Even though The Years could not live up to the sky high exceptions I have developed towards any work by Virginia Woolf, it was still an astonishing novel. In her inimitable style, she tells a story of an extended family over many decades. Nothing much happens in the novel -- just moments from ordinary life, painted with such sensitive and delicate details. It is ultimately about the passage of time, the sensation that is hardest for us to pin down and make sense of. As I read this book, I was slowly drawn into the lives of a few Englanders towards the end of end of 19th century and the first few decades of 20th century, when this tiny nation ruled a good part of the world, enjoyed its riches, and yet was realizing that changes are about to happen, very soon.
A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (****)
A wonderful collection of essays written over a few decades where the Physicist/Writer Alan Lightman talks about his personal relationship with physics, and also about a few great foundational physicists. What makes this book remarkable is that it comes from the mind of someone who had been a serious astrophysicist, going through the process of scientific discoveries, while at the same time being a successful literary writer. This allowed him to compare the creative processes of these two intellectual domains, and bring the readers very close to how it feels to be at the verge of a scientific discovery, and what it feels to practice artistic creativity. This is a rare glimpse, and he does it so very well.
A Promised Land (*****)
Most memoirs end up telling an engrossing story about someone who lived a remarkable and extraordinary life. The better ones tell the story in a way that makes them particularly entertaining. But only a very few goes far beyond the specific life, and gives us something that makes us understand our world a little better, or give a new perspective that was nascent in our mind. In this book Obama achieves the later.
After reading this book I realized more than ever before how difficult it is to be an effective politician. First of all, it makes it clear that balancing between idealism, and democratic policy making is a painfully difficult tasks. It is easy to be idealistic in an autocratic setup. In such an environment one can easily impose their idealistic policies on everyone, and history shows the result of such actions are generally catastrophic, no matter how well intentioned the dictator.
The only alternative that we have found so far to such absolute power is our democratic tradition. But things get incredibly tough here. One is made constantly aware that not everyone will agree with your ideals. The only way to get things done is through negotiations and compromises. Therefore, most often one has to sacrifice some of the most cherished ideals to gain a smaller benefit. It forces one to be more pragmatic and calculative. We often tend to label such behavior as “playing politics”, and not in a positive sense, but we often forget that it is only through such push and pull, small progresses are made in a democratic system.
Democracy is not a process to make quick and drastic changes. For that you need a revolution. So the choice becomes which path to take. History shows that a combination of the two rarely works. A revolutionary change most often leads to a rigid form of government that continues to impose its will forever. Even in a democratic setup, when one party wins with too large of a majority, they tend to behave like autocrats. If you happen to believe in the winner’s ideology then you will be very happy as policies will get enforced quickly, but soon such situations become indistinguishable from tyranny. On the other hand, a democratic system with proper balance of power is perhaps the best way to guarantee no impulsive decisions are made, but it also guarantees painfully slow progress.
Obama’s book illustrates these dichotomies and conflicts in terms of historical events that happened in the recent past. He offers an intimate view of the agony of making countless such decisions. It made me acutely aware that it is so easy to judge these political events from outside, when we don’t have to make these tough choices, or have to accept the consequences of these decisions. It was a humbling experience to imagine myself to be in his shoes. What would I have done if I were there, where every choice seems like a selection between two bad and uncertain alternatives.
This book, whether you like it or not, may make you think of politics a little differently. For me, I am still waiting for the day when we come up with a better alternative between the uncertainties of a revolution and the agonizing slow pace of change through democracy.
Microbe Hunters (***)
de Kruif, Paul
Nearly a hundred year old book, but it still tells a gripping story of the early microbe hunters. It is strange to realize that less than 400 years ago we didn't even know that a microscopic animal world exists, or until much more recently that these microscopic creatures can cause diseases. It is particularly odd to read this book in a year when the whole world is getting crushed under the weight of a tiny virus.
Spring Snow (**)
I know it is a modern day classic, but I just could not like it. The story seemed contrived and unreal, the characters less than believable. It is sprinkled with philosophical discourse that are not intellectually appealing to me. Could it be that the personal politics of the author, which I passionately dislike, somehow tainted my judgement? Whatever it is, to me it is a forgettable book.
What an absolutely delightful read! I feel fortunate to be so near the age of Matildas. As someone commented -- to walk carefully, as there is broken glass all over the floor.
