Book Review – “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan

In this classic book, Carl Sagan is simultaneously teacher, guide and storyteller, weaving together a tale to try and answer the questions so many have asked: Who are we and where have we come from?

In a journey that spans 15 billion years, from the Big Bang to the immediate future as he saw it in the early 1980’s, Sagan gives us not only the story of evolution, but also glimpses of world history and scientific breakthroughs which helped us understand our home planet, our immediate neighbours in the Solar system and the worlds beyond.

He does veer sometimes into mathematical proofs and scientific details, but more often than not, I understood the broader concepts because the language has been deliberately kept simple. As someone who is reading a book on astronomy for the first time, I was able to grasp most of the ideas that were discussed.

A note however must be made of the lovely story-telling skills employed. The book is scattered with historical tales, myths and legends from different cultures and even small bits of fictional musing. If you enjoy reading chapters which start off with a tale, explain mind boggling ideas in a simple language and then wrap it all up neatly, you will enjoy this book.

A descriptive language also come in handy when the words on the pages give seeds to breathtaking visuals in your mind. For instance, in the chapter on Mars, I felt like I had landed on the rocky, red surface of the planet; in another chapter, I could easily picture myself on Titan, looking at the faraway Sun, with Saturn and Jupiter two magnificent, huge globes in the sky.

If you’re a person who is even a little curious about the Earth, or about our Solar System, or what it would be like on Mars, what adventures we might encounter on inter-planetary travel, and if there are intelligent, alien civilisations in the wide expanse of the Universe, this is the book for you. The fact that you’re a lay person who only read some science way back in school is not going to be a hindrance.

Snippets:

  • “The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land” – T. H. Huxley
  • “We live on a mote of dust circling a humdrum star in the remotest corner of an obscure galaxy.” I think it were these words of cosmic perspective by Carl Sagan which prompted me to change my phone wallpaper to that of The Pale Blue Dot.
  • “A book is made from a tree… One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of year. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you… Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
  • If you, like me, are a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, be ready to jump with excitement at certain passages in the book.

Read more about “Cosmos” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Cosmos

Author: Carl Sagan

First Published: 1980

Number of Pages: 432

Price: Hardcover – Rs. 1041 / Paperback – Rs. 399 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 9 out of 10

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links; i.e. if you purchase a copy by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

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Book Review – “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

I recently saw a cartoon strip where one character is describing a book he just read to his friend. He tells his friend how the book crushed his heart and made him cry. And yet the guy enthusiastically tells his friend that he must read the book.

That’s how I feel about Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”. The book had been highly recommended by some of my friends and for some inexplicable reason, I’d thought this would be a light, breezy read. Boy was I wrong!

The book is set in a little German town in the grips of World War II. Not only do the eclectic townspeople have to contend with the implications of living in Nazi Germany, but also have to come to grips that their town isn’t immune to bombings and that they must take shelter in basements.

Throw into this mix a rich array of characters: a little girl whose world has been turned upside down, an oddly loving couple, a yellow-haired boy who dreams of being an athlete like Jesse Owens, a Jewish man trying to hide from the Nazis, the mysteriously quiet wife of the Mayor. You can see why “The Book Thief” reminded me a lot of The Diary of Anne Frank.

The tale is beautiful and funny, although it does meander every now and then. But as the book nears its end, you cannot but hold back the tears. This, in spite of the narrator giving you spoilers well in advance.

Oh! Do be prepared for a surprise when you find out who the narrator is!

Read more about “The Book Thief” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

First Published: 2006

Number of Pages: 552

Price: Paperback – Rs. 465/ Kindle – Rs. 284.05 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4 out of 5

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links, i.e. if you purchase by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

Book Review – “Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

Title: Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Author: Angela Duckworth

First Published: 2016

Number of Pages: 352

Price: Paperback – Rs. 400/ Kindle – Rs. 274.86 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 5 out of 5

Remember the fable about the hare and the tortoise, and how the lazy hare lost the race to the slow but persevering tortoise? Well, they weren’t kidding.

Dr. Angela Duckworth starts this book with the premise that socially and culturally, we attribute a lot of success to talent whereas a larger proportion of that credit should go to perseverance. She goes on to show how various longitudinal research studies show that grit and constantly striving to become better is a far greater contributor to success than raw talent. Examples of this range from success stories at National Spelling Bee to military schools and from sportsmen to regular office goers.

