As the world floundered from one crisis to the next, 2021 made 2020 look like a beatific year in Paradise. Events ranging from the bizarre to the bawdy rocked Planet Earth with an intensity that might have – arguably – induced premonition in the poor dinosaurs just before they were pelted into extinction by some obstinate asteroids gone positively rogue. While the Taliban were busy regaling the world with their minimally invasive methods of snuffing out lives, Jezz Bezos thrust himself into space enclosed in a phallus shaped rocket, all for popping a Skittle while dangling upside down, or was it an intrepid fellow space invader who was flopping on his head? Anyway the details do not matter. Glasgow ensured that the only one copping anything was the unfortunate environment which did not have – has never had by the way – any say in how it would be systematically and globally abused in future. Amidst all these, just to remind a complacent populace that a pandemic must not be demoted to the status of an epidemic without appropriate propitiation, COVID-19 decided that Christmas had come early by unwrapping a new variant. The WHO, in an apparent departure from protocol christened the variant by conveniently ignoring the normally followed sequence in virus baptism. Many suspicious voices felt that the move was paying unabashed deference to a Winnie The Pooh look alike whose name bore striking similarity to the Greek alphabet that was next in line to claim its rightful place in the virus chain, after Delta.
Yours truly’ s year was no exception to the collective chaos and confusion. In between waiting for a booster vaccine (unblinkingly staring at an app every day hoping that there would be a positive, no pun intended, update in status), and consuming generous swigs of Scotch, books proved to be a most welcome distraction. Come to think of it, booster, booze and books might well be the buzz words characterizing a year that has given the world more than its fair share of misery. So what did I glean from a century of books that I have consumed this year? Let’s begin.
2021 reinforced my firm conviction that most of the award winning authors are gastroenterologists masquerading as writers. This bunch of guys take accurate and disconcertingly precise measurements of the intensity of their reader’s gag reflex. The Nobel Laureate whose bleak book on migration I unfortunately (hindsight is not just 20-20, but a bitch as well), ploughed through this year, has as his specialty, an unparalleled gift that makes him wax vulgar on pee, poo and every other conceivable fluid emanating from and evicted by various orifices in the human body. I also learnt that while it is an admirable endeavour trying to broaden the horizons of one’s knowledge, plunging headlong into dense thickets of topics that are esoteric might prove to be mentally hazardous. Deceived by the completely innocuous title, “On Getting Better”, I realised I was heading towards the worst, when my parents started noticing manifestations of disquieting facial contortions and expressions. When they politely asked me whether the psychologist whose work, I was immersed in was also open to offering therapy for his readers, I decided it was time to part company.
There were some gems in between the obscure and the obnoxious. Patrick Radden Keefe’s magisterial work on a remorseless and powerful family that accumulated billions in wealth, while millions snorted, swallowed, and sniffed away, both their lives and the opioids manufactured by the family, was easily the best book of the year. If “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of The Sackler Dynasty”, does not sweep away every bibliographical award in the same vein in which “The Lord of The Rings” and Peter Jackson murdered their competitors, I would be more gutted than astonished.
Max Chafkin’s extraordinary dissection of Peter Thiel, the man and the monster was an absolute joy to read. When not finagling favours from a deranged President, the affluent entrepreneur was busy preparing for an apocalypse, by making alternative retreat arrangements on both land and sea. “The Contrarian – Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power”, is absolute value for money and also fodder for counting one’s blessings for not being a doppelganger of Peter Thiel. I urge all of you to look into the concept of “sea steading” – at your own peril.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and The Sun” is evocative of a paean to the symbiotic existence of man and machine. The selfless Artificial Friend (a euphemism for robot), Klara is so emblematic of nobility, that there compulsorily needs to be attached to every handmaid produced by Margaret Atwood, a Klara of Ishiguro.
Decadence, debauchery and didactics form the bedrock of the late Anatole Broyard’s “Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir”. Legend has it that Broyard suffered from such a severe bout of writer’s block that he never wrote a full length book after “Kafka…” But one thing is clear. There might have been very little to chronicle by way of either variety or quantity when it came to sex after this book, because it is laced with such exploits. Jokes aside, this is a hard hitting memoir of the counterculture immediately following World War II, a counterculture that made the much hyped about 60s seem like infants in squeaky clean diapers.
“Premonition: A Pandemic Story” has the irrepressible Michael Lewis painstakingly, humorously and elaborately trying to drive into the reader’s head the fact that the hastily cobbled Trump administration’s combined intellect was just a shade above that possessed by a posse of Cro-Magnon men running behind a mammoth with spears and stones. The book also demonstrates how America stood a fuzzy rodent’s posterior chance of besting the COVID-19 pandemic, unless the pandemic itself developed a sense of extraordinary altruistic conscience.
“Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for men” by Caroline Criado Perez brutally brings home to bear the loathsome fact that the word is still enveloped in a smug sense of misogyny and a nauseating logic of entitlement. How extraordinary contributions made by women are not even taken into consideration, let alone rewarded, while taking policy making decisions forms the nub of this book. Two such undeservedly neglected women are Maia Weinstock’s “Carbon Queen”, Mildred Dresselhaus and Ruth Lewin Sime’s “Lisa Meitner”. The two books pay stirring homage to a couple of women possessing enormous substance and scintillating genius and yet left to make do with an empty cupboard when it came to the Nobel. If it was the loss of the Oscars that Peter O’Toole was not bestowed one, it was the Nobel’s ill luck that they were never held by both these stalwarts.
When Elizabeth Kolbert writes, glaciers stop melting and near extinct species get miraculously resurrected. The greatest writer on the environment, and the damage, both endogenous and exogenous, being caused to it, after Rachel Carson, is back at her wistful best with “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future”. Hitching rides on boats to nowhere and unearthing aquatic breeds of fish so unique, that they don’t even seem like fish (ok that was an exaggeration), Kolbert pumps inter her readers a veritable catharsis. Kolbert is one of those rare environmentalists who has the ability to administer even conscience via intravenous methods.
2021 was also a year of some memorable discoveries. Antonio Tabucci and Bohumil Hrabal materialized out of nowhere and refused to leave mind and method. While “Pereira Maintains”; “Indian Nocturne” and “Requiem” has Tabucci at his meandering, ruminating and precise best, lamenting, lauding and luxuriating in and about a range of human emotions, “Too Loud a Solitude” has Hrabal bombarding his readers with unforgettable passages of unimaginable paradoxes. Splendour in squalor and plenty in poverty make this book an incredulous read.
“India That is Bharat”, by J. Sai Deepak is a monumental exposition on the concept of, and the need for ‘decolonialism’. This regal treatise on an imperative need for a nation to unshackle itself from the yoke of colonial baggage, is a lotus blooming from the muddy waters.
“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by the late Joan Didion is an artist expressing herself in vintage form. “China Unbound” by Joanna Chiu, “In The Camps: China’s Hi-Tech Penal Colony” by Darren Byler, and “The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future” by Geoffrey Cain make you realise how unimaginably lucky you are not to be detained in one of those unfortunate “reeducation camps” in Xinjian province where all you are allowed to do is stand for 24 hours a day, and sing aloud the glory of the CCP and its leader, when not getting your head bashed in by a bunch of homogenously cruel guards who snarl like wolves and surveil you like ghosts.
“The Commentators: 100 Years of Sports Commentary” by Michael Schiavello has adrenaline filled, testosterone fueled adults screaming like banshees, complemented by incredibly sophisticated voices that rise just a shade above whispers. The best way to read this book, is to keep You Tube Channel open and actually experience for oneself the shrieks, groans and murmurs described by the author. I assure you it is an experience to cherish, especially when you have at the ready, a bottle of high quality Scotch.
“Bright Lights, Big City” is a perfect end to an otherwise extraordinary year. A nameless narrator, pub crawling and snorting lines for 48 hours during every 24 hour period, before being unsurprisingly thrown out of work, and getting his finger bitten by a ferret which he stupidly tries ferreting into his boss’ office the night he got fired, is emblematic of all that could go wrong, and has gone wrong in 2021. Let us hope that Jay McInerney’ s disillusioned and devastated hero does not make a comeback in 2022!
So there it is! An eventful year tarnished by tragedy, marred by misery and yet tempered by the power of hope instilled by the miracles contained within the covers of these magnificent, marvelous and mesmerizing books. I will refrain from taking recourse to cliched tropes proclaiming the power of books to preserve sanity. No book can anneal the loss of a loved one or forge mental toughness upon the loss of a job. However, a book can distract. What can be more valuable than a few hours of distraction in a manic world scrambling to find meaning and struggling to achieve redemption? These glorious hours of distraction can make the absolute difference between delight and dismay, resoluteness and resignation, optimism and obliteration. Such hours can only be offered selflessly and benevolently by a book.
For all those inveterate readers, the end of the year marks the appropriate time and occasion to acknowledge a debt that can never be repaid. The privileged habit of reading. I also take this opportunity to offer my gratitude to the written word embracing pages, passages and phrases without which my very existence would be, putting it mildly, a nullity.
Here’s raising a glass of Singleton to all those books and its authors who have given me uncomplaining company and unbridled delight throughout 2021. Cheers!