Tuesday, January 3, 2023

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I read in the previous year. In 2021, I had written about momentous changes to my life that left me little time for reading. The impact of those very positive changes continued, so much so that my only aim going into 2022 was to just continue reading, regardless of quantity. I managed to read 13 books. So while other readers (hello, Mr. Obama) spend time picking and organizing their favorite reads of the year, here are my brief thoughts on every single book I read in 2022.

I started the year with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. This classic American play is a seething critic of American capitalism and toxic positivity, but like any great story, this commentary revolves around an emotional core -- in this case caused by a conflict between a father and a son, both betraying each other in some ways. Despite it being written in 1949, I feel Death of a Salesman is relevant today, so much so that I compared the lead character Willy Lomar to Donald Trump in my review from earlier in the year. 

I came across Octavia Butler's name in a New Yorker article a couple of years back, and when I heard her name mentioned a second time in a book discussion forum, I was convinced I was missing out on something great. I picked up Parable of the Sower, the first of her abandoned Earthseed series, and was bowled over by the dystopian novel with an unusual protagonist, Lauren Olamina, who suffers from a condition called hyperempathy disorder. Written in 1993, Octavia Butler imagines America in 2024: a lawless region where climate change and severe wealth inequality causes an existence where violence is a way of life. Despite living in a walled community, Olamina senses that their safety is only temporary. When her predictions come through destroying her community, she is forced to lead a group of like-minded individuals on a dangerous quest. Serving as a backdrop is growing religious authoritarianism, with a popular right wing Presidential candidate spewing slogans such as "Make America Great Again!". Such was the clairvoyance of Octavia Butler.

My third read was a book I had no clue about before I picked it up. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears was suggested by a librarian because I love Umberto Eco's novels. I struggled through this almost 700 page historical fiction and regretted picking it up for about half the book. But by the time I got through it, I was really glad that I had persisted. The setting for Iain Pears's Magnum Opus is late 17th century England, which is a happening place, to say the least. The Cromwell era -- which started with a civil war and the execution of King Charles, followed by the abdication of Cromwell and reinstatement of King Charles II a few years later -- has just ended. It is also the beginning of the shift of Scientific renaissance from the rest of Europe to England, thanks to the presence of the likes of Issac Newton and Robert Boyle. Most significantly, there is intense religious strife, as Catholics, Royalists, Protestants are at proxy war with each other, while extreme puritans escape to the Americas. Iain Pears narrates a tale with 4 unreliable narrators. But at the center of all their narcissistic narratives is a young mystical woman called Sarah Blundy. For a long while, we feel that the narrative structure does not do enough justice to this wonderful character. However, things fall in place magnificently as we race towards the end.

I followed this up with Sidney Lumet's Making Movies. Sidney Lumet is best known for directing 12 Angry Men, but he was a prolific director working successfully across different genres. In Making Movies, Sidney Lumet breaks down the different aspects that go into making a movie in an extremely accessible style. Unfortunately, I had not watched a lot of Lumet's movies going into the book. Regardless, this was a succinctly written book that made me realize the many considerations and decisions that go into making a movie. I was blown over with Lumet’s description of the lensing techniques he used in 12 Angry Men to create an effect of claustrophobia as the jury's debates progressively gets more heated. Here is a useful visual description someone created on YouTube based on Lumet’s description. I have copious notes from this book, but I will revisit the book after watching a few more of Lumet's movies.

My next read was Frederik Backman's A Man Called Ove. An English movie adaptation of this book called A Man Called Otto starring Tom Hanks just released in the U.S., and there is already an acclaimed Swedish movie adaptation. After all, A Man Called Ove is perfect for movie adaptations - it is emotionally poignant and makes you smile and shed some tears. Frederik Backman's writing is lyrical and funny, and he sketches out some very well drawn emotional moments. I wrote a review of this book when I read it, but watching the original Swedish movie adaptation now, I feel I was a little too harsh on the book. 

Returning to tough books that take forever to get through, I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  It's been more than a decade now since I first watched Kubrik's acclaimed film adaptation, and I remember watching the first few scenes of the movie with horror. The payback was in the form of thought provoking questions the movie made me consider, forcing me to realize Kubrick's greatness as a filmmaker. Anthony Burgess's novella is a completely different beast. With most of the dialogues written in an invented dialect, The Clockwork Orange is not for the faint hearted. I wrote a lot more about Anthony Burgess's Pelagian beliefs and his own thoughts on the movie adaptation in my review.

My next book was a non-fiction - bell hooks' (lack of capitalization as per author’s preference) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. My first attempt reading an academic feminist text was enlightening. bell hooks' core argument is that black women face oppression through multiple avenues - from white men, white women and black men. This is essentially the concept of intersectionality, though the word was not in use when bell hooks published this book. My biggest lesson from this book was that when someone co-opts a well meaning word -- as white women did with the word feminism – a good approach is to reclaim the word instead of turning against the word. After all, feminism is a fight for equality (or even better, equity), and feminists, by definition, stand against all forms of oppression. More thoughts on this book are in my review.

