Short Book Review: Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Stand Out of Our Light by James WilliamsSBR: I picked up this book because it won the inaugural The Nine Dots Prize whose mailing list I was on. Stand Out of Our Light questions what Silicon Valley driven technology is doing to us, how it is affecting our attention and engagement, and whether it is really helping us pursue the goals we want to pursue. It pushes the discussion around technology beyond the realms of economics and techno-utopia Silicon Valley sometimes seems to fantasize about. Yet, it isn’t just a nostalgic whining.

The book is important, although not necessarily earth-shattering. It wasn’t really an eye-opener for me. Although it can be so to someone too enamored with and too sold on Silicon Valley dreams.

To read or not to read: If you are a Silicon Valley fanboy (or girl), or if you aren’t, but are struggling to articulate what’s wrong with it, you can try this book. The eBook is available for free [PDF]! Otherwise, no harm in skipping it.

Reader Interview of Varun (The Newbie) @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018

We talked books with bibliophile Varun.

Tell us about your reading journey.

I picked up reading because of my mother. She’s from a Hindi medium school but she ended up doing a Ph.D. in botany in English. Overcoming the Hindi to English barrier was difficult for her as she came from a family where education was promoted but getting into an English medium school was not that easy. She was a completely self-taught reader.

My most vivid memory of childhood was of her cooking while I stood at the door reading and listening while she corrected the words. It is very similar with how my wife and I spend time with our daughter. Over the last few years, we have spent a lot of time reading to her. We don’t have a television at home and it does get depressing at times but we’ve stuck with this schedule. In the US, the library culture is pretty good. My daughter ended up reading one thousand books at a young age.

Have you read as many children’s books when you were young?

No, but my grandfather had a kirana store with a library next door, so I had the privilege of borrowing books whenever I pleased. I read a lot until I was sixteen, after which the pressure to focus on academics was high. There are many voracious readers in my family and I’ve seen the benefits and perils of reading too much, so I have tried to maintain a balance at home. I buy less books now and focus more on my daughter’s reading.

Tell us about your online reading habits.

I’ve moved to reading blogs where I can get piecemeal information. Audiobooks are extremely useful but I’m too stretched for time. I really enjoy podcasts, which veer to the non-fiction side, though the podcast scenario in India is non-existent almost.  I enjoy fiction but there is not enough time to invest in it. I divide my time between digital vs physical books. If the book is small, I prefer ebooks. If it’s fiction, I prefer the hard copy.

Any book or author you would recommend?

I love Ayn Rand’s books as I’ve found them eye-opening and introspective. I’m slightly dissatisfied by the new breed of Indian writer like Chetan Bhagat though he does appeal to many people, even my wife. I wouldn’t say all commercial writers are not good enough. I quite enjoy reading writers like Vikram Chandra.

What’s your take on Book Clubs and BYOB Parties such as these?

I used to be one of the organizers of the Bangalore Book Club, so I really enjoy book gatherings, this one included.

Since you were in the US, tell us about whether the reading habits of both communities are different.

Well compared to the urban middle class in the US, the high-income group in India reads a lot less. Post academia, people just drop off and talking about books is a faux pas. Netflix is a much better conversation starter.

Thanks, Varun for talking about books with us!

 

Reader Interview of Anshuman (The Regular) @ BYOB Party in Sep, 2018

We spoke to Anshuman about his readerly experiences.

Tell us about your book journey.

I started young. Somewhere along the way, I started collecting comic books in Hindi and English. When it got too far, my parents had to put their foot down as too much reading was affecting my studies. At IIT Kharagpur, we had an immense library with some 25,000 books. I became addicted.  Now with office hours that drain my time, it is harder to read at the speed I once did. I’ve only managed to read two books since the last BYOB Party I attended.

Is technology helping when it comes to pursuing reading or is it a deterrent?

Kindle has helped me as I can carry it everywhere- at the office, the station, the airport…. Flipside- I’m uncomfortable with the format. I love the feel of the page much more.

What about the reading habits of your children? You had brought them here the last time.

My daughter especially loves listening to stories. I keep encouraging her to read every day. I try to stop my son now as he reads copiously and he has his lessons to focus on. Gaming has affected his reading but we keep strict curfew hours.

Are you into fiction and non-fiction?