The Murmur of Bees (***)
A wonderfully narrated story that was hard to put down. I have always been a sucker for Magic Realism, it was good to see that the style is still bearing fruit. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution and the Pandemic, it was a time of turbulent change as we follow a landowning family and their adopted child with mysterious and magical qualities.
My only discomfort with this novel is how the author portrays the land reform that was going on. The sympathy revolves around the feudal landlord, who used all sorts of tricks to hold on to their land, including distributing the titles among friends, or finding loopholes in the law. The people who were struggling to prove that land should belong to the ones who cultivate, and not the ones who inherit them are never in the foreground. they never get a human face, but just vague ominous shadows in the background. The only exception is one farmer who is the only negative character in the book -- a brutal man, a rapist, and a murderer. Is that purely accidental, or does it betray the author's political bias towards the feudal way of life, or is it nostalgia?
Man's Search for Meaning (****)
Frankl, Viktor E.
The author, a neurologist and psychiatrist, survived many concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and in the first part of this book he talks about his experience. It is the familiar story of terror, death, and despair. Yet, what makes his story different is that it is also a story of hope and survival. In the second part of the book he talks about how our relentless search for meaning is what made him and many other like him handle that reality, and some of them even survived.
The Lying Life of Adults (*****)
I was introduced to Elena Ferrante by her 4-book Neapolitan series, and was immediately enchanted by her story telling. In this latest creation she has taken her scalpel one level deeper, cutting into the psyche of her characters deeper than I had experienced before.
Her material is so strong that she does not have to use other literary devices such as non-linear story telling or complex structures. This is a linearly told story of a handful of characters. They are all damaged like rest of us, and that's what makes it so compelling. I may not have any exposure into Neapolitan life, or share any of of their experiences, and yet all through the book I could feel this deep connection to these characters, cutting through barriers of gender, geography, or social class. That is the magic of Ferrante and what makes this such an important book.
There is no adventure that is more exciting and intoxication than the adventure of getting into another person's mind. As I came out of this adventure, I think I understood my own mind a little better.
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (***)
We are primarily animals whose brains evolved to deal with the realities of our distant ancestors, surviving in the African savannas. It developed subconscious traits that we still carry, and it is these traits that guide most of our behaviors. However, the brain also evolved ways to hide these from our conscious brain as this obscuring offered some evolutionary advantage. Therefore, to understand our true intentions, we have to peel off layers of conscious virtuous intentions, and look for these self-preserving mechanisms. That is the main thesis of this book.
It mostly succeeds in making the reader feel rather naked. I couldn't help questioning my self justifications that I nurtured all of my life and felt good about many of the choices I made. However, in some areas the book suffers from excessive simplification to prove their point. For example, the chapter on art, while mostly on the money, make sweeping simplifications about the nature of art. Similarly, I found the chapters on education and medicine only partially convincing.
In spite of these shortcomings, I think it is a very important book to read. I cannot imagine anyone will not have an altered view of their self and people around them after reading this book. After all, isn't that why we read books?
Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (**)
I picked this book hoping I'll get a more balanced and rational view about climate change from an (ex)environmental activist, than what I get from the popular media or from most climate activists. However, I was mostly disappointed by his arguments, and in some places by his intellectual dishonesty.
That is not to say I didn't agree with everything he had to say. Like him, I also find the extreme alarmist rhetoric of some environmental activist groups misleading, dangerous, and perhaps counter productive. I also don't believe climate change poses an existential threat to humankind, even though the damages done can be extremely high. What the author forgets to mention is that most serious climate scientists would agree with him. So, his arguments are not really against the mainstream view of scientists, but primarily against some groups of activists.
I am also in agreement with him that nuclear energy got rejected for the wrong reason, and increased dependence on nuclear energy could have reduced green house gases lot sooner, as that technology was already mature and extremely energy dense, compared to other renewable sources. The fear of nuclear energy was more based on popular imagination than hardcore science. However, as in other parts of the book, the author makes some blunders that are hard to explain. Why did he have to justify the virtues of nuclear weapons in reducing potential wars in trying to support nuclear energy?
Overall, I think this is a very weakly argued book, and sometimes smells of a hidden agenda, which is what he is trying to argue against in his book.