Readers Write In #318: Top ten books I read in 2020

Posted on December 30, 2020


(by G Waugh)

A Little Life by HanyaYanagahira

This was like something I have never read before and it lived up to the hype that BaradwajRangan had given in one of his essays. A dense tale that spans almost the entire lifetime of its lead, Jude St Francis simmers with marvellously observed vignettes and intensely moving events. Even if it appears to be a thoroughly sad story, the way Jude wades through life despite his physical and mental handicaps holding on to precious, little things that come across his way is only genuinely inspiring and supremely motivating. Any additional sentence I might add here might not only be a spoiler but also give this paragraph the appearance of a “review”, something which I refrain from doing for genuinely great books such as these. How much ever extensive and painstaking your review might appear for a “great” book, there will always be a feeling of insufficiency that might translate into a tiny pang of guilt for not having done enough justice to the book’s overall, unscalable“greatness”. This is one big reason I stop with this.

Circe by Madeleine Miller

This was my first brush with Greek mythology and what an introduction it turned out to be! Miller successfully translates the dense poetry of Greek ballads into deeply involving prose that weaves beautifully the author’s own, personal insights into the centuries-old story. This kind of writing which goes by the name ‘novelization’ of epics is similar to what Jeyamohan has undertaken with respect to India’s Mahabharata with Venmurasu and Miller’s Circe I am sure will satisfy every fan of mythology and stories of yore.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

David Harvey, a Marxist historian chronicles the origins of this century’s greatest phenomenon that managed to touch and affect the lives of almost every human being on this planet- neoliberalism (or Austerity in Western Europe). Harvey makes judicious use of statistics and economic jargon only to facilitate and bolster the story he narrates and succeeds in riveting us not only with the emotional heft of the narrative but also with crucial facts and trivia that leave us a bit more enlightened on dreary subjects such as economics and history. A must read for everyone trying to understand the world a bit more.

The Lanny Budd Series by Upton Sinclair

For those who love history but hate spending hours grappling with reams and reams of printed words written by professional historians, this one is a godsend. Upton Sinclair, an American journalist who identified himself with the ‘muck-raker’ bandwagon in the first half of the last century has written seven novels centering on a single fictional protagonist, Lanny Budd. The best thing about Lanny is his origin- his father is an American who is an influential salesman of munitions and his mother is a French woman, a model whose brother is a ‘Red’. He soon befriends people as different as a Brit and a German thanks to the place where he is brought up in (French Riviera) and this gives Sinclair an opportunity to observe the great historical events that shook Europe in the last century from various, thrilling perspectives. The narrative sprawls in all directions as Lanny grows up and develops more ‘connections’, some of whom occupy the highest levers of power and decision-making. Just like how Forrest Gump is portrayed to have been in indirect involvement with America’s greatest events in the 1994 film, Lanny is located, for most part of the narrative, at the center of last century’s epochal events such as the Paris Peace conference at the end of the World War I, the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany respectively, working class unrest following the Great Economic Depression of 1929 and the spread of Bolshevism following the Russian Revolution across Europe. The prose is brilliant to say the least, the characters are drawn with so much empathy and color and Sinclair doesn’t refrain from infusing his fictional story with information and facts drawn from his journalistic ‘well’ as well, all of which add up to make a first-rate series of political novels. I have read only two instalments out of seven, the last of which from what I hear ends with Lanny’s mission in the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin. I am still confused as to how this series went out of print, despite the fact that the third instalment, Dragon’s Teeth went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1943.If you know any film-maker who wants to make a ‘period’ series for the OTT platforms spread across continents and time that make for enthralling viewing for fans of history and politics, ask them to google Lanny Budd first and thank Jeeva later.

MGR: the Man and the Myth by K Mohandas

The title might be misleading but this memoir of K Mohandas, the chief of State Intelligence under the then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran is a fine account of a small period in Tamilnadu’s political history(1977-87). Mohandas is frank, well-read and apparently a man of principles and honesty. He not only paints a vivid portrait of last century’s most popular Tamil politician but also gives an insider’s account of what went behind the scenes in the state’s chequeredpolitical history, in simple and absorbing detail. It is a small book which took less than three days for me to finish.

