December 27, 2019 · books

Books I enjoyed this year

Winners Take All Anand Giridharadas

I first came across Anand Giridharadas in an "Authors at Google" talk on YouTube which was part of his book tour for this book. I remember that he was pulling no punches as he critiqued the neoliberal elite in general, and the tech sector (and Google) in particular, for their insincerity, or merely ineptitude at their mission of changing the world for good. The core of his argument was that those in the 'elite' who attempt to good, often fail to do so because they fail to consider solutions which might cause them personal sacrifice or loss of status. As a result, they contribute to the perpetuation of a system that continues to cause harm.

I really enjoyed reading the book because it goes into much more detail and retells many narratives that I have witnessed play out in my own life. The trope of the college kids who go to work for McKinsey because they want to do good in the world, but first they need to "gain a multi-disciplinary, global skillset", which often just turns into an indoctrination in how to perpetuate the status quo. Or, technology companies that claim themselves to be all powerful and benevolent, but reveal that they are only capable of building glitzy iPhone apps, not of instantiating structural reform.

I think everyone who considers themselves to be doing somewhat well in life, should grapple with the questions that are raised in this book.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I had come across many of these short stories before since many of them have been published in other places over the past few years. In fact, the first Ted Chiang story I ever read was "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling". I was completely hooked after I read the segment where the children in a remote village are being introduced to writing for the very first time and they can't comprehend why on earth there are spaces between the words when written down, because to them they hear language as one continuous flow - Chiang is amazing at finding these tiny glimmers of ideas that seem to have the explanatory power of an entire novel.

Aside from that story the ones I enjoyed most were "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", and "Exhalation". The former was captivating because it asks real questions about what fate is - what does it mean to know that a certain outcome is definitely going to happen in the future, and that there is nothing you can do to change it. The golden nugget in this story was when the narrator asks whether if he goes into the time machine and finds that he is alive, then does that give him license do act recklessly now because he knows he will not die? The owner of the time machine wisely responds: perhaps that is true, but perhaps a man who has such a disposition will go into the time machine and be unlikely to find himself alive in 20 years.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This was a funny, captivating portrait of immigrant (in this case specifically African immigrant) life in America. The descriptions of Ifemelu and Obinze's puppy love relationship in the beginning was very beautifully done, I thought, and set the tone well for the rest of the book. Ifemelu's life is so fantastically broad and varied that you get a taste of life at so many different levels.

I resonated a lot with the parts of the books that talked about how carefree the lives of the wealthy in America seemed to be, and how this became a major source of discomfort for Ifemelu - even as she was being invited into those carefree circles. I also liked that this book spent some time discussing visa issues, because it's a topic that is so significant (and impactful) to a huge proportion of the world's population, but very rarely talked about in literature.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihari

This was a difficult book to read, and in all honesty I am not sure why I put myself through it. It was recommended to me by several friends, and was billed as an interrogation into male-to-male relationships and friendships. The book traces the journeys of four, all-male, friends from college all the way through their lives. There was some incredible character development and beautifully told motifs of friendship, but ultimately I was overwhelmed by the more burdensome themes: self-harm, child abuse, sexual violence...

My Beautiful Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was told over and over again that Elena Ferrante "writes women incredibly well", and so I read this immediately after A Little Life, possibly in search of an antidote. This book tells the story of two female friends, Elena and Lila as they go through their childhood years and into their adolescence in a small town in Italy. I found it to be a wonderfully easy read, and it was quite joyful to travel along with the two characters on their journey.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I didn't enjoy this book very much and maybe I would benefit from reading other Ishiguro books to understand more what the hype is about. To me, it read only like listening to the thoughts of a few sheltered, angsty teenagers who didn't know very much about the world and so could only keep spinning in circles. The big reveal at the end didn't do a whole lot for me.

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