For the last 2 years I’ve been keeping an excel spreadsheet listing all the books I finish reading each year. It all started with a 50 book pledge in 2015 (I made it all the way to 48!) and now it’s just a course of habit. I’ve always been partial to fiction every since I used to make weekly trips to the used book kiosks as a kid with my dad in Karachi. I started out with R.L.Stine’s fear street, Christopher Pike’s Goosebumps and graduated to Stephen Kings. There was a spattering of Nancy Drews, Sweet Valley Highs, Sidney Sheldon and Judith McNaught thrown in there (I’ve never been elitist with my pick of literature). I grew to appreciate classics (think: Little Women, Jane Eyre, The Woman in White). As a teenager I was a very prolific reader but the habit sort of fell away as I older (life happened as it often does). Having decided to bring reading back to my active routine, I also decided to track my reading better.
Of all the books I read this past year, I came across quite a few wonderful gems (both old and new) and this post will review my favorites in the chronological order of having read them. I will introduce the fine dining experiences and spare you the cheat meals.
On to matters of importance..
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first Margaret Atwood book that I read was the Edible Woman and while it was very well-written, it left me more questions than answers about the world inside the author’s mind. The Handmaid’s Tale on the other hand is clear in it’s purpose and resonates even more so in this day and age when we seem to be on the path of regression in terms of women’s rights.
Set in a dystopia where modern women are stripped of their basic rights as an individual and thrown into indentured servitude for the purposes of child bearing and keeping the “rightful” social gender order. All of this is done in the name of religion (again – a theme which might give you a hint of deja vu). These women are deprived of their identity in order to keep them subdued and utilitarian. The story follows the life of the main protagonist , Offred (i.e. Of Fred) in this new theocracy as she strives to somehow hold onto a sliver of her past identity- she can still remember a world where she had a name, a job, a bank account and a family. She serves her use as a fertile surrogate womb waiting to be impregnated by her keeper . Any other women who cannot fulfil that purpose are labelled “unwomen” and sent into exile.
The reason this book is important for every woman to read is that, although the setting and theme might seem unrealistically exaggerated, we have to deter any semblance of that picture from becoming a reality. Women are already, albeit more subtly now, treated as second class citizens in the world. Parts of the world, such as the one I grew up in, these differences are even more glaring and remain unchallenged; Women are afforded dignity based on towing the societal line and respecting the boundaries set forth for them by the men in their lives. In a time when men are in charge of our lives, bodies and destinies, I think this book is essential reading because it is a reminder that we need to keep fighting the good fight for all women today and the future generations to come.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari
This was hands down my favorite book from last year. It is a very well articulated and easy to follow history of the evolution of homo sapiens, spanning over every important element of the human life such as language, history, religion, commerce and science. Never again will I be able to think of religious doctrines and institutions of government without thinking of the imagined realities that bind us together as a thriving species and have served as essential survival tools. It is books like this that enlighten and help us become educated skeptics. Question the validity of every belief that is drilled into you since birth and inform yourself. We are as similar to each other as we are different. Regardless of race, color and creed, we all come from the same ancestors which migrated from Africa and, then continent to continent, taking control and extinguishing several species as we spread our wings. The world of today was shaped by the wheels set in motion eons ago. It is knowledge that everyone of us should have to better comprehend and appreciate how far we have come.
If you know me personally I have probably repeatedly recommended this book to you -and you’ve read it you know why.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
I read this book a long time ago but sometime last year I came across and reference to it and decided to reread it. This story is beautiful and fundamentally relatable. Being different in any way detaches you from the world that can be very hard to overcome. This a story of Charlie Gordon who goes from being janitor at a bakery with an IQ of 68 to nearly triple that as a result of a surgical procedure. The not so smart Charlie thought he was lots of friends and although learning and reading was hard, he felt loved and part of his community of peers. He was too naive to understand that his ‘friends’ were laughing at him rather than with him. His spotless mind could not fathom that people can be intentionally cruel to feel superior and too nice to recognize malice. Charlie Gordon saw the good in everyone until he started to get smarter. The smarter he got the more clearly we was able to see the flaws of other around him. This time he was isolated by his superior intellect rather than the lack thereof. The only one he could relate to was little Algernon, a mouse who was also part of the same study. As we follow Charlie through the development of his mind and then the subsequent degradation, we witness the plethora of emotions a single individual can experience with equal intensity.
I have cried for Charlie every time I have read this book and I have cried for Algernon. It was reminder to me to always be kind and humble. A poignant message to appreciate each day as it comes and be grateful for our privileges.
Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
I mean it’s Carl Sagan- really how could you go wrong. While this is a slow read, it’s a great book. Popular media is constantly bombarding us with sensationalized pseudo science and superstitions. As advanced as medical science and technology has become, I still know of firm believers in “faith” healing and “alternative” medicine. Carl Sagan was a great orator because he was genuinely passionate about science and his enthusiasm and zest for the subject is infectious. Each chapter address different aspects of pseudoscience and superstitious beliefs, and the author makes his case based on citing cold hard facts and scientific studies. While several natural remedies do work (as proven by scientific evidence) and the power of belief and the human mind can indeed work miracles, it is still important to be reminded that not everything found in nature has curative powers and any powers wielded by healers originate from our faith in them. These are inflammatory words and not always well received.
