My Favorite Books From 2020

It’s been a very non-eventful year, a reflection that I recognize is coming from a privileged position when I think back at the millions or so of people that contracted the virus, the significant portion of those that ultimately didn’t get out alive, and, speaking about local matters, all the people that lost their jobs when businesses were shuttered from the quarantine and those that got served subpoenas for speaking out against the uncountable missteps that the government took.

Thinking about these things is what ultimately stopped me in my attempt to document the scourge of quarantine, because while others were fighting in court for their right to free speech, fighting in the emergency rooms for the lives of innocent patients, my quarantine looked more like this: waking up at six in the morning for my two cups of black coffee, sneaking in a quick read from whichever book I’ve pulled out of my largely unread personal library, and then spending the next nine hours in front of the laptop for work. Afterwards it’d be a quick reset nap for me, and then another two or three hours of reading before dinner.

So yeah – books. What a depressing course that introduction took only to end up with the world’s curious little piece of outdated technology. We’ve let of Blu-Ray and cassette tapes. Roller shoes are now just a thing of ridicule. And I wonder if the new generation growing up on sixty-second tiktoks even know what a Nokia phone is supposed to look like. (A one-inch screen? If you showed them one right now would they even believe it’s a phone?) But through the salient trends in fashion and technology that come and go from one generation to another, somehow we still have books, and thank god for that, because if I didn’t have them with me through the past eight months (our quarantine started in March) I’d have lost my mind before the end of the first semester.

In this post I wanted to go into some length (it won’t be too long, don’t worry) about the books that made my year just a little less bleak, and put my accelerating sense of mental and emotional isolation at bay at least for me to face another, quite possibly equally bleak year. In a later post, I’ll be talking about my reading goals for 2021 and how to make sure i make it to 2022 with my sanity in one whole – if slightly worn – piece.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I wanted to put this one first because I know it’s about to be a mouthful. I used to be the biggest fan of Murakami, and for the most part I think I still am something of a big fan. The peak of my love for this quirky Japanese writer was in college, when questions about building up my future and getting serious in life started to surface from the primordial swamps of my brain. It was the perfect time to be reading Norwegian Wood, his first novel to become a hit outside of his home country.

Norwegian Wood tells the story of Toru Watanabe as he wades through university life, attempting his escape from the shadow of his best friend’s recent suicide, while at the same time entering into sexual and philosophical awakening. The novel’s depiction of university life and student movement, including Toru’s own disenfranchisement towards student activism made me feel right at home, welcomed me warmly into a life that at times felt uncannily like a mirror image of my own. But re-reading it again in 2020, well out of college, made me realize how much of Murakami’s worlds are based on a terrible misreading (or mis-writing) of his female characters.

The two lead women in the book, Naoko, dead girlfriend to Toru’s deceased friend, and Midori, act less like characters and more like symbols, ideals between which Toru must choose. Does he enter back into the shadow, and struggle to build a semblance of a life within it with Naoko, or does he escape it entirely and live in the moment with Midori? The shadow has left Naoko sexually incapacitated, literally unable to experience arousal except for one key moment in the novel that Murakami never bothers to explain, while freedom has gifted Midori with drive and curiosity that just borders on predatory, but is dab smack inside manic pixie dream girl territory. In the end Toru is able to find a synthesis between his two choices, but through a series of events that makes one question whether Toru even attempts to have a hand in this fate, or whether he’s simply allowing himself to be pushed here and there by the force of convenience (and sexual gratification).

Midori and Toru, from the 2010 film adaption directed by Tran Anh Hung

Maybe it’s a culture thing? But something that never fail to bother me about Murakami’s character, in full display in Wood, is the way he’s constantly sexualizing his female characters, to the point that his own male lead’s struggle becomes defined or at the very least directed by sex with said female. Of this, I would point towards his later novel, the much more voluminous Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which features a so-called “prostitute of the mind.” To a comedic note (or at least I find it comedic), Murakami’s male leads often take on an “average man” philosophy – and I mean that literally. His characters never stop talking about they’re some ordinary dude, but for the entirety of the novel’s run we find women of all kinds (sexy or not, young or old, singe or married) throw themselves at him. Watanabe in Norwegian Wood is a prime example of this, who receives sexual favor from both Midori and Naoko, and spends nights with a college buddy going to bars and picking up women.

