Friday, December 29, 2017

BOOKS READ IN 2017. 44 books. 44 reviews.



1) The Story of a New Name - Elena Ferrante
I've not seen anyone write on friendship with such brutal honesty and rawness in a long, long time. 


2) The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Unlike Ayn Rand, this continues to retain the freshness, the brilliance, the sensitivity it had when I read it as a teenager. It's rare for a book you loved at your teens to still be so relatable and moving as you approach your forties. This book is eternal. 


3) Second Hand Time - Svetlana Alexeivich. 
One of the most powerful works of non-fiction I have ever read. It makes you despair at mankind's innate cruelty, and makes you wonder how it is that hope and humanity continue to survive. It makes you question yourself and the world you live in. It forces you to examine the society and country you live in. And most importantly at a time when intolerance, greed and anger are on a seemingly unstoppable march forward, it's a powerful reminder of where this journey inevitably leads to and chronicles the long term human cost with unflinching honesty and extraordinary compassion. 


4) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Elena Ferrante. 
Makes me feel that male authors should never write from the perspective of female characters or narrators. I don't think any man can ever capture this kind of emotional impact in a female character, this kind of clear-eyed, unsentimental examination of marriage and motherhood. 


5) 1991: How P. V. Narsimha Rao Made History - Sanjaya Baru. 
Not the most well written way to explore my hypothesis that PV Narsimha Rao was probably India's most consequential Prime Minister 


6) Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers - Tim Ferris. 
This is a life changing book if read right. I plan to keep a copy in my home permanently. 


7) An Unsuitable Boy - Karan Johar with Poonam Saxena. 
Very honest especially the parts on his childhood. 


8) The Story of the Lost Child - Elena Ferrante. 
Somewhere between book 2 and the middle of book 4 I started finding the plot points of the Neapolitan quartet a little predicable, the political narrative in the background a bit forced. 
But then I finished the book and I was blown away by the sweeping arc of the tale, over all 4 books. You need to look past the superficial political commentary and the occasional predictability. Because the raw human emotion, the ugliness and beauty of friendship and love, the brutal honesty with with she strips bare human motivations and feelings is nothing short of masterful


9) Khullam Khulla - Rishi Kapoor. 
This is like an oral history of Bollywood from its earliest days with a wonderful afterword written by Neetu Kapoor 


10) The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
This isn't a book a prose but of poetry masquerading as prose. A deeply moving poem about love and loss, one whose impact is magnified and multiplied by having seen the movie version recently. I believe that the books are almost always better than the movie versions, and this book is hauntingly and heartbreakingly beautiful, but it still isn't as good as the movie. In fact it feels almost like a companion piece that reminds me why the English Patient is one of the best movies I have ever seen. A movie that takes a magical poetic book and turns it into the most intense, aching, unforgettable love story I have ever seen.


11) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver. 
Behind the deceptive simplicity of the writing, this is rock hard writing, the kind I haven't read since Hemingway. It is raw. It is tough. It is powerful. It is devoid of all sentimentality. It does away with plot to describe a scene, a moment, a conversation and allows the reader to create a world, a back story, a narrative that shines a mirror on the world in all its brutal reality. This writing reinvents the short story. This writing is genius. 


12) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari. 
Barely 2-3 good original ideas (like imagined realities), nothing that wasn’t covered with much greater depth and insight 2 decades ago in Guns, Germs and Steel. This is reductive, simplistic writing.  The repetitive style doesn't help. 


13) Auto da Fe - Elias Canetti. 
With its dark humour and surrealism, this Nobel Prize winning examination of greed, ego, obsession and madness makes for uncomfortable reading. There are no good people in Auto da Fe.. just mankind in all its selfish, self-absorbed ugliness. It may seem parodic but it holds a brutal mirror to the reader. Disturbing. 


