Sunday, January 8, 2012

The 10 best books I read in 2011

2011 ended up being a surprising year in reading for me.  In the year before (2010) my reading had been dominated by fiction.  Geoff Dwyer, Colum McCann, Alice Munro, Joseph O'Neill, J.M.Coetzee ... some breathtakingly good authors had books out recently, and every one of them was worthy of a place of pride on my list.  Add to it, there just didn't seem to be much interesting non-fiction going around.  So when I collated my list of 'Best Books of 2010', I extrapolated and made the prediction that 2011 was going to be the same.  Boy, was I wrong!

2011 was a year of non-fiction - at least for me.  There were very few fiction reads that held my attention enough.  Some of the authors I follow most closely did not have a book come out this year, which made it all a bit dry.  As I look back now at the best books I read this year, I find that 7 of the top 10 books I identified from my reading list are non-fiction.

Anyway, without more ado, here is my list of the ten best books I read in 2011:


1.  The Emperor of All Maladies - by Siddharth Mukherjee
Deeply researched, movingly felt, and poignantly written.  The best biography of cancer you are going to come across, from the latest in a line of wonderfully gifted Indian American doctor writers.  This book took the largest killer disease of our time, and painted a rich picture of it in all its gore and glory.  Must read for anyone passingly interested in cancer.

2.  Phantoms in the Brain - by V.S. Ramachandran
I know this is starting to look like a trend.  Another medical-ish book written by an Indian American doctor (a neuroscientist in this case).  Believe me, that had little to do with my selection of this book.  Ramachandran came out with a new book last year called The Tell-Tale Brain.  I browsed through it in a bookshop and was spell-bound.  Before I took it up though, I wanted to go back to the original book that made Ramachandran famous.  And so the venture back to Phantoms in the Brain.  The mind is the most mysterious of all human organs - the one we know the least about.  In this book first published back in 1998, Ramachandran takes on some really bizarre sounds patients, and demonstrates how the brain of a 'normal' person behaves, by analyzing the symptoms of some of these abnormal situations.  Why does one patient think his parents are imposters and not his 'real' parents?  Why does another ignore everything happening in the world to her left (including ignoring to comb the left side of her hair)?  Why does a third patient with a paralyzed arm claim that the arm lying next to her in bed is actually not hers at all, but belongs to her brother?  Are these people just 'crazy'?  Ramachandran, in the style of a Sherlock Holmes of the brain, leads us through each of these cases, diagnoses them through simple, intuitive experiments, and tells us what we can learn about how our own brain works based on these.  Unputdownable!

3.  Guaranteed to Fail: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Debacle of Mortgage Finance - by Viral Acharya, Matthew Richardson, and others
This is not a book for the faint hearted.  It is not a book for someone interested in a high level overview of what went wrong with subprime housing in the United States in the years leading up to the crash.  But.  If you are a professional in finance, with an interest in understanding the structural reasons behind the crash in mortgages in the US, this is a must read book.  While many books have been written about the origins of the great recession, the fall of Lehman and others, this book focuses on an oft ignored, but supremely important part of the story - the role of Government Sponsored Enterprises (Fannie and Freddie) in driving the 'race to the bottom' in mortgage underwriting, and how their fundamental design was Guaranteed to Fail.  It is not often remembered that the Fannie and Freddie bailouts cost the US Government more than all the other financial bailouts they embarked on over the last few years.  It cost more than ING, more than TARP, and will continue to be the largest drag on the US Government budget for a long time to come.  This book helps us understand what was so terribly wrong with Fannie and Freddie.

4.  Moonwalking with Einstein - by Joshua Foer
As a journalist for Discover magazine, Joshua Foer visits the US National Memory Championships, to see if there is an article there.  He watches as professional 'mental athletes' memorize the order of ten packs of shuffled cards, recite thousands of digits of the number pi, stare a stack of photographs along with names and biographies and recite them right back later.  Feats that seems beyond extra-ordinary - almost - dare we say it? - miraculous.  He meets some of the contestants, and as one they all tell him that they have just average memories, that anyone can perform these feats if they learn the right technique and train their minds well.  Foer takes on an experiment with himself - to see how much he can train his own brain.  One year later, he participates in the US Memory Championships himself.  And wins.  Moonwalking with Einstein is the story of what happens in that one year.

5.  The Blind Watchmaker - by Richard Dawkins
Readers of Brick and Rope know I am partial to Dawkins.  I like everything he writes.  I like his science, his passion, his narrative style, his intellectually pugnacious attitude.  The Blind Watchmaker is an old book - first published in 1996, where he takes on the question the most profoundly simple question about evolution:  If evolution moves in tiny, random steps, how can it ever create the infinitely complex organs and animals we see in life?  How can random steps lead to the creation of an eye?  How can you explain the existence of a sophisticated Swiss watch, if the watchmaker is supposed to be blind?  If you marvel at the complexity of biology around you, and have ever wondered how small improvement steps led to this brilliant end point, you must read The Blind Watchmaker.  There is one chapter on the navigation skills of bats that is worth the price of the book many times over.  Brilliant, in the way only Dawkins can be.  An all time science classic.