Having gone at length with what’s basically a rant against Murakami, why put Norwegian Wood at the top of my best-of for 2020? Because despite of these flaws – flaws that, admittedly, my horny college self failed to notice at first reading – Norwegian Wood and a ton of other books in Murakami’s bibliography continue to hold a special place in my heart. Not only was Murakami one of the first writers to pave the way for my serious appreciation for literature (but in the reading and the creation of), his books were among the first to make me feel the way Fitzgerald says is the function of literature: they made me feel understood, and that though life may take us down a crazy path that seems to end up nowhere, it can be worth it. Questions, at least in the lives of Murakami’s characters, don’t need satisfying answers to be worth asking. Sometimes a talking cat is just a talking cat. Things will resolve – though often in ways we never anticipate. What’s important is to hold on, and to keep on walking anyway.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

Next on the list is Japan’s infamous depressive and failed suicide. According to a Japan Times article Dazai’s first attempt was in December 1929, when he attempted to overdose himself on sleeping pills the night before his school exams. The attempt failed, but Dazai would try again a year later, in October 1930, this time with a woman he was hardly familiar with. Together they jumped into a beach in Kamakura, but only his partner ended up drowning, while Dazai was fortunately rescued by a passing fishing boat. A third attempt saw him hanging himself from his Tokyo apartment, but even this he survived. His last recorded attempt was with his wife in 1936, but once again, they lived.

Osamu Dazai. Official source unknown.

His novel, No Longer Human, reflects something of the twisted and tragic personality behind the storied Dazai. Although the book is fiction, it carries undeniable traces of autobiography, not the least of them his attempts at suicide (the double suicide with the woman in Kamakura happens in the novel, and in it the woman is also the lone fatality of the incident). The novel is written as a series of notebooks by a man named Yozo, who struggles with connecting with the people around him and in fitting with a society that he deems too normalizing and full of people living in bad faith. Besides his attempts at suicide, Yozo wanders from one relationship to another, each ending disastrously for either or both parties, and circulates in and out of addiction with alcohol and drugs.

There is a danger with books like No Longer Human of becoming either too unbearable of ludicrous, but Dazai manages to direct the narrative with a mix of sympathy and cruel irony that endears Yozo to the reader even at his lowest point. At one point of the book, Yozo witnesses his wife being sexually assaulted by one of her acquaintances, and rather than make him pity or defend her, the incident leaves him estranged and distances himself once more, leading him back on a downward spiral to drinking and morphine addiction. Yozo toes the line but never manages to cross over into the territory of exasperating, and much of that is due to Yozo’s transparency and his heightened self-awareness.

But why depress ourselves by stepping into Yozo’s shoes? Because we are much closer to rock bottom than we think. Few of us will ever experience the extreme depths of isolation and self-hatred that Yozo struggles with in No Longer Human, but in the same vein as Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (another classic featuring the downward spiral to hell of a troubled depressive), but isolation and loneliness are feelings we’re bound to experience to some degree at many different points in life, and in reading Yozo’s “notebooks” we become acquainted with a character that understands. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that despite how Yozo may ramble on about himself being rejected by society and unworthy of love and friendship, the novel ends with a casual observer who has collected Yozo’s notebooks and communicated with the people that had associated with Yozo, and concludes him to be someone who was, after all, a good person. During an interview with the madam of Yozo’s oft-frequented bar, the madam describes him as follows:

“It’s his father’s fault,” she said unemotionally. “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing, and if only he hadn’t drunk—no, even though he did drink—he was a good boy, an angel.”

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Here’s a fun little story: back in 2015, I published my first short story with a major literary magazine in the Philippines. The short story involved the coming out of a young gay man to his family. While my parents were unquestionably proud of their son finding a major venue for his writings at such a young age, questions were – and I should have expected this – awkwardly raised about my being gay. Despite the clear label that said “Fiction” I was quick to realize that when you write about queer people you’re automatically doubted to be among said queer people (which hasn’t exactly discouraged me). This time I realize that the same also goes for reading: read a book about gay men, and people question your straightness. Can’t we all just enjoy fiction, regardless of the people fucking within the pages?

