Stars and Strangers @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 4)

Image result for the city and the starsEveryone’s favorite sci-fi author Arthur C. Clark’s book The City & the Stars was discussed.  The city Diaspar was destroyed by invaders and it became the last refuge for human beings. A man called Alvin is the first human in the city and he has no memories whatsoever. All he has is curiosity, not the fear of newness that his compatriots have.

Watch Arthur C. Clark talk about A Space Odyssey here.


Bindu spoke about Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. The anecdotes are painstakingly researched and have the usual Gladwellian flair.  As I found out on, the book talks about all kinds of questions: How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

“But though the anecdotes were fantastic, the conclusions he draws from these were not relevant to me at least.,” Bindu opined. “There was great storytelling value but I didn’t really learn anything that I didn’t know already. I mean there is no second-guessing what strangers think; I can’t even tell you what my family members think!” You can read a similar opinion about the book here.

“Of late, I’ve started to listen to more quality online lectures. A much better investment of time.”

The entire discussion shifted to the 10,000 Hour Rule mistakenly attributed to Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell used Ericsson’s provocative generalization and somehow the idea of 10,000 hours became the touchstone of learning. Listen to this Ted Talk that disputes this idea- you need just 20 hours of deliberate practice to get started on something. You could also take this idea of ‘less is more’ to another extreme- take the expert capsule courses that last for 20 minutes a day and give you certification. That’s dangerous too, especially if it’s certification for something like machine gun expertise!

Some more 10,000-hour trivia— the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a walking man and 10,000 step goals in Japan.

More books in Part 5.

Orphan Trains, Wars and Atheism @ BYOB Party in May 2019 (Part 5)

We got talking about the bestselling book Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. The book talks about the real life orphan trains that ran between 1854 and 1929.  These train carried destitute children from the east coast to the midwest where they would be put up for adoption. The story chronicles a ninety-one-year-old protagonist with a hidden past. Kline explores the many dynamics of adoption and foster care in the early twenty-first century. The book was Kline’s fifth and a book that took the book club world by storm.

Image result for the forever war amazon

Another interesting book discussed was The Forever War by Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award winner and MIT faculty Joe Haldeman. It’s an interesting sci-fi book that explores the premise of what the US would do if it picked a never-ending war with aliens. A conscript from Vietnam himself, Haldeman chronicles the story of Private William Mandella who is to fight in a thousand-year conflict. Time dilation causes a strange predicament for when Private Mandella returns the Earth will have aged far more than he has.

Listen to Joe Haldeman here.

Image result for hitch 22 amazonJoshua expounded on a memoir called Hitch 22 by the renowned atheist and philosopher Christopher Hitchens. “He’s the kind of writer whom you want to emulate as he is so erudite. He inspires you to read as he is well-read himself. He wrote Hitch 22 after he was diagnosed with Stage 4, esophageal cancer. He has touched on some controversies like support for  America’s actions in Iraq, something he regretted later on. The reason for his support could be that wanted an end to fanaticism and since he visited all the conflict zones he talked about, he wasn’t just intellectualizing about crucial policy issues. He was against totalitarianism in any form.”

Joshua advised us to savor the poetry and philosophy of Hitchen’s many debates, especially this one with Stephen Fry. Hitchens was also an ardent supporter and friend of Salman Rushdie.

In the memoir, Hitchens speaks effortlessly about his childhood, the relationship he had with his mother, his philosophies and misgivings. It is a book that offers much.

The subject of atheism led to the idea of a new kind of World Order, a world with new Gods. The book American Gods by Neil Gaiman came to mind.

More books in Part 6.

Secrets, Poetry and Sci-fi @ BYOB Party in Feb 2019 (Part 6)

Image result for Eloise: What secrets did she take to her grave? Shweta enjoyed reading Judy Finnigan’s Eloise: What secrets did she take to her grave? 

This haunting meditation on female friendship and motherhood is the debut work of Judy Finnigan, broadcaster, journalist and Book Club champion. The character Eloise has died and her friend Cathy, who suffers from depression, is devastated. She realizes that all is not well. Her husband who is a psychiatrist dismisses her concerns but Cathy probes deep and arrives at a secret. This light read was a Sunday Times Bestseller.

Arvind talked about a book of the collected works of Coleridge, which spurred much conversation. People are more familiar with Wordsworth’s Daffodils but Coleridge was well-known at the time for his poems The Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan.

Even though Coleridge’s poems have figured in the school curriculum and may readers are familiar with his works, he was primarily a prose writers. Arvind read out a lyrical passage:

“A man may look at glass, or through it, or both. That all earthly things be unto thee as glass to see heaven through! Religious ceremonies should be pure glass, not dyed in the gorgeous crimsons and purple blues and greens of the drapery of saints and saintesses.”

