It is time again to fulfill my annual ritual of sharing the books I read during the year. I don't think too many people will care to read it or find it useful, but I keep these records and notes primarily for myself, as it is easy to forget the initial impressions of reading a book, and sometimes the book itself.
I find it very hard to find good book recommendations, and we can read only so many. Therefore, if anyone finds these lists useful, then the time I spent preparing them would be worthwhile.
Don Quixote (*****)
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de
Though it has been on my reading-list for ages, I could never gather up the courage to pick up a thousand-page book written more than 400 years ago. Finally, the latest Rushdie novel, which was inspired by this book, gave me the necessary impetus. I am so glad that I did. I still cannot believe someone could write such a modern novel in the 17th century!
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (****)
Great read and full of surprising information. It is one of those books that reads like a story and can be the main source of conversation for your social gatherings for at least a month.
This is perhaps the best novel I have read this year. Even though I always loved his prose, I was never a great fan of Rushdie. I found most of his earlier work extremely clever and well executed, but they generally failed to live up to my expectations. Somehow, they seemed a little too clever and tried too hard to impress the reader. However, this book came as a complete surprise.
The narrative structure of this book is complex, innovative, and surprising but it unfolds so very naturally. With a nod to the Cervantes classic, he builds a tale within a tale within a tale that creates a modern day Don Quixote. The world he creates is populated by an array of engrossing characters, in a world that is at once absurd and real. Through these characters he tells a wonderful story of love, faith, obsession, and the dangerous turn we took at some point in the recent past.
It is a masterful work by a master of the craft that presents our present day world in all its scary absurdity.
Gun Island (**)
I have loved many of his earlier books, and the description of this novel seemed so promising. However, the book disappointed me in many ways. The plot seems extremely contrived, where every single character and every incident is laboriously constructed to forward a thesis. Of course, all writers do that, but it should not be so obvious to the reader. This deliberate construction makes the characters mostly unconvincing, and every event an unlikely coincidence. It can be argued that the unlikeliness of the incidents is intentional, just to create a mood of fatefulness. It just didn't work for me. I was also not convinced by the connections he tried to draw between climate change, human trafficking, ancient history and folk lore, and the introduction of magic and the supernatural made it worse.
I think it will become a forgettable novel by an otherwise powerful novelist.
Waiting for Godot (****)
Understanding Complexity (*****)
Page, Scott E.
A rare and distinctive example of taking something complex and making it completely understandable, without oversimplification. Moreover, it is a topic every curious person should know about. Many of the interesting phenomenon we encounter in real life, be it, consciousness, biology, climate change, or financial markets, can only be understood by seeing them as complex systems. I would strongly recommend this series of lectures to all my friends.
The Memory Police (*****)
The book is so different from most things I have read recently. It is a dystopian novel, but unlike all such work, there is no one in the book who is trying to fight the system, something is gradually robbing the characters of everything they possess. It reads like soft snowfall, calm and gentle, as the characters suffer through violent changes, even death. Is it a metaphor of state surveillance, or an allegory of life where we start with so much, but gradually lose everything – our body, our integrity, our loves, our cherished possessions, our innocence, curiosity, and finally our very life. Are the villains outside us or within? The book is riddled with such open-ended vignettes, presented within a dream-like island. A brilliant book that will haunt me for a very long time
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (***)
Stephenson, Neal *
Normal People (**)
Rooney, Sally *
Permanent Record (***)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (****)
Pirsig, Robert M.
I have been thinking of reading this book since my college days, but somehow it didn’t happen. In a way I am glad, because I feel I am a lot more ready, philosophically, to understand and appreciate what the author was trying to say. On the other hand, it is possible that reading it during my college days could have got me interested in philosophy many decades sooner.
It is one of the most audacious and ambitious fictional work about philosophy that I have read. The intellectual scope of this book is incredibly deep. While I could not agree with some of his philosophical conclusions, my personal philosophical training is not strong enough to argue my disagreement effectively. Whether I agreed with his arguments or not, there was not a single moment while reading this book when I could relax. It made me think constantly, and that is the most rewarding quality of this book. I know for sure, I will always look at anything I do with a slightly different way from this point on.
