The Kreutzer Sonata (****)
Here's a book that if you read it at the surface level and take the protagonist's views or the opposite of it as the author's own position then there are many reasons to dislike it, or even hate it. It may seem misogynistic, sexist, and prudish. However, I feel the book is far more complex than such a one-dimensional assessment. Tolstoy, in his characteristic style, penetrates the mind of the protagonist and explores the protagonist's psychological state, as well as the chain of thought that leads to his actions. This is simply brilliant, and I see little need to put his actions and his thoughts in neat-looking morality buckets.
Thoreau, Henry David
This is considered a classic, and so I went in with expectations. In many ways, it is a good read. His descriptions of the Walden pond are done with such tenderness and reverence towards nature that I longed to experience it myself. His attitude towards many things, including conservation, social equality, the exploitative nature of capitalism, was also far ahead of his times.
However, It was impossible for me to agree with his philosophy and his attitude towards work and towards technological innovations. He had a strong conviction that the only life worth living is the life of a meditative mind, and we should design our lives such that we devote as much time as possible to that, at the expense of all other activities that make our physical existence more bearable. There is a constant attempt to convince the reader that he, as a poet and a philosopher, is the ideal human being, and almost anyone else is living a worthless life. This persistent tone of self-superiority, at the expense of all "normal" humans, got rather tiring and a bit absurd.
His attitude towards all forms of human ingenuity and enterprise also sounds ill-conceived, and borderline Luddite. He is against the railway as superfluous and believes the rush is totally unnecessary. He dismisses the telegraph between Europe and America because he believes it can only carry trivial information because no one has anything worthwhile to say. Such statements only expose his inability to understand and accept that other people may have different aspirations, and perhaps others are also living a meaningful life of their minds.
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (****)
Lightman is one of the most appealing combinations of a scientist and an artist. He has a deep understanding of science, which is unfortunately rare even among professional scientists. And he is also a practicing artist and not just someone who has a peripheral appreciation of the arts. This rare combination is what makes Lightman particularly precious.
In this series of essays, he allowed himself to be free of any central theme and talked about a number of things that made him think and meditate. In the process, he takes his readers to strange mental places and provokes them to think. There is not much here that is particularly new, either in terms of scientific facts or their interpretation. In fact, I have seen far deeper discussions of most of these topics in other books. However, Lightman adds a touch of poetry that is hard to find elsewhere.
Personally, I enjoyed reading it a lot and may go back to it again after a gap. He announced it as "musings" and therefore did not have the compulsion to argue his opinions. Therefore I cannot fault him for making certain statements without any arguments. I wish I could ask, because I could not agree with some of his positions, and would have loved to hear what he has to say.
I was attracted to this novel after reading and liking Breasts and Eggs, but this one disappointed me. It is certainly an intense read, but that intensity comes from contrived situations, intended to make the reader uncomfortable. It isn't that hard to make a reader cringe, so succeeding in that cannot be seen as an accomplishment. I don't mind being uncomfortable, but it has to sound believable, and more importantly, it must lead to something meaningful, important, and hopefully profound. The philosophical end of this novel seemed somewhat uninteresting and obvious to me. I did not feel mentally richer after reading it. In fact, I felt I am being manipulated towards something, which is never a good feeling.
I know I am in the minority here. Since I liked one of her novels, I may read more of her work, but this one I could have skipped.
Words Without Music: A Memoir (****)
I am generally skeptical about the genuineness of an autobiography. Through my own experience, I have come to the conclusion that we humans are simply incapable of not justifying our actions and portraying ourselves in a positive light. Even when I admit some dark side of my past, I want my audience to be impressed by my honesty, and my courage to tell the truth. For deeds that go beyond that desired effect, I simply don't talk about them. I am yet to come across an autobiography where I did not come out with a sense of reverence towards the individual, and that itself further strengthens my conviction. As a consequence, I read any biography with a filter of skepticism. Perhaps that is a bit unfair for some people, who genuinely lived a spotless life, but I can't help it.
Phillip Glass largely avoids the effect of this filter by not spending too much time on his personal life and mostly focussing on the creative process behind one of the most consequential and radical artists of our time. It is easier to remain honest about one's creative process, but it is certainly not easy to be introspective about one's own creative mechanism. I think that is where this book is so successful. Unlike most other people, Philip Glass has somehow been able to capture the main thread of his creative journey well enough to be able to explain it to others. This is particularly difficult because he is dealing with the most abstract form of art that is music. It is also extremely difficult to describe the structure of a piece of music in words, without audio illustrations, especially to nonmusicians, but he somehow manages to pull it off.
