Gender, Identity and Fishermen @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 9)

Image result for shikhandi devdutt amazonBhavish spoke about Shikhandi by Devdutt Pattanaik. This book has been the subject of a couple of our previous BYOB Parties. Bhavish appreciated the way Pattanaik explored queerness in Indian mythology, revealing how Indians were remarkably casual about gender fluidity and the entire spectrum of gender at one time. The book is a series of short chapters with an explanation that follows and illustrations to match. A lot of accepted norms have been shattered. Take the story of the king who refused to heed his wife’s advice and realized later that he accepted her advice when she had taken a hermit’s form, the moral being that the source of wisdom is not necessarily reserved for one gender only. The conversation veered to Section 377, Victorian ethics and people’s complete ignorance of examples of queerness within their own culture. “Perhaps it was glossed over as the primary narrators of the great epics that explored queerness as well were our grandparents,” Bhavish said.

Image result for identity kundera amazonSunil spoke about a book called Identity by Milan Kundera. Unlike Kundera’s usual flamboyant books, Identity is a surprisingly compact book. “To speak about this book, you need to speak about the author first,” Sunil said, “Kundera talks about abstract, disparate and paradoxical ideas like identity, philosophy, perception and friendship. He reminds you of Camus for the simple reason of what reading his books does to you. It shakes you. Take the example of friendship, for instance. Aren’t friends just a mirror? A measure of where you stand when you reminisce upon your place in the world?”

Makes you want to read the book, doesn’t it?

Image result for the fishermen book amazonI added to the list of sad and powerful books by talking about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Compared to none other than Chinua Achebe, Obioma is a master craftsman who does a good job of exploring the Nigerian cultural landscape using the lens of one family in particular. Benjamin narrates the story of his mother, father who is always away and his three brothers. The story speaks about a country broken into two because of staunch belief systems- one of Christianity and the other the shamanistic reality that pervades all of Africa. When the children visit the forbidden river, they meet a shaman who predicts a horrible death for one of the brothers. This self-fulfilling prophecy is enacted on the pages with so much life force. Obiama combines African folklore and regular prose effortlessly. Read it.

And with that, we finally come to the end of the BYOB Party in May 2018.

Mental Health Issues, Secrets and BRICS @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 8)

Image result for the bell jar amazonRoheet spoke about a book that has been described by many readers as chilling. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath who wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas is the tragic story of a poet who loses her mental health. The book is autobiographical and this adds to its authenticity and accuracy in capturing the dark. Plath committed suicide within a month after writing this book, a cry for help. The plight of mental health patients in as recent a time as the 1960s was terrible as adequate treatment methods were still not available. Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953 and she is hopeful about her dazzling future as a writer but she slides. Plath takes a snapshot of her emotional spiral with dark humor and honesty. Little did she know that her work would become a bestseller.

Image result for crow blue amazonPiya has been reading books from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries. She spoke about a book called Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa. The story revolves around Vanja who has lost her mother and goes in search of her biological father. The book is a timely read, what with all the headlines about immigration. Vanja is half-Portuguese, half American and she’s a teenager. ” It’s a coming of age story, very well-written and smoothly done. You could finish it in four-five hours straight. The book goes back and forth, covering the gory history of Brazil and the guerilla wars. If you are unaware of the history of that time, is a good book to read. What I particularly enjoyed were the way the author picked up generalizations that were made. For instance, Brazilians do not speak Spanish; they speak Portuguese.”

What happens in the story? “Well, all I can tell you is that this not your typical Bollywood movie ending; it’s a mature ending. It goes beyond the Indian immigrant experience and is a light book, though I wouldn’t say that it is not layered. It is and satisfyingly so.”

Image result for beyond the secret amazonChethan spoke about a book called Beyond the Secret by Brenda Barnaby. He liked the way the author dealt with the Law of Attraction and how the world and the individuals populating it could be changed. The author uses various philosophies from across the world to find solutions within the subconsciousness.

More books in Part 9.