Sure, everyone who reads this is bound to feel motivated. But Dr. Duckworth cautions us that the route to such success is mostly daunting and might appear to be boring and full of struggle. In a sense, she is saying that although not fashionable, good old hard work trounces talent which hasn’t worked hard enough.

The book tells us practical ways in which grit can be cultivated. And this has big implications not only for leaders at multi-million dollar companies and sports teams, but also for parents trying to get their kids to succeed at school. She outlines how we should approach the “10,000 hour” rule, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively.

I must add that I couldn’t help but think of marathon training. Almost all the skills and attributes that the author spoke of are present in people who train for endurance sports, even at the amateur level. And I’m speaking not only about traits like not giving up when one is mentally and physically exhausted but also a sense of camaraderie towards your fellow runner by motivating them to push harder and putting another step forward.

In summary, this is a book which would give a lot of people hope in the belief that with hard work and perseverance, they *can* change their life story.

Read more about “Grit” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links, i.e. if you purchase by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

Book Review – “The Way I See It – A Gauri Lankesh Reader”

(Click on the picture to purchase a copy)

Title: The Way I See It – A Gauri Lankesh Reader

Editor: Chandan Gowda

First Published: 2017

Number of Pages: 278

Price: (Paperback) INR 295 (Amazon.in)

My Rating: 5 out of 5

**NOT A POLITICAL REVIEW**

This is an exceptional book that traces the writings of Gauri Lankesh and her evolution as a journalist over almost a quarter of a century, from 1993 to 2017. We witness first hand her change from the ‘elite’ English reporter to the hard hitting Kannada journalist that she eventually became.

Even in her early writings, her strength shines through in an article about a serial murderer who terrorised Bengaluru (then Bangalore). We see the writer exploring the story from different angles, pursuing even the criminal’s point of view to try and give the reader a complete picture.

As the years roll along, her writing becomes more personal and purposeful. Take for instance the article where she outlines her efforts to publish the autobiography of a transgender woman whom she considered her sister. Lankesh makes us sympathise with the woman and forces us to ponder at the ill treatment and lack of opportunity the transgender community has to put up with even today. This theme of exploring the 360-degree view of the marginalised and of the people on the opposite side of the table was to become a hallmark of her writing, as I noticed.

Her writing became more political too in the later years. The second half of the book consists of translated articles where she takes political stands and doesn’t mince words while doing so. What I particularly liked was how well she expressed the multiple complexities that shape the political landscape and debate of a particular region. I realised I had had almost no idea about the dynamics of Karnataka politics before I read this book.

And then there are some beautiful non-political articles that just captured the heart. For instance, this is an excerpt from her article on the English language vs. Mother Tongue debate:

One of the English rhymes sung by children studying in the English medium is ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day, little Johnny wants to play.’ Kids studying in the Kannada medium sing ‘Huyyo, huyyo, maleraya, baale totakke neerilla’ (which roughly translated to ‘Rain, please pour and pound the earth, there is no water in our banana plantation’). The first rhyme, which is of British origin, reflects the miserable English weather which is of no consequence to us in India. The second, which is entirely local, tells us that ours is an agrarian society, that we depend on rains and that banana is grown here – all of which enhance the knowledge of our children.

For this, and many more such lovely little nuggets, I would encourage you to buy this book and give it a read. Not to mention, the fact that Gauri Lankesh was brutally gunned down in 2017, and this book is a way of keeping her political legacy alive.

Read more about “The Way I See It” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links, i.e. if you purchase by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

Book Review – “The Guide” by R. K. Narayan

Title: The Guide

Author: R. K. Narayan

First Published: 1958

Number of Pages: 247

Price: (Paperback) INR 100 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4 out of 5

And so once again, I return to Malgudi, only this time, it is a very different story than the naughty adventures of Swami and his friends.

The Guide tells us the story of Raju, a skilful liar who uses his guile to become a tourist guide in the little town of Malgudi, and Rosie, a lady who happens to meet him when she visits the town with her husband.

How this relationship changes their lives, not just once but twice, forms the rest of the story. You might feel that I’m handing out spoilers by the dozen here, but let me assure you that the book is more than just about the plot.

First published in India in 1958, ‘The Guide’ is also a social commentary, a feeling that I get might be a continuing strain in Narayan’s books.