Totally into fiction- especially historical fiction like Empire by Devi Yashodharan, Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin and Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita. Although I love facts and figures, my reading is more inclined toward story-telling.

What about internet reading or listening to podcasts? 

No way. No blogs, facebook. And though I have listened to podcasts, the tech-phobic reader in me doesn’t enjoy it.

Favorite book?

(Laughs) Never can be a favorite though I do keep going back to the Mahabharat in all its versions. LOTR, Asterix and Tin Tin are my comfort reads.

Thanks Anshuman. It was great talking to you!

The India Story and Clear Thinking @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 7)

Image result for attitude is everything amazonNow for some non-fiction books. Subrit followed the tradition of book lovers who are inspired by self-help books. Attitude is Everything is a book by a motivational speaker called Jeff Keller. He prescribes three maxims to arrive at your true potential: Think, Speak and Act! Sounds simple enough.

Image result for india unbound amazonRohan talked about the second Gurucharan Das book of the day called India Unbound, the  story of post-independent India. “We were only taught the pre-independent India story and this book talks in-depth about social, cultural and economic aspects of contemporary India.” Rohan went on to read a passage from the book:

“Today India’s caste system is in a state of transition. A half century of democracy has raised the status and esteem of the lower castes. Periodic elections have created vote banks, the lower castes have used to politics to to rise socially, and there is a social revolution under way, especially in the backward northern states. Its biggest prize is that half the government jobs and places in colleges are now reserved for the lower castes.What democracy has done for the lower castes in the twentieth century, capitalism will do in the twenty-first. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and there is little to stop it from continuing to grow between 6 and 8 percent a year for the next couple of decades. At this rate there will be unprecedented new jobs, and this will create new opportunities for everyone. The better jobs, it is true, will go to the better educated. But as the lower castes begin to realize that the better jobs are in the private sector rather than in the government, they will turn, one hopes, to education rather than reservations.”

Abhaya clarified that in spite of this hope, in India there remains an overwhelming preference for government jobs imprinted in employee DNA.

Image result for the art of thinking clearly amazonThe Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is a book that’s come up a couple of times before in the BYOB Party.  Varun opined that understanding cognitive neuroscience is a great start if you want to overcome biases. The book contains a series of snippets. He doesn’t see the book as self-help, rather he sees it as a book that helps build self-awareness, although it is arguable how far the distinction lies. So how do you know if you have biases? If you are not willing to change your mindset on any topic, it means you probably have biases in that area. And also, the general assumption that everyone has biases can not be ruled out.

This is an interesting website that helps you think about thinking better.

And with that, we come to the end of this BYOB Party.

Mise en abyme, Polymaths and Trains @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 6)

Image result for the counterfeiters amazon primeSamarth got the BYOB Party back into fiction mode by deconstructing The Counterfeiters by French novelist André Gide. This immersive book hosts multiple characters and points of view as well as various plotlines including Mise en abyme (a novel in a novel) and is considered as the precursor to the nouveau roman. In this philosophical novel, the real counterfeiters are not the makers of false coins but the writers themselves – Édouard and Gide himself.  The book deals with identity, the nature of truth, alter ego, deception and the Parisian culture of the time.

You may be interested in reading Andre Gide’s  Nobel Prize winner’s acceptance speech here.

Image result for the man without qualities amazonRakesh explained how difficult his quest for a definite favorite book has been but he finally did find one, while on a quest for the thickest book- an obscure and prestigious book of ideas called The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. It’s a book of ideas that he keeps going back to, the story of the Viennese Ulrich who was a soldier, a polymath and sceptic. The book is populated by emotional and logical characters and the ideas that percolate through a single chapter of the book gives enough for you to chew on for days. Rakesh read out a passage:

“At this moment he wished to be a man without qualities. But this is probably not so different from what other people sometimes feel too. After all, by the time they have reached the middle of their life’s journey few people remember how they managed to arrive at themselves, at their amusements, their point of view, their wife, character, occupation and successes, but they cannot help feeling that not much is likely to change anymore. It might even be asserted that they have been cheated, for one can nowhere discover any sufficient reason for everything’s coming about as it has. It might just have well as turned out differently. The events of people’s lives have, after all, only to the last degree originated in them, having generally depended on all sorts of circumstances such as the moods, the life or death of quite different people, and have, as it were, only at the given point of time come hurrying towards them.”