 

Hyperspace, Flatland and Endurance @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 7)

Vatsal got a book called Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku. It explores ten-dimensional space and Kaku’s Theory of Hyperspace. The book was far too heavy to comprehend for us three-dimensionals and then a discussion began about the book Flatland, a 2D world occupied by geometric figures where men are polygons and women are straight lines. It’s a dream that leads the narrator, a square, to go to a 3D world called Spaceland.

Image result for when breath becomes air amazonAbhishek decided to end the debate once and for all by bringing up a book that dealt with a non-debatable subject — death. This led to a groan from the audience; no prizes for guessing which book is being spoken about. When Breath Becomes Air has been discussed in many previous BYOB Parties as well, making this BYOB Party a celebration of repeats. Abhishek described how the book chronicled the life of the surgeon and how his life changed post-diagnosis. He was blown away by the maturity in which the doctor and his wife conducted themselves. Dr. Paul Kalanithi was fascinated by death and this why he opted to become a doctor despite his love for literature. Some readers asked Abhishek if they thought the doctor was brave. That was a given; the beauty of the book lies in how it explains how one must conduct oneself in troubled times. Decisions can be made in spite of instability. The doctor had a child at this time. Here’s a passage that Abhishek read out; it’s one of those books that makes you cry:

“The family gathered together. During the precious minutes after Paul’s decision, we all expressed our love and respect. Tears glistened in Paul’s eyes. He expressed gratitude to his parents. He asked us to ensure that his manuscript be published in some form. He told me a last time that he loved me. The attending physician stepped in with strengthening words: “Paul, after you die, your family will fall apart, but they’ll pull it back together because of the example of bravery you set.” Jeevan’s eyes were trained on Paul as Suman said, “Go in peace, my brother.” With my heart breaking, I climbed into the last bed we would share.”

Image result for endurance lansingamazonDivya was tired of the excessive debates too and decided to present a non-controversial story, a true story about an Antarctic expedition called Endurance by Alfred Lansing. The story is astonishing, well-researched and undeniably true. Lansing spoke to ten of the survivors of the Endurance’s final trip and has meticulously recreated the expedition, where for ten months Shackleton and his crew tried to battle the odds. “A huge part of the book is technical and filled with ship terminology,” Divya said. “In spite of that, the book keeps you on edge and since it’s not a fiction, the treatment is different. No iceberg collision takes place at all when you expect it. It’s not a typical read.”

More books in Part 8.

Yiddish, Right to Education, and Elephants @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 6)

Image result for love in exile isaac amazonApurba is fond of reading remote narratives about obscure places and people. This time she chose a Hebrew writer called Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote in Yiddish.  Love and Exile is the story of Singer’s own life from his childhood in Poland until the time he went to New York. It’s the story of the birth and growth of a writer, a Yiddish one at that. Once Hitler came to power, his family fled from Poland; he finally ended up going to the US following the heels of many of his friends who had emigrated to other countries including Palestine because they had the money. Apurba identified with this Nobel Prize Winner’s candor. In his late 20s, he was as disillusioned and clueless about life as many of us are. He wrote in Yiddish, which was a dying language.  Even when he was in the US, he found it difficult to gel with the east coast Jewish population. His older brother was more established than he was. In fact, the first thirty years of his life were pretty unremarkable. This was heartening to Apurba as here was a man who lived an ordinary life and talked about, including all his failures and the alienation of displacement.

Here’s a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer if you want to get hold of his fantastic prose right now. Click here.

Image result for dear mrs naiduAbhaya got a children’s book this time, a delightful read called Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian.  The story revolves around Sarojini whose best friend moves out of her basti. She now wants to go to his school which is better than hers; the Right to Education Act then makes its appearance and using the story of a friendship and letters to the freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, Mathangi Subramnium creates a very informative and educational book with the message that good intentions alone are not enough for implementation. Comparisons of the book with the Bollywood movie Hindi Medium were made. Although the book is for children, Abhaya found it well worth a read to make sense of this controversial act.

