non fiction

Take off those rose coloured glasses

This is my review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.

Isn’t the whole point of a book to change your worldview? I remember hearing, and reading, that books can expand your horizons, but it has been a long time since I’ve gotten that feeling from a book- until this one. I’m happy with this selection.

JD Vance is an Ivy league educated lawyer, but he didn’t come from a background of wealth and privilege. His upbringing represents an America that is often underrepresented by the news and the media. The global audience- and indeed, the rest of the USA- are often unaware of the struggles of the lower-class in the midwest.

This book does an excellent job of educating people while avoiding falling into the trap of buying sympathy. He is patriotic without being jingoistic. The analysis of how his Republican leanings were influenced by his childhood and family is almost academic, and helps to understand his perspective. As an ethnic minority, and a woman, and an immigrant, and an engineer on the west coast, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to the experiences of red-supporters in the midwest.

I appreciated this book because it showed me that I may be a minority, but I’m definitely not underrepresented- I have money and safety and am not disadvantaged. Just having the ‘right’ skin colour does not make life easier in this country. The USA has its own social evils to overcome, but democracy can help the country take steps towards equality and prosperity and good health for everyone.

5/5, recommended for anyone who is curious about the lives of others, and the lives of ‘others’.

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View of View from the Cheap Seats from the Cheap Seats

This is a review of View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. See what I did there?

This book is an assortment of non-fiction writings and speeches delivered by Gaiman over several years. These include, but are not limited to:

1) award acceptance speeches- which are charming, self-deprecating, and sometimes repeat jokes and anecdotes,

2) book introductions- which consist of Gaiman fangirling about the author and how their work inspired him; this is sweet when you know the author, but tedious when you don’t (I ended up skipping these whenever he spoke of a relatively less-famous sci-fi author from the 80s),

3) newspaper columns and obituaries- which are almost always terrific and well-thought-out.

Clearly, they cover a diverse variety of topics, which makes them sometimes hit-or-miss in their execution. They’re largely unrelated, so it’s easy to skip pieces if they are not your cup of tea.

There are several articles that reminded me that Gaiman first became famous as a writer of graphic novels, notably The Sandman. One essay I particularly enjoyed was an open letter to managers of comic book stores, urging them to stop selling graphic to novels to children as ‘collectors’ editions’ or ‘investment pieces’. As an author, he says, collectors’ editions or first prints are as well- or poorly-written as other editions, and they are meant to be read, not placed on the shelf in shrinkwrap. This was touching, because of course marketing to children that way is a scam, but I don’t see any other authors defending kids’ rights to waste their pocket money in more productive ways.

Gaiman comes across as a very humble, knowledgeable, gentle soul. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself, and he makes an excellent narrator as well. 4/5 from me, worth checking out. Read only the pieces that catch your eye!

Shootout

This is my review of Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

This is a factual account of the 1999 mass shooting that took place at the Columbine High School in Colorado. Dave Cullen was one of the journalists that covered the story, starting nearly as soon as the authorities became aware of the situation. The perpetrators were two 12th grade students at the school, who pulled machine guns on their schoolmates and teachers in the enclosed space of the school building before committing suicide in a classroom. At that point, this shooting set the record for maximum number of fatalities in a mass shooting.

There have been many, many mass shootings since then, some of which have eclipsed the body count of the Columbine massacre. However, the particular incident has remained in the public consciousness more than others. I’m not sure why, maybe because the all-American teenagers from good families did not fit the popular perception of what a terrorist should look like? The perpetrators were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two best friends and partners-in-crime, literally.

Some interesting information in this book that may not be readily available from other sources:

  1. The massacre was originally intended to be a bombing, and the perpetrators estimated that 500 people would be injured/killed if things had gone as planned. Their bomb was defective (despite multiple trial runs) and when it failed, the boys took out their machine guns for Plan B.
  2. The narrative that ‘bullied kids fight back’ is not necessarily applicable here; the boys were very popular and did not have trouble finding dates.
  3. Cullen has spent some time going over psychological analyses of the boys, and he concludes that Eric was the true ‘villain’, with a diagnosis of psychopathy, while Dylan went along with the plan as he was severely depressed. This verdict was not completely convincing, but it is difficult to rationalize such irrational behaviour.

This book, of course, led me down the Wikipedia rabbithole of mass shootings in the past couple of decades. What I read was horrific and I was left with some strong opinions on gun regulation. (I am probably not qualified to have such strong opinions; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing)

This book was extremely informative, and clearly Dave Cullen is passionate about revealing the true story behind the incident. However, detailing the ‘story’ of multiple victims and their personal beliefs and their what their families are doing now felt unnecessary. 4/5 for being very informative and clear, but unnecessarily detailed. Related review: a fictional account of a school shooting from the point of view of the mother of the shooter

 

 

Cool Grandma

There’s a fairly large review backlog on my Goodreads profile that needs to be tackled; but I thought I would skip the to-do list for a while and review some books as I finish them. Makes for more detailed, enthusiastic reviews.

