Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman had my reading interests down pat. This year was bountiful, so much so I have backlog which I carry into 2016. This was also the year I returned — partly — to print books, mainly in order to read more, read faster and retain more. The glare of the screen on the iPad is not conducive to hours of reading, although it is fun to carry several dozen books at once in one’s bag! So some of these books were read on dead tree, others electronically.
Here are the ones that stood out.
The most affecting book I read was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma. Along with his team of researchers, van der Kolk has spent years understanding the nature of trauma and the mark it leaves on people and then how to palliate or reverse the damage. Embedded in the book is also the story of how they made the case, in vain, to have developmental trauma disorder included in the DSM, and how child abuse may be the biggest public health challenge of our times. It is not an easy read but an affecting one.
The most viscerally moving poetry I read came from Warsan Shire in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. As a diasporic Indian in England, I find her writing has always struck a chord with me but this year, the year of so many refugees having to leave home forcibly only to arrive at the doors of those erecting walls to keep them out, her writing resonated deeply.
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I come from is disappearing. I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was another book of poetry that touched me deeply in a year of unprecedented racial violence and police brutality against black Americans in the USA.
The most recommended and frequently gifted book by me this year was Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: The True Cost Of Not Having Enough. Whatever your lens – society, policy, economics – this book will challenge your perspective and do so with empathy and evidence.
The most perspective-giving books I read were Elmira Bayrasli’s From The Other Side Of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, and Jonathan Gil Harris’s The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. At first glance, they look not like each other at all. But they are. At their foundation they both are books about unusual things human beings are doing and have always done, and in doing so how they traverse the question of identity. Bayrasli is Turkish-American from Brooklyn, Gil Harris a Newzealander fluent in Hindi, teaching Shakespeare in India, via the UK and the USA. They tackle innovation and identity respectively but they aren’t as disparate themes as may appear to be the case.
The most droll book I read was undoubtedly Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is known to most as the actor who played a socially challenged young Mark Zuckerberg in the film Social Network. His collection of fictional short stories, are in the voice of a 9 year old boy, whose parents are divorced and who lives with his mother, reminded me of both David Sedaris (as many others note too) and Noah Baumbach.
The best social and cultural commentaries were found in two quite dissimilar books, namely Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don’t learn them from movies any more), and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Freeman has written a fast-paced analysis of how the 1980s Hollywood tackled tough themes such as abortion rights and class issues, while resolutely writing strong female characters, all of which seems to be on the decline since the 1980s ended.
Related read: Francine Stock in the FT in Why Abortion Is No Longer Out of The Picture traces the history of abortion in cinema, through Alfie, Dirty Dancing, Knocked Up, Cider House Rules and Juno, while nodding to the films Grandma and Obvious Child, released this year:
Lily Tomlin, the 76-year-old lead of the new film Grandma, is attracting seasonal awards-talk like static. It’s a fine performance, drawing on her back catalogue of sharp-tongued, volatile misanthropes, the natural melancholy of her features suddenly illuminated by that huge smile. It also plays on her being a gay woman.
But the film’s real political significance lies not in age or sexuality but reproduction. The engine of Grandma’s plot is the search for funds to terminate her teenage granddaughter’s unplanned pregnancy.
Abortion is still a tricky subject onscreen. Most intimate activity is out there — birth, circumcision, puberty, nudity, masturbation, simulated (and real) sex, young sex, old sex, animal sex, 3D sex, death. Yet the medical or surgical resolution of an unwanted pregnancy (over a million a year in the US, nearly 200,000 a year in England, Wales and Scotland) rarely occurs in films, or at least not to characters close to the central storyline.
Turkle is a long-standing observer of the co-evolution of society and technology, and in this book deals with how we are losing empathy and the art of conversation — eye contact, listening, engaging, responding — with our devices being the centre of our lives.
The most fascinating anthropological commentary I read this year was on clothes and women. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Sharpton’s Women In Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear upset many a book critic. It is a series of narratives by women and conversations between women, all talking about clothes, the memories built in them, the symbolism, the shared and sometimes not-shared fears and quirks. It is a good thing reliable book critics are so few and far in between that the vast majority can be dismissed in the pursuit of interesting materials that get published.
I encountered an unusual, innovative format in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, him an author of fiction and her a psychotherapist. In conversations over email, they explore the nature of truth, fiction, constructed truths, objectivity, the ideal self and many related themes in identity. I read the book through in a flight from London to San Francisco earlier in the year.
The book I re-read this year was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s experience of surviving concentration camps in the Holocaust makes for sobering reading, as much as his advice on getting perspective in tough times rings true.
The most relatable book, this year when my siblings and I dealt with a medical emergency with one of our parents, was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? As the only child of parents, who are holocaust survivors, Chast documents in this alternately funny and poignant book what it is like to watch the slow physical and mental decline of one’s aging parents, to witness our heroes become unreasonable and unpredictable, to accept that our soft-lens dreams of generations living under one roof are just dreams, and to let go before they go.
Finally in my research and professional interest area of decision-making, I read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy and Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving. Gigerenzer’s work in heuristics was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, and in this book, Gigerenzer discusses how we assess risks. It is less dry than I just made it sound! Thaler’s book is quite – perhaps by design – droll and explores the myth of human rationality in decision-making. It is a great read, and at the risk of annoying many fans, much more engaging a read than Daniel Kahneman’s tome last year.
My 2015 backlog — or books-in-process as I call them — being carried over to 2016 includes Niall Fergusin’s Kissinger, Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect, Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. I am also half-way through re-reading The Balfour Declaration which will no doubt carry into 2016.
Happy Reading in 2016!