Also, right throughout, one keeps on reminiscing the songs from the hit Bollywood adaptation of the book, starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman.

If you were to ask me about the broad themes of this book, I would say ‘hubris’ and ‘irony’. The fact that R. K. Narayan manages to express these subtly and with the use of simple words is a hat-tip to his skill with words.

Read more about “The Guide” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links, i.e. if you purchase by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

Book Review – “Swami and Friends” by R. K. Narayan

Title: Swami and Friends

Author: R. K. Narayan

First Published: 1935

Number of Pages: 212

Price: (Paperback) Rs. 108 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4 out of 5

What a wonderful little gem this book is. Set in 1930’s south-India, the book tells us about the adventures of 10-year old Swaminathan and his group of friends. The book transports us back in time on two levels: one is to a semi-rural setting almost a century ago; and two, to the simpler times of one’s childhood.

Not only is life simple in the little town of Malgudi, but there is also the additional charm of the little things which look big and complex to a 10 year old. And yet, the magic of the book lies in the fact that it doesn’t seem dated at all.

It would be wrong to assume this is just a book about a little boy’s school adventures. Even if that were all that this book described, it would still make you smile at the naughtiness and curious thoughts that rush about the minds of a little schoolboy. This book, however, also appeals to us because it gives us a glimpse of the slow rumblings at the start of the Indian independence movement as felt in a little town. There are pages in the book when I winced at the action, but that is attributable to how well those scenes were written.

The bigger picture, however, will always be about Swami and the world of imagination that he builds in his head. It is amazing how well Narayan captures the demons that shout warnings in the ears of a little child, magnifying all his troubles to an almost insurmountable challenge. But then, where there are challenges, there are friends. And Swami has a faithful group of friends (some of whom are top notch rascals) whose mischiefs will endear them to you.

Read this book to remind yourself of the simpler times that you once knew so well.

P. S. For all you cricket lovers out there, look out for when Swami and his friends ambitiously form the MCC, the Malgudi Cricket Club.

Read more about “Swami and Friends” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(The Amazon links above are affiliate links, i.e. if you purchase by clicking through the links provided, you don’t get charged extra but I get a small commission *IF* a bazillion books get sold.)

Best books that I read in 2017

A friend asked me yesterday which were the 10 best books that I’d ever read.

I do not know if there is a task known to man that is more difficult than this.

I definitely cannot make a list of top 10 books that I’ve read, not only because I’ve read so many wonderful books over the years but also because I know there are certain books out there that come highly recommended by friends and people whose opinion I respect that I haven’t read yet. Any of these books could be life changing and hence, I think it is way too early for me to recommend the 10 best books that I’ve *EVER* read.

However, in the spirit of not disappointing the audience, here’s a list of 10 books (in no particular order) that I read last year that I really liked.

Cheers!

The challenge

Hello once again!

You might be wondering what the devil I’m up to this time.

Well, in an attempt to keep myself disciplined enough to write regularly on this blog, I have decided to challenge myself to publish at least one book review every week.

This neatly ties in with my other challenge, which is to read a minimum of 60 books this year, 30 each of fiction and non-fiction. Last year, I pushed myself to finish reading 26 books, telling myself that a goal of reading a book every two weeks on average is a good target. I am happy to announce that I managed to achieve this, in spite of life-changing events (Hurray! I got married!).

A brief note before I leave: I do not push myself to finish reading books because I have set myself a target of a specific number of books in a year. I set a target *because* I want to read a satisfying number of books each year. For me, reading books is not about being arrogant and boast about the “X number of books that I read this year” but about humbly reminding myself of how much I love reading and learning.

Book Review – “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

Title: Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

Author: Edwin Lefevre

Published: 1923

Number of Pages: 308

Price: Kindle – Rs. 60, Paperback – Rs. 890 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 3/5

This disguised biography of Jesse Livermore has been highly recommended by stock market pundits over the years. One can see why, given the fact that the observations about human nature and stock trading ring true almost a century after the book was written and first published.

What however might make this a cumbersome read is the fact that most of the practices and anecdotes mentioned here are no longer relevant today. Institutions have been replaced and there are strict rules against “manipulating” stocks.

The book does give you a glimpse into the kind of courage and daring required to make big bets in the stock market. Apart from that, for the general learning, I recommend reading through the quotes from the book on Goodreads.

Read more about ‘Reminiscences of a Stock Operator’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.