On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The coming of the age, almost autobiographical, story of Vietnamese migrant Little Dog’s journey from war torn Vietnam to Hartford in USA, is a long poem in the guise of a novel. And thank god that this is done by Vuong and not by others. Not many would have produced something as endearing as this novel. Not every author is Ocean Vuong. This might be his debut novel but he is already a celebrated poet and a recipient of numerous awards including MacArthur Genius grant for his poetry/writing.

Little Dog might sound as a strange name but once I read the story behind his name, there was a tender familiarity that seeped through. Little Dog was named so to save him from bad things happening to him; making him undesirable so that death which prefers to take away the precious things ignores him. This is the practice which even I saw in many parts of our hinterland. Parents named their kid, after losing a few kids untimely, with names such as Fekan, Bechan, Lallu.. the most coveted kids had the most unwanted names.

The novel is in the form of a long letter written by Little Dog to his manicurist mother, who could not read. Little Dog and his mother both fought for dignity and self-esteem in an ‘English’ world with very little English in their kitty. But Little Dog grew up and he had a bellyful of English. And, this novel surely suggests the bellyful of English was also the beautiful English.

“In this nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologies but insists, reminds: I am here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that client fells right, superior and charitable. In the nail salon, one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.” – From On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Little Dog’s fitful account of his life, memories, his sexuality and his rumination on his relationship with his mother and grand-mother is visceral. It is gorgeous not briefly but perennially. Ocean Vuong has poured his yearnings into a book that will be remembered for its sheer power to evoke unique and indescribable mix of emotions.

What I read in 2019

This was a post I used to write typically in the first or second week of January. But recently things have not been going in the usual way. I also used to provide a couple of line summaries and my take on the books that I read but that too seemed too much of effort. But I want to make sure that the list is here for archives and I get on with the things. This post was holding back a number of things that I wanted to write about.
While I am not going to write about each book that I read, however, there are somethings that can be generalized about my last year’s reading.
  • I did not get much time to read non-fiction. For me, non-fiction is serious reading and I do dedicate some time in my day for that but last year was a test for my time-management skills. While I completed only three books in the non-fiction category, I have a number of them unfinished. Last year, we had gone to Ramana Maharishi’s ashram and picked up a bagful of books. Ramana Maharishi is probably the only modern time sage who attracts me and evokes respect. So I spent good amount of time reading his books and his life story. The other theme that I read a lot (does not indicate in the list of books here as many of those books did not get completed) was climate change and air-pollution: these are not only my personal interest areas but also professional needs. But again, out of 10-15 books that I had planned to read last year on this topic, I could finish only three.
  • In the fiction category, there has been a conscious effort to read more Hindi books. And, I managed to read four books, including the epic-length Mujhe Chand Chahiye. I also risked picking up a book by young Hindi writers or Nayi Hindi authors and was quite surprised by Aughad.
  • Majority of fiction that I read this year were my flight reads or bedtime reading and I tried to finish some of the series that I was following, including a great series that turned into a disappointment by Dean Koontz. I also attempted an Indian crime fiction/whodunit by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay and it was good. Nine Perfect Strangers was a big disappointment and so was Blue Moon and The Silent Patient.
  • The two standout books of this year for me were Laburnum for My Head,  a collection of short stories by Temsula Ao and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eleanor Oliphant has been a rage last year so it got on my reading list but Temsula Ao was a finding from some random search and glad that I got this.
Fiction
  • The Silent Patient By Alex Michaelides
  • Blue Moon By Lee Child
  • Laburnum for My Head By Temsula Ao
  • Mujhe Chand Chahiye (Hindi) By Surendra Varma
  • Tell No One By Harlan Coben
  • Rehan Par Raghu(Hindi) By Kashinath Singh
  • The Arsonist By Kiran Nagarkar
  • The Girl Who Lived Twice By David Lagercrantz
  • Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine By Gail Honeyman
  • Penumbra By Bhaskar Chattopadhyay
  • Aughad (Hindi) By Nilotpal Mrinal
  • The Night Window By Dean Koontz
  • Mayapuri (Hindi)By Shivani
  • The Lost Man By Jane Harper
  • Debris Line By Matthew Fitzsimmons
  • Nine Perfect Strangers By Liane Moriarty
  • Newcomer By Keigo Higashino
  • Out of Dark By Gregg Hurwitz
Non-fiction
  • The Great Derangement By Amitav Ghosh
  • The Collected Works of Ramana Mahirishi
  • Looking Within Life Lessons From Lal Ded

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

As a bibliophile who has been working on climate change for more than a decade, I found it surprising that there are very few books, especially mainstream books that talks about climate change. Well, this question bothered Amitav Ghosh as well and the result is a very erudite and immensely readable book: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. He asks one overarching question: Why our mainstream authors are writing on climate change?

