As I mentioned earlier, this was a year of tomes. Even though I finished with fewer books than in 2019, I ended up spending time on more pages than every before. The average book length was close to 350 pages as against 300 the previous year.
This was also where I picked books a lot more consciously and ensured at least 50% were written by women. Without much ado, the books list:
- ವಂಶವೃಕ್ಷ (Vamshavriksha) – SL Bhyrappa: Found it pretty problematic. On one level he wants to talk about intellectualism and the way of nature and the need to fight it, and on another he wants to push all kinds of traditions from the earlier centuries on people, right from Sati to child marriage. Even for the 60s when it was written, surprised this hasn’t raised enough red flags. I have no clue why people love this book so much.
I read only one Kannada book last year because of the pandemic and not being able to shop for books.
Fiction – Indian Writing:
With the mandatory disclaimer about Indian authors and diaspora writing, here goes:
- The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy. Set in rural TN, amidst the everyday caste wars and hacking. Loved the way she tells the tale.
- Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy. Quick short novella which almost reads like a stream of consciousness. Set in different parts of the world, and a chronicle of everyday violence in India when you show dissent.
- Trial by Silence – Perumal Murugan. First of the two sequels to his “One part woman”. This is the one where Ponna doesn’t die. Found it very stifling and suffocating in his treatment of the subject.
- A Lonely Harvest – Perumal Murugan. Second of the two sequels to “One part woman”. This is the part where Ponna dies at the end of the first book. Oddly, this was easier to read. The worst is over at the beginning itself, and things only get better as life goes on and time flies.
- Black Lentil Doughnuts – CK Meena. Was a reread. Had last read this in 2014 and loved it. Glad to note that I still love this book.
- The Space Between Us – Thrity Umrigar. About classes and their conflicts, set in Mumbai.
- White Teeth – Amrita Mahale. One of my favourites from the year. Set in Mumbai, 1990s, middle class family coming into money and changes everywhere, all through the eyes of well-written characters.
- The Far Field – Madhuri Vijay. Again, one of my favs from the year. This one is about someone in cushy Bangalore trying to “find herself” in faraway Kashmir. No rose-tinted glasses for life here.
- Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri. Many people make fun of her writing. Realised during the rereading why. By the time you get into the 3rd or 4th story, you can finish her sentences and stories. Sad to note that except the first story, the rest don’t stand the test of time.
- The Dark Holds no Terrors – Shashi Deshpande. Probably her best work among the ones I’ve read. Would need some rereadings to fully grasp the layers.
- The Unseeing Idol of Light – K.R. Meera. Like all K.R Meera books this one is also dark, with characters that mostly suffer through life making bad choices. What’s not to like? This one also happens to be one of her best translated works.
- The women who forgot to invent Facebook and other stories – Nisha Susan. Quirky set of shorts that can be read in a few days. Hope she has more to publish.
- Lunatic in my head – Anjum Hasan. Reread this one. Had last read in 2016, and enjoyed it a lot more this time. Definitely a mood novel, and am surprised she hasn’t written more.
Fiction – Foreign Authors:
- My Year of Meats – Ruth Ozeki. A documentary worker goes into the underbelly of the meat industry. Ozeki is always a favourite author to read and doesn’t disappoint here.
- Exhalation – Ted Chiang. His second set of shorts after “Stories of your life and others”. Doesn’t disappoint. As always, quirky and unpredictable.
- Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel. One of the longest books read in recent years. The size daunted me to the point of not reading it for years after buying it. The pandemic and not being able to go buy other books meant that I ended up finishing this. Definitely a rewarding book and worth spending all that time on. Hope to catch up on the BBC series based on this.
- Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage – Alice Munro. Good set of Alice Munro shorts. Typical and still surprising, but then the depth of human experiences is surprising, no?
- The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood. Story within a story, with a surprise at the end. Hard to beat Atwood when it comes to telling a tale.
- The woman who walked in sunshine – Alexander McCall Smith.
- Precious and Grace – Alexander McCall Smith. Books 16 and 17 of the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series! It’s been a long stretch from the 1st book. Glad to be finally catching up with the modern day versions of it.
- Animal Dreams – Barbara Kingsolver. She’s been a fav since “Poisonwood Bible”. This one is about the contrast with Native American life without getting too preachy. I still like “Unsheltered” most.
- Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier. Enough has been said and written about this famous novel. About time I guess.
- Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart – Joyce Carol Oates. My first of JCO, not much of a choice as most shopping was done through whatsapp and email based on what’s available. Good book to get started on JCO and great writing as expected. Hope to read more of her.
- Journey under the midnight sun – Keigo Higashino. Wanted to read an old-fashioned thriller. And an old-fashioned thriller is what Higashino does not write. This isn’t a whodunnit or whydunnit or howdunnit. You know who did it, and you trace their lives for the next 20 years through the dark underbelly of Japanese society, yes even it has one.
- The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead. About the Underground Railroad of yore which helped spirit away escaped slaves from the South to the North. This takes on a more realistic image with an actual Railroad. As always, there is a TV series based on it, should be interesting to watch.