I started reading the book around February, before the government was ready to admit to the risk of the growing pandemic and I was still commuting to and from the office. One of my officemates apparently had heard about the movie somehow. Every day he saw me carrying around the book he’d teasingly ask me about it, and he seemed to get a kick out every time I answered that yes, yes in fact I was liking it. It’s a shame when I realize that this means a lot of straight men are going to be turned off by the idea of reading about a gay couple, when the book is this fucking beautiful. Aciman’s writing is symphonic, so carefully paced and worded that a few words in and the sentence basically carry themselves, carry you, into what can be more accurately described as an experience.

Letters To A Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart

Some books you pry open for the first time and you’re just captivated from the first word. Screw whatever you’re reading at the moment, you just got to read this first. This is the best description of my experience reading Letters To A Young Mathematician by English mathematician Ian Stewart. This was already in the middle of the quarantine, during the first few months when we still carried around the idea that we’ll all be back out by June or July (oh how foolish we all were).

Stuck seven days a week to my corner of the house working from morning to eve, I found repose in trolling through the various communities on reddit. On one academic subreddit I came across Letters being mentioned as being a highly recommended read, and even though I still hadn’t purchased my Kindle, I went over to Amazon and checked the book out. I went through the first few pages of the Kindle version and was instantly hooked. I can’t even remember what I was reading at the time (I think it must have been Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids). Those first few words opened up a split in the fabric of space and time inside of which I was only reading this book and nothing else.

Letters, as the title suggests, is written as a series of letters to a young girl named Meg, with Stewart’s gentle voice reading like that of an uncle or a godfather. Through these letters Stewart mentors Meg through her budding appreciation of Mathematics after her reading the ever-classic A Wrinkle In Time and through the years gives her guidance from conquering the challenges of Mathematics to more practical matters such as navigating the waters of graduate school.

The book might dull in interest towards those outside of the Mathematical community, but I’d recommend it as a worthy reading material for anybody looking to take (or are already in) a career in academia. Most of the topics that Stewart touches on don’t only apply for the Hardies and the Poincares and the Terry Tao’s of the world. Stewart, through Meg, teaches the value and ways of research, and how to become a valuable member of the academic community. And for those with tenure and can already consider themselves versed in both areas, the book touches on the value of mentorship and inspiring the next generation of Megs.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden. © Endgame Entertainment

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

The dryness of quarantine got me rifling through one interest after another. If our hobbies came in cycles that add up to a year, then the number of cycles I went through in the months of being stuck at home must have been enough for two or three years of boredom. Around June, due to all my searching of coronavirus-related videos, Youtube finally recommended me an episode covering the pandemic from John Oliver’ s Last Week Tonight on HBO. I already knew about John Oliver and Last Week Tonight, but until then I’d never actually bothered to check out the show.

What followed was a full week of binge watching (or binge-listening) every available episode on Youtube. I’d watch episodes during my breaks and keep it playing in the background during work. Eventually I reached the episode in which John Oliver flies all the way to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, America’s infamous whistleblower. Like Oliver, I’d heard of Snowden before, mostly from a friend, but again I never bothered to learn more. I actually even knew about his ingenious play with Rubik’s cube that allowed him to smuggle classified documents while in the government’s employ, a shtick that played out almost exactly as I’d imagined it from my friend’s telling in the 2015 adaptation directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The film I saw right after the Last Week Tonight episode, and then after that I got a hold of Laura Poitras’ documentary on the NSA leak. Wanting to know more, I found out that Snowden actually published a biography – I got myself a copy online in no time (thanks, Kindle). The biography I consumed in three days – Snowden has a warm voice on the page that made the biography read as if he was telling us about hitting his first three pointer during the university playoffs instead of his journey from unknown programmer to enemy of the state. But this is all to the book’s advantage: media interest in the secrets that Snowden unearthed to the public have all but died out, and the only remaining rhetoric that remains is his government’s own takedown of his character as a untrustworthy and unforgivable traitor.

Snowden’s biggest sin is his refusal to bow down to government overreach (ironically the same battlecry of American Republicans, gun rights advocates, and Trump supporters whose primary goal is to maintain – if not strengthen – the government’s grip on the status quo), and his affirmation of individual rights to privacy. As more of our activities carry over into the internet, Snowden’s message has only become more relevant, and it’s almost painful to see the public continue to sleep on it. If anything, Snowden’s book, along with the equally stunning and terrifying Citizenfour, deserves to be among the pieces of modern reportage that should be required reading not just for Americans, but for everyone around the world.

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