2016 reading

7 01 2017


It had been a novel reading experience for me in 2016. Steered off my usual choices. Didn’t participate in any book clubs. Read loads of non-fiction. Loved most of them. Figured out that listening to non-fiction is much better than reading it. 😛

Nothing cheers me up like a good thriller. While Cormoron Strike’s new case, or rather mostly JK Rowling’s craftsmanship in Career of the Evil, thrilled me to the core, the fourth in the Millennium series – The Girl in the Spider’s Web, practically saved me from winter blues during a long holiday.

Harper Lee recreated the magic of To Kill a Mocking Bird in her much long awaited work – Go Set a Watchman with her powerful writing. Another gem I just picked from the library shelf is “Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka, about Japanese immigrants and their mysterious relocation from California during the second world war. Written from the perspective of Japanese immigrant women as a collective, it is a beautiful and deeply affecting depiction of their plight during that time. rice of Salt by Patricia Highsmith had also been a pleasant surprise for me. It’s a passionate love story of two women in love.

Listening to Steve Jobs, as narrated by Dylan Baker, was truly humbling. True that the man was eccentric and notably a jerk, but his ingeniousness, vision, and perseverance are ideals for future innovators. Read three books by Jon Krakauer. His personal account of the Everest mishap is chilling to the core. Into the Wild is a real classic. I was totally impressed by his narration. Such a tragedy. I was noticeably distressed days after I finished the book. The third book is on the rape and justice system in Missoula. Needless to say, it was quite disturbing. One book that triggered a change in my lifestyle is “Fast Food Nation”. I’m now officially averse to fast food.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History that I listened to towards the end of year was truly remarkable. It tells you the story of extinction throughout the history  of the world as known or theorized by man. Mostly, it talks about how humans are the agents of disruption and destruction for the varied species on this planet. It gives us a perspective. It’s a very engaging book and is based on extensive research. I have to particularly note here that the narrator of the audio book Anne Twomey, with her bed time story telling style, did a great job and actually enabled me to finish this book easily and made it more interesting. Kudos to her. Susan Cain’s book on Introverts, Quiet is something that will stay with me forever, precisely because I can relate to it so so much! 🙂

Gollapudi’s Sayamkaalamaindi is a feel good portrayal of Vaishnava tradition and customs set against a backdrop of simplistic Indian village life at least a couple of generations ago. That was a time when the social hierarchy was determined by one’s caste and was accepted by one and all, even the underprivileged, as the only way of life. The reader, as a more liberal being, may cringe at some depictions. But in this novel, the author’s intention didn’t appear to be supportive of it or to make a statement about the caste system in some way. It seemed like a honest portrayal of life with all it’s complications. The story in fact progresses along the inevitable change that happens in the societal norms. The best thing about the book is that it’s a story about good and genuine people. It left me with peace and nostalgic. The writing is excellent and a reminiscent of classic literature and language in its purest form. Must read if you love the language and the culture.

Black Swan

23 11 2016


It’s not too often that I write a largely glorious review for a book which I couldn’t manage to finish despite my best intentions. Sounds kind of counter intuitive. Isn’t it? But that’s how it is for Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan is a metaphor coined by the author to describe a phenomenon with the following three attributes: “First, it is a outlier. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Typical examples include Sep 2011 attack, 2008 economic meltdown etc. In this book, Taleb talks about the nature of black swan events and why we can’t predict them.
As I started reading this book, I couldn’t help marveling at the sheer ingeniousness of the author. It seemed every phrase and sentence oozed intelligence and creativity. I was spell bound. As new as I am to the world of philosophy and philosophers, I was filled with awe. I got introduced to more and more interesting and intriguing concepts and I was enjoying every moment of it. One such concept that runs through more or less the entire book is “platonitcity”. It is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. The author explains that “the platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” He says that it is here that the Black Swan is produced.

He draws up the occurrence of black swan events and our perception of them through a simple analogy of “thanksgiving turkey”. While the butcher feeds the turkey for months, only to kill it for a feast. For the turkey, the occurrence of its murder is a black swan event. It doesn’t expect it in the months leading up to it because there was never any evidence to suggest anything other than continued pampering. But it’s not a black swan event for the butcher. So, the key is “not to be a turkey”. 🙂 Our confusion of our perception of ” there is no evidence of the possibility of black swans” with the statement “there is evidence of no possible Black Swans”, which the author calls “round-trip fallacy” lies at the root of why we can’t predict those events.

