Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: Year in Books

So the curtains of 2015 are trickling to a close, which means it is time for a personal reflection of things done well & gone wrong in the past year. Because I have no interest in sharing the highs & lows of my private life, I will instead do a countdown of the year's favourite books.

This has also become a somewhat mandatory effort, because at some point this year I found myself unable to keep track of the books I have read. Not only I had troubles recollecting the contents or key takeaways from some titles, there were times when I was unable to tell if I have read them. Which is a shame, because the whole idea of reading to me is to extract the information & get better courtesy of them. I suppose one cannot escape the slow descent towards forgetfulness with old age.

2015 has by no means been a prolific year for me reading-wise, but the list (in random order) is my best attempt at capturing the year's notable ones (they are the books I read, as opposed to published this year):

1. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos & the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

If you love Walter Isaacson's splendid biography of Steve Jobs, chances are you will like this book too. For the uninitiated, Jeff Bezos is the founder & current CEO of Amazon. On the face of it, both him & the late Steve Jobs men strike casual observes as similar - innovative Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who set out to change the world. But while their early history & drive to reach their purpose are mirror-image of each other, the personalities & approach could not be more different. They say character maketh a man, & if that is true close examinations of the 2 men reveal remarkable insights into the contrasting styles that lead to success.

The book chronicles Amazon's stratospheric rise from a basement online bookseller to Bezos' vision of 'The Everything Store'. The chapters are intertwined with Bezos' own personal story, making this part a concise history of the company, part biography of the visionary founder. As you would probably imagine, not all that goes behind the exercise of building an empire is smooth-sailing. Wrong bets, failed negotiations & parting of partners throughout the rise of the company are all captured earnestly by the author. The book also makes no attempt to hide Amazon's much-criticized corporate cultures & Bezos' enigmatic characters, all of which makes for a fascinating read.

2. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoğlu & James A. Robinson

Why Nations Fail explores the age-old question that has bugged historians, social scientists, economists & their ilks for centuries - why do some societies advance more than others? Present-day instances (South vs. North Koreas, US vs. Mexico, etc.) along with snippets of history (colonialism in Africa, rise of Japan, etc.) are compiled to make for convincing case studies. Using the conclusion derived from these studies, the book also makes an attempt to predict the way some of the world's biggest nations are going.

In terms of historical & factual accuracy, this books admittedly is not perfect. It has a tendency to dismiss well-established theories from researchers of the same subject, while some historical accounts used to support the premise were inaccurate. Interestingly the authors' effort at simplicity in presenting the arguments is also what makes it a page-turner in a mould few other books on social sciences I encountered achieved.

3. Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck by Hamka

Boy meets girl, they fall in love. Girl then meets a more handsome, richer boy & has a change in heart. The premise of this classic from Hamka is a cliché to most, but do not let that discourage you. To me there are 2 aspects of the book that makes this such a wonderful read; criticisms of the society through storytelling & the use of alluring Bahasa Melayu.

Selain dikenali sebagai seorang penulis, perlu diingat Hamka juga adalah seorang ulama. Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck boleh dilihat sebagai usaha dakwah secara halus melalui cerita cinta dua anak muda. Susur galur cerita adalah berkisarkan kehidupan masyarakat Minang penuh tradisi yang tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lekang dek panas. Dalam usaha mempertahankan tradisi nenek moyang, tentu sekali ada golongan kurang beruntung nasib yang dipinggirkan hingga terpaksa makan hati berulam jantung, membawa diri ke tanah lain. Melalui konflik watak-watak utama, Hamka secara sinis memberi kritikan kepada masyarakat tempatan yang sering mementingkan darjat & kedudukan sambil meminggirkan nilai-nilai seperti budi pekerti & kesetiaan.

Jalan cerita digarap dengan penggunaan bahasa yang begitu halus, sekaligus memberi kepuasan kepada jiwa yang jarang sekali terhibur dengan kualiti penulisan terbitan tempatan. Dakwah Hamka bahawa setiap jiwa yang hidup pasti ada ketentuan daripada Tuhan tidak lepas daripada pandangan & begitu menginsafkan. 

4. The Disappearing Spoon & Other True Tales of Madness, Love & the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

For the sake of brevity, let us first agree to call this book The Disappearing Spoon.

As the title suggests, this history-cum-scientific book explores the incredible (at times tragic) stories behind each element in the Periodic Table. The tales shine some light on important characters who contributed to the discovery & subsequent development of individual chemical elements, with frequent twists & conflicts that promise to be both entertaining & informational. Sam Kean's style of storytelling reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson's, with obvious reference to The Short History of Nearly Everything.

Chapters are short & arranged, not surprisingly according to their groupings in the Periodic Table, making this an easy read. This also has an advantage of allowing chapters jumping, as one group in periodic table has little relations to others as you might recall from your secondary school chemistry lesson. In a perfect world, The Disappearing Spoon would be a useful reference tool for chemistry teachers all around the world in an effort to draw interest to the subject. But even if you are no fan of chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon is a book steeped in enlightening stories with plenty of relevance to day-to-day living.

5. The Corpse Exhibition & Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

Do you have a tragic personal story? Now try to recount that story in your head. "That's a story? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart."

In what must have been one of the most memorable lines I ever encountered in literature, Hassan Blasim quashed your definition of tragic & brought our attention to the collective plight of the long-suffering Iraqis trapped between violent past & uncertain future.

This explosive work of fiction assembles short stories focusing on the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective. Some words of caution, in case that is not quite clear already - there are bodies & blood everywhere, with smell of death in the air so this will not count as an easy read. When not shedding lights directly on the toil of war, the author gives us a peek at the seemingly normal routine of the fictional locals e.g. a street sweeper, a knife seller, but the twist is what appears as normal to these people are in truth far from so upon closer look, because lives, perspectives & behaviours are forever altered when all you see around you are grim pictures.

Bonus: A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid

This year was my second time reading A Malaysian Journey, hence its exclusion from the main list.

The setting was the early 1990s, Malaysia was (& still is) a young country brimming with promise & the author, Rehman Rashid was back in the country after a long hiatus. In his attempt to understand the country better, Rehman embarked on a journey across all states to meet & explore the lives of the locals. Sounds romantic eh? The book unfurls promisingly with tales from Rehman's train journey from Thailand to the northernmost state of Perlis, which brought a hint of Robert Kaplan's romanticism. As Rehman made his way across the country, he traced family ties, met random strangers & reconnects with old peers, all while trying to understand the state of the nation & its future. 

There is also plenty of history for the readers - from Merdeka days right up to the Mahathirism era - as places like Taiping & Cameron Highlands were harked back to their bygone days. They say history always finds a way to repeat itself, & true to this as I ponder the lessons from the past on offer, I could not help but draw parallels to present-day situations. Rehman wrote without any fear or agenda, & while the ramblings may strike some as controversial, they also offer rare insights from one of the most genuine minds we ever had in journalism. Sadly, A Malaysian Journey was to be his first & last book.

The book probably makes the top 5 in the local authors category in my personal list. If you appreciate a trip down the history lane or you are a romantic nationalist like me, A Malaysian Journey is sure to give you a memorable journey.

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