The genius of this book is that it takes a rather uneventful road trip, and an ordinary motorcycle, as a vehicle to raise some of the most profound philosophical questions, and it all happens rather casually. The protagonist of this first person narrative never appears pompous or arrogant as he connects his everyday experience with the history of western philosophy. While doing all that, there is an underlying personal story of vulnerability and deep pathos.
I'd strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thinking about things -- irrespective of what those thoughts are. It is particularly useful for anyone who indulges in any type of creative activity.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present (***)
Here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that is irresistible at time in history when, for many of us, the events unfolding around us is deeply disturbing and scary. All over the world, everything that we valued as just and right is crumbling right in front of our eyes. From the presidency in USA, to Brexit, to India’s safronization and a host of other cases where popular anger and deep discontent has resulted in extreme right wing turns. Every time we think it can’t get any worse, it does. Just then this book promises to explain why we are where we are.
The author goes back to 18th century Europe and travels through history to trace the emergence of modernity, where we learned to trust reason over religion, we learned to respect intellectual achievement over royal lineages, and the world started to follow a single set of values, and chase a singular dream. The author then goes to show how this created a new social hierarchy, which was foretold by intellectuals such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, and eventually manifested itself in the nihilistic anarchy we are witnessing today.
The problem is that the author avoids the fact that the same liberal democratic traditions that he is so critical of also improved our state of existence in almost all measurable way. We are healthier, we have fewer people living in poverty, we fight fewer wars, we are better educated, and almost anything else we can measure, we are better off today than we were in the 18th century. Of course there are many things that cannot be measured and perhaps the author’s thesis works at a spiritual level.
Unfortunately, this brilliantly written book gets it and misses it in equal measures. His obsessive adoration for Rousseau is also questionable, as one can find many things in Rousseau’s views that are really less than flattering.
The Overstory (****)
This novel definitely surprised me in many ways. The central character in this book, the thing that connects all the human characters and events together, are trees and forests. The structure of the book is also unique as it starts with what feels like a series of short stories. Eventually these characters, introduced in these stories, start to come together, as if pulled by the inextricable forces of a whirlpool. That in itself is not such a new narrative style, but then the book becomes more of a manifesto of environmental movement, filled with facts about trees, and numerous arguments why environmental activism is not only essential, but a question of the survival of our species.
The book tells us that one cannot change someones mind by arguments, but stories can change mind. Most modern psychological/neurobiological research also tells us the same thing -- our emotional thinking is far more powerful than our rational mind. I agree with this view and that's why I feel art could be so important in making social changes. That is precisely why the first part of the book is so effective in making its case. However, when the book drifts into a more pedantic tone, the effectiveness diminishes.
Having said that, the book changed my thinking in many ways, and that it truly remarkable.
NASA Voyager 1 & 2 Owners' Workshop Manual - 1977 onwards (VGR77-1 to VGR77-3, including Pioneer 10 & 11): An insight into the history, technology, mission planning and operation of NASA's deep-space probes sent to study the outer planets and beyond (***)
Riley, Christopher 2
A purely factual book about the Voyager spacecrafts, that were launched in the 1970s, but the sheer poetry of this mission is so powerful that it makes a dry data-filled book read like a romantic poem. This is about two spacecrafts that have now travelled far beyond the influence of the sun and will most likely continue to do so beyond us as a species, and perhaps beyond the life of our planet, as lone emissaries of our ingenuity, our creativity, and our dreams. It carries with it evidence of the best of what we could achieve as a species. The spacecrafts are still sending us data about the deep space between stars, but they will go silent in about four years, but they will continue to travel for billions of years in silence and in ultimate loneliness.
Song of Solomon (***)
Seven Days in the Art World (****)
Demystifies the strange and complex world of Contemporary Art by looking at it not as an insider, but as a keen observer who is pretending to be an insider. Though she takes the perspective of a social scientist and an anthropologist, her knowledge of art history and her respect and appreciation of contemporary art practices makes the book not only useful but also a pleasure to read.
Three Women (***)
Taddeo, Lisa *
The Conservationist (***)
Where the Crawdads Sing (***)
Owens, Delia *
Exhalation: Stories (****)
It is an uneven collection of stories, with less than mature literary quality. It terms of human understanding and emotional depth, the stories are often rather weak. Yet, the ideas behind each story is surprisingly powerful, poignant, and thought provoking. They stayed with me long after I was done, raising deep philosophical questions. Plus, as a computer person, recursion hits my weak spot every time.
