Another disappointingly short list of books I read in 2017.
The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad
Prashad rips into the immigrations system in the U.S. that value immigrant labour but not their lives. Considering how the Trump immigration is limiting immigrants from bringing over their families and making it impossible for spouses of those on work permits to work themselves, this book is as timely now as when it was published in 2001. One bit that I found interesting was how he talked about how the Left values multiculturalism - which, in his view, boils down to different cultures stagnating in silos. I tend to agree with this view, though I need to refine my thinking on the delineations between cultural appropriation, ‘assimilation’, and cultural intertwining. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re desi.
For 2018, I have The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South by Prashad on my reading list.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami first and fell in love. His writing is solid and simple but the world he creates is ethereal and enigmatic. Then I read 1Q84 which seemed like a confusing mess of unresolved mysteries. Kafka on the Shore was just more of the same. Murakami said on Kafka that it “contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.”
I’m glad he knows what it’s about because I’m pretty sure no one else does. I still love his writing though - On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Saturday Morning is one of my favourite short stories.
Deep Work by Cal Newport
I’ve been feeling unmotivated at work recently (something this book hasn’t cured) because I haven’t felt any passion for my work. Newport suggests that to following one’s passion is not the way to fix this feeling - rather, becoming good at the job you’re in leads to satisfaction (I agree with this in theory, but it’s really hard to put into practice). He suggests that one should focus on doing Deep Work - intense focus on a few things.
There are many suggestions in the book that are summarized well elsewhere, but some things I’m going to put into practice in 2018 are to minimize internet-related hobbies and focus on a few very important goals (and cull the remainder of your interests mercilessly).
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
A really tiny book that states the obvious (still worth a read). I haven’t read any of Adichie’s work yet, but I loved her TED talk on the danger of a single story.
In 2018, I plan to read Americanah by Adichie.
The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
The Great Railway Bazaar by Theroux was the book that got me hooked on travel writing, trains, and Theroux. This books reads like a sequel-ish to Dark Star Safari which was also an overland journey through bits of Africa. In this book, he travels up the from South Africa to Namibia and Angola. He’s tired in this book and it shows in the despair he feels at the poverty and corruption. But this is overwhelmingly a foreigner’s take on Africa - a white person’s take. I’m wary of taking the word of a person who visits the continent after a decade and wonders why so many problems still exist. Yes, he lived and taught in Uganda and Mali for a long time and there’s a glint of self awareness at the end, but it’s not enough. There’s a bit in the book where he visits Angola and asks if the local writer’s group would like him to give a lecture. When they refuse, he’s aghast at their lack of curiosity. But what could he teach them about writing about their own stories. The arrogance of it all.
This year I’m going to try and read travel writings by people who are from the country they write about. Enough with the tourist accounts.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Grann is one of the best magazine writers I’ve read (Lost City of Z is amazing). Grann writes about how the Osage, a native American tribe, were duped and murdered over the headrights to oil rich land and how the precursor to the FBI helped investigate these murders. An astonishing, depressing book that can be summarized by me backing slowly away from every white person I meet.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A classic. It’s my first Vonnegut book and I’m really sad it’s the last book I read this year. It got me back in touch with the vicarious thrill of reading just for pleasure.
Another thing that I’ve gotten really into this year is chess. I’ve forgotten how much I enjoyed the game (and how bad I was at it). With YouTube, it’s so easy to get good instruction now. The two channels I’ve been obsessing over this year are:
A brilliant and prolific summarizer of some of the great chess games. One of the best ways to learn is by watching the games of masters and Antonio is great at summarizing the ideas behind certain moves and tactics.
Simon Williams, the Ginger GM
Williams is a British grandmaster and he has several videos where he narrates his thoughts while playing blitz chess in a (seemingly) never-ending quest to regain his 2600 rating on chess.com. He’s funny and a great teacher. I can’t move my h-pawn without hearing his voice saying “Harry!” in my head.
In 2018, I’m hoping to read at least two chess books to improve my game. I’m starting with Logical Chess by Irving Chernov, followed by My System by Aron Nimzowitsch and Lou Hays.