This is a review of An Education: My Life Might Have Turned Out Differently if I Had Just Said No, a memoir by Lynn Barber. Not entirely sure where that extended title came from- the edition I read seemed to have a different name. Lynn Barber is an English journalist, most famous for her insightful and incisive interviews. She has had a career spanning three decades and has won several awards, and I had no idea who she was.

There’s a movie called An Education that was based off a chapter of this memoir. When Lynn was sixteen or seventeen, she was involved with a man in his early thirties. She was a bright, ambitious girl, and desperately wanted to go to Oxford. But “David” showed her a more glamourous lifestyle than her middle-class upbringing had allowed, and she found herself spending more and more time with him.

(here lie spoilers!)

When David eventually proposed marriage, Lynn’s parents were unexpectedly enthusiastic. Why go to Oxford when you could marry well, and live comfortably? They genuinely loved the charming David and thought he would make a steady and responsible husband. It was not as obvious to Lynn, but pressure from her parents and a disillusionment in her school administration pushed her to accept. Soon after, she found that David was a conman and was already married with two children. Fortunately, she was able to take her exams the next year and was accepted at Oxford.

(end of spoiler-y section)

This particular chapter and story was the main attraction of the book, to me. In the movie, it was interesting to see how fictionalLynn aspired to go to Oxford because it represented sophistication and class and intellectual freedom, and how the same ends could apparently be achieved more easily elsewhere. The real Lynn speaks of this incident almost fondly in her memoir, as though it was an eye-opening experience. But what comes next is much more interesting.

Lynn Barber went to Oxford and, in her own words, partied as hard as she could. Her first job was at Penthouse, a soft-porn magazine. She speaks frankly about the trials of working on a new magazine, and the end of censorship in the UK. Despite the obvious stigma associated with Penthouse, she describes how much she enjoyed working there and how much she learned. She next wrote a sex manual (!) entitled How to Improve Your Man in Bed. Her approach, she says, was inspired by being saddled with a terrible dance partner- girls have to guide their partners to lead correctly, without issuing orders or making them feel conscious. I’ve no doubt that it was wildly successful.

In later years, she worked as an expert interviewer and earned the nickname “Demon Barber”. At this point, the book briefly becomes a laundry list of ’70-’80s British personalities, but not for long. She devotes a few chapters to her relationship with her husband, their family life, and a very moving chapter about his illness and death. Throughout the memoir, Barber comes across as a likeable person, and very aware of her personal failings. She is, perhaps, a bit too sure of herself, but no doubt that comes with 65 years of life experience. Her surprisingly unbiased summary of her parents’ value system and rationale behind their beliefs was eye-opening; we have all been brought up with a set of values, many of which may seem ridiculous from time to time. How many of us can say that we’ve really thought them through?

I would recommend this as a timepass read to replace those long chats with your grandmother. 5/5

Some Literary Theory

This is my review of Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino.

This is not a novel, but a series of lectures by Calvino that have been compiled into a book.

This review has been in my Drafts box for way too long, so it’s going to be a lot less detailed than it could be, sorry!

Each lecture describes in detail a characteristic of literary fiction that adds value to storytelling or technique. Lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity… and, tragically, Calvino died before he was able to deliver the final lecture. The lectures are peppered with specific examples and critique of works by various authors, which really helps understand the value of each characteristic.

As an armchair reader (heh) without any formal education in literature, I’m sure I missed a lot of the subtlety; it’s also not targeted at amateur authors, moreso towards the Nobel laureates among us.

4/5 for giving me a new way to appreciate the fiction I read.

Water Wars

This is a review of the book Water Wars: Privatisation, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva.

Water Wars is a great book for people interested in management of water; the kind of people who binge read newspaper editorials on public policy. It isn’t a hugely educative read, though, since almost everyone (newspaper nut or otherwise) is aware of the water crisis looming ahead, and that solutions to it are way more complex than we’d care to admit.

Just as well, the book is a worthy read because it is spirited (you can almost hear Shiva crying her voice hoarse about the ills of privatisation of water). Also, literature on conserving and saving our environment is necessary, so any literature at all is welcome.

Shiva is an advocate for community led maintenance of water. Her arguments are premised on the idea that communities are democratic and non-discriminating between sections of society. But is that the reality of communities across the country? Caste, class and religion based conflict, related to water, at the village level, are not uncommon in India. It was Ambedkar that said that villages can be the cesspools of narrow-mindedness – are they, then, equipped to solve water crisis equitably? It’s a pity that this point was not critically examined by Shiva.