The discussion turned toward the rivalry between Wordsworth and Coleridge and poetry in general. Some readers found the entire exercise of reading poems like The Charge of the Light Brigade futile. Others felt that appreciation of poetry needs to be taught not for the sake of grading but for enjoyment; take the joy a poem like Lochinvar can give you, for instance. Abhaya mentioned how he preferred the rhythms of Hindi poetry, say the poetry of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. But so much about poetry appreciation depends on whether the language or context is relevant today. One good way of keeping abreast with poetry and also enjoying the newer rhythms of free verse is to listen to poetry podcasts like these:

Poetry and art are subjective experiences and the goal, if there is any, is to evoke a feeling. What do you make of this poem by Ezra Pound?

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Image result for alfred bester tiger tigerStephen is a big fan of cyberpunk and sci-fi. He spoke about Tiger! Tiger! by Alfred Bester. The story is set in the twenty-fourth century begins with a man called Gulliver Foyle who marooned in space and how he takes revenge on Vorga. Bester’s settings are breathtaking and touch on sci-fi staples like teleporting and mega-corporations. The mega-corporation theme somehow led the conversation to the idea of naming characters after the companies where they work and even how in the US, slaves were often named after their owners. Ideas about how the World Wars led to all technological prowess and how companies play the role of conglomerates that dictate policy were discussed. Stephen mentioned that Bester did have a problem with female characters as well but this is not surprising as the book was published in the 1950s.

More books in Part 7.

Twin Paradox and Lost Umbrellas@ BYOB Party in June 2017 (Part 4)

Now for some books with strange elements.

Ratnakar brought in an element of science fiction into the BYOB Party with the book Time For the Stars, a book published in 1956 from his Juveniles series, a series with young heroes set in the near future. Heinlein was one of the most important science fiction writers of the time along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. In this book, Heinlein examines the Twin Paradox, a thought experiment that explains how relativity works. The premise is if one out of a pair of identical twins is accelerated away from Earth and the other stays on Earth, more time passes on Earth and so the twin who remains on earth grows older while the space twin will not have aged that much. Twins are also said to have twin telepathy so they can communicate faster than the speed of light. Although the book may seem outdated today, the premise is strong enough to convince the hard-boiled cynic. Some interesting conversation did come up revolving around twins, communication and physics.

Watch this if you want to see what one of the world’s most foremost science fiction writers had to say about Apollo 11 space mission.

Satish got a fantasy read. He’s a big fan of China Miéville and loves his YA books the most. Not many people in the room had heard of China Miéville, a sensational science fiction writer who has won two Arthur C Clarke awards and several other prizes as well.  Un Lun Dun or Un-London is a place below London. The story revolves around the adventures of Zanna and Deeba. They find a door to another London, one filled with old computers and obsolete technology and an army of umbrellas. Miéville’s linguistic prowess- his puns and nomenclatures- and bizarre characters keep the reader riveted. His illustrations add richness to the book. Satish read out a passage of a part where Deeba climbs up a ladder in a library. He saw her act of climbing into books as allegorical in a way and this is typical of many of China’s novels. Another one he mentioned was Railsea, an allegory of Moby Dick, where the search is for a white mole, rather than a white whale. Comparisons were made to another popular British author Neil Gaiman. You might like to listen to this fascinating interview of this writer who has also confessed his attachment to garbage and octopuses and trains.


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.

The Extraterrestrial and Time @ BYOB Party in September 2016 (Part 3)

Science was not far behind in the BYOB Party this time.

threebody-problemSudharsan read the book The Three Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu . It’s sci-fi or end of the world dystopian fiction, part philosophy, part fantasy, he decides. The book deals with the ultimate sci-fi question: What happens when humans come into contact with the extraterrestrial or the opposite. What happens when extraterrestrials come in contact with humans? The primary characters in the book are Ye Wenjie, who has a haunted past, and Wang Miao who is swept into a virtual reality online game. The book requires a lot of focus but once you get into the flow of things, it becomes a compulsive read. It has been translated by Ken Liu, a writer of a popular book series himself.

a-brief-history-of-timeChaitanya brought along the bestseller A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, a bestseller science book that has sold nine million copies and been translated into forty languages. This book also has the dubious distinction of being one of the books that everyone starts and no one finishes.

This book introduces the reader to the theory of relativity, quantum physics, particle physics, gravity and the fourth dimension. He also explores how  Einstein’s ideas changed physics forever. The book is written very simply, Chaitanya confirmed, and there are no equations to put off the mathematically uninclined. The book brought alive a discussion about the Matrix and the role of man in a world where he is merely a pawn.

