Sunday, August 5, 2012

Books everyone seems to be reading

It has been an extended break from Brick and Rope for me.  The great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, explaining a long absence to his beloved, wrote -

Duniya ne teri yaad se begaana kar diya,
Tujh se bhi dil fareb hain gam rozgaar ke.

Which translates loosely as -

This world has left me bereft of your memories
More heart rending than you are the hardships of a working life

Such, readers, has been my state these last months.  No complaints though.  The rozgaar has been kind.

One thing that hasn't changed in this time - I have been reading some very good books.  On this, my return to the blogosphere, I thought it would be interesting to catch you up on some of the 'it' books - ones that everyone seems to be talking about and reading.  So here is my quick take on some books that have been part of my diet recently. Fair warning - It has been an extremely satisfying reading year so far.  Don't be surprised to see superlatives overflowing.

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahnemann
How do we think? How do we make decisions? What biases do we carry with us in different situations? How exactly does our thinking work? Nobel Prize winning economist (and behavioral scientist) Kahnemann takes on some big questions in this book. And he knocks them out of the park. This is the father of Behavioral Economics, and this is one hell of a book. Buy it. Read it.

At Home - Bill Bryson
How can you write a 500 + page book about the darn house you live in? Well, if you are as interesting (and interested) as Bill Bryson, quite easily, thank you very much. This isn't the most compelling Bryson work, but is quaintly interesting in its own way. Bryson moves from room to room in his house and takes us on historical journeys to tell us the story of how we came to live the way we do today.  Some rooms are interesting, some are not.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
The father of a young boy is killed in the 9/11 attacks.  The boy goes into a form of shock others don't seem to understand.  He withdraws into his own personal world. And then, he gets a sign from his dad - a key, to a very special lock.  The little boy sets off, on foot, across New York, to search for the lock. Foer's storytelling is breathlessly good.  His style and technique innovative like nothing else I can remember.  I don't say this lightly - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the ten best books of fiction I have read in my life.

The Eerie Silence - Paul Davies
Is there intelligent life out there in the universe? If so, and if they wanted to communicate with the rest of the universe, how would they do it? SETI is the NASA organization dedicated to Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.  Davies is their current chief.  The Eerie Silence is a passionate story of how to systematically think of the search for life elsewhere.  There are surprising questions I hadn't thought of before - for instance, did life start only once on the earth? Or is it possible it started multiple times? How could that be? How could we find out? And what implications might it have on the search for ET? An interesting book if you are into this type of thing.

Earth: The Book - Jon Stewart
Well, what can you say? It is the Daily Show team putting together their zany take on what new visitors to planet earth should know about our abode. Very funny in parts. Some crazy one-liners. But not exactly soul food for your intellect.

The Mind's Eye - Oliver Sacks
The second book on the mind on this list.  Master neurologist Oliver Sacks takes on cases of patients have strange maladies related to vision or skills of recognition (of things, shapes, colors, writing).  Sacks is a practicing neurologist of such repute that one suspects the trickiest of cases land with him.  His touch in describing these cases is delicate, his empathy deep and infectious. The book is a bit disjointed in pieces and isn't his best, but disjointed Sacks is better than most authors in their best form.

The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
There seems to be a newly emerging generation of really young women writers who burst onto the scene with stunningly accomplished novels (it is almost never a non-fiction book). Add Obreht to the list.  The Tiger's Wife is a novel by a writer with remarkable confidence. Snow covered lands, bombing in the city, an injured tiger, a deaf and dumb young girl in an abusive marriage, a messenger of death - these are just some elements of a hauntingly beautiful story. A shockingly good debut.

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
The Booker Prize winning novel of 2011. Tony Webster is a middle aged man who is forced to rethink and rediscover his college days. Days when he and his little circle of buddies met a notably self assured man called Adrian Finn. Intellectual depth seems to radiate from Finn and the friends are vying with each other to earn his friendship. Years later, layers of their mutual relationship are revealed, slowly, reluctantly. Barnes has a masterful handle on emotional nuance. Every page drips with emotional understanding reminiscent of Ian McEwan. Some of the dialogue and repartee from the college days are sizzling and memorable. Great book!

Imagine: How creativity works - Jonah Lehrer
It seems unfair to beat someone up when they are down. But hey, this books deserves the public's new-found revulsion much more than it ever deserved it's fascination for all these days.  Imagine claims to unveil some mysterious workings of our mind that we can understand better to make ourselves more creative.  I could have called it another mind and neurology oriented book on this list, but that would just be an insult to Sacks, Kahnemann and Ramachandran. This is scientific babble at its worst - throw around a bunch of jargon, add some interesting sounding anecdotes that are cherry picked to demonstrate whatever crazy theory you have come up with, put a cheap punchline on, and we are in business. Forget the piece about making up Bob Dylan quotes for which this book has recently become infamous and Lehrer has lost his job at the New Yorker.  The intellectual dishonestly is not what should keep you away.  You should not read this book - because it is terrible.  

