The Heretics (by Will Storr)

The tag line of Will Storr’s The Heretics is Adventures with the Enemies of Science and it is a book about science and about people who don’t believe the scientific “facts”. It is also a deeply thought-provoking book because it forces you to question your assumptions about the things that you believe.

Storr meets a variety of people, from Creationists to people who believe that they’ve been abducted by aliens to rationalists, and actually listens to what the people are saying with an open mind and, in the process, ends up opening your mind to the unstated assumptions that we all make about the things that we believe in.

I hesitate to write about the book in these terms because it sounds like I’m talking about a book about thinking or philosophy. At its heart, The Heretics is a fascinating reportage-cum-commentary on different “belief systems” that people have and the sort of continuum on which those belief systems lie.

In the aftermath of the Donald Trump election, when people were talking about books to recommend to understand liberal versus conservative perspectives, I thought that The Heretics would be a good book to read because it shows you how to understand points of view that you think might even be absurd and with that understanding there is a chance of empathy.

I think that we could all use a little more empathy in our lives.

PS: I’ve a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this “review” has not done justice to the book, so if you feel that way, please check out this interview with Will Storr, which has a nice background of the book and the author explaining why he wrote the book.

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The best books that I read in 2016

Since this is a time of lists and more lists, I’m adding my list to the lists.

These are the best books that I read in 2016, not the books that were published in 2016. In the order that I remember them now.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (my review): I read it twice and I’ll probably go back to it again.
  2. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald: About training a hawk (goshawk actually) to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death. Riveting book
  3. The Heretics by Will Storr: I need to review this book at some point but until that point suffice to say that this is a brilliant, thought-provoking, well-researched, fascinating book .
  4. Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups by Madhu Ramnath (my tweet about book): A masterpiece of anthropological reporting, which, sadly, according to the publisher did not do well.
  5. Nickel and Damned by Barbara Ehrenreich: Quite an old book actually buy but still relevant. A reporter goes undercover doing minimum-wage jobs and documents the hardships that she faces.
  6. Technopoly by Neil Postman: The sub-title of the book is “The Surrender of Culture to Technology”. Another one that I must review and another that is just brilliant.
  7. Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffran Foer: If you eat “non vegetarian” food, as we Indian’s call it, this is a book that you should read. Excellent book, thought-provoking, and disturbing to meat eaters everywhere, myself included.
  8. Cod by Mark Kurlansky: You would think the story of a fish being fished would not be that interesting and you would be wrong. Cod is a masterpiece.
  9. Liar’s Club* by Mary Carr: Breathtaking, heartbreaking memoir. Transports you to the world of Carr’s childhood. I could not put this book down.
  10. The Watcher by Charles Maclean: The first (and so far only) fiction book on this list. I bought this book because of a Guardian recommendation and I was not disappointed. The writing was phenomenal, the story and suspense simply gripping. I finished this in a day or so I think.
  11. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: If you are on social media, this is a must read. If you aren’t, it is still a must read for knowing about the culture of shaming that exists online today.
  12. Essentialism by Greg McKeown: Essentialism is about the “disciplined pursuit of less”. Essential reading for our “I want it all” age.
  13. Give and Take by Adam Grant: Fascinating book about givers and takers.
  14. Things That Can and Cannot be Said by John Cusack, Arundathi Roy et al: Short, but super sweet (my tweet about book)

It’s late and this is all from memory, so I’m stopping now. If I missed something else that I read and found really good, I’ll update the list. Or not. Oh, the suspense.

* – [4-Jun-17] Corrected this based on a feedback via Twitter

When Breath Becomes Air

Every once in a while, not too often, you come across a book that blows you away. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is one such book.

I first heard of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, when I read his article How long have I got left? I then read another piece Before I Go and I was fascinated by his story and his powerful writing. I was sad when I heard about his death and when his book came out earlier this year, I bought it fairly quickly.

I think I started the book sometime in the afternoon and could not put it down until I finished it later that night. The story was heartbreaking, honest, deeply moving, and yet, in a strange way, uplifting.

What blew me away was the quality of the writing–it is terrific and in some places, it sings like poetry (in prose) on the page. It is incredible that someone who trained to be a neurosurgeon could also write in such an accomplished way because doing one of those things is hard enough, being able to do both is amazing.

When I finished reading the book and thought about it later, I was sad because there is no great body of work of Paul Kalanithi’s that we can read–there are only a couple of articles and this book. But, if you had to write a book about your life while dying of cancer, what a stunning book to write.