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut

This is a collection of interviews given by my all-time favourite director Alfred Hitchcock to another great director who heralded the French new-wave of cinema. I remember Kamal Haasan describing his work in comedy as something which he took very seriously, “Comedy is serious business”. Similarly it needs mentioning that Hitchcock’s films which were masterpieces on horror, suspense and scares were born out of nothing but the man’s urge to have ‘fun’ with the medium at hand. Truffaut’s questions needless to say are well-researched and well thought-out and Hitchcock to the delight of the reader,doesn’t botherabout giving away his ‘trade’ secrets. It is a fabulously entertaining read even if you don’t remember many of his movies in minute detail.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Having never read even one book under the ‘erotica’ genre, I was tempted to pick this one. At the end, I felt a bit disappointed at the way this book has been labelled. Lady Chatterley’s lover is if anything, a meditation on last century man’s obsession with steel, smoke and machines and has literally nothing to do with its ‘erotic’ labels. Lawrence writes very intensely on how this obsession of man ends up squelching all his finer instincts for love, creativity and sex. As opposed to novelsincluding those of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina which tend to take a strongly ‘moral’ position against adultery and ‘love’ outside marriage, this one takes a radically different position with respect to the subject and makes us buy it convincingly too.

The Red-Haired Woman by OrhanPamuk

I am a big fan of Pamuk’s My Name is Red and this novel of him which released as late as 2017 did not have glowing reviews as much as the previous one. But I was pushed into picking this for one reason- it centered on Freud’s Oedipus complex, the same idea that drove me towards one of my Jayakanthan’sfavourite works- Rishi Moolam. Pamuk picks two stories from mythology- one, the story of Oedipus and two, that of Sohrab-Rustum rivalry and weaves a thrilling contemporary tale set in Afghanistan of the 1980s. It also examines how myths and stories that one grows up listening to, seep into one’s consciousness, congeal into becoming one of his instincts and drive his course of future action.

The Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann

With every page of political history I read, only one question keeps popping up in my mind with increasing frequency, “Why does even the most revered piece of imagined fiction come nowhere near the drama and intensity of history that actually happened?”

Alex Von Tunzelmann narrates the events that happened around the last few years of the British Raj in India with stunning insights into the various personalities that occupied the centrestage of Indian history. The story is both intimate and sweeping at the same time and little threads that narrate the personal lives of the Mountbattens, Jawaharlal Nehru and other top leaders of the time impart a rich flavor to the compelling narrative.

Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I am a big, big fan of Siddhartha’s Gene An Intimate History. I was lured by the scope and the prose of it that was intimate and universal at the same time.And having been introduced to the fact that the Emperor of Maladies was a Pulitzer prize winner, my expectations grew two fold. But somehow, somewhere I lost hold of the thread I had managed to cling on to in the first half of the book and from then on, I felt a slight dreariness with the subject as a whole. No doubt, this is a difficult and dull subject to deal with unlike Siddhartha’s previous work Gene, but I trusted in his ability to make even ordinary things sound amusing. That he does, to a very large extent though the same cannot be said with the whole of the book. As Siddhartha delved a bit more deeply into the subject, I could see many more facets of the disease opening up whose potential for exploration and dramatization appeared to be aplenty but a lack of sufficient follow-up slightly dampened my expectations. May be Siddhartha is not writing fiction here and I mustnot blame him for not writing about something that was not there at all at the first place.

But for those who haven’t read him before, this one will be one-of-a-kind and I can vouch for that. Almost all aspects of the disease, the science, the politics and the sociology are explored nicely and the tone that Siddhartha brings to the material is the rare one of calm resignation to the bleak reality of cancer and the danger it poses to the whole of mankind.Even for those who are not much interested in the disease and all its fine print, Siddhartha’s efficient and versatile prose is one big USP that gives value for your money and time.

PS: Incognito, the Secret Lives of the Brain written by David Eagleman and Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich were other great books I read this year. I wrote about the last one a few weeks back in this blog.