14) The Night Manager - John le Carre. 
A hundred pages in I was thinking this seems so familiar, it feels almost repetitive. By the end of it I was reminded of music. Just because the genre is the same, and the music feels familiar, it doesn't mean the album isn't satisfying. A new book from Le Carre is like a great new song from a favourite musician. Master! 


15) Payoff - Dan Ariley. 
Reminder 1: Never ever read a book based on a Ted Talk. Reminder 2: Ted Talks are overrated 


16) Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell. 
Genius structure. Big themes. Stylistic range. Humour. This book deserves every bit of praise it has ever received. It's like reading pulp fiction and serious literature at the same time. Extraordinary 


17) The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed The World - Michael Lewis. 
Thinking Fast and Slow is probably the book that has influenced me more than any other. So it's wonderful to read about the men that changed the way we understand ourselves and our minds. 


18) The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra - Manoj Mitta. 
Irrefutable proof of the miscarriage of justice that followed the Gujarat riots. But hey, this is India in the 21st century, a majoritarian theocracy. So no one really cares :(


19) The Last Temptation - Nikos Kazantzakis. 
I am an atheist but like My Gita last year, this book moved me immensely  and reminded me why religion at its best can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Strip away the violence and the divisiveness, and ultimately the core of every religion is always about acceptance, love and goodness. Poetically written, this humanises Jesus in a way that is powerful and inspiring. 


20) East of Eden - John Steinbeck. 
Not what I expected at all! I thought that it would be dense and a hard read but ended up being a beautiful, poetic and deep page-turner of a family drama. Writing that would have influenced everyone from Elena Ferrente to Jeffery Archer with a deeply empathetic understanding of human motivations and a lyrical ability to describe the beauty and hardness of life. 


21) What's Left? - Nick Cohen.  
I don't remember who recommended this book but I hate repetitive polemical books. So little to say that's new. So many ways of saying it again and again. 


22) A History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield. 
I wish the writing style was crisper and had more of a narrative rather than academic feel but this is the most comprehensive history of the Middle East you could ever hope to read 


23) The Sellout - Paul Beatty. 
Maybe I'm an idiot but I just didn't get it. Too many references to too many things. It's like David Foster Wallace. I find it hard to read authors who are so conscious of their knowledge and intelligence and so keen to showcase it on every page 


24) Looking for the Rainbow: My Years With Daddy - Ruskin Bond
This children's book is one I would like all my sons to read. A beautiful, elegiac, moving tribute to the father son relationship in a more innocent time 


25) Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance - Harsh Mander. 
A reminder that even being able to write this sentence is a sign of the extraordinarily privileged life I have, as do you, the person reading this. One of India's great conscience keepers, and yet one who in these times, is largely unheard.


26) A Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz. 
Hilarious, irreverent and profound. This is a philosophical, laugh out loud roller coaster of a book. A book that is bitterly satirical about media, consumerism and modern society. A book that examines big themes like death, family, individual identity and father/son relationships. A book of deep ideas couched in the funniest, wittiest writing I have read in a long long time. Read it! 


27) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - Arundhati Roy. 
Beautifully written in parts but struggles every time it tries to make a larger political point. Arundhati Roy works best when describing the personal and intimate with empathy, understanding and sensitivity. The moment she moves into making a larger point about political injustice the book loses nuance, becomes polemical and feels like the kind of ideological, imbalanced narratives much beloved of 21 year olds. 


28) Atomised - Michel Houllebecq. 
Classic French existentialist navel gazing. This whole thing of lonely, empty, depressed individuals looking for sexual thrills and some deeper purpose feels repetitive now. 


29) The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto - Mario Vargas Llosa. 
A Nobel prize winner does erotica but doesn't do it well. The surrealism seems forced and almost like Tinto Brass, the philosophising is dreary, and it's hopelessly predictable 


30) The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing - Al Ries and Jack Trout. 
It's amazing how 25 years later, how many of these laws still hold good! 


