My Favourite Reads of 2021

2021 was yet another dumpster fire of a year but at least we all have books. Here are some of the best books I read this year.

I think we’re all a little hesitant about what 2022 could possibly bring considering how the last few years have gone. We’re all approaching it with cautious optimism and concern. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t made a resolution since 2019 and I’m not mad about it. Regardless of what 2022 will bring and the shit show that was 2021 (and 2020, and 2019…) at least we have books. I struggled to meet my reading goal this year for the first time in years. I blame the stalemate that the pandemic has created as we all wait for our lives to get back to normal. I know many places have resumed some form of normalcy but Hong Kong is living in a twilight zone due to its zero-covid goal, meaning our borders have practically been shut for two years now. It’s hard to leave and pretty much impossible to return with a mandatory three-week hotel quarantine meaning travel is out of reach for your average joe-schmoe. To make matter worse, despite not having any local covid cases in over 80 days we still have social restrictions. Here’s hoping we can escape in 2022…

Non-Fiction


5. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

A book club selection that I finished at the tail end of 2021. This non-fiction explores how the psychopath test came to be and how it’s been used in criminology and science. Jon Ronson is known for his humour which created an interesting and entertaining read.

Review to come.


4. Underground by Haruki Murakami

If you follow my blog you know how much I love Murakami. This book is very different from the normal whimsical fiction he writes. Murakami interviews the victims of the sarin gas attack that happened in Tokyo in the 90s and he pieces out the events of the tragedy through the words of the people who lived it. This was another book club selection but I would have eventually read it anyway as I’m very near having read almost everything by Murakami.



3. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Another book club selection that really surprised me. I knew little about Trevor Noah when I started this book and was surprised by how much I enjoyed Trevor’s writing and tone. The book recalls his life growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa during the apartheid, in which he was literally born a crime since white and black people were not allowed to be together.


2. The Choice by Edith Eger

A holocaust memoir unlike any other I’ve read so far. Dr. Edith Eger is a working psychologist and holocaust survivor. At 16, Edith was an aspiring Olympic gymnast before those dreams were robbed by Hitler. Only she and her sister survived the camps but little did she know that the hardest part was still yet to come. Edith gives the details of her life and how she struggled to overcome the horrors of the holocaust and how it led her to her current profession and her desire to help others.


1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book hit me hard and is one of the most beautiful pieces of non-fiction I’ve read to date. Paul is a young and reputable neurosurgeon who finds out he has stage 4 cancer, meaning that it cannot be cured. While he pursued science, literature was his first love and he had always dreamed of writing a book. This is Paul’s effort to come to terms with his impending death and to leave one last impression for the daughter he was won’t get to see grow up.


Fiction


5. Blankets by Craig Thompson

This graphic novel came highly recommended but it took me ages to get a copy. This book is warm and full of nostalgia as the author details his first love and wrestling with his faith and upbringing.


4. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

A stunning graphic novel about one woman’s recounting of growing up in Kabul amidst some of its worst unrest. It’s a coming of age story unlike any I have read before and was a poignant read considering the recent events of 2021 with Afghanistan with the return of the Taliban.


3. Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

This graphic novel really took me by surprise. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells of the author’s experience of abruptly moving to America with her mother against her will. The story details the issues she experienced growing up as an immigrant and the troubles she faced with her family.


2. Rodham by Curis Sittenfeld

If someone told me I would love a fiction about Hilary Clinton I would have laughed at them. When this book was picked for my book club I was not looking forward to it. This premise of this novel speculates how things might have turned out if Hilary didn’t marry Bill. It’s extremely well written and provoking. I thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Review to come.


1. Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

This was novel was a Netgalley find from a local Hong Kong author who now lives in the UK. This novel has Murakami qualities the melds the feel of historical and modern-day Hong Kong. Rich in actual history and set in the 1980s, this is the unique story of a drug-addicted Buddhist monk who finds himself inside a temple in Diamond Hill. He meets an array of unique characters who come to feel like a dysfunctional family. The story captures the feel of Hong Kong while exploring some of its difficult history and future. The writing is exquisite and I can’t wait to see what else this author has to offer.



When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 229 pages.
Read from July 8, 2021 to July 13, 2021.

It’s not very often that a book can marry literature, science, and philosophy together and it’s even rarer when it’s a memoir. Then again, the author of this book also seemed to be a rare human being. One that was taken from this world far too soon.

Losing someone you love to cancer is an exclusive club that nobody wants to be a part of, in that only those who have known the pain of it can truly relate to it. At the same time, it becomes such a defining and all-consuming part of your life that you can’t help but also be drawn to anything relating to it. This is how this book found my reading list.