Image result for swimmer among the starsamazonSwimmer Among the Stars, a collection of short stories, by Kanishk Tharoor did not disappoint. Sowmya looked forward to yet another Tharoorian waft of prose. and she was delighted. “He’s a master with words,” she gushed, ” His stories are simple but very different. In fact, my favorite story is one about an eyelash.” His stories are diverse featuring elephants, cooks, space and armies. His historical epic take of the world is punctuated by myth and folklore and influences of Italo Calvino and Borges appear from time to time.

Click here to read an interview with the master craftsman.

 

More books in Part 7.

Strange Loops @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 5)

Image result for i am a strange loop amazonWaseem got a book called I Am a Strange Loop: 0. It is Douglas Hofstadter’s first book, a cognitive scientist’s mathematical look at consciousness. The idea is that the idea of the self is, in fact, the result of an abstract feedback loop within us. The book is about abstract calculable stuff and so it would be far better to quote the reader’s views.

“This book gives you an understanding of consciousness. You are a self-referential loop. Everything you think you are is the result of what is happening around you, so you are dependent on external circumstance.  You can’t evolve on your own. This is the basis of evolution- from the human eye to everything else. The self is the result of various interactions. It is the highest form of abstraction there is and a manifestation of downward causation- there is so much going on to prop up the ‘I’. You exist because a bunch of cells prop you up and what you call ‘you’ is built over it and over it and over it ad infinitum in a paradoxical loop, so you are constantly imbibing what you see around you and you are a reflection of what you have learnt. Over a period of time, all these instances create symbols like fear, for example. The role of external stimulus is undeniable and the image becomes highly complex.  The more you interact with others, the more loops are created.”

The book is confusing but by using analogies that relate to biology and mathematics, the author succeeds in making you think very deeply about abstractions. The one takeaway that Waseem had from this book was the necessity to invest in other people as the image of ourselves is a reflection of everything we take from others.

It’s the kind of book that deserves an entire blog post to itself. More books in Part 6.

Sapiens and Da Vinci Diaries @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 4)

Image result for sapiens amazonSapiens by Dr. Yuval Harari is an extraordinary book. We’ve seen the book surface several times during our BYOB Parties and each time the book elicits a different response. Dhruv found Sapiens inspiring unlike the doom and gloom that the book evinced for many readers; he was piqued by the reasons behind European colonization of the world. Abhaya thinks that Jared Diamond’s book called Guns, Germs and Steel does more justice to the theories behind European colonization. He didn’t find Hariri’s book scholarly enough though the aim of the book was primarily to introduce lay readers to theories and important questions, which he has succeeded in.

Image result for Extraordinary Voyages jules verne amazonVishal spoke about Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages, a compilation of novels that he found remarkable. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the sea was just one of the many novels this prolific writer had written. Another book that Vishal chose to speak about in detail was Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. What Vishal found compelling about this magnificent biography and Verne’s voyage stories was the way ordinary people who were not necessarily experts remained curious throughout their lives and made great inventions and discoveries on the way, a luxury in today’s automated world where curiosity leads you to Google and not beyond.

Image result for walter isaacson leonardo da vinci amazonDa Vinci was not everyone’s favorite painter. He may be held in great esteem now but back then during the Renaissance, he had a bad reputation when it came to deliverability, engaged as he was in conversing with mathematicians, building bridges, applying science to painting and learning for the sake of learning. Da Vinci was a visionary – “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical”.

“There is such a saturation of tech nowadays that we miss out on this exploration,” Vishal said. “His notebooks describe a woodpecker and he asks questions like why the sky is blue. He didn’t limit himself. The fields of specialization were all nascent and there was room for curiosity.”

A noisy debate ensued on the problem with experts, the necessity of curiosity, and how experiments are conducted.

More books in Part 5.

Blue Eyes and Feisty Centenarians @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 3)

The noisy debates were taken over by the lull of storytelling when Alok spoke about Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye. The central character of the book is a young girl called Pecola Breedlove. She is a young black American girl who dreams of blue eyes; the perfect trope to explore expected standards of beauty. The book is not a streamlined story but layered instead with flashbacks that hover over the African American identity. If you want to know more about the making of this story, listen to the Nobel Prize Winner speak about what compelled her to write about the least privileged and vulnerable. Click here.

