Book 167: The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

 

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The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Finished reading on April 26th, 2015

Rating: 8/10

This book continues the story that began in “A Golden Age” with the Bangladesh Liberation War and follows Maya, Rehana and Sohail Haque.

The story is presented in two timelines – one starts in 1982, when Maya, Rehana’s daughter returns home after having been away for seven years and working as a country doctor. The other is earlier, starting from the end of the war when Rehana’s son Sohail returns home from war.

Mostly everything is seen from the point of view of Maya – she returns to a home and family that have changed. Her brother has become a religious leader and lives in a hut on top of his mother’s bungalow. He has a son, Zaid, whose mother has just died a few days before Maya returns.

From the beginning there are several tales to be followed here. The timeline from just after the war that is weaved between the later 1980s one, follows how Sohail changes and becomes the man that Maya meets on her return and also gives an idea why she had left in the first place. The second timeline shows more of the everyday life of Maya and her mother and Zaid.

The book brings out several problems -one of them being how much should a relative influence the upbringing of a child that isn’t their own – as Maya is trying to give Zaid some education and tries to convince Sohail to put the kid into a school, but Sohail has his own plans for him.

The other and maybe a greater theme is a person finding religion for himself – we see how Sohail has changed and how Maya has tried to cope with it, and how she doesn’t understand why he changed and what had happened to him. We only find out later on something more about what happened to Sohail, and what might have pushed him to throw himself into religion, whether that’s enough or not, you can decide for yourself.

There are some troubling topics raised – mostly in violence against women who were taken captive during the war and used by the soldiers, and what happens to the women after the war is over.

It isn’t a happy read, but it does give a glimpse into a different kind of world.

Book 166: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

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Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Finished reading on April 24th, 2015
Rating: 7/10

Sudan, a village by the Nile. A young man returns home after having studied abroad and discovers a mysterious man has moved there. What makes this man mysterious? One evening when the man gets drunk, he recites a poem in English.

It is an interesting story, in several ways it reminded me of the story of the Bluebeard. At least by the end.

The book is quite short, and you mostly only learn about Mustafa, whose secret the narrator is trying to uncover, and he succeeds by the end, although lots of things happen before.

I liked how just one poem recital in English is what made Mustafa a curious character, although I didn’t like Mustafa after you find out more about him – he turns out to be a sort of Dorian Gray type character just without a portrait.

The part I enjoyed the most though – what the narrator discovers in the room where Mustafa never let anyone enter.

Otherwise the story is violent, a woman is forced to marry a man practically double her age, and it doesn’t end well at all, and there are plenty of other poor women as well…

Book 165: Ulysses by James Joyce

PIMG_9144“Ulysses” by James Joyce

Finished reading on April 22nd, 2015
Rating: R

I’ve read Ulysses, I feel like I should be able to say something profound, yet I’ve never been bothered more by the lack of logic than I was when reading this book.

Honestly it was a bumpy ride reading Ulysses in 8 days. I only really started enjoying it when a colleague asked whether I was enjoying the book I’m reading and I said “no” – after that it all got better.

I think I feel slightly angry at the book – I’ve loved reading Joyce’s shorter works, but this one left me confused and baffled and thinking that I might actually prefer to read a quantum mechanics textbook rather than delve into such a literary work next time. Though I think maybe that’s not a good idea as maybe that’s exactly what it’s about – it’s so different from our everyday experience that you have to reset your mind or die trying to adapt to a novel where one moment a character is forced to wear womens’ clothes at a brothel and the next they’re in a courtroom and then they become a mayor…

There certainly were enjoyable parts, but it’s mostly all way too difficult – as soon as you get used to it you’ll have to face fifty pages of stream-of-consciousness writing without any punctuation marks!

But then in the end it’s all quite sad, especially when you realize it’s been a week from when you started reading it, and it’s still the same day in the book…

I liked how Joyce mentions the night sky – I often wonder whether regular people who have no work-related reason to look at the night sky and know what’s there, whether they even notice it – do they see the planets, do they know that you can see planets and what about constellations? At least Joyce seems to have noticed. So that was good.

