It has been another three months from my last book blog. Here are the books that I read between April and June, and here are the notes I kept on Goodreads. Perhaps they will help some readers to decide which books to read next or what to avoid
I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald until I bumped into her biography, where I learned that she started writing when she was almost 60, and ended up winning the Booker prize for this novel. At my age such stories acquire a special meaning. It is stories like this that gives us the false hope that it is not too late to start something new. The hope does not come from believing in the likelihood of such events, but that it happened at all.
Offshore creates a strange world out a handful of people, all slightly lost, who call a set of moored and dilapidated houseboats their home in 1960s London. Their existence is simultaneously ridiculous, funny, and tragic. What may attract you most is the economy of words that she uses to paint this picture. It is a hopeless world, but there is still something endearing that binds these people together. And I fell in love with so many of them.
The Mysterious Island (****)
I read it first in a Bengali translation in my early teen years and immediately fell in love with it. By that time I had already developed a deep love for science and technology, and this novel was a celebration of human ingenuity, where a bunch of castaways use their brain and their scientific knowledge to create modern living conditions in a deserted island. Sitting in one corner of India, I did not realize then that the characters in this book are not from Jules Verne’s France, but were American’s escaping a Civil War prison. Neither did I see the prevalent attitude towards black people or the great apes. While it did make me cringe at times as I read the book after 40 years, this time in English, I could see that the author was only reflecting what most white people believed in those days.
It is nothing short of amazing that this century and a half old novel still reads as a great adventure and remains a page turner. Our understanding of many things have changed since this book was written, but the spirit of enlightenment still remain valid. It still effectively conveys the idea that with knowledge and rational thinking we can overcome many of our adversities. The most satisfying thing for me is to return to one of my most favorite fictional characters from my childhood – Captain Nemo of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
First Person Singular: Stories (***)
As a collection of stories it is a little uneven and unremarkable, but there are flashes of brilliance that I have come to expect out of Murakami. Particularly memorable are “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”, and “Cream”. In each of these stories he spins his usual magic when a perfectly realistic setting slowly blends in with something fantastic, but you cannot see the line he crossed between these two worlds.
Project Hail Mary (***)
It has some thematic similarity with earlier novel (Martian), of a smart engineer/scientist trying to survive alone in space through clever and quick technical problem solving. However, beyond that this is a very different story. It does not have the credibility of his earlier book, neither is it logically as bullet proof. In spite of all its shortcomings, it is an absolute page turner. A very enjoyable read.
The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (***)
A thoughtful and wonderfully written book, but the thesis he is trying to prove didn't seem all that original or as novel as the author seems to imply. I don't think any serious scientist at any time would claim that science is moving towards a goal of ultimate truth. I think everyone knows that every scientific answer opens up thousands of new questions. It is a quest without end. We have also known since the early days of quantum physics that nature is inherently non-deterministic. Our growing understanding of complex systems also taught us about the unpredictability of many processes. Therefore, what he illustrated in this book are not surprising revelations, but an excellent presentation of this truth to those who may have believed otherwise.
While the book is mostly very compact, the section on Alchemy seems redundant, as it is not essential in promoting the main argument. There are many interesting factoids there, but I am not sure how that is connected to the theme. I also found the section on consciousness a little scattered and lacks depth.
This is her first novel written in Italian, and then translated into English by herself. The very fact that an established writer can take the risk of learning a new language as an adult, and then attempt to write a novel in that language is something that fills me up with great admiration. Artists, once they are successful, rarely take any chances. They know first-hand how difficult it is to find that magic formula in the first place, and once they find it is extremely rare for them to mess with it. Jhumpa Lahiri did just that – of uprooting herself from her familiar surroundings and language and situate herself in a new place and a new tongue, and then to dare to write a novel in that language.
Reading this short novel felt like looking at the scattered petals of a delicate flower. The petals are exquisitely beautiful and tender, some are slightly mutilated. Each short chapter in the book is a brief vignette, often depicting external characters as observed by the woman protagonist. The characters mostly never come back, and are inconsequential from a storyline perspective. Yet each of them complete the identity of the main character, creating a mood that is at once intimate and distant. It creates a magical atmosphere that few authors can create.
