Reading done in 2014

January 1, 2015

The count for this year is 17.

I moved to the United States for work and borrowed some nice manga and comics that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

Best book: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Worst book: Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Volume One by ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

The books are:

  1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini (4/5)
  2. Dog Songs by Mary Oliver (4/5)
  3. Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (3/5)
  4. Mastery by Robert Greene (3/5)
  5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (4/5)
  6. Red Bird by Mary Oliver (2.5/5)
  7. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (3.5/5)
  8. Slayer of Kamsa by Ashok K. Banker (3/5)
  9. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (3/5)
  10. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver (3/5)
  11. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (3.5/5)
  12. Anarchy and Elegance: Confessions of a Journalist at Yale Law School by Chris Goodrich (3/5)
  13. Childhood’s end by Arthur C. Clarke

Manga/Comics:

  1. Maus Part I : My father bleeds history by Art Spiegelman (3/5)
  2. Oishinbo A la Carte: The Joy of Rice by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki (4/5)
  3. Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (4/5)
  4. Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Volume One by ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (2.5/5)
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Pages: 528
Rating: 3/5

The Fall of Hyperion is a direct continuation of the novel Hyperion which I had last year. I wish I had followed advice I found on the Internet about reading the books back to back. Although I remember the characters I have forgotten almost all the details of their stories.

Hyperion consisted of tales told by pilgrims about why they had chosen to go on a pilgrimage to visit the Shrike – a mysterious time-traveling monster on the planet Hyperion.

Fall of Hyperion 1st edition cover
The Shrike is pictured in the cover above

The Fall of Hyperion doesn’t follow the same structure. Instead, it alternates between two narrative streams. The first is a first-person narrative by Severn, a ‘cybrid’, who is an AI inhabiting a human body. Severn is invited to the center of government ostensibly to make sketches of the leader of the Hegemony, CEO Gladstone. The other narrative are Severn’s “dreams” – a third-person real-time telling of the actions of the pilgrims back on Hyperion.

I deeply enjoyed reading about futuristic technology like farcaster portals, Hawking drives, AIs so advanced that they have seceded from human control and lead their own existence.

Seeing how this novel is deeply concerned with time it is only fitting that Simmons plays with the way his characters experience time. Initially each chapter alternates between simple-past tense and the rare simple-present tense (think ‘Kassad stands before the Shrike’ instead of ‘Kassad stood before the Shrike’). However, towards the end of the book there is an acceleration and the story switches between many points of view within the span of a single chapter. I think that this merits further study.

Spoiler alert

What stopped this book from being truly excellent is that by the end of it the story still isn’t clear. Who exactly is the Shrike and who sent it? I suspect that only Dan Simmons knows for sure.

In the distant future it seems that two opposing ultimate intelligences have evolved – one from humans and the other from machine AIs. One of them (I am not clear which) flees back to the past and the Shrike is sent to draw it out of hiding by making humans suffer. Clearly if it is drawn to human suffering it is the human intelligence. However, we learn that the Shrike has a human controller who has been given the means to keep it in check until the time is right. Why would humans ever let the Shrike run wild and destroy their own ancestors?

Spoilers end

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are reasonably good science fiction books. They lead me to lead another book of Simmon’s called Summer of Night which is a horror novel. Sadly, it was nowhere as good as the Hyperion Cantos.

Pages: 325
Rating: 3/5

I bought this book because I got it for only Rs. 49 at the Kolkata Book Fair 2014. It didn’t have an attractive cover and the Hindu god Krishna wasn’t as interesting to me as Shiva but only Rs. 49 for a brand-new book from a reputed publisher like HarperCollins is too good a deal to pass up. Krishna is often depicted as a child so this might be why the cover is glossy and has childish illustrations.

The quality of the book is quite good – the paper is thick and the font-size perfect. Marking down this book from its MRP of Rs. 250 is a ploy to hook readers into reading the rest of the Krishna Coriolis series (there have been six books published so far).

For a novel that is based in ancient India it contains jarring bits of idiomatic English like “fat chance”. This is not restricted to narration but sometimes occurs in dialogue as well. For instance at point a demon says, “..THIS REWARD OF ETERNAL LIFE IS GIVEN UNTO ME AS MY JUST DESERTS FOR PAST SERVICES RENDERED”.

I read an interview where Banker says that he reads a book a day for pleasure. Separate from several hours of research reading. It seems that such a prodigious amount of reading has resulted in some unintentional stylistic influence on his own work. This is not at all a bad thing but a stiffer, consistently formal style would have fitted well with the theme of the novel and the era it is based in.

Apart from this small problem with stylistics I enjoyed reading this book. More so because I was unfamiliar with the story of Kamsa.

Pages: 341
Rating: 3.5/5

This is a science fiction novel about the twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. Anarres is an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the exploitative capitalist life on their home planet to found a new communist utopian (these words are never used by Le Guin) society on the moon.