Mugdha was fascinated by the Swedish writer, Jonas Jonasson, who wrote the book The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. The story begins in a nursing home where a hundred-year-old decides to escape, perhaps prompted to action by excessive vodka. His adventure takes him through many humorous moments but the story also delves into Allan Karlson’s past. His work as an explosives expert has taken him around the world. Like Forest Gump, he has met prominent leaders of the twentieth century and using his irreligious stoic attitude as a microphone, the author talks about the history in an impartial voice. The same voice punctuates another book that was discussed at the BYOB Party called The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden: A Novel.

More books in Part 4.

 

Ethics and Economics @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for ethics blackburnSamarth started the ethical debate with Ethics by Simon Blackburn.  This book is part of the OUP series of Very Short Introductions to various topics from philosophy to quantum theory. In this book on ethics, Simon Blackburn talks about human conduct and the moral dilemmas that have led to the systems that govern us. Ethics is a branch of philosophy among others including ontology, metaphysics, etc. Blackburn touches on contemporary issues or problems from time immemorial and makes sure that this very complicated subject becomes accessible to the lay reader. The prose is elegant and this makes this slender volume a pleasant read. The immediate takeaway that Samarth had was about the all-encompassing nature and ubiquity of ethics. In a way, ethics is based on some impulse and the gratification of some desire. You have to justify how viable your behavior is in the long term and how it affects the welfare of the people around you. You may think you are operating outside this purview but there are unavoidable questions that steer our life. The book doesn’t have all the answers; it starts a dialog in your mind about human behavior. Abhaya spoke of a similar book, one on democracy, from the OUP series.

A fiery debate ensued about AI ethics- programmers who remain far removed from their actions, bots who imitate human speech, human responsibility to all things not alive, gene editing, molecular cloning….found this interesting article on bot ethics here: https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/16/hard-questions-about-bot-ethics/.

Image result for games in economic development

Pallavi spoke about Games in Economic Development, by Bruce Wydick a book that deals with how strategy is employed in political and economic decisions. The book looks at economics through elementary game theory and offers an all-round perspective across games in natural resource use, education, technology, insurance, etc.

More books in Part 3.

Kalaripayattu and Mathematics Graphic Novels @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 1)

Image result for odayan amazonThe BYOB Party in May started off with graphic novels, a segment of books that is growing in popularity in India. Amruta is a big fan of Indian graphic novels, particularly those that do not glorify mythology too much. She discovered a set of two graphic novels called Odayan, a martial art series featuring a mysterious vigilante who wants to give people back the power they have lost to the Zamorin. The writer and artists Suhas Sundar and Deepak Sharma illustrate the feudalism that once existed in Kerala.

“I particularly loved the clean lines of the artwork. The vigilante wears something like a Kathakali mask; by hiding his mukha (face), his intent is hidden. The story starts with the history of Kerala and how it was formed when Parashurama the warrior threw his axe. The story is distinctly Malayali and not your usual DC comic.” Amrutha found the second part of the series a little darker interspersed with black magic but  she recommends the series for its originality: “They even have Malayalam words popping out during the fight scenes!”  Suhas Sundar won the best writer award for this work in the Comic-Con India awards 2012.

Image result for logicomixVaibhav, a mathematician, also got a comic, one called Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadia, which we’ve discussed at a previous BYOB Party. This BYOB Party was the party of repeats- lots of books that have been talked about earlier popped up. What doesn’t remain the same is the discussions though. Similar books elicit multiple responses each time. Vaibhav expressed how difficult it is to get an accessible mathematical book, let alone a graphic novel that explores this theme. Logicomix tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s life and by way of this character, Doxiadia describes the 1920s, the golden age in mathematics when the foundations of truth and logic were laid. Russell interacts with characters he would not have been able to see in real life. Themes like the Russell’s Paradox came up and non-mathematical beings like myself got acquainted with mathematical greats like Gödel and Bourbaki. This BYOB Party had quite a bit of intense discussion and this was just the beginning!