The important part is – I read it, and now I know it’s not made-up words throughout, only in some parts. In other parts it’s as if it were a (hideously long) play where there are new characters coming to the stage every five minutes and they’re not even doing the same play!

It’s interesting, but with one reading I wouldn’t even try to figure this one out even just a tiny little bit.

I’m hoping that reading “Ulysses” will make me value more writers whose works aren’t from an alien world in a parallel universe.

Book 164: A Fine Family by Gurcharan Das

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A Fine Family by Gurcharan Das

Finished reading on April 8th

Rating: 8/10

This book deals with the lives of several generations of a family beginning in the 1940s in Lyallpur, continuing through the troubled time of Partition and moving away from their ancestors’ home as staying there becomes too dangerous. The second part follows the recently married daughter Tara and her husband Seva Ram and their son Arjun as they make their life in Simla and the final part of the book follows a grown-up Arjun and his later life and marriage.

One of the most prominent themes in the book seems to be dissatisfaction and also as appropriate for the time – being carried along in the fast flowing current of history.

“Even the dogs trembled as they wandered in despair for a morsel of human neglect. Once or twice a door opened and the smell of fear spilled onto the street.”

The book is certainly worth a read – the characters are interesting, though I personally didn’t find them particularly agreeable, and it is a fast paced story, with the end being a little bit rushed compared to the rest of it. But it’s all a little unexpected – you think you know what will happen, and it will, but there’s always some kind of twist to it… It’s quite poetic.

Book 163: Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Finished reading on April 5th, 2015

Rating: 9/10

The book was first published in Arabic in 1956 and the author was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1988. It’s the first part of The Cairo Trilogy.
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“Palace Walk” takes place in Cairo during the First World War, when Egypt had been under the British rule for a while, and it looks at the life of a family living in a house in Palace Walk.

The family is headed by a serious and apparently pious al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad, who is served by his wife Amina. The book revolves around the various problems the children and Amina face under al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rule.

In the beginning the problems seem quite easy – hiding the youngest son Kamal’s mischief’s from the father, the two daughters Khadija’s and Aisha’s constant nagging, but then bigger ones ensue, when the reader finds out more about the nature of the father, who may appear like a good role-model, but probably is not,and about his eldest son Yasin, who is taking after his father in several ways…

I found the book interesting for several reasons- first off it’s the first book I’ve read where the women of the house have been confined there because of the man’s religiosity.
The second interesting part came later in the book as there are uprisings and demonstrations in Cairo and all across Egypt, in which one of the children secretly takes part in.

All in all it has many interesting themes and ofcourse as it was the first book I read that’s set in Egypt, it was fascinating.

In at least one way it reminded me of Jane Austen’s writing, as one of the big themes in the book is marriage – both daughters wish to get married – the eldest Khadija is over twenty and hasn’t had any marriage offers yet, while the younger Aisha has gotten offers before, but the father wouldn’t let Aisha marry before the older daughter has been settled – and ofcourse the reason for why one sister is more appealing than the other is because the younger one is blond and attractive, while the older daughter is darker and according to the whole family has a huge nose. Although there’s talk of marriage there’s no romance in the book :) There’s lust and desire but barely any mention of love – all marriages are decided by the father.

There are certainly some unexpected twists or events in the book, where you couldn’t possibly guess what the outcome will be.

It was surprising to me how although there’s talk about the uprisings and shootings, the book doesn’t read as violent as I’ve gotten used to in case of books set in the Middle East or Asia…

I will certainly be continuing with this trilogy as Palace Walk leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Book 162: Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

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Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

Finished reading on January 17th, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I was searching for a book about solar eclipses that would be manageable in length. This book was one the first results in a search and hence the one I turned to.

My interest in solar eclipse books comes from the fact that in March of this year there will be a partial solar eclipse visible where I live and I had to do some research on the related mythology for work.

The book was a quick read with many interesting topics – in addition to myths and legends, that I was mainly after, there’s also talk about the science and history of eclipse observations and what humankind has found out thanks to solar eclipses – all quite fascinating, as previously I knew only about observations of the corona and the search for a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury and of-course the famous observational proof for Einstein’s General theory of Relativity. But it turns out there are more!

For those more practically minded -the book introduces safe ways for observing and photographing a solar eclipse and gives ideas about what kind of equipment you need and also how to later process your images.

