I cannot think of another mathematician who generated the same level of intrigue among the broadest range of thinkers (Gödel, Escher, Back by Douglas Hofstadter). This is not just because Kurt Gödel created a piece of stunning mathematics (Gödel's Proof by Ernest Nagel), which he certainly did, but because his work talks about meta-mathematics and, in many ways, makes us better understand what mathematics is and its limits.
Gödel was also interesting and unusual as a person. So much so, towards the last part of Einstein's life in Princeton, he told friends that we went to the institute so that he could have a long walk back home with Gödel. People had written books speculating what those conversations could have been When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt).
This book beautifully explores and explains his work, with one of the most lucid descriptions of his proof of Incompleteness without actually going into the details of the mathematics. Someone less familiar with mathematics will still appreciate the brilliant strategy of his proof. It also includes a host of fascinating anecdotes about his time at Princeton. However, the book's uniqueness is in the analysis of Gödel as his ideas relate to Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle (Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Jim Holt), which he was a part of. The author tries to establish that Gödel's views were often at odds with the main doctrines of this group and, in many ways, almost the opposite, as he had strong Platonic ideas. This philosophical detective work is what makes the book almost unputdownable.
I have known Rebecca Goldstein only as a creator of wonderful philosophical fiction. Now, in this book, I discovered her scholarly side as a mathematician and philosopher.
The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #1) (**)
Ruiz Zafón, Carlos
It rarely happened to me that a book recommended by two of my most trusted Goodreads friends ended up disappointing me. I don't like books that pretend to be realistic but are full of unconvincing characters, improbable events, endless series of coincidences, and synthetic plot twists. This book delivered all of those, and it just would not end. After reading a few dozen pages, I recognized it as such, but by then, it was too late to stop. The mystery was already set, and I had to allow the author to manipulate me through the rest of the book. It is definitely unputdownable, but not in a good way.
Tomb of Sand (*****)
Ever since I heard of this book, I have been eager to read it. It exceeded all my expectations by a wide margin. There are good books that enrich your mind, expand your experience, and make you more complete. But then there are books, which are very rare, that change you in profound ways, and the life before seems somewhat different from the life after reading such a book. Gitanjali Shree's novel was one such book for me.
My first regret was my inability to read it in Hindi. There is rich wordplay in the book, and despite the amazing translation by Daisy Rockwell, I am sure I missed a lot. The language and the wordplay, unlike many other fictional work, is not just ornamentations but is the essence of this book. The unusual language of the book may hit the reader immediately and continue to surprise throughout the whole experience.
At one level it is a very realistic novel, where the characters and their actions seem perfectly relatable. But then, surreptitiously, other characters and events enter the narration that are magical and poignant. These strange imageries are far more than simple symbolism. In fact, I will be surprised and a bit disappointed if the author claims that she had specific and conscious symbolism in mind when she created them. These magical bits are far more powerful because they are not easy to pin down, and they allow the reader the freedom to absorb and enjoy them without any attempts at meaning-finding.
Tomb of Sand is like a vivid dream that mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar and creates a mental fog that stays with us for the rest of our lives.
The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (*****)
Every time I read a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, I am reminded of what a wonderful storyteller he is. He deftly intermingles four strands like a beautiful braid. In the first strand of his braid, he explains the science of the cell as it evolved over time, and very few people can do popular science explanations better than him. In the second strand, he tells lovely vignettes about the lives of the scientists who created this body of knowledge. While most authors stop there, in the third strand, he adds poignant anecdotes from his own life, through which he transforms a factual book into an emotional journey, personal and painful, but never sentimental. And finally, in the fourth strand, he extends the conversation into the philosophical meaning of these new technologies -- what is self, and what it is to be human in the twenty-first century.
I'll be waiting for what he touches next.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (**)
Unfortunately, not my cup of tea...
The Argonauts (***)
There are so many things to like about this book and so many things I did not care about. Perhaps the main reason we read books is to see the world from another person's perspective and to enter a world that is not ours. Reading non-fiction, I hear another person's view of the world. Reading fiction, I enter a world that is unknown to me and sometimes unknowable. Reading a memoir is a little of both.
Argonauts allowed me to get a glimpse into the minds of people whose sexual and gender experiences are very different from mine. I will never exactly know what it is to be pregnant and have a child or what it is to feel like your physical body does not match how you feel inside. These are as exotic a place for me to wonder as any fantasy world, with the added assurance that it is all very real. The author did an excellent job of opening up these worlds with deep honesty and sensitivity.
However, the book also made me question how much we should want to find meaning in every detail of our lives. We all agreed a long long time ago that the only life worth living is an examined life. But how much should we indulge in doing so? I know that the universe is ultimately purposeless and therefore meaningless, yet none of us can avoid the compelling force of our minds to discover meaning in everything. Should there not be some self-control of not letting this illusion to go too far? How seriously should we take ourselves? The book constantly reminded me of these questions as I watched the author trying to dissect everything and taking her a little too seriously.
Gunpowder Moon (**)
An easily forgettable book, and not much more to say.