“Let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis fo culture and thus of the imagination.” – Amitav Ghosh

It is not that there are no books on climate change but they are far and few and often in science fiction category. Ghosh wants climate change, one of the biggest phenomenon affecting humanity, to find more prominence in mainstream literature.

“When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or Southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thrifty in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed in the novels of Jane Austen” – Amitav Ghosh

But this books is not all about the above-mentioned question. Ghosh explores climate change and its portrayal in history and culture. And, his exploration is a brilliant read. His first hand experience of storm in his student life in Delhi in 1978, to his rumination over Mumbai and its vulnerability showcase what an accomplished author can do when they decide to write about a topic that is often confined to technical reports and scientific journals.

His take on role of liberal individualism, colonisations, imperialism and the greed for “Power” and their impact on climate change spans an entire section of the book. This is very educative for those who have not been immersed in the climate change and politics of climate change.

There is also a very interesting comparison of IPCC and Laudata Si– Pope Francis’s letter to all churches. Ghosh analyses these two documents, both published in 2015. The result is very interesting read!

Bottomline, if you are afraid of reading the boring, jargon-strewn drab narration on climate change, this is the book that you must read.

What I read in 2018 (fiction)

This list consists of the usual comfort and light reading (read crime fiction and thrillers). Yet, this year I tried to explore a few new authors and read a couple of Hindi books. There were two failed attempts at War and Peace and I managed to finish a couple of chapters of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaurd but really could not sustain the interest and enthusiasm for long in both the books. But they are still on my list for future. Someday! On the other front, I failed to go beyond my kindle and several books awaiting on my bookshelf remained untouched. Although, I did manage to read 3-4 books in their real form.

  • After the Crash by Michel Bussi: I spotted this book in Delhi World Book Fair. I had never read Michel Bussi but the glowing reviews made me pick it. The book did not disappoint. As the title suggest, the story revolves around a plane crash which left only one survivor: a baby girl. No body could ascertain the identity of this miracle baby but suddenly after 18 years of the crash the story took a very different turn. A good one time read with some good twists.
  • Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz: The Orphan X saga continues. My childhood love of action comics got rekindled with Orphan X series. This is fast, hyperbolic and action packed series where you know that you have an invincible hero; yet I love this series. I rate Orphan X better than Mitch Repp, Scot Harvath and other of that ilks. Looking to pick the next one as well in this series.
  • Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly: A typical Harry Bosch affair. Harry Bosch is undercover fighting ‘pill mills’. Harry Bosch and Michael Connelly do not disappoint usually. This one too did not.
  • Sanskaar by UR Ananthmurthy: This classic, originally written in Kannada, is thought provoking commentary on our traditions, rituals, moral and a society in transition. A Brahmin majority village struggles to deal with the death and last rites of a reprobate, rogue Brahmin who lived his life in complete opposition of what Brahmins preached.
  • The Whispering Room and The Crooked Staircase both by Dean Koontz: Both these books, part of the Jane Hawk series which started with a bang. The suspense and the plot got me hooked and I picked up one book after another. I am usually a character person so when I love a great character I often stick to the series. But in this case despite a good character like Jane Hawk I left the series midway. In The Crooked Staircase, when I came across two Indian characters Sanjay and Tanuja using dialogues such as “dear baap ji” some real gibberish Hindi sentences .. I was puzzled. Who talks like that! A little bit of research and feedback from any Indian would have given much more credibility. This puts a serious question mark on the research Dean did for his characters.
  • The Fallen by David Baldacci: The Amos Decker (Memory Man) series’s new instalment. Another pick just because I liked the character and had read all the previous books. Amos Decker series is turning out to be the best series by David Baldacci.
  • The Outsider by Stephen King: The latest from the master of horror and suspense, a police procedural with a super-natural angle to it. There is not much that goes wrong with a Stephen King book and this is no exception. A police procedural with kicking suspense.
  • A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer: A new author and a new series. This is an okay read. I am not waiting for the next one.
  • The Escape by David Baldacci: My introduction to John Puller series. Cliched a bit but engaging. Average read.
  • Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent: This story of a possessive mother has a twist in the end that is worth the wait.
  • Perfect People by Peter James: This was an average sci-fi suspense (published in 2011) that I read this year. It was a strange coincidence because just a few weeks after this whole issue of gene-editing (gene-editing Chinese scientist) got the global attention. A rogue scientist creating Perfect People by gene-editing, this was the plot of this book! The book was quiet ahead of its time.