The quality of the book is enhanced by the foreword, written by Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the beautiful book ‘The Tennis Partner’, and the epilogue, written by Paul’s wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who, Paul asked to “shepherd the manuscript of his book to publication.” Lucy Kalanithi’s essay in the NY Times is also a must-read.

If you have not yet read When Breath Becomes Air, you are really missing something. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year and considering that I’ve been lucky to read some terrific ones, that’s really saying something.

Seriously. Go read it; you’ll be glad that you did.

The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks

I had read of HeLa cells in a couple of books but I had never considered the story behind those cells and how scientists got a hold of them. The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells were taken without her permission, and the story of the family’s devastation, on finding out about these cells.

TILOHL is a gripping, fascinating book that reads like a thriller. The book raises important questions about the ethics governing the use of tissues from human beings but it’s core is the story of a Henrietta Lacks’ family. Reading about the Lacks family and the kind of suffering that Henrietta’s children endured is gut wrenching. If you also consider that companies made money from the HeLa cell line while the family itself struggled, it makes absolutely no sense.

I found the book hard to put down and once I was half way through the book, I stayed up fairly late on a weekday (around 2 AM I think) because I just *had* to finish the book. TILOHL deserves the awards that it’s received and Rebecca Skloot, who must have worked really hard to unearth all the information in the book and then put the information together to make it such a terrific read, deserves all the plaudits.

TILOHL is a superb book and, in my view, a must-read.

PS: This is not a new book, but what the heck. To paraphrase NBC, If you haven’t read it, it’s new to you.

Strand Book Festival 2010

My favourite book festival in Bangalore is back.

The Annual Strand Book Festival
at Basava Bhavan, Opp. Hotel Chalukya and Sophia School, Bangalore

Fri 26 Nov – Sun 12 Dec
10 – 8.30pm

Discounts up to 80%

Parking in and around the venue.

I’ve been for a few years now and I always find something good. Can’t wait.

2 States (and Chetan Bhagat)

I hadn’t read any books by Chetan Bhagat until a friend passed on 2 States to me and asked me to read it. I took my time getting to read the book and when I did I finished it pretty fast.

I didn’t like the book well enough to read Bhagat’s other work but I now get why people read his books. The book was fast-paced, the story was reasonably good and overall, the book was entertaining. In fact, the book reminded me of Bollywood.

Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read about why I didn’t enjoy 2 States. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about “the fictive dream” and how good fiction makes readers feel like they are part of a dream. He also mentions how writers can, by doing various things wrong, jar readers awake. When I read 2 States, at times the writing snapped me out of “the fictive dream” and some plot twists felt too convenient. So, I am probably not going to read Bhagat’s novels again because it’s hard for me to ignore these things.

Coming back to Bollywood. I don’t watch too many Bollywood movies because, most of the time, I find it hard to deal with the interruptions: the needless songs, the unbelievable plot twists, the (sometimes) over-acting, etc. But, I get that millions of people find that Bollywood movies are a great source of entertainment.

Similarly, I can see why so many people find Bhagat’s work enjoyable. Critics who are mystified by his success need to look at Bollywood’s. The mantra in Bollywood is entertainment and that’s what Bhagat delivers to his fans. It’s one of the reasons that he’s been so successful.

A great many people read to be entertained and if Bhagat is giving them what they want, why should we begrudge him the success he’s had. At least he’s getting people to read books.

PS: I enjoyed reading this Caravan essay about Bhagat’s popularity: Paperback Messiah

What the Dog Saw

When I bought the book, I hadn’t realized that Macolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw was a series of essays selected from his New Yorker articles. No matter, since I hadn’t read most of them anyway. One thing about Gladwell is that he writes in a way that makes the story interesting and accessible and this book (or series of essays) is no exception.

I’ve read criticism of his books recently and I think that people are missing the point. As he explains in this book’s introduction, Gladwell looks for the angle in the story that is unusual and goes after the story in that way. His mandate is to make stuff interesting and if you’ve read his work, you’ll have to agree that he does. Gladwell’s one of those people who knows how to weave a narrative and that’s something most people struggle to do consistently. (Check out his TED talk on spaghetti sauce and you’ll see what I mean.)

Anyway, the essays in the book range from the world of TV infomercials to women’s health to dog whisperers to genius and age and are in the typical Gladwell New Yorker style — well researched, interesting, and arguments presented beautifully. I have no complaints about Gladwell and his writing: he’s a fabulous writer and we need more writers like him. He seems to find connections in things that people don’t usually find and turns those connections into something interesting: he’s a modern day alchemist.