Reader Interview of Piya (The Regular) and Roheet (The Newbie) @ BYOB Party in May 2018

Since we had a mother-son duo at the BYOB Party in May, we thought we would speak to both of them.

The Mother:

Tell us about your love story with books.

Piya: It started early right when I could read. I don’t remember the first book I read but I do know that I started very young. I would read anything- newspapers, periodicals, children’s magazines and books in Bengali and English, particularly my parent’s books which were not necessarily child-friendly. There was a lot of encouragement from home to read. At school, I was mostly in the library as sports was not my thing. I read Metamorphosis by Kafka in class 7.  Back then, I thought it was absurd and funny but every time I revisited the book, there was a new takeaway. I keep revisiting books I’ve read before.

I’ve been amazed by your picture-perfect memory of the plots of the many books you have talked about. How do you remember all the books that you’ve read?

It’s not that I have a photographic memory but there are two things that I remember from every book that I’ve read – one is the basic storyline and the second most important is the emotion it left with me and how I connected with the book.

Of late, I’ve been indiscreet about the books I’ve been choosing. So now I do my homework before I start a book so that I don’t invest my time in books I will not enjoy. This is what I enjoy about book clubs and this BYOB Party in particular. I get to find books that are good reads in genres I usually would not pick on my own. Book clubs expand your horizons or you get bogged down by one kind of genre. The BYOB Party is a great place to meet all kinds of readers as well. I always wondered who would read self-help books but now since visiting BYOB parties like these, I realize that there is a huge market for this genre.

The Son:

Tell us about your book journey.

Roheet: I’m a humanities student, so when I want to understand more about something I go to books, particularly historical pieces so that I have a better understanding of that time frame. This has helped me piece together things that I would otherwise have found hard to understand. Now my reading has evolved from just historical novels to writers like Murakami, so different from what I am used to.

It’s my first time at the BYOB Party and I’ve already found so many books that are genuinely interesting, so I think I would really like to come for the next BYOB Party.

What is your take on the reading habits of the student community? Is it catching up or falling behind?

Roheet: There’s a huge divide in the college space, but I fall into the category of book lover.

Favorite books?

I liked Sylvia Plath’s confessional style in The Bell Jar and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

How has your mother influenced your reading choices?

Roheet: Initially, I used to read some of her books and I did not necessarily understand her complicated collection. When I reread the books, it made sense. She has a great taste in books.

Piya: In fact, most of our fights are about books. I don’t want him to take my books as I am very possessive about them. I don’t want a single dent in them.

So how do you arrange your books? Do you separate them on the book rack or is it on the same shelf?

Piya: Unfortunately, it is, so every time he takes my books he has to take permission.

Roheet: Even if there is a slight mark on a page, she does not take it too well. Her books are like her children; she has such a strong connect with them. So I try not to borrow her books to avoid the pain.

Piya: Fortunately, now we have a Kindle each, so that has lessened these arguments. I resisted Kindle for the longest time but then it worked for me when I was traveling; particularly when I wanted to read two or three books simultaneously, the Kindle was a good choice. And then there is the added bonus of not having to repeatedly worry about spoiling the book. Plus it good for the environment.

Roheet: But there is something special about reading a hard copy.

Piya: I agree there. Sometimes the hard copy is convenient, particularly when you want to go back to what you have read before. It’s ideal for rereading. You have the option to bookmark in Kindle if you want to go back to a certain page but it’s too much of a hassle. And the worst part is that you lose reading time if you haven’t charged your Kindle. Hard copies don’t have batteries and that is a good thing.

I also vouch for audiobooks. I was initially skeptical about how one could concentrate while listening to a voice being streamed into your head but it has been an enjoyable experience in the instances I have tried it. I would like to explore that route a bit more.

Thanks, Piya and Roheet! Was a pleasure talking to you both.