What I read in 2018 (Non-fiction)

This post is almost a couple of months late. It was begging attention in my draft folder for at least six weeks. Finally here is the list of books that I manage to finish last year.

  • Conflicts of Interest by Sunita Narain : One of the most engaging and informative book that I read last year! Sunita Narain gave first person account of her fight against the corporate lobbies for better air quality, for saving environment and for our health. I would recommend everyone to read this book. Here is an interview that she gave about the book for more information. This book is also my favourite because it talks about many of the things that I have been working in different capacities in my professional life and I could connect very well with what she achieved and challenges she overcame.
  • Skin in the Game by Nicholas Nassim Taleb: This one is really hard hitting and showed mirror to experts and consultant in us. In one line, it told us to not give a hoot to anyone who does not have any skin in the game. This books if full of quotable quotes and can change the way you deal with your life and people around you. He also touched some controversial topics. For example, he minced no words in warning us agains the minority appeasement and how whole population is forced to submit to preferences of a tiny minority.
  • Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker: Taleb attacked Steven Pinker in his latest book “Skin in the Game” and I read these two books back to back. In fact, I read this one before Taleb’s. Taleb made some strong arguments and was brutal in his criticism of Pinker but this book is a rare achievement in scope and relevancy in today’s time. However, there is =a word of caution, Pinker has used his intellectual muscle power (and often questionable quantitative data) to give sanctity to some shitty rhetoric on pressing topics. He presents a very optimistic view of the world, yet misses some key concerns and challenges. For example, in is view we should be optimistic (and not feel guilty) that we would be able to solve climate change problem by geo-engineering.
  • Nine Alogrithms That Changed the Future by John MacCormick: Those who work on computer programming or are technology enthusiast will find the book very informative. I enjoyed reading about how search engine indexing, page ranking and public-key cryptography algos were developed.
  • Now: The Physics of Time by Richard Muller: One of those books that require attention and effort to justice to authors efforts and erudition. Richard Muller gives us the basics of space-time and then goes on to unfurl many topics from quantum physics, different space-time theories and then proposes his own theory of space-time. Highly recommended for anyone looking to get a more detailed understanding of space-time, physical theory of universe, blackholes..etc.

What I read in 2017 – Part 2 (Fiction)

I read a lot of fiction. Mostly crime-fiction, it is my guilty pleasure and companion on all my flights. Choosing what to read has been a very random decision. Sometimes I pick a book because I wanted to explore a new author or explore crime-fiction from a different country, language or theme.. And sometimes just because I synced my kindle with random books in my collection. Amidst all the crime-fiction I did read a couple of literary fiction, although I must confess that I had planned to read a lot more of literary fiction last year. If I look back at the books that I read last year, I explored several new authors and new series (from new or established authors) . So here goes the list of fiction that I read in 2017.