Breakout Nations - Ruchir Sharma
Asking the big questions publicly requires guts in the investment business.  And "Which developing countries will achieve breakout growth in the decades to come?" surely qualifies as a really big question.  This is another book everyone and their uncle seems to be reading.  I have had many friends recommend this book to me over the year.  Is it worthy of all the noise?  I think it is.  Breakout Nations is an extremely well researched book, with lots of data that the nerd in me just loved.  The anecdotes on different countries are tellingly selected. The attempt here is to look at a very wide set of countries under the 'developing' tag, and take a clear 'up or down' stance on whether they are headed somewhere big.  It is to Sharma's credit that he takes a clear stand everywhere, which is tough to do with macro-economic trends.  The one complaint - his cop-out on India. Maybe it was too close to home for him to be objective about it.

The Magic of Reality - Richard Dawkins
There are books that you gobble up in an almighty gulp. Others that you want to savour in a slow, sensual session.  Yet others, of course, that you want to spit out as soon as you start on them.  The Magic of Reality is in that class of books that beckon you back, again and again, for a second helping, and a third, and another. This is a book targeted at young adults - kids who know a bit about science, and could be interested in a series of extraordinarily provocative and interesting questions - like 'Who was the very first person?'; 'Why are there so many different kinds of things?'; 'What is an earthquake?' and so on. Dawkins of course is one of the foremost scientists of his time, so his answers to the questions, while written in language accessible to the young, are not simplistic homilies of science.  This is the real deal. Real science, presented in the most engaging manner you can imagine.  And if there is a better illustrated science book in all of published history, I would like to see it! (Word of advice - buy the hardcover version)

In the Woods - Tana French
I don't usually do thrillers.  I don't have the stomach for them, and they don't appeal to the better side of me.  I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at record speed for me (I am a very slow reader).  And I felt sick afterward. So it is surprising that I bought In The Woods, Tana French's acclaimed book. The reviews were just so good.  Three kids go into the woods to play just like other days.  Hours later, one of them returns, bloody, and in amnesiac shock. No trace is ever found of the other two kids.  Years later, the third kid, now an officer with the police, returns to the wood to work on the case of a dead girl. Cut to multiple flashbacks, and psychological thriller music. I should have ignored the reviews and gone with my first instinct.

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
No book in recent memory has likely received the kind of bated breath expectation, and universal critical acclaim that Franzen's Freedom did when it was published in 2010.  The Franzen Frenzy was so high that it put me right off the book and I decided never to read it.  After all the euphoria cooled off over this period, I finally decided to give it a spin earlier this year.  The verdict?  One of the hallmarks of great literature is that they make me want to be a better person.  Freedom did that to me.  The psychological astuteness of this sedate drama that plays out over years in American suburbia makes you look for yourself in the characters, and for them in you.  Hats off.

The Tell-Tale Brain - V.S. Ramachandran
The third (or is it fourth?) brain / mind book on this list.  I became a big fan of Ramachandran last year when I finally read his Phantoms in the Mind.  This book is his most recent work, and he has moved on from being a practicing physician to being a full time researcher.  His understanding of the human brain is unparalleled.  His ability to tell the story is stunning.  Richard Dawkins has called Ramachandran the Marco Polo of neuroscience for all the unique exploratory experimentation he has taken on, to understand the mind better.  If you want to know the most up to date picture of how our brain works - read this book.

So there you have it - a quick walk through of my key reading over the last few months.  As I mentioned before, it has been a singularly satisfying year so far in reading.  I hope the months ahead remain as exciting!  And I hope my rozgaar gives me even time to come back to you and share what I am choosing to read.  Happy reading everyone.


  1. Very interesting blog post.
    Why don't you start lending the books you review to your friends ?
    :-) couldn't resist irritating you.

  2. Started reading the first on the list... Thinking, Fast and slow. Fascinating. Already feels like a lot of consumer risk related trick questions can come/came from here... "would you like the credit card sent to you by overnight mail for a small fee or standard mail for free"

  3. Did you see the movie version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? It was praised at the award shows but then did nothing at the box office. The reviews weren't good.


  4. Thanks for the list Jammy. Will add them to my shiny new Kindle. Yes, I have moved over from paper books to the e-variety, and contrary to what I had expected, I love it.

    Your comment on Freedom wanting you to be a better person resonated. For sheer depth of character development, the only book that I have read that compares is "A Fine Balance".

    On Breakout Nations, I went to a talk by Ruchir Sharma at LSE a couple of months back. In the Q&A, I asked him the exact same question on his assessment on India, and his answer was along the lines of "too close to home". :)

  5. Hi, I really want to tell you, I disagree. Your own blog doesn't make any sense.

  6. Of the list its just the BreakOut Nations that I have read and Daniel Kahneman rotting in the wardrobe ! It needs all the patience and focus perhaps !! Tho the list does entice !

  7. The books you are sharing about is really impressive. The quotes itself matching the requirements of the thoughts oriented thing.

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