After writing this post, I realized that it is more a comment on Gladwell’s writing than about this book. Details shmetails.

Bothered by my Green Conscience

It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I’m a fan of Franke James’ visual essays. I’ve linked to her work, I’ve blogged about it, and tweeted about it as well. (Franke James, for those of you not in the know, is a multiple award winning author and artist, who lives in Toronto.) After trying to find a way to buy her book (here in India) and then a few weeks of procrastinating, I finally got my hands on her book. (Thank you Flipkart.com.)

Bothered by my Green Conscience (hereafter Bothered…) is a series of visual essays — five to be exact — about the Franke James’ journey to the green side. In the beginning of the book, Franke comes up with the big idea – Do the hardest thing first, before you change your mind.

The hardest thing that the author did was to give up her SUV. Then, since she didn’t need her driveway because she had no car, she took on the city of Toronto and got the first permit to build an eco-friendly driveway in Toronto. Her driveway is now a converted garden with plants and trees and more importantly less storm water runoff. Reading the essays makes you wonder about the things that you can do to make your life more sustainable and green.

Even though I had read all of the visual essays online, reading the essays in Bothered… was a totally different experience and the essays were easier to read. I also didn’t appreciate how much work goes into creating each visual essay until I saw the illustrations on the pages of the book. The visuals that Franke James uses with her words are way more powerful in conveying her experiences and thoughts than any book with only words could be.

As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to give it to my family members so that after reading it, they’d understand why I use baking soda for cleaning, why I segregate garbage, etc. In fact, Bothered… is one of those books that you feel like giving to everyone you know so that they can also get the “green thing”.

Bothered by my Green Conscience is a terrific read and unlike any book that I’ve ever read. I wish and hope that more people will read it.

Dreams in Prussian Blue

Disclosure: The author of Dreams in Prussian Blue, Paritosh Uttam, is a friend, so take whatever I say with a pinch of iodized salt.

Dreams in Prussian Blue (DiPB) is the story of the relationship between a promising young painter, Michael, and his girlfriend and patron, Naina. When an accident causes Michael to lose his eyesight, Naina is forced to make some tough choices. What these choices are and how it affects their relationship is the meat of the book. The author also introduces the back story – how Naina and Michael meet – at regular intervals through the book.

DiPB is a nicely told story, it moves at the right pace, and the suspense keeps you interested throughout. I read a short review in the Deccan Herald saying that the novel’s pace was slow, but I couldn’t disagree more — I felt that the pace was perfect. Also, the book was a light read and enjoyable.

One thing that many first-time and some experienced authors get wrong is that their characters feel flat (cardboard characters) and not real. Not so with DiPB — the characters in the book feel like real people, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off. In addition, you think about the protagonist, Naina, after you’ve finished the book.

So, while I bought Paritosh’s first book because he’s a friend, I’ll buy his second book because I enjoyed his first. I’m looking forward to reading what he comes up with the next time.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer is good at two things – researching stuff for a story and telling the story in a way that keeps you riveted. Krakauer can probably write about how chalk is made and make it seem super interesting. Under the Banner of Heaven (UBH) is the third book of Krakauer’s that I’ve read and like the other two —- Into Thin Air and Into the Wild — it’s brilliant stuff.

Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith, is Krakauer’s look at one of the world’s fastest growing religions, Mormonism. Krakauer investigates the story of the brutal murder of a young mother and her baby daughter (by her brothers-in-law) and pieces together a fascinating account of the Mormon religion. He talks to different people associated with the religion —- the accused in the case, people who’ve been ex-communicated from the religion, women who have been abused as children, to people who practice polygamy (and incest) —- and looks at the history of the religion to paint of picture that is horrifying and yet fascinating to read. (To be fair, he makes the point that if you looked at most of the major religions, especially the relatively newer ones, there is a similarity in the way that the religions grew.)

But, the way that Mormonism came about and the way it spread (and is still spreading) is amazing. The fact that (in a particular fundamentalist sect) fathers marry their own daughters or step-daughters because they believe that God has told them to do so, the fact that children are abused sexually, that women are not treated well is not something to gloss over. (It’s the same way that you cannot gloss over the abuse of children by Catholic priests.) The book uncovers the unsavoury parts of a religion that is pretty closed and brings them out into the open.

Reading UBH is sometimes like reading a thriller and though parts of the book deal with difficult topics, it is book I could not put down.