Consequently, all the people on Anarres follow an extreme form of communism where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.

Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port.

The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each other reminds me of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.

Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that.

The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.

The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by our curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.

Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communism are surprisingly deep and made me think of Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged. Funny, because communism was anathema to Rand and entirely at odds with her philosophy of Objectivism. Thankfully, the longest speech in this book is a couple of paragraphs compared to the many-page mostly boring marathon speech made by John Galt in Rand’s novel.

Pages: 352
Rating: 3/5

The fundamental message of Mastery is that the only way a person can become a master of the world-changing variety like Goethe, Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci is to spend a huge amount of time practicing and learning. This is the famous 10,000 hours theory. This message is repeated endlessly through the book and every chapter revolves around it in some way.

The book provides examples from the lives of historical masters like those listed above as well as contemporary ‘masters’ like venture-capitalist Paul Graham and the autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin. While the modern masters Robert Greene lists are clearly very successful people I wouldn’t put them in the same league as Marie Curie or Charles Darwin. Obviously these are the only living masters that Greene got the opportunity to interview and I suppose I shouldn’t fault him for that.

A serious problem is that the book repeats the same biographical details multiple times over the course of the book. I bet that if you cut out all the duplicate biographical information the number of pages would go down significantly.

One chapter that goes a long way toward redeeming this book is the one on social intelligence. Greene talks about how many of us have a naive perspective of people i.e. we tend to think of them as completely bad or completely good. He says that this is a remnant of our childhood and that social intelligence means:

moving past our tendency to idealize and demonize people, and seeing and accepting people as they are.

This had a profound impact on me. I definitely tend to idealize or demonize people. This is something that I am trying to stop.

I leave you with the some more lines from the book that made an impact on me.

On having a “life’s task”:

We human animals are unique-we must build our own world. We do not simply react to events out of biological scripting. But without a sense of direction provided to us, we tend to flounder. We don’t know how to fill up and structure our time. There seems to be no defining purpose to our lives.

I shudder to think of how many weekends I have spent lazing around my rooms watching TV shows and movies. Relaxation and rejuvenation are important but if I had a life goal I obsessed over constantly I doubt I would have wasted all that time.

Title: Dog Songs
Author: Mary Oliver
Pages: 144

Dog Songs is only the second poetry collection I have read in my life (the other is Bukowski’s Love is a dog from hell). When I read Oliver’s poem The Arrowhead I knew I had found a poet I liked. I began looking for a book of her poetry and finally found Dog Songs.

Although I am fond of dogs I was a bit apprehensive about reading this collection because Oliver is known for her nature poetry and she admitted that the idea for this book came from her agent. As Bukowski says in so you want to be a writer?:

unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.

Well, I shouldn’t have been worried at all, the poems in this book are beautiful. Interspersed with the mostly short poems are illustrations of her various dogs (she has had so many!). My favourite poem is School, part of which goes:

Come, I say, and you go galloping down the sand
to the nearest dead fish
with which you perfume your sweet neck.

Not only am I now a fan of Oliver’s poetry, I am also intrigued by the poet herself – a lesbian woman who lived in a small American seaside town with her partner and their dogs. Her days filled with taking walks through nature and writing achingly beautiful poetry. This NYT review has a wonderful photo of her.

Title: Influence: The psychology of persuasion
Author: Robert Cialdini
Pages: 336

Have you ever been approached by a door-to-door salesman who claimed that Mr. Gaitonde down the road had just bought two copies of the encyclopaedia, one for himself and one to gift to someone else? We were able to see right through the salesman’s foolish ruse and turned him away with a knowing smile on our faces.

It turns out that just because we were able to see through that clumsy salesman’s ruse it doesn’t mean that we are immune to being influenced and manipulated in other, much more subtle and powerful ways. Consider this:

  • Websites that only accept a certain number of members initially (Gmail did this when it first started) are trying to make you want to be a member more by making it scarce.
  • My company’s corporate social responsibility department gives out small bookmarks and calendars because they are trying to get us to see ourselves as more helpful and socially responsible – resulting in more volunteers.

These are just two ways in which I realized that I was being influenced after reading Influence. I stumbled across this book while searching for books on management and leadership. I thought this book would teach me how to influence people using psychological tricks. However, the book is geared towards explaining how we can defend ourselves against people whom Cialdini calls compliance professionals – those who subtly manipulate and influence us into doing things we wouldn’t otherwise (think of unscrupulous advertising executives or insistent salesmen).

Although the book didn’t teach me how to influence others I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it and learned a lot. It is divided into different chapters based on principles like scarcity(we want things that are in short supply or harder to maintain) and social proof. Each chapter ends with a section titled, “How to say no”; which teaches how we can defend ourselves against the influence tactics.