Peeling the Onion (****)
In 1975, in my college days, I saw Gunter Grass for the first time in my family’s living room in Calcutta. He came to see my father, a filmmaker. At that time we just knew him as a German writer who wrote The Tin Drum.
Later I heard from some people who expressed their disapproval of him as a Nazi, who fought for the Germans in World War II. That’s what prompted me to read this book, as I wanted to know what he had to say about his past.
I am no longer a college kid, and I try not to draw simple conclusions from choices people make under circumstances that I will never fully understand. This book once again confirmed my conviction that we are far more complex creatures than what a simple ideology would allow. I could see why a 15 year old German can become a fan of Hitler, how he can join the war efforts, how he can believe everything he hears from the official propaganda, and how he can remain oblivious of what is happening in the name of progress.
Gunter Grass doesn’t try to justify anything. He doesn’t claim he is innocent. He does not expect us to forgive him. He just wants us to see at the world through his eyes, and he does it very successfully. A wonderful read.
Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (****)
I am in love with physics. Even though I gave it up as a profession a long time ago, I tried to keep up with it, at least at a popular level. What enchanted me most was the beauty of the structure. It is the mathematical elegance that makes Physics so different from all other branches of knowledge. I would get goosebumps whenever a Physicist talked about how the pursuit of beauty and simplicity drives them to a better theory.
However, over the last several years I started wondering about it. If aesthetics is a purely human experience, perhaps driven my our evolutionary history, then why should Nature care about it? Therefore, isn’t it possible that there are many possible self-consistent physics, and we just picked one that looked beautiful to us. Once we start building our physics on the basis of our aesthetics, we have no choice but to keep building on the theories that have proved to be right so far. It is utterly impractical to suddenly discard the whole structure and start from a totally different starting point and build another structure, as that would take decades if not centuries. Therefore, if our starting point was off then we are barking the wrong tree, and it may never lead to a physics of everything, if there is indeed such a thing. I mentioned this to a few of my physicist friends, but I failed to clearly make my point.
When I started reading this book, my excitement was that here is someone much more knowledgeable about contemporary physics is essentially making a similar argument, but doing it so much better than I could have done. I am still not fully convinced by all her arguments, but still it is one of the most thought provoking book I have read in recent months. I will encourage all my physicist friends to read it. I don’t think they will agree with everything that she is saying, but I am sure it will make them think. Through advertised as a book for non-physicists, I don’t think one can really understand or appreciate the argument unless one is fairly knowledgeable in modern physics. I had to accept many of the arguments without fully appreciating the meaning, and I at least have some training.
Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms (***)
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (**)
I am finding it very hard to dislike a books like this. A book that talks about genuine suffering, deeply felt and exquisitely expressed in a prose that is poetic and polished to perfection. And that is exactly why I could not like it. It tries too hard to make the readers feel sorry for the characters. The protagonist is engulfed in self-pity and begs for our sympathy.
To me a tragic tale becomes real and suffocating when the characters and the story teller do not try to remind us that their lives are pitiable. When they are constantly trying to convince us of their tragic state of existence, it becomes weak. The author exposes his desperation to touch our sentiments when he chooses the literary device to frame the whole novel as a letter from a son to his illiterate mother. That is just too sentimental for my taste. I wish I could like the book, but I could not.
Machines Like Me (****)
It is prophetic novel as we stand at the threshold of intelligent machines. It could be decades away or a few hundred years, but I have no doubt that it is close enough in historic terms that we cannot think of it as fantasy anymore. But are we ready to face, understand, or accept them? This remarkable novel raise some of these important questions through a gripping story.
While it is enjoyable for its philosophical reach, what makes it remarkable is the literary device it uses. It is a futuristic novel set in the 1980s, where Turing is still alive, Thatcher is the PM of UK, and Falkland invasion has just failed. Instead of trying to paint a future with flying cars, the author brings the future into 1980s!
Stuart Little (***)
Charlotte's Web (*****)
I read it a little late in my life, but I have a feeling that I’ll come back to it many times in the coming years. There are very few books about which I can say the same.