  • Poisonfeather by Matthew FitzSimmons– The second book in the Gibson Vaughn series. Gibson Vaughn is turning out to be an interesting new character. After reading The Short Drop, which got some good reviews on Amazon last year, I somewhat liked this character. Humane, emotional, troubled and super-hacker.
  • Cold Harbor by Matthew FitzSimmons – As mentioned above, I went ahead with the 3rd installment of the Vaughn series. A bit disappointed by the plot and the treatment but Vaughn did not let me drop this book unfinished.
  • Iron House by John Hart – There are very few popular crime-fiction writers who can write well. John Hart can blur the line between crime-fiction and literary fiction. If you have not read John Hart, you must explore his work. He is also the only author to have won two Edger Awards for his consecutive books.
  • Redemption Road by John Hart– The latest from John Hart and again he did not disappoint.
  • The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz– I discovered Gregg Hurwitz last year with Orphan X. Orphan X, the title character is a likable amalgamation of Jason Bourne, Mich Rapp, Will Robbie. Gregg Hurwitz surprised me with Orphan X (in fact impressed quite a few including Warner Brother who bought the rights for a movie series) and made me look forward to the new installment of this series. Fast paced, suspenseful and high-octane thrill ride.
  • IQ by Joe IDE-Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) is another character inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but in a very different setting and with a very different treatment. IQ, an orphan, exploring the accident that killed his brother, is lovable, street-smart and super-intelligent. The plot set in LA is quite engaging and realistic.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty– This satire by Paul Beatty, is one of the most talked about books of 2016 and winner of Man Booker Prize 2016. Highly enjoyable, unlike some of the other award winning books who disappoint on this front.
  • Chitralekha by Bhagvaticharan Varma– This philosophical novel deals with sin, virtue, desire and passion and how circumstances enslave people. Recommended for anyone interested in reading good Hindi literature.
  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee– Nothing much to add about this book. Masterpiece. One of the best books of last 50 years.
  • The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz– Last year I read Dean Koontz for the first time and immediately I knew why he is rated as one of the best authors of suspense thriller genre. When I read the blurb of this book, it was an automatic choice: a new character (Jane Hawk), elements of sci-fi, and the usual Dean Koontz style of storytelling.
  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -A very intelligent whodunit that reminds us of Agatha Christie. A book within a book, a murder mystery within a murder mystery.. And a clever twist in the end.
  • The Trespasser by Tana French– Did not find anything great to talk about. Mediocre police procedural.
  • The Dry by Jane Harper– One of the better crime novels to hit the stand last year. It deservingly received rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
  • Natchez Burning by Greg Iles: The first in the Natchez Burning trilogy. The expansive story that goes beyond the crime fiction genre to portray the racial hatred in this atmospheric thriller.
  • The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne -Another random pick based, which turned out to be a good read. A computational biologist turns investigators to prove his innocence in a murder case. Apart from him, the only other suspect is a wild bear; and our biologist discovers that the wild bear is innocent/being framed.
  • The Fix by David Baldacci – Another installment of Amos Decker.
  • Night School by Lee Child – Passable.
  • The Guilty by David Baldacci – Will Robbie series. Engaging.
  • 1st To Die by James Patterson – One of the earlier books of James Patterson. And it tells you why he became so successful.
  • The Girl Who Takes An Eye for An Eye by David Lagercrantz – Lisbeth Salander compelled me to read this as soon as it was out.
  • House of Spies by Daniel Silva – Daniel Silva gives a glimpse of international terror network in the latest book of Gabriel Allon series. Typical Daniel Silva stuff but nothing great.
  • Origin by Dan Brown– The latest from Dan Brown and it was a bit disappointing.

What I read in 2017- 1 (Non-fiction)

Thanks to my sleeping disorder and the age-old habit of going to bed with a book or kindle, I did manage to finish 30 books this year. There are several books that I left midway or just finished a few chapters and dropped them (or put them on to-be-finished-later list). While crime-fiction remains my guilty pleasures and preferred genre for light reading/in the flight reading, this year, I ended up reading some thought-provoking non-fiction and literary fiction. Although, I feel bad that I could not read some of the most talked about books this year. Lincoln in the Bardo, The gene, When Breath Becomes Air.. although these are the books still on my reading list and I hope to finish them in 2018. So here is the list of books that I read in 2017(Non-fiction).

