Books & arts

On the Shelf

The year 2020 saw, among many pandemic-induced challenges, food shortage, job loss, mental health crisis and even rise in crimes. However, writers continue to offer us opportunity for escape in literature. From the ones by former presidents and social media influencers, On The Shelf lists some of the most memorable books from 2020.

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar 

Imagine being judged for who you are and never fitting in your own country. Imagine being hated and unwanted simply for being different. In his latest book Homeland Elegies, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar provides a stunning narrative on a Muslim immigrant family’s struggle to achieve the American dream post-9/11. In the midst of fiction and family drama, the author makes a cultural analysis of contemporary America with its “us vs. them” mentality, where immigrants are frequently viewed with suspicion and distrust. This remarkable fusion of fiction and history reads like a collection of essays on capitalism, American political beliefs, religion, the struggles and inferiority born from being a part of the minority.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“I would never fully rid myself of the sense of reverence I felt whenever I walked Into the Oval Office, the feeling that I entered not an office, but a sanctum of democracy. Day after day it comforted and fortified me, reminding me of the privilege of my burdens and my duties.”

A memoir that recounts a newly inaugurated President’s awe of the Oval Office at White House, inheriting an economic crisis, introducing the Affordable Care Act and reflecting on the morality of unity through killing a terrorist – A Promised Land is the first instalment of The Presidential Memoirs of the former U.S. President Barack Obama. The book chronicles Obama’s life from childhood till his first term as the U.S. President and ends at Operation Neptune Spear of May 2011. The narrative is retrospective and self-reflective as Obama writes about his considerations and regrets behind his domestic and foreign policies. That the former president is a skilled orator has never been in doubt, but how he tells us the story behind his presidency interspersed with the glimpses of a devoted family man – makes A Promised Land truly extraordinary. 

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The winner of the Man Booker Prize 2020, Shuggie Bain is the story of a young boy in Thatcher-era Scotland. The novel is about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. Agnes falls into a cycle of alcoholism and sobriety after being abandoned by her partner and later, her children. An already neglected Shuggie is abandoned by his siblings as they leave and entrust him with caring for Agnes. Stuart portrays a boy torn between his love for his mother and watching her fall deeper into addiction and despair. Amidst bullying and abuse, Shuggie grapples with his identity when he does not fit in with the traditional ideals of masculinity. Set in a time when harsh economic policies were ending livelihoods, Shuggie Bain is a tale that is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

The Price Of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary Carter. 

If there was ever an economist to read about amidst an economic crisis and a global pandemic, it would be John Maynard Keynes. Zachary Carter’s phenomenal biography offers the readers a view into the life of the British economist, the various roles Keynes has played during his life as an intellectual, philosopher and statesman. Despite the dichotomies found in his complex personality, Keynes was a pivotal figure in economic history who left his mark with – his work in the Treasury, managing financial crises during World War I, efforts to detract Britain from the Gold Standard, negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, challenging the status quo with The General Theory, and establishing a new monetary system post-World War II. As the narrative progresses from the facets of Keynes’ life to the relevance of Keynesian economics in modern policymaking, Carter keeps the readers enthralled with his fast-paced storytelling. 

The Discomfort Of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Translated by Michele Hutchison.

How do you keep yourself together when you are bursting at the seams? The winner of the Booker International Prize 2020 brings to life the visceral grief from the sudden death of a son, a brother. Rijneveld’s portrayal of the world through the eyes of a child embroiled in emotional turmoil is phenomenal. The narrator is a guilt-ridden child struggling to come to terms with the death of her brother and her attempts at piecing her life back together again. This grim and gritty storytelling paints a picture of a family that refuses to acknowledge and articulate their grief, turns to increasingly unhealthy coping mechanisms, and the vulnerable children left neglected and abandoned.

The Story Of A Goat by Perumal Murugan. Translated by N. Kalyan Raman.

If being a woman means to sacrifice, then Murugan’s latest novel has captured the very nature of a woman. In this tale of a black goat, the author uses anthropomorphism, the concept of ascribing animals with human behaviour and characteristics, to write the biography of Poonachi. Through Poonachi, the author depicts the lives of women from their dreams and innocence to the increasing expectations and responsibilities that burden them. Murugan’s tale makes us reflect on the brutal oppression of contemporary India where casteism and communalism reign supreme. It is a commentary on social hierarchy, human behaviour and politics. An insight into a society where colour and gender-based discrimination is commonplace.

A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind The Honor Killing Of A Social Media Star By Sanam Maher. 

In this investigative piece, Sanam Maher writes about Pakistan’s first social media star, Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in an honour killing. The memoir covers Qandeel’s life and the lives she had touched through her work. While Baloch was a role model for the aspirants of the modelling industry, she was also a victim of cyber harassment and media controversy. Maher’s narrative sheds light on a society that was, in turn, obsessed with and reviled Qandeel Baloch. The book is a memoir of Qandeel Baloch and the realities of honour killings – the many victims and the inadequate laws.   

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