Happy New Year!
In my write-up last year I hoped that 2021 would be a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, 2021 continued to be, in spite of the COVID vaccines, a year of great uncertainty. I finally hit my target of reading a 100 books in a calendar year and here are the best of those. Also, check out my mid year list of 2021 for some additional books.
The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand
One of my last books of 2021 - and it was wonderful. There are countless heroes in the struggle for Indian independence from the British. The most famous of these is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violence movement. Lesser known, especially outside of India, are the decidedly more activist freedom fighters. This book is about Udham Singh, a contemporary of the better known Bhagat Singh. I knew so little about Udham Singh that this book was not just exciting and unputdownable but also a huge learning experience. It tells the story of Udham's life from his birth through to his first hand experience of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. What I had learned in school was that the villain here was Brigadier General Dyer who ordered the shooting of hundreds of innocent and defenceless civilians inside a small compound - including among them many women and young children. The mastermind, Dyer's boss, was one Michael O'Dwyer and the book tells the story of how Udham spent over two decades planning to and finally assassinating O'Dwyer in London. I learned that Udham moved to the United States and even became a US citizen in his altogether amazing life story and quest to avenge the massacre at Jallianwala. If you have the slightest interest in the Indian freedom struggle, you must read this.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
From historical biography to science fiction! Weir is a great storyteller. He wrote The Martian which got made into a Hollywood hit starring Matt Damon. In this book, the entire story happens on a spaceship that Earth blasted off into space years ago to find a cure for the impending death of the sun. This is a last gasp effort and therefore the spaceship is called the Hail Mary. Curious things called Astrophages are eating away the sun and the drop in temperatures on earth is going to kill off vegetation and therefore all life on Earth. Dr. Rayland Grace is the narrator and protagonist who wakes up on the spaceship many years after being put into a coma as he figures out how he ended up here - and more importantly, why. The science is very solid and well explained. All he eventually has for company is Rocky - an alien from a different world on a similar quest on a second spaceship. With Rocky, Grace forms not just a partnership but a close personal friendship as they work together to stave off impending doom for both their worlds. It heads to a poignant end and the book is well worth your time. I expect this will also get made into a movie at some point.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
I highly recommend Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. At this point I might as well put in the disclaimer that I am hardly an unbiased reviewer. As most of us (in the US anyway) know, President Obama was very thoughtful if a bit loquacious. And this book is both. He said he originally wanted to get the whole book done in about 500 pages (which isn’t a short book even at that page count) but found that to really get the historical context and details in, it got longer in the writing and what we have here is a 750 page plus tome that still only gets midway through his presidency. The book ends with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Volume 2 should be a good read as well. It's a lovely read - in fact I highly recommend the audiobook version as it is narrated by the man himself. Here's the link to my full-length review of the book.
The Premonition by Michael Lewis
The Premonition is about a small group of government officials who thought about and planned for a pandemic response long before COVID-19 struck. They even came up with a playbook with clear recommendations. Unfortunately, their voices went unheard and their advice was not followed for various reasons. Lewis tells that back story to set the context to explain , at least in part, what happened in 2020. This book is in the initial batch of what will easily be hundreds of volumes to come on the pandemic and the US government’s response to it. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. Lewis’ talent to take dense topics and bring them to life with incredible characters is on full display. This reads almost like a sequel to his 2018 book The Fifth Risk where he takes us on a deep dive into the federal bureaucracies of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Energy. If you haven’t read that one, I recommend it as well. Here's the link to my full-length review of the book.
Power Play by Tim Higgins
Elon Musk has had quite the year, culminating in being named Time's 2021 Person of the Year. This is one of a handful of books about him that I read over the past year or two. This one focussed on the story of how Tesla got started with electric cars and batteries, how Elon became involved first as an investor and then increasingly as the primary shareholder, and then the operator through to becoming the full-time CEO. The number of times Tesla nearly died before becoming the trillion dollar behemoth today should be of great comfort to all the other starts up that are constantly fighting off what appears to be certain death. Musk comes off as a real boss from hell, making completely unrealistic demands of his team and burning through key employees as if they were just fuel - but not without leading by example. How far will Tesla go? It is already more valuable than every other car company - some over a 100 years old - combined. While market capitalization can be fickle, one thing is for sure: if Musk and his team continue to be as formidable as they have been all along, then Tesla will go very far indeed.
