to look life in the eye without flinching.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: Everything that can be said about Neruda’s poetry has already been said. It simmers with passion. It ignites revolutions and illuminates dark corners of the world. It is a tender love song, a soothing reprieve. A tongue of fire burning bright in the night. It inspires the writer in me. It sings to my soul, singes my heart.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).