Unstuck Time and Ender @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 5)

There was a dash of sci-fi at the BYOB Party this time.

slaughterhouse-5Adi read the famous satirical novel Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist Billy Pilgrim is the ultimate time traveler. Vonnegut himself was part of the military at Dresden during WWII and the book focuses on the fire bombing there, only to have the protagonist abducted by aliens. The prisoner of war enters another dimension where ‘all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.’ Time is unstuck and the narrative is fluid moving through different moments in time in no particular order. In the world Pilgrim inhabits free will is a myth. The idea of the fourth dimension is a well spring for fiction, philosophy, sci-fi and mathematics. It’s the blind spot that can’t be seen and so from a void comes interpretation.

The idea of aliens led to a discussion on the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis (The hypothesis states that the way people think is strongly affected by their native languages. It is a controversial theory championed by linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf), the movie Arrival, the reasons behind the ancient Aboriginal individual’s innate sense of direction, Richard Feynman’s experiments, an app for the hearing impaired and language as a means to lie and obfuscate.

Speaking of dimensions, Akshay spoke about a book available online, one called Flatland by Edwin A. Abott. Check out the movie trailer here.

speaker-for-the-deadDinesh got a sci-fi book by Orson Scott Card called Speaker for the Dead. This is the sequel to the famed Ender’s Game, a book that attained cult status in the US (take the song: Ender will save us all) and was even studied to understand classic military strategy. In the second installment, a second alien race has been discovered and only Ender remains to confront the truth. This book is the winner of the 1986 Nebula Award for Best Novel and won the 1987 Hugo Award for Best Novel. But it hasn’t been all rosy for Orson Scott Card. Read more about the controversy he has been mired in here.

More books in Part 6.

Of Mathematics and Mathematicians @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 3)

Welcome to a very mathematical BYOB Party session.

metamathAkshay has been attempting to read a book called Meta Math by Gregory Chaitin, the famous mathematician, for a long time. The book is mathematically dense and deals with the idea of discovery of omega or incompleteness. Akshay thinks the best way to get around this book is to have a notebook and pencil to solve proofs as you read. This slows down the reading process but the book is a goldmine for the mathematically inclined. Akshay found Chaitin’s opinionated statements delightful, particularly his disdain for Newton.

This book reminded Pratyush of Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s Last Mind, a book that addresses different questions but uses a similar path. Penrose talks about physics, cosmology, mathematics and philosophy in an attempt to demystify Artificial Intelligence. Books like these make subjects that are seen as dry, such as math, seem extremely interesting. They strengthen the idea of education as questioning and retaining curiosity.

Abhaya mentioned that Logicomix, a graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis, humanizes mathematicians and deals with their personal struggles and mental health issues. Another mathematical graphic novel that Akshay mentioned was The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, winner of the British Book Design and Production Award for Graphic Novels. This graphic novel deals with an alternate version of the collaboration of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, and Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer.

If mathematicians interest you try reading Men of Mathematics by Eric Temple Bell. Mathematicians are famed for their eccentricities and mental health issues more of which are lucidly described in A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin.

More books(unmathematical, I’m afraid) in Part 4.

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Risky Summits and Maps of Africa @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 2)

dead-mountainIt was Sumit’s first time to any book-related group and he made his entry with a non-fiction New York bestseller called Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar. The story is set in 1959. Nine experienced hikers mysteriously die in the Ural mountains in Russia. Their story has been documented. So there are diary entries, photographs, government case files, and interviews. “Those nine people turned into nine distinct persons. I connected with the hikers and felt for them. I didn’t want them to die in the end,”  Sumit said. The mystery  of their death remains unsolved.

“Literature humanizes people beyond your circle of experience,” Jaya said. “This makes a good case for historical fiction as it gives history a different persepctive.”

In the context of stories being more poignant than statistics, Anurag spoke about A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. The story begins in 1976 before the Jamaican general election. Bob Marley and his family were wounded by assassins. James traces the lives of the murderers and tells the story of Jamaica simultaneously. He uses a large canvas and multiple points of view to paint a richer tale of the past.

the-poisonwood-bibleApurba is a fan of historical fiction too and spoke about her favorite books including Gone with the Wind and the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. She was reluctant to start The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver but she is glad she read it as it is the kind of book that stays with the reader a long time after it is read.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story where the wife and four daughters of the Price family are the narrators, each chapter being alternately told by on of the five narrators. Nathan Price is a fierce, evangelical Baptist. When he moves with his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959, they are uprooted, shocked and transformed. Apurba speaks of an instance when the stubborn Price wishes to continue with baptisms but is faced by logistical problems like crocodiles in the river.