Influence was a surprisingly light read. It quotes dozens of interesting and amusing research studies that read like anecdotes. I also gained a new respect for the field of psychology.

Reading done in 2013

December 31, 2013

The count for this year is 34.

I gobbled up a lot of Brandon Sanderson (fantasy) and Arthur C. Clarke (science fiction) this year. Everything I read by these guys was first rate. I cannot recommend them enough.

I also read a lot of short stories from The Best of the Best New SF by Gardner Dozois but since I didn’t complete the entire collection I decided to mention the books in next year’s list.

Best book: The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

I felt genuine excitement as if it was I who was making ground-breaking discoveries on Mars.

Worst book: Bury my heart at wounded knee by Dee Brown

The accounts of atrocities against Native Americans were shocking and eye-opening but they tended to sound repetitive and the absence of a plot tying all the separate accounts together made this book tedious to plow through.

The books are:

  1. The wise man’s fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  2. World War Z by Max Brooks
  3. Before memory fades by Fali Nariman
  4. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  5. Neither here nor there by Bill Bryson
  6. A walk in the woods by Bill Bryson
  7. Mistborn: the final empire by Brandon Sanderson
  8. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  9. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
  10. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  11. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  12. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  13. Alcatraz versus the evil librarians by Brandon Sanderson
  14. Bury my heart at wounded knee by Dee Brown
  15. Summer of night by Dan Simmons
  16. Shade’s children by Garth Nix
  17. Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
  18. Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane
  19. The lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  20. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
  21. The spy who came in from the cold by John le Carre
  22. A wrinkle in time by Madeleine L’Engle
  23. Hood (King Raven 1) by Stephen R. Lawhead
  24. Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  25. The twelve tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  26. Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
  27. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
  28. 2001: A space odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  29. Red seas under red skies by Scott Lynch
  30. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  31. How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie
  32. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
  33. The City and the Stars and The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke
  34. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Mort is a comic fantasy novel based in the Discworld – a flat world that rests on the back of four elephants who in turn stand on a giant turtle who is hurtling through space. It is one of many novels in the ‘Discworld’ series.

This particular novel tells the story of Mort, an innocent well-meaning country bumpkin1 who becomes an apprentice to Death. Death as in the Grim Reaper, the black robed skeleton with a scythe who collects the souls of the dead and sends them on their way.

What makes the Discworld novels stand apart is the sheer density of jokes. Almost every line in Mort has one. They range from a vendor gently applying a very hot fork to a plump woman’s bottom to Physics jokes (like the one about monarchy being transmitted by particles called kingons and queons (unless of course they collide with anti-particles called republicons).

Another thing about Pratchett’s books is that they are smart, very smart. I found myself marvelling at the intelligence and imagination poured into his books. They will appeal to people who see themselves as intelligent enough to appreciate the intellectual jokes (what does that say about myself? ;-)).

My only complaint is that Terry Pratchett talks entirely too much about light being slowed down by the magical field that surrounds the Discworld. He mentions it so many times that it becomes nauseating. It’s an interesting idea but the reader doesn’t need to be reminded of it every couple of chapters, especially when it has no relevance to the story.

This is a light and entertaining read that packs quite an intellectual wallop. If you’re thinking of starting the Discworld series I recommend this novel over The Colour of Magic which is the first Discworld book Pratchett wrote. Also, take a look at this great reading order guide. It divides the series into various ‘tracks’ so you don’t need to read the books in the order they were published.

1 Both of the other Discworld novels I read have an innocent bumpkin in them; Twoflower in The Colour of Magic and Carrot in Guards! Guards! Back

Book review: The Hunger Games

December 31, 2011

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Pages: 374

The Hunger Games is a novel set in a post-apocalypse America wherein most of the country is uninhabited and the population is restricted to several districts which are ruled by a place called the Capitol. The districts (numbered from 1 to 12) are terrible places to live in – poverty and starvation are common. People live like serfs and are exploited by the Capitol, wherein people live in luxury.

At some point the districts rise up in revolt against the Capitol and are cruelly suppressed. The Capitol decides to teach the people in the districts a lesson by randomly picking a boy and girl from each district and making them participate in a televised fight to the death – this event is called the Hunger Games.

The book explains that the purpose of the games is to intimidate the districts by showing them that they are so helpless that they can’t even protect their own children. I’m not sure I buy that, wouldn’t taking children as young as 12 years and making them fight to death anger the population and encourage insurrection? I think that a parent’s reaction would be blinding rage as opposed to timidity.

It is well plotted and creatively imagined but there is nothing extraordinary or exceptional about the book. It doesn’t steer too far from the path of the many other fight-to-the-death books/movies. The story closes cleverly with an unresolved romantic situation but it wasn’t enough to make me want to read the rest of the series.