6.  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - by Amy Chua
OK, if you don't have kids, this is not a book for you.  If you do, and if you have ever found yourself torn between the strict, achievement oriented, studies-come-first Asian way of parenting, and the more liberal, freedom oriented, let-them-find-out-what-there-are-best-at Western way, Amy Chua has something to say to you.  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners memoir of a highly successful Chinese origin woman bringing up her two daughters in America.  The Tiger Mom speaks of how she ran her children's childhood with an iron fist, and how they turned out super-successful at the other end of that treatment.  The book faced a barrage of criticism when it came out last year, as much of its writing flies (deliberately and provocatively) in the face of most of the current parenting convention in the West.  It brings out the best aspects of an Asian upbringing style, of learning by rote, of practising and working hard till you feel your fingers are going to fall off.  And, Amy claims - the children come out not just more accomplished, but also happier, and closer to their parents than Western children do.  I challenge you to read this book and not have an argument with your spouse about it!

7.  Half Empty - by David Rakoff
Satire taken to a fine art.  David Rakoff is a journalist with an eye for what is seriously wrong in the world around him, and the language to poke it right in the eye.  The cover of Half Empty shows two cute bunny rabbits playing with each other in the grass.  And somewhere behind them, jutting out of a bush, you can see the barrel of a gun pointed right at them.  Further behind, there is a canoeist, happily paddling away - only he can't see that he is headed right over the edge of a waterfall.  "WARNING!!" screams the cover of this collection of essays - "No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages".  To quote the blurb, which for once is absolutely accurate - "In this deeply funny (and sneakily poignant) book, David Rakoff views through a dark lens our sunny, gosh-everyone-can-be-a-star contemporary culture and finds that, pretty much as a rule, the best is not yet to come, adversity will triumph, justice will not be served, and your dreams won't come true."  Hilarious!


8.  Our Kind of Traitor - by John le Carre
Another one of my favorite authors.  No one does spies better than le Carre.  With the changing times, the spy novel has become more and more difficult to place.  But le Carre seems to have the knack to bring out just the right notes every time.  Our Kind of Traitor is a modest novel, with a modest plot and modest protagonists, as all protagonists in le Carre books tend to be.  The understanding of the inside track of the spy world is deep as ever.  The moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists are tricky as always.  And the language is sparkling as ever.  le Carre up to his usual tricks again, and getting them just right.

9.  Super Sad True Love Story - by Gary Shteyngart
Another satire entry on this list, in fiction this time.  Gary Shteyngart's book is difficult to classify.  It is part science fiction, and part social commentary.  This was one of the first books I read this year.  And what I remember most vividly is the language of the book.  It is sparse and shocking.  The setting is a future world when America has degenerated to being a third world country, the Chinese rule the world, and the hottest area of research is immortality.  Stinging social commentary, ferocious comic power.  At least slightly scary.  A difficult book to get out of your head.

10.  A Visit from the Goon Squad - by Jennifer Egan
Definitely my favorite book of fiction this year.  I love books that experiment with narrative style.  And Goon Squad does that with a flair that is breathtaking.  The cast of characters is super interesting (a kleptomaniac, a punk rock producer, a PR executive for an African dictator - I mean, there isn't a shallow character here if you go looking for it with a fine-tooth comb).  Some parts are written by an adult, some by a teenager, and a particularly amazing chapter is all in powerpoint slides.  This is smart. This is the way fiction is meant to be.  Read it!

So that rounds up my list of the Ten Best Books I read in 2011.

Before I close, I must also mention a couple of books that were my biggest disappointments this year:

Nouriel Roubini's Crisis Economics was a bore.  Nothing that hasn't already been said before and better.  I know the guy is supposed to be a savant of some sort.  Maybe I am too dumb to understand the deeper points he is trying to make.  But what I read, I wasn't jumping out of my seat.

The Booker prize winning The Finkler Question was tiring Philip Roth lite.

Brian Greene is one of my favorite science authors.  But The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos had too far-fetched and thin a proposition.  The book is certainly his worst to date.

Dan Ariely is another one of the authors I have enjoyed tremendously in the past.  But I enjoyed his Upside of Irrationality much less than I had hoped.  Not enough new insights to publish a new book. I hope Daniel Kahnemann's Thinking Fast and Slow revives my interest in Behavioral Economics.

I placed my first book order of the year on Flipkart yesterday night.  The books should start arriving by later this week.  I am itching to start a whole new year of reading.  And this time, I am making no predictions on how the year will turn out.


  1. I was hoping Steve Jobs would make the list. I read quite a bit but none from your list - the ones I read were not released in 2011 except for a couple. I'll bookmark this - thank you for the review - it's sooper!

  2. Shachi - to be honest, I haven't read Steve Jobs yet. Walter Isaacson is of course one of the best biographers in the business, and I really like him. If you have't read it, Einstein, the previous biography that Isaacson wrote is a phenomenal read. On Steve Jobs, the emotions were running so high when the book was released that I avoided the book altogether. Will read it some time later when I can read it more dispassionately! Glad to hear you like it though.

  3. I just put half of these books into my amazon cart- all non fiction. They sound fantastic. Can't wait for them to arrive.

  4. I just put half of these books into my amazon cart- all non fiction. They sound fantastic. Can't wait for them to arrive.