Non-Fiction – Science and Data.
Ok, I added “Data” to Science from last year. Thing is, there are books which are mostly about statistics and systems which help you make sense of all the science and data around you. I didn’t know where else to put them. And anyway, these days even Science cannot escape data, no?
- The American Plague – Molly Caldwell Crosby. About Yellow Fever, how it swept through the US periodically, leaving behind hordses of corpses. And how they figured it out and got through it. I read this in Jan-Feb 2020. Little did I know how things would unfold the rest of the year!
- Should we eat meat? – Vaclav Smil. This was my intro to Smil. I wanted to see how readable he is, and picked a topic which I thought would be of lighter weight. It turned out to be a good choice. The treatment to any topic is exhaustive, pulling data for all ends to draw his conclusions. One of those treatments where you can’t argue much about cherry-picking. Hope to read more of him this year.
- Superior – Angela Saini. About “Race” science. Eugenics, if you will, and its strange history. And how it refuses to die down. Also looks at the concept of “race” itself, and how it helped justify the massive enterprise of Colonialism. Very fascinating read.
- Spillover – David Quammen. A favourite this year, for obvious reasons. Still remains one of the go-to books to understand viruses and pandemics.
- Rising from the plains – John McPhee. The third part of his “Annals of the former world” collection. This one is on Wyoming and the geologist David Love.
- The Age of Empathy – Fraans De Waal. My second book of De Waal who does research on chimps and their behaviour. This book is about him exploring the origins of kindness and empathy, and if competition is what defines us, as against cooperation and empathy.
- Thinking in Systems – Donella H Meadows. A fascination primer on Systems thinking and complexity. This was also a year where I ran into things like complexity, non-linearity a lot more than usual. This book was invaluable in helping understand many of the concepts.
- Calling Bullshit – Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West. About data and about detecting bullshit in data because there’s a lot of it floating around. A must-read to learn how to look at data being presented to you and draw your own conclusions, or at least know when someone is using it to bullshit.
- Scale – Geoffrey West. The actual title is “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies”. Quite a mouthful, eh? The last book of the year. He tries to find patterns in scaling, in mammals, biological systems, cities, economies, and companies. Quite fascinating to read. This was a prelude to Vaclav Smil’s “Growth” which I plan to read this year.
Non-Fiction – General.
As always, books that could not make it into either of the two categories. There are two books on economics here though, but that’s not science in any case.
- Sense and Solidarity – Jean Dreze. Dreze writing on a diverse set of topics, but mostly about India’s welfare state – the Food security act, ICDS etc. Good set of essays.
- Doughnut Economics – Kate Raworth. On a different way of doing economics where we try to pull people from destitution, but ensure that we live within ecological limits. Possible? Apparently, so. Incidentally, this was what put “Thinking in Systems” on my radar.
- Being Mortal – Atul Gawande. A reread. Had written a long review back in 2015 when I first read it.
- The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson. A magnum opus detailing the migration of people of colour from the South to the North, escaping stringent Jim Crow laws to the relative freedom of the North where you are not going to be shot at just for looking a white person in the eye.
Non-Fiction – Wildlife, Conservation, and Travel Writing.
- The Year of the Gorilla – George B. Schaller. One year studying Gorillas in Congo around the time of its independence. Fascinating study. Most interesting is how he notes down and analyses every interaction he sees.
- The Deer and the Tiger – George B. Schaller. This one was closer home. Studying ungulates and their primary predator in Kanha, MP. Detailed study of their habitats, reproduction, mortality, dominance, pretty much everything observable about chital, sambar, Barasingha, Blackbucks, Gaur, and then the Tiger.
- Eye of the Albatross – Carl Safina. Safina travels to different parts of the Northern Pacific tracking the albatross and its life. And along that there is also a catalog of historic activity in the Pacific, whaling, fishing and general plundering as ships moved about. As with most wildlife, history isn’t kind to what we have done to species.
- American Wolf – Nate Blakeslee. This is about reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone and how they have fared. It is a mixed bag, that while their numbers have gone up, they still face persecution from surrounding farmers and hunters. As with all books on American wildlife there is a fair degree of guns involved and it isn’t pretty.
- Wildlife in America – Peter Matthiessen. Details the history of wildlife in the USA over the past few centuries. As mentioned above, it isn’t pretty. Am surprised Americans even talk about conservation these days!
- Underland – Robert Macfarlane. This is about Macfarlane going underground. Into caves, into volcanoes, inside glaciers. Claustrophobic stuff.
- Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez. A meditation on the Arctic and ice. This was written in the 1980s and there isn’t that much lament over ice being lost, but you already see the scene being set up. Reading now, it reads like an elegy for what was. RIP Barry.
- The King and I: Travels in Tigerland. Prerna Bindra. Her chronicles of travel to different parts of India watching tigers.
There. That’s 47. For this year, already have a list built up including some of people I know and follow from SM. Should be an interesting year if I can maintain the intensity of reading.