Mid-year Mini List of Favorite Non-fiction Reads

bookshelf, reading

You know I am into non-fiction, writing and reading. A consistent trend in non-fiction writing has been the emergence of academics as non-fiction writers and as more and more do so, we can clearly see how some of them are gifted writers.

I laid my hands on two super books of narrative non-fiction this year – Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch. While Desmond’s book tracks eight homeless families in America, Shah embarks on a ten-day journey with some of India’s most dreaded Maoists. Both are great works of narrative non-fiction. The writing is deep and informed, coming as it does from years of research by the academics who wrote these books. But what’s really interesting is that both the books use immersive storytelling to craft stories and both writers have spent years observing the people they write about. This is a masterful, credible and empathetic body of work. This is what has made narrative non-fiction literature very interesting. The book I am working on falls in the genre, so I asked Alpa Shah about dabbling in the genre as an academic. The interview will soon be out on my blog, so keep reading. I also reviewed Shah’s book for Newslaundry.

I also loved Anand Giridhardas’s Winners Take All and James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj. Crabtree’s book is a book about the rising inequality in India, the story told through the lives of the super-rich in India and their unwieldy influence on Indian institutions. Read Ajit Ranade’s review here.

I greatly enjoyed reading Winners Take All – the book has a catty, acerbic tone and it’s, therefore, a delightful read. Giridhardas’s book turns its gaze on people immersed in social innovation and philanthropy efforts, social impact consulting and impact investing. Anand argues that “business elites are taking over the work of changing the world,” and that “many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.” In this book, the contradictions of those who work for social change from positions of privilege and wealth are exposed as the author probes into their shortcomings and their limitations.

Anand’s book drew my attention because I too have spent five years working for some of the startups in India and has had a close view of the ecosystem. The author raises thought-provoking questions in the book – are the capitalists who have been working hard to solve the world’s problems, part of the problem y perpetuating the evils? Are they looking enough within their own business practices, privilege, and access to power? Giridharadas writes that “a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system” will always fail. And while I love the book, here is a very interesting criticism of the book, though, as catty as Anand’s book itself. Do read for fun.

Hilliby Elegy by JD Vance and Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body are stunning memoirs. While Vance’s book presents a detailed and moving account of the American struggle (a New Yorker review is here), critic, translator and author Gokhale recounts her unusual life lived through the body. I wouldn’t say much because excellent reviews on both are available online. For Vance, this one is my favorite and this one for Gokhale.

I would end this list of my favorite reads this year with Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother and Karoline Kan’s Under Red Skies, both eminent reads on contemporary China. Fincher’s book turns its focus on a section of college-educated Chinese women in China’s major cities who have come together to lead a feminist revolution working to put up a challenge to patriarchy, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexism, facilitated by social media. In 2012, these women took to the streets in China to engage in performance art and shared videos of their activities online. This provoked widespread discussion and debate and the Chinese govt had to act to restrain them. Fincher’s book recounts this in her gripping book, which is based interviews with these young women, including the group that came to be known as the Feminist Five.

Kan’s Under Red Skies is a beautiful, evocative memoir on growing up in China as a millennial. Kan, born in 1989, the year of the massacre, writes a coming-of-age story blending family history and China’s cultural landscape as a background that not just highlights the generational differences and the urban-rural divide in China but also delves deep into the psyche of a millennial who grew up in China in the midst of the state-mandated one-child norm and cyber-surveillance. If you are interested in China, these are the two essential reads for you.

So that’s it – I have deliberately kept the list short, forcing myself to pick just a few. Not all books I have mentioned have been released this year but I list these because I read them this year. This is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list – it only reflects my interest and appreciation of books I have truly enjoyed reading so far this year. Hope you find the list useful. Happy reading.

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