Another thing that stood out was his level of conviction in what he was trying to achieve. Throughout his life, he seems to have been able to see his priorities very clearly and did not hesitate to forego a lot of creature comforts in order to have more opportunities to create. He did factory jobs, did construction and plumbing jobs, worked as a mover, and drove taxis in NYC, even when he was somewhat well known and was performing worldwide. He worked these jobs only as much as was necessary to live a simple life, and never more, so as to leave more time for his music composition. This aspect of his life should be a motivating example for any person who wants to achieve something of lasting value, especially in the arts. In my own experience, it is a very rare quality, and the lack of it is often the barrier that stops many creative people from achieving their full potential.
The only thing that bothered me a little is his lifelong attraction towards eastern mysticism. This belief probably helped him in his creative journey, so who am I to complain? But still, I can't help myself cringe a little when someone says that even after death, a person's "energy" lingers on for a few hours before it leaves the body.
Convenience Store Woman (****)
The following quotes sum up the essence of this simply written book. Simple, but it touches on some deeper truths about the culture we live in and take for granted.
"People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village...
You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to 'cure' me."
The Door (*****)
One thing I can say for sure about this book -- I am not exactly the same person that I was before I read this book. Perhaps all good books are like that, but the change is often subtle. But this one came in like a storm and made me question so many things about my life and my world. Also, like any good novel, it is hard to put my finger on one thing that this book is about. It casts its shadow on all aspects of our sense of self, our moral stands, and our priorities. Above all, it is a spiritual tribute to humanity. There is no easy good and bad here -- just the infinite complexities of our minds, our stories, and our moral responsibilities.
As I started reading this book, a few doubts started popping up about the credibility of the main characters. But very soon I realized I have entered a world that is just beyond the questions of physical reality, and the characters, by being a little exaggerated, can enter our consciousness more easily. What an amazing experience!
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (***)
The title of the book is misleading, and probably intentionally so. True, it is the sudden appearance and disappearance of the enigmatic space object called Oumuamua in 2017 that started it all. While most scientists could not fully describe what it was but still accepted it as an exotic extra stellar object, Avi Loeb, one of the most respected astrophysicists at Harvard, suggested that it could be the product of some other intelligent species. As expected, this suggestion was mostly laughed at and ignored by mainstream scientists.
A small part of this book is Avi Loeb's argument why this is a more likely explanation of the peculiarities of this object. However, the book is really about his claim that mainstream scientists suffer from a certain type of conservatism that prevents them from deviating from the majority view, and they are extremely nervous about suggesting any imaginative and speculative hypothesis, even when the data suggests it to be a plausible candidate theory. I think he is absolutely correct in his assessment, and it took someone of his stature to even talk about it. If any lesser scientist would have suggested something like this, that would have been the end of their career as a scientist.
Scientists are supposed to be thorough, rigorous, and only say things that they can support with solid logic and reliable data. However, that should not prevent a scientist from coming up with logically sound but unconventional propositions. In reality, it is almost impossible to suggest some ideas without risking one's career. The issue of extraterrestrial visitors is one such area because it immediately triggers memories of cheap science fiction and other folk myths.
This oppressive culture of idea censorship often forces serious scientists to either not talk about radical ideas they may have, or publish them as fictional work or popular magazine speculative articles. This is a huge loss because we are deprived of hearing many promising ideas coming out of some of our most creative minds. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was an accepted culture of scientists choosing to publish conventional work in traditional scholarly journals, but also have another respected outlet for more adventurous ideas? It is a sad state of things when someone with Avi Loeb's credentials, still has to repeatedly remind the readers of his credibility as a scientist. What if a younger scientist came up with this idea. Without such credentials to fall back upon, I don't think this idea would have seen the light of the day. Right or wrong, it is an idea that should be allowed to compete with other theories.
This is not a very well-written book, but I am glad that he used his notoriety to talk about this issue, and that is what makes it a significant book.
The Character of Physical Law (*****)
It is so very rare to come across someone who understands something with such clarity that leaves you stunned and in awe, and perhaps a little dwarfed. It is even rarer to find someone with such clarity to communicate the same clear understanding to another person. This book is exactly that. I have not come across another piece of writing that is clearer than Feynman's understanding of the basic principles of Physics, his deep understanding of the scientific method, and above all, what is the meaning of understanding anything.
While reading this series of lectures from more than 50 years ago, I had to constantly wonder will I ever have the satisfaction of understanding anything to this depth. I don't think so, and that is the greatest tragedy of most of us. We will never be able to claim that we truly understood something. There are only a few people who ever lived who can enjoy this feeling of seeing into a messy, opaque sphere and seeing through it to its center and understanding the elegant mechanism that makes it tick. The rest of us will only penetrate the first few layers, but then our vision gets fuzzy, confused by the less important details.
This is where science and arts come together. Scientists see through one part of the sphere, artists through another, writers through yet another. Perhaps Dostoyevski had a similar clear view through his part of the sphere and could see the deepest truths behind human nature. Perhaps Picasso could see through physical forms. The ultimate goal of any thinking person can only be the desire to see through and make some sense of it all.
