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31 December 2008

Books of 2008

Hello again and Happy New Year.  I hope everyone enjoyed a lovely festive break …. I certainly did, and I even spared my family the threatened Christmas Day viewing of “Closing the Gender Gap.”

To close the year, here are a few thoughts around my favourite books of 2008.  When I wrote about this as a blog concept a few weeks ago, I was pleased to hear from Gary Bowker of Thomson-Reuters, a friend and colleague who edits a regular bulletin of news clippings on women in business on behalf of PwC.

“I've just been reading your blog and the reference to 'my books of 2008' led me to reflect on mine. Two come to mind immediately (neither are directly gender-related but both concern disadvantage and the pursuit of truth and fairness) - The Truth Commissioner by David Park which looks at a (fictional) attempt to heal the scars of Northern Ireland's past through truth and reconciliation; and The Home We Build Together by Jonathan Sacks who looks critically at the notion of multiculturalism and makes the case for integrated diversity within a framework of shared political values.”

Many thanks, Gary.  And, as an aside, remember that you don’t have to be a PwC employee to be a blog subscriber – it’s open to all, via the “stay updated with free email alerts” link on the top right of your screen.

Turning now to my own reading this year … in 2008, I read 104 books!  A legacy of much time spent on planes and in hotel rooms, I think.  Of those volumes, 88 were by female writers, which is a statistic that I didn’t actually appreciate until I came to have a look at my reading log.  It’s in no way deliberate other than, when I think about it, several of my favourite authors (Elizabeth Jane Howard, Anna Quindlen, and Nora Ephron) are female, so I do tend to zoom in on their new works as soon as they are published and then read around other suggested authors in the same vein. Sixteen of the books read in 2008 were non-fiction, and a couple of those are in my list of my Books of the Year.

So here they are, in no particular order other than calendar:

Austerity Britain by David Kynaston.  This was the first book I read in 2008 (a 2007 Christmas present) and, with the benefit of a year’s hindsight, perhaps it now reads like a modern day warning of what lies ahead of us.  It’s actually about Britain in the immediate aftermath of the second world war (1945 – c. 1952)  and provides a very readable overview of a time which feels far away in terms of social and economic changes and is yet within the lifetime of many.

March saw me reading (and laughing at) Jancee’s Dunn’s hilarious memoir, But Enough About Me. Jancee is a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and the book intersperses her anecdotes about life as a celebrity interviewer with tales from growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s.  Very, very funny. Top tip: do not read it on a long plane journey seated next to a stranger, unless you want them to think that you have some kind of unusual choking disease.

Also in March, I read America Unchained by Dave Gorman, in addition to having seen the documentary of the same name.  This is Dave’s story of his attempt to drive across America from California to the east coast, without giving any money at all to “The Man”: ie, by only buying petrol, accommodation and food from independent, “mom ‘n’ pop” operators and eschewing the likes of Esso, Best Western and Starbucks. It probably won’t surprise anyone who’s ever driven in the US to know that the petrol was the hardest element of Dave’s “gas, food and lodging” triumvirate to come by independently, and the book has some very interesting points to make about the branding and globalisation of corporate America.

In May, I read the first of what would become quite a large group of books featuring India and women from that country – this was Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, a book of short stories by a British born, now resident in America writer of Indian heritage.  Her stories have a melancholy kind of longing and wondering to them and feature characters who somehow never quite feel at “home”, wherever they are.  Absolutely beautiful writing.

A few weeks later, I picked up Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, a hefty novel set in New York which tells the story of Casey, an American born daughter of Korean immigrant parents and how she fights against the weight of expectations imposed on her by her family, her cultural heritage and her Ivy League education.  It says something for the quality of the writing and the plot that, even as certain elements of the really quite poor editing and fact checking were annoying me, I still read on and have recommended the book quite widely to friends since then.

In August, I re-read and then recommended on here - Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido, which I still think is not only one of the best novels written about South Africa but is also just a great story by a marvellously atmospheric writer.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer ought to win an award or two: not only for having quite possibly the most tongue twisting title of the year but also for being a wonderfully insightful novel (in the form of a series of letters) which explores a period of British history about which I (and I imagine, many others) was largely unaware, namely the occupation of the Channel Islands by the Germans in the second world war. And yet somehow, in spite of what I agree sounds like an unpromising setting, the book is wonderfully uplifting and witty, with a great deal of charm.  I was sorry to arrive at the final page, and even more sorry to learn that there will not be a sequel.

Two more books about India pre-occupied me as holiday reading when I was away in September. East of the Sun by Julia Gregson is set in the 1920s and tells the story of a group of English women who arrive in India looking for husbands.  So far, so chick lit, but the author’s skill is to take the story of what was known as “the fishing fleet” and tell their tales in a way which also tells us about India at that time.  And The Hindi-Bindi Club by Monica Pradhan is a modern day look at life in the USA for two generations of Indian women – those who arrived as spouses to their technical husbands in the 1960s, and their American born daughters. Pradhan weaves their stories with great talent and intersperses the chapters with recipes for the food she describes in the narrative – so you get a cookery book as well as a novel with this recommendation.

My last recommendation from 2008 is a memoir – One Drop by Bliss Broyard. This tells the story of both her father, Anatole Broyard, who revealed to his children on his deathbed that he was actually of black ancestry and had been “passing” as white for most of his adult life, and of the author’s reaction to this news and of her subsequent search for identity in an America where race matters and where even “one drop” of African-American blood has meant being dubbed “black” irrespective of appearance and racial heritage.

Finally, many congratulations to my colleague Bindiya Chopra of PwC in Gurgaon, who won the competition at the end of November, by correctly guessing that the common thread to link three of my blog entries was, of course, that they are the titles of books, namely:

Passage to India – EM Forster

Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri

Happy New Year to you all –



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