Yet, I could not drive away the suspicion that each of these vignettes were created independently, as she was flexing her muscles in a new language, depicting minor events that she experienced herself as an “outsider”. It felt like the novel came as an afterthought, where she strung together these little anecdotes into a whole. I know this is pure conjecture, but that’s what it felt like to me. And since art is ultimately about intentionality, I felt a little cheated by this potential attempt by the author for an innocent sleight of hand.
A Way in the World (****)
This is one of the most unusual novel I read recently. It was labeled as a “sequence”, whatever that means, when it was first published in Britain. The American publisher preferred to call it a “novel”. Part autobiographical, part history, part travelogue – Naipaul takes us through several centuries, spanning several continents, linked by the common thread of colonialism. He paints this dark stretch of history in a dispassionate tone, not taking any particular ideological position, and that is what makes it so powerful. The callous cruelty of colonial times and slave trade comes out vividly. This is the closest I felt to be in the middle of all this, when slaves are traded with the coldness of any other commodity, when perfectly normal and intelligent people made this business flourish, and when people from India, who were brought into Jamaica as indentured labor, chose a middle position between the European colonists and the slaves from Africa. There are stories of romantic revolutionaries, and opportunistic profit makers. There are characters from the academic world of Oxford and Europeans settled in colonial Africa. There are historical characters and fictional interactions. All together it creates a very strange and unusual atmosphere.
Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (****)
I try to follow a personal rule, but fail more often than I succeed. That is not to revisit a book that I loved in my younger days. It is much better to cherish the old memory than to make it stand trial under my more grown-up gaze, as most often it end up in a disappointment. I failed again this time to follow my own rules, but this time the story has a pleasant ending.
I read Lu Xun in my high school and college days. My leftist political leaning of my student days prepared me to read him with reverence, and I loved them. Now, many decades later, I could go back to him with no expectations or no ideological pressure to like him. If anything, I was a bit apprehensive. However, I loved them again, and probably more this time. The stories in this collection are honest, insightful, modern, and can bring the reader very close to the people it is portraying. So close that you can almost smell them,
The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist (***)
A short lecture series that has all his usual wit and intelligence, but less substantive than some of his better crafted books. Still, his characteristic originality and irreverence comes through, and it forces the reader to look at things with a fresh set of eyes. In these lectures he does a wonderful job of defining what "scientific thinking" is, and what it is not. For that single reason this is a must read for anyone who believes that they think scientifically. There may be some surprises waiting there for most of us.
Apr 27, 2021
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (****)
A wonderful book that views American racism and German Fascism as manifestations of a caste system. Looking at it through this lens clarifies a lot of things that might otherwise seem a little strange. More than 50 years after the civil rights movement, and even after we had a black president, implicit and explicit racism is all around us, even among people who would swear they don't have a single racist bone in their body. This books tries to explain the phenomenon through anecdotes and data. I only wish the book ended about halfway through, as no new idea or argument is presented in the second half, other than many more powerful stories. Readers who would be convinced by the first half is unlikely to change their mind because of these additional facts. I would strongly recommend this book to all my friends, especially if you live in the USA, and particularly in the post-Trump era.
Man and His Symbols (**)
I have to say in the outset that I am not a trained psychologist, and therefore anyone with such training can ignore my comments here and call me an idiot. However, since this book is intended for curious non-specialists, gives me some right to be critical.
To summarize in one sentence, I did not like the book and found most of it highly questionable. Here’s why:
Jung’s basic hypothesis that our mind creates symbolic representations is probably correct in some sense. I don’t believe anyone is sure about how that comes about or the neurological processes behind it, but there are strong empirical reasons to believe that such a process exist. My best guess is that it is a result of our analogical thinking process. That is, our mind often learns about new things and situations through comparison with other analogous things that we already know about. There is a plenty of research on this mechanism. It is not hard to imagine how this process can be perceived as symbolic representation. Moreover, analogical learning in an entirely subconscious process, and that aligns with Jung’s assertion that symbolic representation is also subconscious.