Tempting book indeed!

Image result for last train to istanbul amazonAnshuman got an interesting fiction called the Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin, a screenwriter whose experience with cinematic narrative seeps into her novels. The title reminds you of Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh but there the similarity ends. Kulin explores multiple themes like ethnicity, the politics of migration, the impossibility of love and the irony of human situations. The plot is pretty complex – a Muslim girl falls in love with a Jewish boy and since this is faux pas, they flee to Europe just when Nazi flags fly high and become part of an elaborately planned escape. Definitely a page-turner.

More books discussed in Part 7.

 

Going Organic and Mollusks Who Are Shy @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 5)

Image result for silent spring amazonRalph initiated a dialogue on environmental pollution and the inevitability of human beings at the receiving end of their own pesticide practices. The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is a seminal work about human folly. The book received a great deal of attention, provoking chemical lobbies to try banning it. “It’s a hard book to read,” Ralph said, “Almost like a horror story.”  Watch this. Carson predicted global warming and has been credited for bringing in the ecology back into the consciousness of the people. The discussion ensued about how paganism and worship of trees and rivers were actually strict ecological checks that we are better off following. Organic certification itself is a dicey issue; how much of what we eat is poisonous? Most of it, apparently. Since everyone is a stakeholder- individuals and the government- incentives to create healthier alternatives should be encouraged but the situation on the ground right now is very bleak.

Image result for the soul of an octopusamazonSanjana stuck to the natural theme and spoke about The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, a naturalist and writer.  The book deals with her experiences with her favorite molluscs, octopi in closure and ones in the wild.  She doesn’t anthropomorphize the octopus but the octopus and all animals play a pivotal role in her life- she sees them as creatures with souls and her friends. Her octopi have names like Athena and Emily Dickinson and distinct personalities, some are shy and probably extend a tentacle to you in greeting and then vanish while the more aggressive ones take you around their environment. Octopi have extremely complex nervous systems and unique reproductive destinies (death comes quickly after their eggs are laid), squirt ink playfully, change color and camouflage(mostly those who are in the wild are adept at this) and open locks. This is a unique book with an extraordinarily compassionate and curious writer. You can watch Sy Montgomery speak about her friendship with animals here. She just might change your mind about mollusks for good.

Not surprisingly both these avid environmentalists are women.

More books in Part 6.

Short Book Review: Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay

SBR: Those Days is the English translation of the Bengali historical fiction Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay. It is set in 19th century Bengal, and follows the lives of Bengal elites, acting as a faithful recorder of their customs and lifestyles, their often self-contradictory intellectual journeys, their patchy, fumbling attempts at reforms and also at reinventing or reimagining the past, and their fictionalized, but relatable lives rooted in historical understanding of the society. Many known historical characters like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Dwarkanath Tagore, Debendranath Tagore making an appearance in flesh and blood adds to the appeal. It is one of those rare historical fictions that get history as well as fiction right.

To read or not to read: Yes. It’s a fine specimen of good historical fiction.

The Checklist and Simple Rules @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 4)

Image result for the checklist amazonAalok got two books, both by the same author- Atul Gawande, a renowned Indian origin American physician. We’ve talked about his books at the BYOB Party before. In spite of all the advances in medicine, there is still room for error and this can be easily avoided, says Gawande in his book The Checklist Manifesto. How? By following a simple tool like a checklist, a method used by people employed in industries as distant from medicine as construction. Many small cautionary steps could make the difference between life and death – hand washing, taking a tally of the instruments and something as simple as having the team members introduce themselves could improve productivity in hospitals. Hospital tales followed about how tiny omissions wreaked havoc post-surgery and skewed patient-doctor ratios led to the checklist implementation having failed in India.

Image result for being mortal amazonThe other book he talked about was Being Mortal which deals with how a doctor’s and caregiver’s role is not only to extend lives but provide a meaningful extension of life. Quality of life is often ignored in an attempt to save the patient and the soul is quashed. While making life decisions, the patient should be consulted as well if indeed it can be done. So while one patient may be emotionally ready to undergo a risky surgery that could leave him paraplegic, another patient may not feel the same way? So what is the next best option? We see this kind of discussion even in Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air when the husband and wife in the book discuss important choices. An inevitable death is no excuse to avoid dialogue. However painful, these conversations that the doctor has with the patient and the patient has with her caregivers can alter the final moments of a patient’s life.