Miller, Madeline *
Henry and Cato (**)
It reminded me of Dostoyevsky as I started reading, floating my expectations. But slowly it started to sink into indifference. Too many contrived self-inspections, too many unlikely coincidences, and too many unconvincing psychological portrayals gradually turned it into a so so experience.
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (***)
Thaler, Richard H.
The Sea, The Sea (*****)
Anyone who knows me well enough knows my obsession about obsession. Therefore it is no surprise that I would like this novel that centers around the obsessive love of Charles Arrowby for his long lost childhood love. But I fell in love with this book for a thousand other reasons.
I have rarely read a book that penetrates so deep into the skin of its character, and in the process exposes the jealousy, vanity, falsehood, self love, and self deception that defines all of us. After you read this book, I don’t think you will be able to look at your own self the same way again. It won’t make you a purer person, and that is the point of the book, but it may introduce some doubts in the blind innocence with which we often assess ourselves.
The book is also a brilliant exploration of the limits of art to capture the truth. It questions whether the artist’s own ego and vanity can ever allow her to truly expose her true identity.
The sheer skill with which the author crafted this novel is simply spellbinding.
Where Reasons End (****)
It is a novel about imaginary conversations between a mother and a son after her sixteen old son commits suicide. She wrote it after her real life poet son killed himself at that age. It is about conversations between a precautious young man and an eloquent mother. It is about the meaning of time and living. It is about the unbridgeable gap between parents and children. It is about the importance of adjectives and adverbs and all other words. And it is about reaching perfection. It is a very sad book, but it will definitely make you look at life a little differently. I would have been poorer if I didn’t read this book.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (****)
Surprising voice and unputdownable storytelling!
Thinking, Fast and Slow (*****)
If you are someone who has to make important decisions for your work or in your personal life then you will benefit from reading this book. That is, unless you are decidedly dead, you should seriously consider reading it. The Nobel Prize winning writer describes his life’s work in behavioral psychology, and its application in economics, the two primary modes of thinking. The first system is mostly automatic and instantaneous. We are not consciously aware of this process, and we often refer to as intuition. It uses an imperfect process to come to quick conclusions, which mostly helps us, but it can also be spectacularly wrong. The second system is our conscious and rational mode of thinking. It is calculative and slow, and generally very lazy. If called into action, it keeps an eye on the decisions made by the first system.
The book describes hundreds of amazing experiments that show how often we do not exercise the second system, or allow our first system to influence what the second system does. This is not just limited to lab experiments with artificial scenarios, but data from actual experts making really serious choices, including judges deciding sentences, doctors making diagnosis, or governments making policy decisions.
Reading this book is unlikely to alter your first system thinking, and you will still have all the biases that this system introduces in our thinking, but it may make you more aware of these situations, and perhaps trigger the second system in a few more cases.
A Brief History of Seven Killings (***)
Certainly powerful writing, but wish it was more credible. Also some parts are stretched without necessarily contributing to the experience.
Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World (****)
An interesting book that could have been much better. In each chapter the author managed to raise many questions, and whether I accepted his argument or not, it forced me to think again about the issue. I believe that is the most important quality of any non-fiction. However, the arguments he forwarded and the supporting data he used are rather non-uniform. The lightness of his supporting arguments is what makes the book less convincing than it should be. I believe a more data-centric, scholarly version of the book could make a stronger case for Universal Basic Income and the other interesting ideas proposed in this book. However, in the process it could make the book less accessible. I guess we need both. In spite of all its weaknesses, I'd strongly urge my friends to read it.
Pride and Prejudice (***)
It is a novel set perhaps in Belfast, as the city was engulfed in the violence and sectarian conflicts of the 70s. It is a story of those terrible times as seen through the eyes of a eighteen year old girl.
How Anna Burns has been able to make a timeless and universal novel out of a very local period is rather surprising. She used a unique voice that is intimate yet detached; real and at the same time dreamlike.
It is not an easy read, with its long and complex sentences, but once you overcome that obstacle, there is a literary treat that is hard to forget. And the atmosphere depicted here may seem familiar in many parts of the world today.
Greer, Andrew Sean
It is the story of a middle aged, not-so-successful, gay writer who is sort of likable but pathetic. Written with a wonderful sense of humor and in a prose that is remarkably clever, the book is definitely likable. But what makes the book memorable is its unapologetic belief that romantic love could be meaningful at any age. Even when surrounded by a cynical world, somewhere deep within there remains a sense of longing that makes life tolerable.