My next read was probably my best of the year. In Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, I discovered a modern day great. I see a trend in many mainstream books critical of some aspects of America where authors, to some extent, couch their criticism in American exceptionalism. As a Muslim author writing about America, Akhtar does away with these formalities. The only concession he makes is in an overture, where he writes: "Every atom of this blood formed of this soil, this air". Once he claims the freedom of expression supposedly granted to all Americans, Akhtar allows himself to freely critique the American society, the Muslim community within American society, and his ancestral family back in Pakistan who wax eloquent about the western destruction of “culture”. But which Akhtar is the narrator? For the author choses a genre called Autofiction - a mix of autobiography and fiction. Hence, when Akhtar (the narrator) describes his father as a doctor specializing in a unique heart condition and Donald Trump meeting him for a consultation, I spent a few minutes Googling before realizing that this was the fiction in the auto-fiction. Ayad Akhtar's novel is intellectual, without being off-putting. Sample this sentence where the author compares his father’s gambling addiction and his slow disillusionment with Donald Trump starting from a place of glorification

Father's enthrallment with candidate Trump, first nascent, then ascendent, then euphoric, then disappointed, then betrayed and confused, and finally exhausted, a gamut of intensities whose order and range are proper to the ambit of all addiction- yes, a granular account of Father's addiction, his ceaselessly shifting emotions, his evasions and avowals and disavowals, the steady shedding of his civility, the daily obsession, the ad hoc rationalizations–all this might get of value to note, to show, and, in the process, through this unlikeliest of American Muslim lenses, to reveal the full extent of the terrifying lust for unreality that has engulfed us all.

There were some parts of Homeland Elegies that did not work for me. But then, I wonder if it was due to the the limited perspective of the narrator the author choses, rather than that of the author himself.

The next book I read was for a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity book club. It was "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition" by Anton Treuer. Unfortunately, I was sent the young readers edition, and ended up reading what I assume was a filtered version of answers to many questions that one might have about native American history, languages, culture and issues.  Nevertheless, this was a great introduction to a topic that I need to explore more.

I followed this with The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer. The title of the book is a translation of the Sanskrit word "Itihasa", which is a mix of "talk, legend, tradition, history". The protagonist, following the footsteps of his father, is a Sanskrit scholar. The Way Things Were deals with the tensions of an India breaking away from socialism to embrace liberalism, and the dangers of authoritarianism. The historical setting covers the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi; her assassination and the subsequent Sikh riots; and ends with the demolition of Babri Masjid - a fingerpost indicating the growth of Hindu nationalism. The core conflict is a son accepting and understanding his father, but there is also the conflict of a scholarly pursuit of Sanskrit and the history of India as opposed to a more reactionary pursuit that attempts to fit history in a pre-formed narrative. At the center of the later conflict is a "man without an agenda, without a tribe. A man willing to let history be what it was, without wanting to ram it into a frame which answered the needs of a particular group or faith or caste." I was at an extremely busy phase of my life when I read The Way Things Were, and I took way too long to complete it. However, that does not absolve the book of its problems - the repetitive parties and conversations where different characters take turns putting forth the author's view, and the amateur romance. Like with most books I read, I did feel satisfied with the ending. But I am not very sure if I would recommend this.

The next two books I read were Honesty for Sale by Koushik K R and How to Tell Stories and Other Essays by Mark Twain.The former was written by someone I met in social media and I wanted to give it a try. It was a very good attempt at a novel aimed to be made as a movie - think Shankar meets Michael Crichton meets The Family Man. The plot is fast paced, but the writing is inconsistent. The latter was a small book that did not hold much context for me and I wouldn't have continued it if it were not extremely tiny.

I finished the year with another non-fiction - Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann. This fast paced book deals with the end of the British empire in India with a focus on Lord Mountbatten, Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. Tunzelmann choses to highlight the drama between people, and argues that personal rivalries and romances played an oversized role in the hasty withdrawal of the British, and the chaos that followed in India and Pakistan. While other historians may debate this, it is definitely an interesting perspective. Tunzelmann has great wit and humor, and aims most of her acerbic lines at Lord Mountbatten - who is shown as a bumbling Administrator with a penchant only for branding and showmanship. On the other hand, Edwina Mountbatten is depicted with immense respect. The relationship between Mountbatten and Edwina, and the more consequential relationship between Nehru and Edwina, are the core of this book. Indian Summer is a very entertaining read. I, for one, was extremely surprised to learn that Lord Mountbatten and Edwina Mountbatten acted in a short film directed by Charlie Chaplin. Enjoy the movie here.

Ending 2022, I feel like I did not have a lot of agency in what I read. I could pretend that this was the reason I did not read as much this year, but to be honest, life got in the way. For 2023, I hope to be more deliberate in what I read.

Wish you all a very happy new year!

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...