Image result for simple rulesamazonA question arose about whether human error that could be countered with a checklist only meant that medicine was better off with more automation but Deepak countered this argument with the book Simple Rules by Kathy and Sull, Donald Eisenhardt. The environment that Gawande talked about had unstructured complexity, so in such a case manual feedback is essential and mere automation and algorithms will not do.  Deepak mentioned various real-time situations and talked about simulations of schools of fish to throw light on how to navigate complexities in the world by adhering to a few simple rules. Go to this link to understand more about Simple Rules.

 

Menstruation and Motherhood @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 3)

Image result for Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body amazonMugdha started off an engaging discussion with the book Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, a book by award-winning comedian Sara Pascoe. She got wind of this book while listening to one of the episodes of a quirky podcast called No Such Thing As a Fish. Women seem to be having their moment, what with skeletons tumbling out of closets and hashtags dedicated to the gender equality phenomenon, so a discussion on menstruation in a society that encourages a culture of menstrual silence or menstrual whispering is a welcome change.

The book talks about how society deals with women, tilting the scales toward scientific solutions vs cultural ones. The author of the book is a comedian and she doesn’t find women’s bodies funny. Neither does she understand why sexy women need to stare at you from billboards everywhere in the world. She doesn’t understand why menstruation is so big a deal and the fountainhead of so many bizarre rituals and why child-bearing is the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence. One way to deal with cultural biases is to weigh the scientific feasibility of decisions- so if child marriage is acceptable in society, science clearly shows that pregnancy could put an underage girl’s life at risk. Feminism doesn’t apply here, only common sense. If you can’t vote and drive, then why get married?

Image result for my daughters mum amazonDeepti’s book followed the woman theme too. She enjoyed listening to the author Natasha Badhwar at a literary festival and picked up her book My Daughter’s Muma series of essays compiled from a popular column in Mint Lounge. The author talks about the conscious decisions she made to spend time with her family away from the madness of urban life. A media professional, she quit her job and focused on her children and the vagaries of being a mother. “It almost feels like the author is following her children with a notebook and a pen as she records the lightest moments and makes them meaningful!” Deepti said. She read out a passage where the author describes her daughter in such a heartwarming way; everyone listening immediately connected with it.

You might enjoy an interview with the author at the IVM podcast.

It’s not just writers, artists too share the ordinary life in endearing ways. Take Catana Comics.

Badhwar’s ability to turn the mundane into the endearing is a trait that many authors share. Abhaya talked about how Rohit David Brijnath, a veteran Indian sports journalist, bought along the same kind of flare when he wrote sport.

More books in Part 4.

 

Dharma and Dresden @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for the difficulty of being good amazonAkshay spoke about The Difficulty of Being Good, a book by Gurucharan Das. If there is an epic that probes into life’s difficult questions, it is the Mahabharat and Das goes back to the epic to look for answers to the problems that we face today. How can the dharma be enacted when the odds are against the good? Interestingly, he looks at other epics including the Homeric ones and compares how wrong done is not pondered on; from the Mahabharat came the Bhagavad Gita, a mature philosophical treatise that weighs the pros and cons of to be and not to be. “The characters in the Mahabharat are gray. The Pandavas may have Krishna on their side but still they are fallible and even use unfair means to win,” Akshay said. “So goodness is not absolute and one does act for the sake of dharma, one acts because one must.”

Image result for slaughterhouse 5 amazonSrikanth had read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The book is becoming a regular topic of discussion at our BYOB Parties and it makes sense as it is an anti-war book. Vonnegut focuses the book on the World War II bombing of Dresden. The book is part sci-fi (reminiscent of the movies Arrival and Interstellar), part memoir and was a hard book to write. Srikanth was impressed by the way Vonnegut wrote about the phenomenon of being unstuck in time- so the protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a pilgrim of sorts traversing the world and galaxies and for him, time is not linear; it’s a series of peaks and troughs. The book is very philosophical, besides being humorous. You could listen to the entire book here.

Abhaya mentioned how Shashi Deshpande played with the idea of time in her book That Long Silence. The conversations in the book seem to between different aspects of the same person. Other books about time that cropped up were The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

More books in Part 3.