Sci-fi– Hard wired and Emotionally charged @ BYOB Party in March, 2016 (Part 3)

This BYOB Party (Part 1 and Part 2) had no mention of the Mahabharata. Instead there was a great deal of sci-fi.

manhattan in reverseAkshay is an avid sci-fi reader. When he was done with his share of Clarks and Asimovs, he came across Hamilton. The book he talked about was Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton, a book of nine stories. For sci-fi geeks Hamilton’s work provides all the delightful details of time travel, memory manipulation, planetary inequality, inter-galactic wars, and rejuvenation technology.

“When it comes to Hamilton’s series,  as characters don’t die,  there is scope for continuity and evolution. “

In the sci-fi mode, Jaya advised us to watch a short movie available on Youtube- Man from Earth. The conversation moved on to how the social context would change if human beings did not die at all. While on one hand, there would be more Mondays, on the other, there would be less inequality as only those who had the means to live forever would be around anyway. The predominant theme of sci-fi was debated upon- is it human expansion or space operas? A science fiction writer who was recommended was Cyril Kornbluth.

Never Let me GoPiya Bose has read her share of sci-fi as well. What she’s now looking for is a sci-fi heavier on emotional quotient. She found this in Never Let Me Go by Booker Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Three children Kathy, Ruth and Tommy study at Hallsham in an imaginary set-up in the 1990s. Although the narration is straight forward, there is an eeriness and strangeness in the novel that turns it into a mystery.  Ishiguro speaks about how science without ethics is detrimental to society.

“The vagueness of the writer is a style shared by Murakami too,” Piya said. Everyone agreed unanimously that there were two kinds of readers and you would know who would prefer an Ishiguro and a Murakami as opposed to those who wouldn’t.

More in Part 4.

Dragons, Fish and White Tigers @ the BYOB Party in September (Part 4)

This is turning out to be one long book party!

earthseaIn my quest for the perfect fantasy novel, I chanced upon Ursula Le Guin’sEarthsea. She is a magician, I think. Fantasy writing is very challenging- the characters need to have magical qualities and achieve magical feats. Le Guin’s character Sparrowhawk’s rites of passage is a coming of age story of a boy who becomes a wizard. So he has all the qualities that a wizard needs except that he is ambitious and extremely human. Le Guin’s craft lies in how she makes words magical as well and she gives a premise for the entire world that she creates. It is not just a make-believe world- the logic of all magic lies in the True Speech, the basic words that give the one who utters them great power. I particularly enjoyed the Dragon of Pendor; what is a fantasy without dragons?

Jaya has been reading a couple of not-so fantasy novels, but novels that deal with the unreal all the same like the Game of Thrones series and the irresistible Harry Potter, though after reading Le Guin, it feels like you’ve been through all the sorcerer apprentice adventure stories created.”I don’t know if   Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy counts, but it was an other-wordly book!” said Jaya.

“No one beats Terri Pratchetts’s Discworld series,” Veena said, “If you want to explore the fantasy genre, start there.”

“And Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card if you want a dash of military sci-fi,” Abhaya said.

The_White_TigerDone with dragons, we moved to a much darker terrain of poverty in a book called The White Tiger that Anil, the software engineer, was reading. Since the book was a Booker winner, he thought he’d have a go with it. It was the first serious piece of literature that he had tackled and it wasn’t exactly the right choice. The White Tiger has many admirers and many detractors as well. Some criticized it for its rawness and treatment of extreme poverty. Some praised his effort to translate something so stark and bleak. It’s not that literature has never mentioned poverty- take Charles Dickens, but Dickens was an optimist and Adiga can not sugarcoat his voice.

There are parallels to Slumdog Millionaire. It isn’t a question of why India is depicted as poor, but how the depiction has been done in the first place.Phanishwar Nath Renu is a writer who tells reality as it is but he is an insider to the grim reality, so his voice is authentic,” Jaya said. “It’s not the depiction of unpleasantness that is jarring, it’s how it is depicted.”

“So a book like Em and the Big Hoom is a sad book but Jerry Pinto’s treatment is so touching, he changes your perception of the subject matter,” Arun said, “In fact, we interviewed many authors and to our surprise we found that most authors write without keeping an audience in mind.”

Baraa Al Manour, the Syrian writer, agreed,” If you think of what others want to hear, you will not write.There would be just one book, if we focused only on the reader.”

Dragons and white tigers later, Abhaya talked about his journey with Samanth Subramanium’s book called Following Fish. Being a fishitarian, the book was enlightening. “Subramanium  takes us along the edge of the peninsula in nine essays and explores not just fish as cuisine but fish as industry. He talks about the bar food in Kerala, the different kinds of cuisines in Mumbai and the very secretive angling community in Goa.”

What you eat says a lot, doesn’t it? What are you reading today?