There are many open questions that Feynman was pondering in these essays, and many of them got solved. Some were resolved during his lifetime, others after he died. For all curious people, this must be the ultimate detective story. The story keeps unfolding, but we all know that we will die before the book is over.
Interior Chinatown (***)
From a formal standpoint, this book is brilliantly innovative. I was mesmerized by the storytelling format that it employed, but as that surprise wore off, the book left me asking for more. I was particularly disappointed by the sympathy-begging tone it adopted towards the Chinese immigrant community. Undoubtedly that community was mistreated by the American mainstream and we should all acknowledge that. However, the book is written in recent times, and the social stature of present-day Asians is not the same. In spite of the anti-Asian sentiments that are surfacing today, this community no longer needs anyone's sympathy. It is definitely not a lost community, desperately looking for an identity or a foothold. In fact, part of the recent right-wing reaction is due to the reality that this community is no longer waiting for anyone's approval.
To end on a positive note, the book is extraordinarily funny and makes very enjoyable reading.
Crying in H Mart (***)
It is hard not to fall in love with this book -- the story of a mixed-race individual who struggled to find her identity is confronted with the imminent loss of her mother, who provided the only frail connection to her Korean self. However, that pre-conditioned likability of the theme also made me more critical, and perhaps my ultimate judgment is distorted by that. It is sometimes hard to separate one's true feelings from the intellectually created ones.
The basic premise of the book is very powerful, and it became more irresistible due to the sensitive, unflinching, and mostly unsentimental way the writer narrated it. There are so many wonderful moments here that one should read it just for those nuggets of passionate and sensitive expression.
I wish the book ended with the mother's death. Everything worthwhile was already said and the writer did not have much to say after that. I think she could not resist the temptation to provide a happier ending, where she makes it as a musician. This final segment is probably also satisfying to many readers since we all love fairytale endings. It is a crime to double guess a writer's intentions, but I can't avoid thinking of the possibility of either ending the book with the death or skipping over all the intermediate chapters and directly coming to the very end where she is performing in a concert in Seoul.
I also found her overreliance on food as a literary device a little too distracting. It was a fine metaphor, but perhaps overemphasized and overused.
Personally, I was intrigued by her identity crisis when she was young as a culturally transplanted child with a mixed-race background. I too lived in two cultures, but I wasn't mixed race, and I spent all my formative years in India. As a result, my own self-identity was never in doubt. I never felt a need to discard or hide my original identity, to change my English accent, or the need to use food as a cultural lifeline. The author exposed a different reality, that I could have faced if I came to the US a little earlier in my life. One of the main reasons to read is to experience different lives through someone else's experience. This was a rich addition to my growing collection of other lives that I could have lived.
The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution (****)
Cockell, Charles S.
If you are a fan of science fiction and fed with a good dose of literary and movie SciFi, then you are definitely exposed to a wild menagerie of extraterrestrial life, entirely different from life as we know on our planet. They fill us with a sense of wonder, fear, revulsion, and above all the feeling that the universe is huge, and almost anything is possible in this vastness. We have all encountered life made of silicon thriving in a sea of acid, animals the size of islands, or animals whose physical form makes us shudder.
In this brilliant book physicist Charles Cockell systematically shows why life, anywhere in the universe, must still follow the same laws of physics and chemistry, and therefore cannot deviate too much from some fundamental constraints. These constraints work at many different scales. At the level of physical shape and form, the laws of physical forces may impose some constraints. That's why a mole found in Australia, which evolved independently of moles found elsewhere in the world, still has a similar body shape to help in the task of burying through the ground.
His arguments get even more compelling at the scale of atoms and molecules. The physics that determines the formation of chemical compounds, mostly derived from the Pauli Exclusion Principle, may impose very strong biases towards a carbon-based life form. Like any good scientist, he is not entirely ruling out another basis of life that may evolve in entirely different environmental conditions, but he shows that the probability of that is extremely small. If we discover life elsewhere, there is a very strong possibility that it will be based on carbon-based chemistry, involving the same set of elements -- hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.
If we cannot discover life on other planets and satellites in the solar system, then it is rather unlikely that we will be able to analyze life around other stars. We may find tantalizing clues through telescopic observations and spectral analysis, but we will probably never know if they harbor multicellular complex life, or what they look like. Therefore, it is not very likely that we will be able to ever verify the claims made in this book, but the power of scientific thinking is that we can draw highly plausible conclusions about the universe that we will never observe directly. The confidence comes from the fact that we have repeatedly come to theoretical conclusions in science and later been able to confirm them through direct or indirect observations.
This book is a great exercise in systematic scientific thinking, and once again shows the power of reductionist methodologies when applied to the right problem.