31) Fire in Babylon : How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet - Simon Lister. 
A few interesting anecdotes and good context but it suffers from the lack of a narrative arc. The loosely chronological structure that flips back to provide context ends up being a series of scenes and incidents rather than building towards a coherent point or narrative 


32) The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa. 
After a few chapters I was wondering why this novel is seen as such a classic but by the time you finish it, there is no questioning its brilliance. It surpassed The Great Gatsby for me in how it meditates upon a changing world and the move to a modern society through the story of an individual. Poetic, timeless and profound. 


33) Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande. 
Must read for everyone contemplating the nature of illness and old age, whether for themselves or for loved ones. Makes you fundamentally relook at the choices and decisions you make and your reasons for them.


34) The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda - Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman. 
Not the most well written but definitely the most comprehensive book about the rise of Al Qaeda. It's shocking how dysfunctional and uncoordinated the anti-terror initiatives were 


35) Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa - Haruki Murakami. 
I understood nothing about the musical aspects but I just loved reading about how a creative genius explores his art


36) Batman: The Killing Joke - Alan Moore with Brian Bolland. 
I'm still struggling to find graphic novels that do noir like the reimagined batman from 20-30 years ago. Another classic for the vault 


37) Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy. 
What felt halfway through like a Russian Jane Austen metamorphosed into a book of big big themes and ideas. Female sexuality, the nature of rural and urban societies, economy, love, jealousy, a changing social order and more! I wish there was more emotion in the characters besides Anna and Levin but there are moments where a single observation or phrase reveals character so brilliantly, you know you are in the hands of a master


38) Dear Life - Alice Munro. 
Alice Munro's ability to create completely formed characters of immense depth in a few pages or even a few sentences is unparalleled. This collection has her usual brilliance, spinning out short stories that have the depth, insight, fully formed worlds and poignancy that most novels can only dream of achieving. But even her own short stories don't compare to the four semi-autobiographical vignettes in the finale section. These aren't stories. Just fragmented memories from childhood, half remembered, with more than a tinge of darkness, and a hardness that's closer to Raymond Carver. Pure genius. 


39) The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan - Gary J Bass. 
The access to declassified tapes may shed detail on Nixon and Indira Gandhi’s mutual antipathy but this book lacks both geopolitical and military depth. It’s a salacious chronicle of personal dislikes rather than an insightful or revelatory historical book. 


40) Underworld - Don Dellillo. 
A modern masterpiece that will stand the test of time. It’s not just the structure because a story told backwards could be gimmicky. But here it serves to add depth to every character, a pathos, a sense of familiarity and recognition . This is a novel about America but it feels deeply personal and intimate, a story of individuals and families and communities and hopes and dreams. All told with some of the most beautiful prose you will ever read in English, writing that has both lyricism and hardness, with the smell of street and sweat and the dryness of the desert. Utterly unforgettable. 


41) Cosmos - Carl Sagan. 
I can see why this book was such a phenomenon when it came out but I wish there was a contemporary book that captured the wonder and magic of the cosmos in today’s scientific era


42) Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. 
This powerful, searing indictment of Mao is a must read for all the people who buy into the whole idea of the China being a political and economic model to emulate. I know that China is efficient and that its economy is not just massive but continuing to grow. However it is important to read this book to understand the catastrophic human costs that were paid to create this wealth.. death and destruction at a level that compares to the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. 


43) The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence - Martin Meredith.
The definitive history of post colonial Africa. After reading this masterful book, I just wish there was a companion piece that delved into the “why” behind the “What”, to help me understand why country after country in Africa betrayed its hope, dreams, people and potential in much the same way, like a macabre horror show playing on loop


44) The Captain Club: The Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams - Sam Walker. 
Fascinating book on how the single biggest factor that led to the greatest sports teams in history was the quality of its leader, but that the leaders and the qualities they had were very different from what we assume. It’s not a Jordans and Messis but the Pippens and Puyols who really matter 

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