He also talks about Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is a place an outlier doesn’t impact the overall measure and it follows the Gaussian distribution and is non-scalable. Example – weight a person, audience for a play etc. Extremistan, on the other hand is highly scalable and the outliers heavily impact the aggregate. Example – one extremely bestselling author or musician etc. The lesson is not use predictive methods applicable only to Mediocristan to Extremistan. It is in Extremistan there is a high chance of occurrence for a black swan event. Wow, pretty simple and deep at the same time!!

Another tendency of ours which contributes to our misunderstanding of Black Swans is “narrative fallacy”. Our tendency to develop narratives around facts (for the basic and subconscious need of easier storage and retrieval of information) based on our System 1 thinking. The result of this simplification is that we think that the world is less random than it is and we leave the black swans out.

There are many more interesting and though-provoking ideas in this book. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it, I must add, despite my best efforts. I don’t know why. It’s true that the book is so dense with content and ideas, even if they all have common threads. I might even have found it a little repetitive (but that’s how many good non-fiction books usually are anyways – just to make sure that you don’t miss the point and that it’s ingrained in your brain, to make maximum impact.). It’s also true that time and again I felt that the author was a more than a little pompous as he repeatedly bashed or disagreed with many other (supposedly) renowned philosophers and experts on many things. Still. Maybe, that’s all true. Maybe that’s how philosophers usually are – hold strong opinions and theories, single minded, assertive, and speak with utmost conviction.

The Art of Choosing

27 02 2016

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar surpassed all my expectations and more. I’m very impressed by this work. I was surprised to learn that the author is blind. At no point in the whole book would you get an idea of any such limitation on author’s part.  This work is a result of decades of her work in the field of choice. It also assimilated the outcome of numerous studies performed of many other researchers.

theartofchoosingThe book talked about how important choice is to one’s well-being as well as how and in what circumstances it can be over-whelming and/or harmful. It laid out how choice shapes our lives. It is interesting to note that in many cases, a belief that we have a choice is more important than whether we actually have the choice or not. A large part of the choosing process can be about making a personal statement – establishing or reaffirming a self image.

The book also touched upon cultural differences in perceiving choice in different aspects of life. Asian cultures do not see many aspects of life, even as important as marriage, profession etc. as personal choices, and let the family and/or community to make those choices for them. In contrast, Western cultures are characterized by the individual freedom of choice. This keeps the onus on the individual to make each and every choice that comes along his or her way. And sometimes it can be quite self-defeating.

I expected the book to rant about consumerism and the profusion of choice we currently have as part of each and every buying experience. The book definitely touched this aspect, but also a lot more. Sheena Iyengar presented choice as a philosophy of life and dissected it from all angles worthy enough to consider. It gave a well-rounded perspective on choice and the role it plays in our lives. This book is a treasure as far as I’m concerned.

I lamented before on this blog about analysis paralysis I frequently encounter while trying to choose among plethora of options available out there and I hoped that this book about choice would address that predicament and offer some tips. I was pleased to find that it did. They include:

  • Gain expertise in the field to choose better
  • Defer to experts’ recommendations or crowd wisdom in areas where you don’t have expertise
  • Consult experts when you are too emotionally tied to a situation to make sound judgment
  • Use programs like SMarT, StickK, SnuzNLuz alarm to make beneficial choices

I would add that going with satisficing rather than maximizing strategy can combat analysis paralysis. But of course, this can seem easier said than done, especially when choice is much more than what it appears to be at first glance.

The author concludes that despite all the assistance of science, choice remains an art at its core.

Confessions of a Sociopath

27 05 2015

I picked up this book on a whim, it’s title having piqued my curiosity. I had no expectations from the book but just hoped that it wouldn’t be a drag. I’m relieved to discover that it made quite an interesting read with enough depth and detail. Even though written anonymously, or rather because of it, this (kind of) memoir seems more honest and authentic.