Liftoff by Eric Berger
This book is about Elon Musk's other aspiration: to make humans a multiplanetary species. It tells the story of SpaceX from his start as a kid in South Africa. Even more than Tesla, SpaceX seems to be Musk's real passion. With electric cars, he was taking on just Detroit. With SpaceX he was taking on NASA. In other words, the US Government itself. The books tells the story of how SpaceX took on a rival with basically unlimited resources and beat them with the willingess to dream big and take risks. Musk seemingly started SpaceX after being disappointed and underwhelmed with NASA's plans for the future. Time after time, Musk pulls off incredible projects after multiple failures and does it with a small fraction of the amount of money that NASA would have spent. Finally he gets NASA to fund SpaceX and is today the only option that the US/NASA have - other than paying the Russians - to launch shuttles and resupply the International Space Station. This is a story of audacity, ambition and the ultimate never-say-die entrepreuner.
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
Never judge a book by its cover. This book made that meta point to me. I'd assumed that McConaughey was your typical Hollywood bad boy and an intellectual lightweight. His arrest while smoking marijuana on his bongo - and buck naked - only helped cement that image. How wrong I was! McConaughey both retells that story in this book as well as shares a ton of his insights as he reaches age 50. It is a remarkably honest and funny book and I enjoyed every minute of it! I highly recommend that audiobook version of this as hearing McConaughey tell his story in his own voice really made it that much more enjoyable. He's much more of a thoughtful and serious person than I gave him credit for.
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
Any book, never mind a biography, by Walter Isaacson is a no-brainer. And this is an expansive book. It is only partly a biography of the 2020 Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna from UC Berkeley for her breakthrough contributions to CRISPR . While we do get a sense of her from her childhood in Hawaii and getting into the field after getting a gift from her father of the book "The Double Helix" by James Watson, this book is also about the field of genetics and gene therapy. Isaacson met a great many of the leading lights of the field and visited all the major institutions doing work in this area. The competitive nature of something as apparently staid as Nobel-prize winning research is brought to life with many incidents. Doudna comes off as not just brilliant but also media savvy in figuring out how to time her work and be a voice for herself and her research partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, in a cut-throat field. Read this book to learn not just the life story of Doudna but also get a primer into CRISPR and the latest advances in gene therapy.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig
A lovely and charming little book from Matt Haig who also wrote The Midnight Library. This book by Haig is a collection of advice that he wrote to his future self. I usually tend to avoid self-help books but this ended up being be such an uplifting read that it never felt heavy or preachy. Lots of little nuggets such as "It is easier to learn to be soaked and happy than to learn how to stop the rain" or the Serbian proverb "Be humble because you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars" or "Don’t say yes to things you wish you had the confidence to say no to" all resonated deeply. You can read this book in a few hours - and there's no reason you shouldn't do that soon.
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
On of my Top 10 books of 2020 was "The Spy and the Traitor" by Ben Macintyre. And this other book by the same author does not disappoint either. While last year's book was about Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB double spy, this is about a woman, Ursula Kuczynski, who goes on to become one of the Soviet Union's most valuable spies. Ursula is jewish and a communist. And she was born and came of age in 1930s Berlin - in the years before Hitler and the Nazis' rise to power in Germany. And that's her just getting started. The book tells the story of her having three children - with three different men - across countries as different as China and Switzerland. Her rise in the hierarchy is the story of her life and eventually in England, post-war, she becomes the handler for Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was a German scientist with communist leanings who defected to the US and was part of the Los Alamos based Manhattan project and then passed secrets of the bomb back to the Soviet Union - through Ursula. In one way, the fact that the Soviet Union got the technology and the know-how for the bomb at about the same time as the US and UK gave the world the Cold War and, the book argues, decades of peace through the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. A fast-paced book that also seems all set to become a movie at some point.
Trejo by Danny Trejo
I first saw Danny Trejo in an all-too-brief role as Tortuga in the TV show, Breaking Bad. In that show, he comes to a dramatic end, decapitated and traveling on the back of, of course, a turtle. He's apparently been killed off 65 times on film. Trejo's autobiography sounds like total fiction - it's incredible that a person who has been in so many maximum security prisons so many times and so deep in drugs was able to get his act together to the point that he has not just survived (he's 77 years old now) but is now someone who is helping other young people escape a life of crime and drugs. This is a searingly honest autobiography and an inspiring read.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This is a story of two twins: one white and one black. They live in a town called Mallard where black families moved and over some generations, through preferential selection, i.e. marriage, essentially end up looking white to passers by. One of the twins, Stella, once 'passes' for white, and likes it so much she doesn't want to return to her older identity. She marries a white man and has a white daughter and the other twin, Desiree, marries a black man and has a black daughter. The books tells the story of how the lives of the next generation start to intertwine as these daughters meet. Over time, their relationship threatens to expose Stella's secret, the lie upon which her entire life is built. There are other interesting characters, most interstingly Reese, who is the trans boyfriend of Desiree's daughter Jude. It is fiction after all and some portions tend to stretch one's credulity but overall this is a poignant read about race, acceptance and family.