Thursday, December 30, 2021

My 2021 in books


2021 was a year of ennui. I discovered very late in the year that there is a medical condition that could potentially describe my state of mind through the year - languishing. 2021 is also a year marking a momentous change in my life, a change that could affect my reading choices for the next few years. Given the circumstances, I am happy to have read any book at all this year. I read 17. Towards the end of the year, I took up a Quixotic project to review every book I read this year before New Years' Eve. I failed my deadline, but I still intend to try and write about many of these books in more detail. In the meantime, here are some quick thoughts on the books I read in 2021.

I started the year with Pearl S. Buck's Kinfolk. This was my second Pearl S. Buck novel. Kinfolk did not meet my expectations that had been set by the first one I had read, but in its own way, it was a pretty decent read.  Kinfolk follows the Liang family as they grapple with the problems of being immigrants in America and of being outsiders back in China, as they try to settle back in their home country. Unfortunately the backdrop and the historical context is not as well drawn out as I would have liked. I wrote more about Kinfolk here.

The second book I read was Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Persepolis has been on my To-Be-Read (TBR) list for many, many years now and I finally got to it in 2021. Persepolis is a memoir of a teenage girl growing up in a tumultuous period in Iran -- the late 1970s and the early 1980s -- which witnessed a revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and a war. I liked Persepolis while simultaneously feeling that I would have liked it more if I had read it when I was younger. I wrote more about Satrapi's work here.

I have been wanting to learn about stock markets for a while now. Unfortunately, I find this subject dry. I found a very helpful reddit post with a  list of resources to learn Value Investing, starting with some books. For 2021, I can say that I made an honest attempt, without much success. I started my journey with Joel Greenblatt's The Little Book That Meets the Market. Greenblatt targets adolescents, and starts with a very simplified example of how stocks and bonds work. He then proceeds to provide an algorithm, which he calls the "magic formula". This set of steps, if followed diligently, has been shown to beat the U.S. market and a couple of other markets in a few academic studies. Despite the loaded word magic, Greenblatt's formula has firm value investing foundations, which he goes on to explain in simplified terms. But his magic formula is not something I personally have the patience or diligence to try. I topped Greenblatt’s book  with Peter Lynch's Beating the Street and One Up on Wall Street. The former is more of a memoir of Peter Lynch's time managing the Magellan fund at Fidelity, one of the most consistently successful mutual funds on all times. The latter is a guide on picking stocks. Lynch has some strong opinions on investing in bonds and mutual funds, and details the criteria he uses to pick stocks. His thesis is that Wall Street fund managers are at a disadvantage compared to the laymen while picking stocks, and with discipline and curiosity, a layman can consistently beat the markets. Lynch punctuates his writing with some wry humor, a lot of which is mildly off-putting. Peter Lynch's larger point is well taken, but I do feel that sometimes he underestimates the power he had as a fund manager of a very popular mutual fund to gather information that you and I can't. A more diligent reader would take notes and make much out of Lynch's advice, but I realize now that I have not been able to put into practice most of Lynch's advice.

I then moved back to fiction with Salman Rushdie's Quichotte. I had huge expectations for this novel set in the present day U.S.A. Rushdie chooses an ambitious narrative structure of a story within a story, with characters that are imagined, and imagine other characters. His writing is, as always, witty and stylish. However, instead of delving into the psyche of an everyday American, Rushdie dives into U.S. cable television listings. Quichotte entertains, but falls short of Rushdie's best. I wrote more about Quichotte here.

In "My 2020 in books", I had mentioned Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer - a terrific spy fiction thriller doubling down as a terse and piercing critique of the U.S.A. from the perspective of a Vietnamese-American. In one of the few promises I kept in 2021, I read The Committed, Nguyen's follow-up to The Sympathizer. The Committed picks up right where The Sympathizer ended, in a boat packed with refugees escaping Vietnam - the so-called "boat-people". This time, the unnamed protagonist lands in France. This is primarily so that Nguyen can now focus his sharp observation skills on the French, a nation that first colonized Vietnam, but whose people now consider themselves sophisticated in comparison to the Americans. The focus also shifts from spy games to gangsterism, drugs and debauchery, as a Vietnamese gang gets in conflict with a Moroccan one. The Committed did not work for me as much as The Sympathizer did, but if Nguyen writes a follow in the next couple of years, I would definitely want to read it.

I then read a couple of books for a diversity and inclusion book club at my organization. The first was This Is The Fire by Don Lemon. Don Lemon is a CNN commentator, and his prose is excellent as he writes about his experience of being black in contemporary America. Though Don Lemon's plea is compelling, I, without any skin in the game, feel a slight frustration that he does not go far enough. An American liberal needs to keep reminding us about the "greatness" of America to be mainstream. Coming from India, where the left is not bound to do so by nationalism, this is always surprising. My second diversity read was Isabel Wilkerson's magnum opus - Caste : The Origins of our Discontents. Wilkerson draws parallels between racism in the U.S.A, casteism in India, and the Nuremberg laws under Nazi Germany. She documents multitudes of instances of injustice in the U.S.A., and proposes caste as an overarching term for any systematic discrimination. Isabel Wilkerson's prose is extremely engaging and she draws memorable metaphors, which make it easier to get through her meticulous documentation of oppression across continents. However, she does fall into the trap of oversimplifying India. It is hard not to.