sociopathThe author, M.E.Thomas (a pseudonym), is a lawyer, and by self-diagnosis, a successful sociopath. To add credibility to this book, she even got a formal diagnosis that merely confirmed what she already knew. She starts with describing what sociopathy means and what characterizes a sociopath, based on scientific research and popular medical and other works. She then delves into how she had always been a little off – compared to the “normal” empaths (the interpretation of terms – “normal”, “empaths” is arguable, according to the author, and she addresses it in the final chapter.), right from the childhood, the challenges she faced, what she learned along the way, how she coped and what she envisions for the future.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines being sociopathic as “of, relating to, or characterized by asocial or antisocial behavior or exhibiting antisocial personality disorder“. While there doesn’t seem to be a universal agreement on what traits conclusively and objectively define sociopathy, some of the major traits of sociopaths include lack of empathy for others, charm, manipulation, lying, promiscuity, chameleonism, mask wearing, ruthlessness, impulsiveness, lack of moral compass, lack of rigid sense of self, risk-taking, lack of reaction to negative stimuli like fear and danger etc.

This definitely sounds dangerous, but not always in reality – according to the author. She tries to establish that sociopaths are just variants of human nature, with a slightly different genetic makeup and brain structure.  But of course, they are not doomed by their biology and can turn out into successful, contributing members of society rather than criminals or people of violence/ruthlessness. The upbringing and the kind of people around them – nurture, coupled with their conscious effort to function well in the society full of empaths, can and will always stump “nature”, as is evident by the author and several others who visit and comment on her blog – http://www.sociopathworld.com/

Of course, sociopaths are prone to be destructive, but it’s true that even the so called “normal” people commit heinous crimes in the name of passion or something else. So, don’t jump to hasty conclusions. 😛

The author describes her journey of trying to understand herself, to learn how others “function”, and making up a prosthetic moral compass that serves her well in her relationships and interactions with other people, and mostly keep her out of trouble. She says that since many things that empaths take for granted  – like relating to other’s emotions and reacting appropriately, feeling guilt, making small talk,  etc don’t come naturally to her, since all her actions are driven by self-interest  – loss vs gain – without any emotional stake, she can’t be herself while she is with people. She has to project a persona that charms, and pleases others. She doesn’t understand and doesn’t care that she may hurt someone by her words/actions, but she will likely refrain from them only if she believes her behavior will negatively impact her in some material way. She likes manipulating, and ruining people. She takes everything as a project, a challenge, and strives to succeed. She enjoys the journey rather than her exploits.

The neurological disconnect between emotion and decision-making in sociopaths coupled with ruthlessness, and self-interest serves well in professional settings and is actually desirable. But the same traits fail one awfully in personal settings. She realizes that this kind of attitude/behavior is not sustainable. Sociopaths always need to be vigilant and try to be someone who they are not, which is so burdening. She emphasizes that it is important to understand the true nature of sociopaths and how they are different. Acceptance and understanding from the people around will help a great deal in coping and being successful and constructive in a sustainable way. It’s difficult both ways – empaths to understand sociopaths and vice versa. Whichever side you are on, you need to make an effort to understand the other. 😉  The bottom line is that Sociopaths exist – roughly 1 to 4 percent of population is sociopathic -, and they are often hidden in plain sight.

I’m sure I haven’t managed to put down all I wanted to say about this book here, but I’ll like to end with just saying that it had been an insightful and engaging read.

David and Goliath

4 09 2014

Believe it or not, but this is the first time I read this much fabled story about David and Goliath. And Malcom Gladwell’s perspective completely threw me off my ground. It was exciting to get led by him onto the many disadvantages of Goliath and how he was doomed right from the moment David decided to accept the challenge. It acts as a powerful premise for the point that the rest of the book makes. Malcom Gladwell knows how to capture reader’s attention. He is quite an orator too. Recently, I have watched a TED talk by him and I was impressed by his eloquence.

DavidAndGoliathChapter by chapter, with loads of real-life examples, he tries to convince the readers why our conventional perception of advantages and disadvantages is not always correct. He says that being a big fish in small pond pays better than being a small fish in big pond. He elucidates on desirable difficulties. He talks about inverted U curve, where after a point more of something actually hurts. It applies to class size – while it’s general notion that the smaller the class the better, it can be too small to benefit the students. Likewise, there is a limit to power too. When power is not perceived as legitimate, enforcing more of it will only result in chaos and uprising.

He discussed dyslexia and put forth the fact that a third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. His theory is – since people with dyslexia need to work hard at what others can do almost naturally, their other faculties like “listening” are exceptional. He argues that their ability to handle failure is much better. I was appalled, to say the least, when he casually suggested that given the hidden advantages associated with being dyslexic ,we may wish it on our children. But to my greatest relief, the elite group of successful dyslexic people were unanimous in their reaction – they said they wouldn’t wish it on their children. Same is the case with any depravity. Despite so, he concludes, we as a society need people who have come out of some trauma – because they can do things which others cannot.