She also believes that community management can be a replacement to govt efforts. Very well. But every successful case study on community led water management quoted came with the support of the State. For example, Swadhyaya, Pani Panchayat. So reading her ideas about replacing the state in service provision is a little bit of a hypocritic pill to take.

Predictably, the book signs a huge no to privatisation of water services, be it extraction, distribution or recycling. The reasons being that it leads to pollution, inequitable distribution.

Speaking of pollution, a much needed chapter is devoted to the effect of Climate Change on the dialectic on water scarcity. The bad news (not so much news anymore) is that there is no good news at all. Shiva believes that the solution to climate change induced water and food scarcity, and disasters, lies in enforcing action through international instruments like the Paris Agreement (she mentions Kyoto, actually; the book was released many years ago). But there is no way to enforce these agreements, truly. Finally, in a last breathe effort, she says, we need climate justice. That means a paradigm change in lifestyles of people, and a goodbye to the American lifestyle of consumption. But that’s pretty much impossible.

At this point in the review, I think it’s appropriate to point to some of the great despondence that the writer probably experienced while writing the book. These are the not-very-compelling parts of the book: Many pages are spent in saying that private companies (ranging from Coca Cola to Monsanto) are trying to claim all water services, with the help of the IMF and the World Bank. They’re not do-gooders – they’re trojan horses, apparently. So beware! Also, Public Private Partnerships are very dangerous – it’s all about making public good unavailable and making a profit out of it with public money! These statements are not based on facts or figures, rather, they’re based on strong opinions. I did say the book was spirited.

The book ends with a chapter on how rivers are seen as sacred by most civilisations. It was an appeal to the spirituality of the reader, I think, to conserve our water resources. To me, it was interesting for the narration of all the mythological stories related to rivers and other water bodies.

Solutions?

Shiva’s main emphasis is on local solutions to water problems, and she squarely blames states, countries and international organisations, and especially private interests, for the water crisis.

In Water Wars, fierce arguments to save the planet’s water resources by not doing certain things (like privatisation and monetisation of water) are put forward.

But there are no sweeping solutions that are on offer. While the case studies are quoted as a blueprint to solve issues related to water pollution and scarcity, it is also a fact that these stories are not scalable. Abstract ideas of justice and equity are provided as the panacea for water management. Mostly, the author exhorts countries to look within at solutions offered by communities and at traditional methods as ways forward.

If only that worked all the time.

While compelling, the book does not fully quench the thirst for solutions to water problems and water wars.

3/5.

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

Read this read this

I don’t know who recommended this book but I definitely owe them a coffee.

This is my review of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman.

Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer. Despite the unusual field of study, this book is one of the most informative and eye-opening works I have ever read. You’ll never look at any man-made device the same again, promise.

Have you ever tried using a new device- a new Samsung phone after a series of Nokias, iOS after Windows, hell, even a can opener- and chastised yourself for being technology illiterate? In reality, every mis-click that causes you to lose data  is a design flaw, and not the user’s fault. By definition, all gadgets are intended to make the user’s life simpler, not more complex.

The book is perhaps intended to be a textbook, but is light enough to be casual reading for a layperson. However, several basic concepts are defined fairly rigorously- I had to read a chapter or two twice. It was first published in the 1980s, so there are several charmingly outdated examples related to landline telephones. It hasn’t aged well, but the examples aren’t completely obsolete so they put the ideas across effectively enough.

5/5 from me. Read this if you are in the mood to learn something new, and aren’t intimidated by mild technology/engineering jargon.

Here are some takeaways from the book that really stuck with me:

  • Read The Fucking Manual is excellent advice, but an ideal design should be intuitive enough for someone to use it straight out of the box. A good metric to judge how intuitive controls are is to look at the mapping between the control and the function. Do you have 3 buttons for a dozen functions? Chances are, the average dad is going to have a hard time. Are the controls at least vaguely reminiscent of the functions they’re for? An example of this would be pushing a joystick forward or up to make your virtual vehicle move faster.

 

  • Norman Doors: This is a example of poor design. It refers to those annoying doors that say PUSH and PULL on them because it’s not immediately obvious what you are supposed to do without trial and error. A better alternative is illustrated in the header image for this post. Simple and effective.

 

  • Repeat after me: The Customer is King. Usability studies are essential to make sure that a) functions are intuitive and b) basic errors in judgement do not have catastrophic consequences. For instance, Norman noticed that this book was being shelved under psychology, which was slightly misleading. Switching it to design/engineering ensured that it was accessible to the right customers. Another example was the positioning of a ‘clear all’ key on a calculator in the spot usually occupied by the Return key. Experienced typists kept mashing this key at the end of a long equation, erasing all their work.

 

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.