Apart from books, I also discovered Clubhouse in 2021, and spent an insane amount of time in the voice-based social media app. Not all of it was useless. I offered to comment on a self-published short story collection of an aspiring screenwriter, self-translated from Tamil to English. Relay Race was short, and most of the characters were well-intentioned. The writing had a hint of humor that was lost in translation. The second book that I discovered though Clubhouse was fortuitous. The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham is an amazing book. It is part travelogue, part historical document, describing a barrier created by the British empire to prevent the smuggling of salt into the Calcutta presidency, where the salt tax was kept inhumanely high. This barrier -- a hedge -- was comparable in size to the Great Wall of China. Moxham's writing is brilliant, and his observations as he travels through central India in search of remnants of a hedge that no one seemed to know about are sharp. Moxham's combination of studiousness and sense of adventure brings out a historical fact that was, strangely, overlooked by historians from two countries. I will definitely be reading more of Roy Moxham's books.

The Great Hedge of India was a minor detour from what was my project for the year - finishing Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I had read Eco's The Foucault's Pendulum in 2020, and was given The Name of the Rose (along with Quichotte) as a gift by an unknown secret-santa I was matched with in a reddit book exchange. I expected this book to take immense effort, and it did. The Name of the Rose is, on the surface, a detective novel. But this is a pretense for Eco to portray his immense research of 14th century Italy, where Christianity is beset by turbulence. The pope is in a conflict with the Italian emperor and shifts the papal throne from Rome to Avignon, France. There are theological debates on whether Jesus Christ owned property, and the debates are significant because Benedictine monasteries are getting wealthier. There are sects that put their side of the theological debate to practice, burning rich bishops and destroying property. There are also philosophical disputes on whether God meant for Man to laugh -- for some see humor as more dangerous to authority than violence. Within this context is a series of murders and an immense library set in the form of a labyrinth, with William of Baskerville (a nod to Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam, of the Occam's razor) attempting to solve the puzzle using logic.  Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is a postmodern literary achievement, and completing it is my humble personal achievement.

I generally don't reread books, but after we read the Caste, I proposed something related to my diversity and inclusion book club. Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla is a brutally raw read for Americans who do not have a lot of exposure to India, but I am glad I suggested it. I had reviewed it a couple of years earlier here. I liked the book the second time as well.

I went back to my bookshelf to pick an unread book, and I selected a short one that I wanted to finish quickly. Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories is a short story collection by the Japanese Nobel Prize laureate. The first few stories, including the titular one, are excellent. I lost the plot with the so-called "palm-stories" that are very short, allegorical in nature and need some context on Japanese mythologies and folklore. Yasunari Kawabata is from the school of modernism and his writing is poetic; and it has always been a struggle for me to understand both.

I went completely out of my TBR list with Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, a horror thriller set in the 1960s U.S.A. I enjoyed learning about the pop cultural references from half-century ago. Rosemary's Baby had a weirdly fascinating climax that worked for me. I followed Rosemary's Baby with one another book that has been on my TBR for many years now - Aldous Huxley's The Brave New World. The book edition I read comes with a foreword by Cristopher Hitchens, and the long essay called the Brave New World Revisited written by the author himself more than 30 years since the publication of his dystopian novel. Reading all three together, I was not able to separate Huxley's problematic views on race and eugenics from his book of ideas. Despite Huxley's astute observations on how distraction and happiness are potent weapons for a fascist dictator, The Brave New World did not work for me. 

I ended the year with another book picked by the diversity and inclusion group at my organization. The group was reeling from the impact of Caste and Ants Among Elephants, and decided to go with fiction. Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino stories by Julian Herbert is a collection of short stories, with the titular story being more of a novella. The stories are set in Mexico or deal with Mexican characters, and like the list of books I read this year, it is hard to categorize the stories. They are postmodern, and extremely well-written. The titular story is narrated by a film reviewer who is kidnapped by a dangerous cartel boss desiring to assassinate Quentin Tarantino. We get a summary of the narrator's masters thesis on the subjects of literary review, with a focus on Shakespeare and Tarantino, intercut with violence and intrigue. The other stories are equally fascinating, with unreliable narrators, elements of magical realism, a lot of absurdity, and humor. I especially loved a story about a half-eaten croissant left on a German train seat. I do not think I completely understood a few stories from this collection, but Julian Herbert is a fascinating author I would explore more.

And that's about it. Goodreads tells me that I read about 4200 pages this year. That is nothing to be proud of, but I will take it. I am happy to be reading at all. Here is a Goodreads summary of the books I read this year, with the original picture used above.

Wish you all a great new year and happy reading.

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