Conversation veered to the function of historical fiction in throwing light on ways of life and times entirely foreign to readers. For Apurba, Kingsolver provided a very different view of Africa as compared to the ideas of Africa narrated by writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

History could be made richer by historical fiction. Do you agree or disagree? More books discussed in part 3.

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Education and Nationalism @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 1)

The BYOB Party in December kicked off in December with the question of education. Ralph has a penchant for online PDFs that deal with academic subjects. The last time he had got a book with 23 words sentences, as he called it– Philosophy of Intellectual Property by Peter Drahos.

the-educated-mindThis time he talked about The Educated Mind– by Kieran Egan. The book discusses the problems with education and provides alternatives by way of practical proposals.  Unfortunately the book is peppered with huge words and while it talks about simplifying education, it is  a difficult book to read. Ralph, however, recommends the book.

The book reminded Jaya of a book called Hindi Nationalism by-Alok Rai, Premchand’s (the famous Hindi writer) grandson. Topically the books are dissimilar but what the books have in common is a tendency toward obscurity. Though both books deserve to be read, the difficulty of prose and repeated use of hard words can be a setback for an earnest reader. Hindi Nationalism deals with ideas like the separation of Hindi and Urdu, the history of language in India and Hindi as a national language. Many people consider Urdu to be exclusively poetic though writers like Manto wrote Urdu in its prosaic form.

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@ the BYOB Party

More books in Part 2.

World Book Tour- Nigeria

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Winter Crime Novels

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Dressmakers and Doctors @ BYOB Party in Delhi in October 2016 (Part 2)

While history can not hide the truth, books can make the truth bearable.

51eV2VYLGfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (333×499)Nidhi spoke about The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. The story revolves around the life of Kamila Sidiqi, a woman who lives through the Taliban regime, faces the loss of the men in her life and is forced to find a way to make ends meet. This is a true story of entrepreneurship. “I like books that tell us about people who find a way. There is sadness in the world- that’s a given, but how do people live through it? In this book the protagonist is bombarded with restrictions and yet there is only so much that oppression can do to the human spirit,” Nidhi said.

This reminded Eklavya of a book called In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed. This is another book that talks about how life thrives in spite of restrictions. The author is a Western trained doctor who in a strange twist of fate is offered a job in Saudi Arabia. Her observations are delightful and reveal much about this much misunderstood kingdom.

 

Aadit, a youngster, talked about the book Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Aahan, a ten year old, spoke affectionately about his favorite illustrator, Quentin Blake. The book he mentioned was The Boy in a Dress by David Williams. He is also busy creating a Pani Hotter (the transposition of alphabets is intentional) series. He spoke at great length about how his collaborative effort includes a bit of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, an array of Greek Gods and a Chinese dragon. You can read more of what this youngster writes here: https://aahansinha.wordpress.com/.

With this, we come to the end of our Delhi chapter this 2016.

Ashoka and Ashokamitran @ BYOB Party in Delhi in October 2016 (Part 1)

There was one more BYOB Party in Delhi while Jaya was there. This was co-hosted by Anu Singh Choudhary.

Jaya spoke about John Keay’s India Discovered, a book she has mentioned before. The book is not about history, something we know little about. It’s about how history was pieced together. It all started with a Sultan in Delhi who found a pillar with inscriptions on it. He was unable to understand it and later on more and more people began stumbling on these inscriptions in other parts of India. It took the British to decipher the Brahmi script and a Sri Lankan text to piece together that the Piyadasi mentioned in the inscriptions found in different parts of the subcontinent actually referred to Ashoka.

Anu who blogs at http://mainghumantu.blogspot.in/2016/10/blog-post_8.html spoke about the books by Ashokamitran, a highly influential writer from Tamil Nadu who has written over two hundred short stories and two dozen novels. While Jaya started the session with history, Anu delved into how memoir revealed the social, historical and cultural aspects of an era.

