Alright, I had an even better time reading books last year compared to 2020. I still haven’t moved on from concentrating most of my reading during the summer, but I’ve realized I’m like this with every media except music. I tend to consume a lot of something in a span of a few months and then I get burned out. Anyway, here are my top 5 books I’ve read in 2021, most of the mini-reviews featured on this list are directly lifted from my Goodreads profile – so A+ on effort for this post.
5. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
I used to have this dumb assumption that Frankenstein was a simple man vs. monster type of story and obviously it’s not. I read this for my Brit Lit class and this is way more complex and multi-layered than I thought it would be. Reading the descriptions of natural settings comes off as therapeutic as it seems to be for both Victor and the creature. Shelley’s commentary on ethics behind scientific discovery is a lot more nuanced than I expected it to be given the premise., and her background of her growing up in the midst of the Industrial Revolution – a time where the rapid technological development spooked a lot of people, including her. I loved how the humanization of the creature was done, and her incorporation of Milton’s work added another layer of interpreting the Victor in a Promethean-like character – I haven’t read any John Milton so that aspect kind of went over my head. It’s an ambitious piece of work and I agree with the classic status it has.
4. Georges Bataille – Story of the Eye
This is easily the most disgusting and depraved book I’ve ever read (please look up content warnings and all that before reading this), it gave me a visceral shock on a comparable scale when I watched the infamous Salo (even though these two works don’t share much other than that both depict explicit acts of sexual and violent depravity). I mean, on the surface level, it reads like some surreal smut and there are certainly undeniable fetishistic and arousing elements in the writing. I didn’t really get what the book was going for until I noticed that, in the midst of all the noise of debauchery, there was some coherence in terms of symbolism involving wet, globular objects and the events that followed this spiral of getting more and more closer to death.
After I looked up some discussions on the book, I learned basic ideas on Bataille’s philosophy on eroticism – I don’t think I can agree or disagree with this until I read some more works by him but they are interesting. His main thesis seems to be that eroticism is like an infection that drives humans to push their idea of eroticism onto objects or people that are not intuitively erotic, and eventually, this leads to violence and finally, death. That’s what I got from cursory research, and it fits with what I think this novella seems to be going for – the book itself is like an infection that puts the reader in an uncomfortable position, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that seems to be both provocative in the most surreal and disturbing ways while making a surprisingly salient argument on the author’s philosophy through simple but powerful instances symbolism scattered throughout this “story”. If nothing else, I’ll never forget reading this book, I had a mild fever and I think that’s the best condition to be in while reading this because the novella reads like collaged fever dreams. The best way to combat infection is by reading infected books. I’m kidding.
3. Haruki Murakami – 1Q84
I haven’t seen character writing, especially for the central cast, done more thoroughly in the other half-dozen Murakami books I’ve read so far. For once, our male protagonist isn’t the bland, 15 cups of coffee drinking loiterer who, for the most time, seems to be solely there for the reader to project themselves onto. Tengo, the male protagonist, is reserved but has a history that doesn’t just revolve around an enigmatic pixie girl like a few other Murakami protagonists. The way Murakami developed the relationship and dynamic between Tengo and his father made for some of the most powerful moments in the novel. Aomame’s characterization was a pleasant surprise because I haven’t read Murakami write female characters in such a fleshed-out way, sure – she and Fuka-Eri still have an aura of the enigma that Murakami loves to shroud his female characters with but there’s a lot more nuance to their respective characterizations. Now, 1Q84 reads like an epic, with Murakami not only going out of his comfort zone in characterization but also, in terms of narrative structure, it’s probably his most ambitious novel to date.
I enjoyed the literary and music references, and how all of them were weaved into the themes and plot of the story – this is nothing new to a Murakami novel but the references come off a lot more consistent and coherent. Out of the magical realism Murakami novels, 1Q84 ended up making the most sense probably because the length helped with fleshing out the world and concepts. I think the execution of his ambitious ideas was better and more coherent than I expected, given that I came off WInd-Up Bird Chronicle feeling very frustrated with the absolute stagnation in the second half. Speaking of which, my biggest gripe is that the story dragged quite a bit in the last leg of part 3. Other than that, Murakami’s buttery metaphor-laden writing coasted me through most of this lengthy book pretty comfortably. The more I think about it, the more I feel that this is in my top 3 Murakami novels ever.
2. Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha
With poetic style transposed onto prose, Siddhartha reads very much like a fable, or a tale. There is a sense of timelessness in the narrative, with the sentences often overrunning and overwhelming with simple language but dense observations. The prose is so lyrical that I often found myself muttering the text as if I was reciting it to myself.
The story of Siddhartha is simple in structure. With him being a fictional contemporary of the Buddha, the story follows his journey, his modes of life in search for “enlightenment” or “the truth”. Admittedly, I’m not all that knowledgeable about Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, so I cannot comment on the accuracy or faithfulness in those aspects. But what I can comment on is that the ideas that are presented in the book are compelling. In terms of general observations, the story follows Siddhartha as he sifts through various modes of life, and realizes three basic things: Wisdom cannot be taught, it can only be gained through experience, Time doesn’t exist, and that life isn’t complete without both suffering and bliss.
I felt that this duality, this ying-yang approach that Hesse takes to talk about Siddhartha’s moments of joy and despair helped hammer the final point in. It even feels cohesive to the other two statements. But these general observations are just the tip of the iceberg – there are interesting ideas on listening to nature, on lust being related to death and so many disparate things that Siddhartha picks up from his life experience.
I could babble on and on about this short novel, but I really think it’s great, insightful, and even life-affirming. A book that has words that make you think instead of just giving you their meaning, similar to Siddhartha’s own philosophy. I want to re-read this after I read through Hesse’s other novels down the line.
1. Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Okay, where to start with this… or more like, how to start with this?
Going into this with the context of it being a classic that I should’ve read years ago and vaguely remembering that Wilde’s writing is flowery and witty from reading his essay “The Critic as Artist” (I don’t remember anything from it, need to reread) – I had sizeable expectations but I wasn’t prepared to witness how deep Wilde’s mastery went into writing – not just writing the character arc of Dorian and his mental battles over “good” and “evil” (or more like hedonism and hypocrisy, as I would imagine Harry would put it), but spiraling that out into a tapestry highlighting tasteful mockery of the late-era Victorian elites, philosophical musings on the art vs. the artist, gothic scenery building, and the overarching human condition of vanity and egotism.
Harry’s seemingly-paradoxical, epigrammatic speeches (and tangentially Wilde’s prose) are like flower beds with the flowers thorned with misanthropy, cynicism – but as much as they might be dismissed as empty witticisms (and to be honest, there are a few that felt empty or facetious to me), there’s truth to some of those ceaselessly entertaining aphorisms. I think those were the aspects of the book that drew me in.
What immersed me into the novel is the effectiveness of Wilde’s flowery writing, it is amazing how effective Dorian’s moods of fear, ecstasy, hypocrisy, and boyishness were portrayed, through the use of goth-hued scene descriptions and analogies that stick. I never found descriptions to be over-indulgent… except for the description of the various exotic ornaments that Dorian collected over the years, which felt like it took that much time to read. Maybe that was the only dull point in the book.
Despite the novel carrying some simplistic morals, it never really felt preachy or heavy-handed. Rather, I think the complex and dual-natured portraits of a handful number of characters made the verdict on vanity all the muddier – sure it is destructive, but is anyone salvageable from it once they fall under its spell?
Anyway, 10/10 – would read it again.
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That’s it for this year-end list. See ya soon.