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Best book you read in 2009?

I had the chance to read so much good crap this year that I found it hard to choose just one book. So here are my top three, in no particular order…

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The White Tiger | Aravind Adiga

I found this book randomly searching the B&N site for fiction novels about India, as I’ve taken particular interest in the country over the past few years and wanted to learn more. (Poring over a Wikipedia page or a dusty tome of South Asian history probably would have done the trick, but this seemed more fun.) I think Aravind Adiga has unearthed a gold mine of meaningful perspectives and insights here. Balram, the main character who straddles the fence between the country’s dual worlds of destitution and privilege, can almost been seen, I think, as a personification of modern India. The complexity of his moral dilemmas make it impossible to jump to hasty conclusions about India’s societal problems, or what could be done to solve them. The emergence of a “New India” as portrayed in the book — the perpetual construction of American-style shopping malls in Delhi and the explosive growth of the outsourced IT support industry in Bangalore — invites concerned skepticism about such “advancements” and the non-monetary costs that might be associated with them. Ambivalence is everywhere in this book, even in Balram’s character. You can’t decide whether you’re rooting for him or not, as he simultaneously inhabits the roles of both whistle-blower and eager participant in India’s notoriously corrupt systems.

Amazon review:

A brutal view of India’s class struggles is cunningly presented in Adiga’s debut about a racist, homicidal chauffeur. Balram Halwai is from the Darkness, born where India’s downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot. Balram manages to escape his village and move to Delhi after being hired as a driver for a rich landlord. Telling his story in retrospect, the novel is a piecemeal correspondence from Balram to the premier of China, who is expected to visit India and whom Balram believes could learn a lesson or two about India’s entrepreneurial underbelly. Adiga’s existential and crude prose animates the battle between India’s wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his employers (or, more appropriately, masters). His personal fortunes and luck improve dramatically after he kills his boss and decamps for Bangalore. Balram is a clever and resourceful narrator with a witty and sarcastic edge that endears him to readers, even as he rails about corruption, allows himself to be defiled by his bosses, spews coarse invective and eventually profits from moral ambiguity and outright criminality. It’s the perfect antidote to lyrical India.

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The Great Divorce | C. S. Lewis

Three. That, I believe, is the number of times I’ve tried to read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and failed. Each time, I’ve been deterred by Lewis’ fondness for lofty English, not to mention those sentences that go on for half a page — the ones you have to re-read three or four times before understanding. But a few months back, I glanced through the copy of The Great Divorce that Drea was reading at the time. Noting it’s brevity and apparent readability, I decided to give it a shot, and couldn’t be happier I did.

This is an allegory of the afterlife, as the narrator travels (by bus of all things) through Hell and Heaven. Lewis uses some captivating imagery — a Grey Town whose inhabitants live a bored half-existence, and the High Countries (tourists welcome) where the textures are so real and the light so brilliant that most visitors don’t stay long on account of the acclimatization process. Probably the greatest argument Lewis makes throughout is the notion that our daily choices and struggles have more bearing on the afterlife than we realize. As important (if not more) as getting theology correct is how we treat others and respond to life’s everyday situations, as these behaviors indicate the heart’s deeper condition and the way we view God.

Amazon review:

The Great Divorce is C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy: the narrator bears strong resemblance to Lewis (by way of Dante); his Virgil is the fantasy writer George MacDonald; and upon boarding a bus in a nondescript neighborhood, the narrator is taken to Heaven and Hell. The book’s primary message is presented with almost oblique tidiness — “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” However, the narrator’s descriptions of sin and temptation will hit quite close to home for many readers. Lewis has a genius for describing the intricacies of vanity and self-deception, and this book is tremendously persistent in forcing its reader to consider the ultimate consequences of everyday pettiness.

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A Million Miles in a Thousand Years | Donald Miller

I’ve been a Miller fan since Blue Like Jazz, but this book has become my favorite of his. His evolution as a person and author are evident, as endearing honesty and quality storytelling abound; you know it’s going to be a great read within the first five pages. The witty, nonchalant feel of his other books is still present, but in a better way. He’s cohesive and organized in his exploration of “life as story”, and somehow makes the whole thing a lot of fun to read.

Amazon review:

Miller, the accidental memoirist who struck gold with the likable ramble Blue Like Jazz, writes about the challenges inherent in getting unstuck creatively and spiritually. After Jazz sold more than a million copies but his other books didn’t follow suit, he had a classic case of writer’s block. Two movie producers contacted him about creating a film out of his life, but Miller’s initial enthusiasm was dampened when they concluded that his real life needed doctoring lest it be too directionless for the screen. Real stories, he learned, require characters who suffer and overcome. In desultory fashion, Miller sets out to change his own life — to be the kind of guy who seeks out his father, chases the girl and undertakes a quest. Along the way, he comes to understand God as a master storyteller who doesn’t quite control where his characters are going. An unexpected bonus of this book is Miller’s insights into the writing process. Readers who loved Blue Like Jazz will find here a somewhat more mature Miller, still funny as hell but more concerned about making a difference in the world than in merely commenting on it.

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So those are my favorites. How about you?

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