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (****)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (***)
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (***)
It is book bone chilling book about the consequences of a breed to extreme capitalism that tries to take advantage of any crisis as an opportunity for land grab and profiteering. The author uses examples of the behavior of the US government when it machinated and supported terrible dictators all over Latin America and in other parts of the world. For someone growing up in the 70s and 80s in India, this is not shocking news as it would be for many Americans, who have been taught to believe that the US is the savior of the world, always standing for freedom and democracy. She also uses examples of September 11 Attacks, the Hurricane Catrina, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Iraq wars. This is the part that makes the book so unputdownable.
In her eagerness to expose this terrible truth she often makes strange and weak connections. For example, the parallel she draws between electric shock therapy for psychiatric patients to the social shocks of a disaster, can, at best, be seen as a metaphor, but not as an argument. Even though I am no fan of Milton Friedman, to connect him directly to how the military/industrial complex that took advantage of the Iraq War is a bit stretched. True, he was directly involved with the Chilean crisis and wanted to build a “perfect” capitalist state out there, it is hard to connect him directly to the crisis in New Orleans.
In short, the author made the classic mistake of having a conclusion and then trying to fit the facts to this thesis. I agree with the facts and her conclusion that private profit motive is mostly in opposition to societal good, but she weakened the argument by trying to connect them together with the thread of Milton Friedman’s vision of perfect capitalism, untainted by governmental influences. In spite of these weaknesses, it is a book that I’d strongly recommend.
Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (***)
I have to admit, I picked up the book primarily out of personal curiosity, as I am generally not drawn towards political memoirs. For many decades we have lived in the same neighborhood as the Obamas. We shared the same stores, the same fitness center, my wife saw the girls almost every day as she taught in the same school. Therefore, there were many personal reasons to find connections and enjoy her story.
But the book went so far beyond such trivialities. It is a book that is at once moving, sincere, intelligent, emotionally powerful, and historically essential. Above all the dignity with which this couple lived their lives seems like a distant fairytale in the current political environment we are living in. The book also confirmed my belief that we are intrinsically capable of doing much better, and the political phase we are going through now, globally, is not sustainable. It is just a small aberration, and we will once again move towards more decent world.
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (***)
Quammen, David *
It could have been a great science book on an exciting topic, but fell a little short due to the author's eagerness to prove that this is an earth shattering finding. There is no doubt that horizontal gene transfer is a surprising and extremely important biological process. However, some of its pioneers convinced themselves that they are changing history, to the extent of overturning Darwinian evolution.
Just as all budding physicists fantasize about overturning Einstein's theories, I am sure all dreaming biologists would love to take the place of Darwin in the history of science. But science rarely works that way. Einstein did not destroy Newton's theory of gravity, but extended it. Even today, when we send spacecrafts to the planets, all the calculations are still Newtonian.
Some of the initial investigators who discovered horizontal gene transfers among bacterias, and later even among multi-cellular forms of life, started believing that since Darwinian model largely depended on hereditary mechanisms, they have made Darwin invalid. The reality is, most of evolution can still be explained by hereditary mechanisms, and it still remains the primary mode of evolution. However, horizontal transfers have made the picture far more complex and interesting. Moreover, the biggest intellectual leap that Darwin made is that the whole complexity of life can be explained by perfectly natural processes, specially natural selection. Whether the mechanism behind gene modification is trough mutation or through horizontal transfers, the process of natural selection is still at play.
Quammen is a wonderful science writer, and he succeeded in communication this complex story brilliantly, and without oversimplification. I just wish he didn't try to make it more exciting by making it sound like here is a set of ideas that will make Darwin obsolete. Anyone working in this area still owes their debt to Darwin for first pointing out that we don't need a god to understand the complexity of life.
Brief Answers to the Big Questions (****)
It is more of a compilation of ideas that he already expressed in other books, but it is still wonderful to hear it again in this shorter format. What a remarkable and human being!
There There (***)
As a novel I was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting too much. But books are amazing vehicles to travel into lives that I have never met and places I have never been. It took me to the world of native Americans in the middle of a large American city -- a world that is alien to most of us.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (****)
Reads like a thriller, but much more exciting!