The opening foreword by Abraham Verghese gives you your first powerful impression of what Paul was like and draws you in from the first page. Paul Kalanithi was an accomplished neurosurgeon whose first love was writing and reading, a venture that almost had him become a professor instead of a surgeon. He found himself in the medical field due to his own questions of life and death, often brought on by the literature that he read. Initially thinking he’d do psychiatry, Paul fell in love with neurosurgery and became one of the best. When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, his deep intrigue with life and death took a whole new meaning.

Despite his illness, Paul decided to continue doing what he does best, being a neurosurgeon. Paul gives the details of how he came to medicine and how he grew as a physician, not hiding his faults as he progressed in the field. His diagnosis changed him from a practitioner to a patient and it gave him a wholly different perspective on his patients and the type of care he and the system provided. Paul and his wife decided to try for a child despite his dire situation, a child he was able to see and spend time with for a few brief and magical months. He started with the hope of leaving his daughter something of him in writing this book.

Paul melds his talent and passion for writing with his ideas on science, death, and dying creating this moving and masterful work. I am so thankful he shared his ideas and vulnerabilities with the world as this book has left a lasting impression on me, as it has, no doubt for many others. Paul faced death with an immense appreciation for life and what he had and made the most out of every second, a lesson that he shared through his writing. Actively living and actively dying are two sides of the same coin and the side that you want is one of your choosing.

This book feels incomplete because it is. Paul had so much more to share with the world and with his family but cancer cut his life short. Isn’t that always the way of things, though? Never enough time. While poets have been writing on this topic for more than a century, Paul’s story is a modern telling of the beauty and fleetingness of life.

This book is suitable and recommended for any human but I think especially those going through times of struggle or transition. Paul’s words are raw, comforting, and a gentle reminder of what we have to be grateful for while exploring death and life’s meaning.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

“I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there’s this burden. I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you’ll carry around this victim mentality forever.”

3/5 stars
Paperback, 309 pages.
Read from June 23, 2021 to July 7, 2021.

Ah yes, back to my favourite author though not in the way I expected. I’m nearing the end of my Murakami journey as I close in on reading everything this Japanese author currently has to offer.

Underground is a piece of non-fiction which Murakami isn’t generally known for, however, he felt compelled to write this book after Toyko was the centre of a terrorist attack in March 1995.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Tokyo subway was subject to a sarin gas attack. Sarin is a clear lethal chemical weapon gas that was invented by the Nazis. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 5000 people. An attack of this kind had never happened in Japan during peacetime and it shook the nation with the maliciousness of its attack. The government quickly went to work to determine the perpetrators of this terrible attack. The culprits were a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo, which means ‘supreme truth’. The cult itself started as a mere yoga and meditation course that wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, however, it had amassed thousands of followers who believed in the doomsday prophecies of the group’s leader Shoko Asahara. Ashara was a blind man with long hair and beard who sat on the personal assets of his followers, raking in millions. He claimed that he was the second coming of Christ and that he could travel through time.

Shoko Asahara, Japan Times, 2018

Aum believed that Armaggedon would come as a result of a war between the United States and Japan and that only members of Aum would survive. Non-members were doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members. In five coordinated attacks, members of Aum released the sarin gas on three different subway lines the morning of March 20, 1995. This was not the first time Aum had done gas attacks but it wasn’t until after this attack that Aum was associated with the other incidences.

Murakami, like many Japanese, was struck and affected by the enormity and tragedy of the incident and felt inclined to write about the matter. However, he knew it wasn’t his story to tell so he decided to interview the survivors of the attack. He initially did not want to include any details on the Aum cult or anyone that was involved with them due to the massive amount of media attention that they received, instead of wanting to focus solely on the survivors, however, Murakami felt the scope of the story was incomplete and eventually interviewed a few former Aum members in an updated version of his book.

Murakami gracefully puts together the events of the day with the survivor’s stories. From train station workers to commuters, and medical staff, you piece the horrors of this event together. What is prevalent in the interviews themselves is the long-lasting damage that occurred. Some survivors are left with debilitating physical grievances while others have deep emotional scars and for some a lifetime of disability, suffering, and loss. Murakami also shows the unique mannerisms and behaviours exhibited by Japanese people and how they cope with emotions and turmoils as a society. The addition of the Aum member interviews completed this book as it was provided with a much-needed perspective about the turn of events and the reasons behind why everyday, smart, and seemingly normal people turned to this cult, as well as additional insights into Japanese mentality and society.

If you are new to Murakami, I would not recommend this book to start with just because it is such a stark contrast to the fiction that he normally writes. While this book is excellent and definitely contains Murakami’s tone and style, it would not be the most appropriate introduction to Murakami’s work. It is, however, an important piece of literature to read if you’re interested in learning about Aum and the events of that day.

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