Commentary: 5 Books I Read in Q1 of 2021

I read a lot of books. (Unfortunately, I’ve never tracked all the books I read, though that’s definitely a goal of mine for second quarter.) I’m not the most adventurous person when it comes to reading books–I like what I like, as I am in every other aspect of my life. However, I’m trying to make a real effort to read books in different genres this year and power through my reluctance.

This has been made a lot easier by the fact that I have now joined a few book clubs, which I highly recommend doing. I’m trying to make a real effort not to suggest any books that I want to read because I’ll read the books I want to read, but I want to ‘expand my horizons’ and read some new books. That’s been successful so far, and I thought I’d write a quick snappy commentary post on 5 standout books I’ve read in the first quarter of 2021!

1. The Partner Track by Helen Wan

Image from Amazon

I knew the rule: when you find an attractive, articulate minority woman in your midst, who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well–you want her.

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

I believe my sister received this book as a gift from her supervisor when she was an undergrad student and volunteering at a law-related organisation (?). It’s a very apt gift, as my sister is now a corporate lawyer similar to the main character of this book.

Personally, I found the actual writing and plot of the book to ultimately be forgettable. Nothing great, nothing bad. I was mildly interested in the story of who was going to make partner, whether her boyfriend was actually great or actually sucky, and her future at the company. It was all mildly interesting to someone who knows nothing about law except what she’s told by her sister.

However, I was very interested in the nuances of being a woman… of colour… in a very traditionally male-dominated field: law. Ingrid Yung is the first lawyer in her family, which adds to the dynamic. The story talks about nepotism, sexism, and racism all in one, which is no small feat. As someone who’s not in the workplace yet but kind of approaching it, I really appreciated learning about these social issues in the form of small, everyday experiences. The book showcases one very prominent instance, when a racist video goes viral and the company’s image is slandered, but it’s the subtle situations that this book writes about so well–never going into too much detail, but noting it as a fact of life and moving on.

2. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Image from Goodreads

But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I’ve briefly begun this book before, and found it vaguely interesting but ultimately stopped. I find that non-fiction takes me a bit longer to read because I need to be able to process the information, of which they have so much! I think that’s why I was able to get through the whole thing this time: by reading a few chapters at a time, I was able to take some time to think about what the book was saying, maybe incorporate it into my own life, and then go back for more.

I’m not going to say it’s changed my life because I don’t know if it has changed my life, but I do know that I’ve found it easier to implement habits after reading this book. The funny thing is, I couldn’t really tell you much about what it says about habit-building–I vaguely remember something about cue, action, reward?–but I found the most interesting tidbit I learned in the book to be about how a company made toothpaste popular. They used a cue, tooth film, to trigger the action of brushing your teeth so that you would feel clean afterwards (for completeness, they claimed the reward to be a beautiful smile).

And that’s what I’ve been focusing on when I do my habits: how do I feel afterwards, when I did the thing? If it’s a habit I want to cultivate, I usually really like the feeling. And for the habits I’ve successfully implemented into my life, I don’t even have to focus on the feeling. It’s just automatic.

3. Lady of the Eternal City by Kate Quinn

Image from Goodreads

You have spent so many years pretending to be a good man, Caesar, that I think you have become one.

Lady of the Eternal City by Kate Quinn

This is a cheat, because I read this book before this year. However, I re-read it with my sister while she was reading it for the first time, and I fell even more in love with the book. Also, it counts because it’s not really a book I would read normally. Also, I just want to talk about it.

Any kind of fiction that requires world-building is a nightmare to write, but I think historical fiction that depicts actual historical figures is the most difficult. There is a constant war between historical accuracy and narrative intrigue, and as an author you want to be respectful of the historical context while still developing it for a modern day audience. I’m no historian, and I knew nothing about Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus or Marcus before reading this book, but I think Kate Quinn did a wonderful job. The book is a good beginner’s introduction to a host of supremely interesting historical figures.

I wanted to talk about this book for two reasons: one, I admire the complexity of Hadrian’s character. Was he a good person, was he a bad person? I don’t think it’s for me to judge, but I can appreciate a multifaceted character in a book. For another, I have become very interested in Marcus Aurelius, whose character in the book is exactly the kind of person I like, and will be reading his Meditations next.

4. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Image from Amazon

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I read Orwell’s 1984 in high school and found it to be extremely frightening in what his ideas of a dystopian society were, and the similarities in our society today. Obviously, there are some differences, but the man’s ability to imagine the direction of the future and accurately depict a more extreme version of what our society is like boggles my mind. I was consequently curious about this book, and I wondered how similar the two books would be. On surface, they are both critiques about problematic societies, and I could see how these books were both written by the same person. However, the theme is still fairly different in execution.

It’s genuinely just frightening to see how easy it is for things to go awry, as they do in Animal Farm (or, similarly, in Lord of the Flies). The subtle evolution of their little animal farm society towards one that becomes more and more totalitarian is truly jaw-dropping as you watch how the pigs, mainly Napoleon, gain more power. So many examples in the story were relevant to society then and still now.

For example, I wanted to shout in frustration as I saw the ridiculous propaganda being paraded around by Snowball, and then the animals accepting it. The lack of literacy causing some animals to be left in the dark with what was going on. Or for some, the lack of energy. This is something that I thought was interesting, and applicable to life, especially today: people are busy, and people are tired. How do people have the time to keep up with the news and think critically about what’s going on in the world? They don’t. Most people don’t except for the powerful and free.

5. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Image from Amazon

It was the age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’d heard of Haruki Murakami before but dismissed his work as a kind of classic, mainstream novel that wouldn’t appeal to me. However, I was relatively excited to read it for book club, at the very least to be able to say that I had read a Haruki Murakami book.

I’ll start by saying that although it was pretty plotless in the way most coming-of-age books are, I enjoyed it more than I expected. I also enjoyed it without having to delve too much into its symbolism, which I figure would enhance the story but also make me think more about the book than I have to, and I fear that may cause me to dislike it. The writing is quite beautiful in some areas, and easy to read. The story, which starts slow, is pretty interesting, if bleak.

There are some pretty compelling problems I had with this book, mostly to do with its portrayal of women and the maybe-excessive use of suicide (though it could be valid because Japan has a lot of number of suicides, but it was personally too much for me). That being said, it had a unique atmosphere, and conveyed a sense of simple, everyday loneliness. I don’t think I’ll read another of his books, but I’m glad I read this one.

That’s a brief spiel about five interesting books I read this quarter! Do you have any book recommendations for me? I’d love to read some new books!

x B

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