Where Jung’s idea becomes completely unacceptable under today’s understanding is the idea of archetypes. There is no scientific support for human beings to accumulate and pass on symbolic memory through generations. I don’t even understand why do we have to invent such a strange mechanism to explain our observations. There are at least two ways in which symbolic ideas can be passed on. First, we are all steeped in culture and mythologies, and ancient images can easily flow into our minds purely through cultural transmission. Secondly, our mind can independently discover the same symbolism when they are common and obvious. For example, any human being can discover that the circle is a very special shape, elegant in its simplicity, and found all over nature. Therefore, we can independently learn to associate this shape with anything that is elegant, simple, and universal. Similarly, most of us have some experience of the mother, and we see the role of motherhood all around us, and not just among humans. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that our mind will create a model of this powerful idea and associate it with certain qualities, such as protection, gentleness, unselfishness etc. There may be many other factors outside of these two which are responsible in creating an environment of symbols in our mind, without imagining that we are inheriting from the past through some magical means.
My biggest criticism and incredulity is in the attempt to interpret dreams to explain our unconscious, and to think this is a mechanism for the unconscious to speak to the conscious mind. I have read dozens of psychoanalytic books with hundreds of case studies. While they may make interesting reading at times, but that is only because it shows the creative ability of a smart individual to take a dream and twist it around to explain some conclusion. Some of the mental calisthenics involved is so convoluted that you either have to be awed by the analyst’s creative ability, or they become entertaining in a hilarious sense. The penultimate chapter in this book interprets the dreams of one person, referred to as Henry, which is in this hilarious zone. Here’s my challenge to the reader – take any dream at random, and then pick any conclusion at random, and try to create a narrative between the two. My claim is, you can always find some sort of a story that can reach the conclusion from the dream. The more educated you are, the more likelihood that you can embellish the transition with more exotic cultural symbolism.
In several places in this book the author would make a casual claim about a symbolism, and then a few paragraphs later make the opposite connection. For example, at one point it says white is the color of good and divinity, then a little later it says black is associated with the clergy, and therefore the color of good, and then a little later black becomes the color of the Satan and hell. In another chapter the author casually claims that left is the direction of the subconscious and right is the direction of the conscious – really? It is true that dreams are still poorly understood artifacts of the mind, but there are many candidate theories that tries to explain why we dream and how they are formed. I have made a personal habit to always think consciously about my dreams and connect them to my real life memories. I can much better explain my dreams through these candidate theories than the far-fetched analysis done by psychologists.
Having said that, I can accept why traditional psychoanalytical dream analysis can still have therapeutic value. It allows a trained specialist to guide the subject in a certain direction, and by saying that the suggestion is actually coming from the subject’s own subconscious mind could make it far more acceptable than saying here is an outsider, who knows very little about you, is telling you how to interpret your life. It is not very different from how skilled astrologers and other fortune tellers can seem extremely convincing.
The chapter on associating visual art with Jungian theory also seemed unnecessarily stretched. Where there are purely aesthetic explanations available to explain certain artistic trends, the author tries to force alternative explanations based on his beliefs. Does it take any archetype memory for an artist to like simple geometrical shapes such as a circle or a square? Every isolated culture in the world, from the earliest days, gravitated to these shapes simply because of what they are, that is their logical simplicity. We are all capable of seeing the simple pattern in these shapes independently because our mind evolved to discover patterns.
I have the same opinion about the chapter that tries to connect physics with Jungian theories. Like many other such writing, based on incomplete understanding of modern physics, the author makes superficial connections. For example the duality of electromagnetic waves between a wave and a particle is simply because at that scale (which is entirely beyond human perception) it is neither. It is something that cannot be described adequately in our everyday language and in terms of our everyday experience, except in the language of mathematics. However, when we try to do so, we encounter a duality because in some circumstances it behaves what we call waves in our everyday world, and at other times as a particle. The duality is a linguistic limitation. Similarly, it uses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which shows up only in a certain scale, as if it is a general uncertainty about all reality. When the cop measures the speed of a car, there is no uncertainty there.
In conclusion, I think Jung’s ideas were revolutionary when they were created, but we need to revisit them again in view of what we have discovered since. This book further pushed me away from taking most of these ideas seriously.