The book she discussed was Fourteen years with Boss where the author spoke about his experience working at the legendary Gemini Studios of Madras with his boss S.S.Vasan. There is no linear structure in the book as it is a compilation of essays that he wrote for the Illustrated Weekly. It was a time when entertainment and the politburos of power intersected and it was Ashokamitran’s job to manage the PR aspect. In those days, stories were not fed to the media but writers tried to understand what existed. Ashokamitran’s memoirs capture with subtle humor minute details of how an institution like the Gemini Studios was built, and talk about the insecurities the entertainment industry nurtures. Nothing is missed by his steady gaze- no actor, director, producer, director or extra is let off that easily. Ashokamitran captures the 1950s with such immediacy that it does not feel dated. He is now in his eighties.

Another novel by Ashokamitran that Anu mentioned was Mole, an English translation of Otran, a comical look at an International Writing Program in the American Midwest that he had attended. His humors, sharp tone and acute observations bring the 1970s in America alive. “He kept me engaged in a chapter where the theme was a lost watch. It seems irrelevant today to even talk about a watch, but he kept me intrigued with an entire chapter,” Anu said.

Nostalgia works.

Hindi and Mythology @ BYOB Party in IIIT-Delhi in September 2016 (Part 4)

rag-darbariProfessor Dheeraj talked about a Hindi book called Rag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for this book: a satirical story of the loss of moral values post independence. He shows rural life in India as it was in the 60s and 70s.  It has also been adapted as a televised series starring Om Puri, but it doesn’t seem to have made its way to the ubiquitous Youtube yet. You can listen to the author speak here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ2SX0sQkDg

Most of the students were more familiar with the Hindi writer Munshi Premchand only. Reading Hindi does not seem to be very much in vogue at the student level.

sitas-sisterAlthough reading Hindi is not in vogue, mythology is. Khyati is a mythology buff and recommends books by Kavita Kane such as Sita’s Sister and Menaka’s Choice. Kavita Kane likes to study overlooked characters like Lakshman’s wife and the desirable apsara Menaka. If mythology interests you, you might want to check out A.K.Ramanujan’s work, a student advised. For more commercial spins of ancient times, Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi is a good read, said another.

The famous retelling of Illiad by Madelline Miller called Song of Achilles was discussed. It’s a brilliant retelling of an age old epic in lyrical prose.

a-thousand-splendid-sunsAs it is with almost every BYOB gathering we’ve had so far, Khaled Hosseini was not forgotten and his beautiful and relevant prose was discussed. Both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are favorites.

Anand talked about Paper Towns by John Green. Anand liked the intellectual nature of the love story mystery. This book has won the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Some other books the students at IIIT Delhi talked about included Sherlock Holmes and there was even a diversion to the nature of Indian geography. All in all it was a session brimming with life and curiosity.

Graphic Novels and Pottermania @ BYOB Party in IIIT-Delhi in September 2016 (Part 3)

green-lanternNot surprisingly some graphic novels and fantasy made an appearance at this BYOB Party. Siddharth got  Green Lantern/ New Gods Godhead by Robert Venditti. To understand Green Lantern, you need to know a lot of back story. For instance you need to know about Highfather who is the high priest of the DC universe.

 

 

Aniket talked about the bestselling manga series (over eighty books in the series) One Piece written and illustrated by Eiichiroone-piece Oda. The story follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a man who has the properties of rubber because of a fruit he ate. He teams up with a crew of pirates to find the world’s greatest treasure called One Piece. The manga series has been adapted in an animation, a card game, video games, etc.

wardstone-chroniclesArpit spoke about The Wardstone Chronicles, published as The Last Apprentice in the US. It’s a dark fantasy series by Joseph Delaney and the theme is about the seventh son of a seventh son apprenticed to John Gregory to become a figher of supernatural evil. In other words he becomes a Spook. What Arpit liked about the book was the way Delaney approached the topic in a highly original way with his knowledge of chemistry.

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Fantasy is a favorite, with Riya talking about the Harry Potter series and how JK Rowling gets her formula right because she talks about the importance of love- be it between friends, teachers and their students, parents and their children, the crux of the world is based on this. There was mention about how Harry Potter was probably the most under-developed lead character of all time, as he hardly ever changed. Things always happened to him without agency on his part. Of course, this led to an overheated discussion about Harry Potter characteristics.

More books in Part 4.