  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche – Undoubtedly one of the most impactful and thought-provoking book that I read this year. In fact, it was more than reading. Every page, every chapter that I read forced me to go through lengthy ruminations and introspection. I have already recommended this book to many people who want to explore Buddhism or are looking to find some meaning and solace in life. This profound book helps you live better, be a better human being by dissecting our final destination i.e. death. Many people pick this book in the fag end of their life when death starts staring at them, but this is the book one should read as early as possible to live a better life. Although the title has the word ‘dying’ in it but this is a book about living.
  • At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell – Almost 18 years back, I got to know Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus by serendipity. I found second hand copies of their works (Being and Nothingness and The Rebel) in old book shops in Patna. At that time I only knew these names because they appeared in some quotable quotes in some magazines or newspapers. Though I liked the Rebel but I could not manage to go beyond the first chapter of Being and Nothingness (It is rated one of the most difficult books to read) till recently. But both Camus and Sartre intrigued me and I went to read some of their popular works later. ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ is an intimate and interesting narrative of leading figure of existentialist movement: Sarte, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. As the author puts it “Their ideas were interesting but their personal lives are more interesting than their ideas”. After reading the book, one gets a very different perspective about the entire existentialist philosophy.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben – A fascinating read. My two-years at IIFM introduced me to many things about trees and forest by forcing us to read those horribly written sleep-inducing technical text books. Reading them was a compulsion. But this is the book which makes it so much fun to explore trees and their ecosystem. I strongly suggest that this should be the first book that a person who is interested in trees and forest should read.
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J Levitin A very good resource for anyone who is looking to get cutting edge brain science behind how people organize their life and work.
  • Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky The book reminds of our often misplaced faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market. He produces a scathing attack on neoliberalism and points out the major flaws. Very good read to understand the limitations of the market led development and how big corporates play the market.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’s letter to his son shows us what does it mean to grow up as a black kid in today’s America. Coates writing is brilliant and his portrayal of black life in America raises many questions.
  • How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci – Last year, a friend talked very highly of The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and I read it on his suggestion. This book got my interest piqued in stoicism. Pigliucci’s book popped in my book recommendations in Goodreads and I should thank Goodreads for that. This book clarified many of misconceptions about stoicism.

The Oraganized Mind

The_Organized_Mind_hardcover_cover

Despite my several attempts to organize information in different ways, I am still to find a way that works decently for me. My job frequently requires synthesizing a lot of information,  and to do that I need to quickly retrieve information, often stored in different digital formats across multiple machines.

Retrieving information is primarily a function of how one’s brain processes and organizes information, and how information is organized in physical or digital space. Poor organization puts a lot of stress on brain’s limited resources and I get frustrated when I am not able to recall something easily.

The frustration led me to invest in a comprehensive study of whatever that can help me in organizing stuff in a better way. The Konmari method, made popular by the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is great for un-cluttering the life but did not help me much in  managing information and how I can use or understand my mind so that I can organize better.

But The  Organized Mind does a great job in that regard. There are a lot of great tips but more than that it is also an exciting read on how our mind manages, organizes information. What I like most about the book that it goes beyond suggestions/tips and explains the rationale and science behind it. It surely makes my life a bit easier.

Malice – Another gem from Higashino

Keigo Higashino is referred as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ on the cover of this book. I think this is a very bizarre comparison if I consider the plot and writing style of these two authors. The comparison can only be justified if we consider a) both write crime fiction, and b) both have been bestsellers in their respective countries. Anyway, I am happy if this comparison brings more people to read to this master storyteller’s work. wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-01-4-13-38.tiff
Malice, written in 1996, is the third book by Higashino to be translated in to English from Japanese. The other two books “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” are among the best murder mysteries that I read in last five years. In both these books, readers were aware of who committed the crime but the mystery was how the murders were committed. In Malice, we know who committed the murder but the mystery was why the murder was committed.
Kunihiko Hidaka, a bestselling author, was found dead by his wife Rie and friend Nonoguchi just before he was to move to a new country. Detective Kaga, ex-colleague of Nonoguchi, gets the responsibility of the case and soon he discovers major flaws in Nonoguchi’s alibi. Nonoguchi, a writer himself and aspiring to be a bestseller author like Hidaka, confesses his crime but there were many missing pieces in his confession about the motive of the crime.
Higashino narrates the story through Nonoguchi’s and Kaga’s written accounts of the event during the investigation. The two main characters of Malice are writers and there is a lot of discussion of meeting timeline and writing styles, yet Higashino’s prose is bereft of any literary-ostentatiousness. Higashino is easy on his readers.
Malice is another gem from Higashino. I am eagerly waiting for his other works to be translated in English.

The Goldfinch – A very short review of a rather long book

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I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. A really bulky book (784 pages) and on top of it this is a very slow book. I read some glowing reviews of this book and since I was planning to read something other than a murder mystery or thriller I chose to read this book. This was anyway the first book from this author so I had no clue about what kind of experience I am going to have.

This is a story of a son who lost his mother in a bomb blast in a museum and gained multi-million dollar painting “The Goldfinch”. The whole book is about a dead mother, a lost painting and growing up years of a grieving son. However, the supremely detailed narration is drab and dreary. I kept on going through this book, searching for things that made this novel the most talked about bestseller fiction of this year. The Independent and many others summarized this as a gripping page turner that describes modern day life. Surely my reading taste is different than many of these reviewers. Although, there are still some readers who will agree with me.