[True that it’s adversary that initiates action from people. If we are comfortable and happy, we wouldn’t do much of anything to change our state, do we? So, we usually achieve great things in our attempts to conquer our miseries/adversaries. But that doesn’t mean that we should actively seek misery. The law of nature sees to it. Many times success and happiness are two different things.]

He also talks about ‘remote misses’ – a phenomenon which would result in stronger and more courageous people, in the midst of intense bombing. He agrees that for each ‘remote miss’, there will be countless ‘near misses’, who are crushed by the experience.; likewise, 90% of dyslexic people end up as failures.

The author seems to be glorifying desirable difficulties, but the whole point as I got it is this: Make the best out of your situation. If you have a disadvantage, focus in its hidden advantages and exploit them to your best.

A very interesting and thoroughly engaging read.

Absolute Khushwant

21 05 2011

This latest non-fiction by Khushwant Singh is a very delightful and quick read. He shared his opinions and views on various events, subjects and persons like 1984 communal riots, 26/11 attack, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, religion, Pakistan and many more. He also included a few chapters on his personal life. All through the book, one cannot help being awestruck by his honesty, straight-forwardness and frankness.

He openly declared that he hates Advani and announced that he had done irreparable damage to the country. He praised the present Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as a man of integrity. He had both good things and bad things to say about various people. I was pleased to note that Mahatma Gandhi is his role model. I’m impressed by Khushwant ‘s energy and drive to work even at the age of 95. He is a truly inspiring person, especially with regard to his philosophy of time and work.

A few months ago, I read another of his non-fiction books – We Indians. It’s a short book about the idiosyncrasies of Indians. It’s comical, satirical and above all true.

I regret discovering this amazing personality so late. Even though I have heard about him for quite a long time, I haven’t really read anything by him expect his first novel, Train to Pakistan, which failed to make a lasting impression on me at that time. It is “We Indians” that evoked my interest in his works, particularly non-fiction.

I’m keen to read more about him and his take on various things.

My reading in 2010

26 12 2010

The count this year is a modest 60. Not much change in the statistics. The same <20% still holds good for non-fiction. But, to my satisfaction, I’ve tried various subjects – from self-help (Nine Rooms of Happiness) to travelogues (The Lost Continent); memoirs (Angela’s Ashes) to pure technical stuff (Business Intelligence) and more.

I read more number of Telugu books this year compared to the previous one. I tried a few authors for the first time this year – Mohammad Khadeerbabu (Poleramma Banda Kathalu), Chilikamarti Lakshminarasimham (Ganapathi) and Bhanumathi Ramakrishna (Athagari Kathalu). I loved them all.

If I have to name a book from this year’s list, which I’ve liked the most, it would undoubtedly be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It touched me, surprised me, and above all shook me. I read only a few mysteries (by James Hadley Chase) but more than a few  thrillers, which include The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson and techno-thrillers (Timeline, The Terminal Man, Pirate Latitudes) by my favorite Michael Crichton. I felt that the Millennium trilogy was ok – new and interesting.

I also covered a few family dramas and those, which I guess cannot be called pure chick-lit – Amy and Isabelle by Olive Kitteridge fame Elizabeth Strout, Letter from Peking by Pearl S Buck, Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan and a few by Maile Meloy. Each and every one of them left me thinking more about the lively characters.

I tried horror (Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein) for the first time and I have to admit that the experience was far from being pleasant. I deliberately avoided reading it during the nights and had to gather my courage many a times in order to continue with the book. 😀

Another heart-felt book I was fortunate to read this year is The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. It was simply amazing. The author had left me awestruck. Looking forward to read more of him. In fact, I just started his My Name is Red.

Coming to the Short Stories, I had better luck in Telugu compared to English. While Alice Munro’s (Too Much Happiness) and Maile Meloy’s (Both Ways is the Only Way I want) were just fine, it was Tagore’s collection of stories, which cast a deep impression on me. They were just brilliant.

Other books, which I cherished this year include – The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, The Secret of Laughter by Susha Guppy (Magical Tales from Classical Persia), Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt (Non-fiction), and Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer.

I feel blessed and I hope to read better, if not more, books next year.