God has gifted us human beings with a vastly capable mind and free will. What we choose to belief and invest our energy in is left to our own devices. It is important for all of us to indulge our, sometimes dormant, intellectual curiosities and open our minds. Science is wonderful and mysterious in itself, whether it’s an interstellar or microbiological level. We don’t need to go find wonder in ‘alternative facts’, superstitions and magic.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Every young girl (through the awkward preteen and teen years) feels disjointed, uncomfortable in her skin and misunderstood. The changes to the young adolescent body happen a lot faster than the maturation of the adolescent brain. A toxic environment at home only happens to aggravate. As a former ‘young girl’, I know sometimes the only way to make it through those years is being part of a collective. Your girlfriends keep you connected to the world around you when your parents just don’t “get it”. This is especially true for only children with no siblings for support. The narrative in The Girls follows this very same theme in the context of a becoming part of a cult. It is inspired by the story of the Manson Family and the series of catastrophic events that took place. The protagonist Evie is one of the “girls” who escaped the aftermath and, now as an adult, she can think back to the series of events that led her to being in the wrong place in the wrong time. The author has done a great job of exploring the turmoil of a young girl in her formative years and her need to belong.
I’ve always been a fan of true crime stories and while this is not that at all, The Girls provides great insight into the psychology of a cult, its members and, of course, the rogue charismatic egotistical leader who leads everyone to their runition.
Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois
Another book inspired by true events, this one is the fictional retelling of the Amanda Knox case(now also a Netflix original). An American foreign exchange student is accused of the murder of a fellow British exchange student far away from home and the trial ensues. Lily Hayes is a complicated character, similar to her real life inspiration Amanda Knox. As you dive deeper into the book, it’s hard not to vacillate between belief in Lily’s innocence and her unquestionable guilt. How could someone so fickle and indifferent not be guilty? How could a girl who flippantly does a cartwheel in a police interrogation room not have blood on her hands?.. but then how could a young woman with her whole future ahead of her, who is clearly terrified and confused, have killed someone in a jealous fit? The storytelling is engaging, and while it’s not a clear winner, I’d recommend it for a good travel or commuter read.
Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams
This one has been on my list for a while and I am glad I finally got around to reading it. Not much to say here except that it’s a fun light read and a must for every sci fi nerd. This was the beginning of my sci fi binge (which you will see based on the next couple of books on the list). The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy was originally a radio series on BBC in 1978 and has since been adapted into several formats including novels, a tv series and a movie! This is the first book of the series and follows Arthur Dent as he is whisked away his alien friend Ford Perfect as Earth is destroyed and they begin their interstellar travels by being stranded in space. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the series and not taking myself too seriously. Like it says in the book “The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.”
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
I was actually quite surprised that I had not come across this book before. Even though this story is set in a dystopian future where the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, everyone who could has migrated to Mars, and everyone on Mars has their own very humanlike droid servant to do their bidding. The unfortunate folks left on earth are judged on their empathy levels (to set them apart from the droids) which are exhibited by how they care for their pets. Trouble is most of the animals have died off too so the less privileged folks need to resort to getting droid pets. All very lifelike.
What made this such a great read for me were the elements of social commentary that equally apply to our lives today. For example, the idea of “Kipple” which is all the useless stuff surrounding us that seems to multiply and takes up all available space. Ever wonder how the more space you have the more stuff you end up with? It’s all part of the human condition. Also the concept that it’s empathy that sets us apart from machines, it’s what truly makes us alive, resonated strongly with me. Today we all sit behind screens all day and it’s easy to forget that we are still interacting with other humans with feelings and emotions similar to our own. We need not emulate machines. What we should be striving for is a empathetic, supportive collective.
Don’t be a troll.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I’m clearly a fan of dystopian fiction if you couldn’t already tell. The setting for Brave New World is a future where children are not born but grown in labs, as multiple identical copies of the same genetic code. This creates a society which follows a clearly demarcated hierarchy. The Alphas, Beta and Gammas all have their specific roles to perform in the society and the fetuses are genetically conditioned to fit those moulds. There is soma to counter any negative fields and everyone can engage in all sorts of carnal and sensory enjoyments as long as they don’t mix feelings with it. This new world is built upon predictability, efficiency and consumerism. Parts of this world still have community of savages which still follow the “old ways” and are kept in quarantine away from the civilized society. When Jon, who is a savage, is brought into the new world he cannot fathom the workings of this developed society. He craves love, loyalty, emotional bonds and all he is offered is hedonism. He is for all intents and purposes a novel subject of study for the citizens of the new world who are fascinated by his actions and reactions as we would of an animal in a zoo. Eventually Jon can’t take it anymore and runs away with his angst and anguish to an isolated lighthouse far away. Events take place following that but I won’t spoil the ending for you.
The great thing about science fiction is that it is not so much prophetic as it is a reflection of the author’s views on the present state. In 1931, a new era of industrialization was being ushered in with a massive boom in the manufacturing sector. This clearly colored Huxley’s vision of a “Fordian” era with a world built on Henry Ford’s assembly line principles.
I don’t know about you but I like how the future turned out. I like parents, monogamy and not having a 100 twins.
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik
It takes a special kind of skill to make a book that talks about graphite, paper and cement incredibly engrossing and fun to read! I had no idea how interesting material science was until I came across this gem. Honestly if textbooks were written this way, more people would enjoy studying and learning about science!
This book gave me a whole new perspective on the everyday materials that make up our surroundings. I never realized how fascinating glass or porcelain or Aerogel can be! The cultural and historical backgrounds of materials we are so accustomed to having around us paint a beautiful backdrop to the modern world.
I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about how the mundane can become incredibly wonderful and mysterious.
And that’s a wrap.
p.s. From one bibliophile to another- I hope you will enjoy these great books as much as I did!
p.p.s. If there are any books you think I might enjoy please do let me know! I’m always on the lookout for good reads.