And a book about solar eclipses wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the past solar eclipses and the ones coming up in the next twenty or so years, so you can plan your vacations a bit. For Americans – there will be a total solar eclipse visible in 2017 in some of the states, in the others it’ll be partial. Unfortunately for my location, the next total eclipse is in 2126, so I’ll actually have to go chasing the shadow of the Moonmyself, to see a total one in my lifetime. Good to know :)

Though there was something disturbing by the end – although it is mentioned so many times in the book, how extraordinary seeing the totality is, and how you can’t express it in words and can’t really capture the emotions in photographs or on video, at some point I did catch myself thinking “meh, just the Moon in front of the Sun and the sky is dark… big deal” So obviously it is necessary that I’d actually see it myself, otherwise I’ll be as any person who’s never seen Saturn through a telescope and would just shrug about seeing a planet that is so beautiful and so far away yet visible through two correctly shaped pieces of glass in a tube….

So possibly that is what I came away with – you have to see it to actually understand it better.

Book 161: The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

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The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

Finished reading on January 6th, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Nicolaus Copernicus, a 16th century astronomer showed that the Sun is in the centre of the Solar System, and the Earth only goes around it, hence joining the other planets and in some ways losing its importance as a special place.

Discoveries in later centuries have shown that there’s barely anything special about the Earth’s location in the Universe – we circle around a rather average star (although more massive than 75% of other stars, but still a dwarf star) in a rather average spiral arm of a giant galaxy, the like of which are numerous in the Universe.

But if you leave all that aside, there seems to be something that might make Earth a tiny bit special – it’s the only place thus far that we know of that has life.

In “The Copernicus Complex”, Scharf takes a look at exoplanets and the search for life and the mathematics that might possibly give us an estimate as to whether or not we are alone – as soon as we get some more data points.

The book goes through several topics – biology, statistics and astronomy and manages to show how the Copernican Principle – the idea that we don’t occupy a special time or place in the Universe is at the same time wrong and right.

I found the book dipping into some interesting themes – such as celestial mechanics and how although we can predict the motions of planets around the sun in the near future and past, we can’t do so for millions of years hence. Another was the look at how maybe we exist in a special time, when it is (or so it seems) possible to correctly characterize the Universe – it’s age and size – whilst billions of years hence when the Universe keeps expanding, life on a planet in some far distant future planet, might look at the sky, and not see anything else besides their own galaxy.

In general it was a very enjoyable read, especially because of the wide array of themes covered.

If you’ve read Scharf’s previous popular science book, “Gravity’s Engines“, the style is quite different, but in a good way, as the topics aren’t really similar anyway, but I’m sure you’d enjoy reading “The Copernicus Complex”.

Book 160: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

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The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Finished reading on January 3rd, 2014

Rating: 8/10

I’m pretty sure there are many people who love movies about food (although they make you hungry), books about food are kind of the same thing, only you get the hungry feeling for a longer time…

This book is about several topics – cooking, traditions, and strong personalities.

The book starts in India, Mumbai, where the reader gets to know a little about the Haji family, who own a restaurant. Because of some events involving religious and financial differences between people who live near the restaurant, the Haji family leaves India and moves to London and then travels in Europe and ends up in France.

There, the head of the Haji family decides to open a restaurant in just the perfect place for one, except for the fact that there is an excellent restaurant at the hotel a hundred feet across the road.

The story continues with several “battles” between the owner of the fancy classical French restaurant, Madame Mallory and Papa Haji, but also with the story of one of the Haji kids – Hassan, who has a talent for cooking, and learnt to cook from his mother.

Lots of cooking, learning and fighting ensues…

That’s about it for what the book is about.

It is certainly interesting, as you don’t know what is gong to happen from one page to the next… the characters stay the same despite the fact that the whole book takes place in about 20 years or so.

The only thing I found curious was that Hassan doesn’t return to Indian cooking until later in the book (maybe because his sister does keep cooking some Indian foods for him?).

Now, there is a movie (you can watch the trailer here), that is (I’d say rather loosely) based on the book. I watched the film about twelve hours after I finished reading the book and I was quite disappointed, since I did like the book, but in the movie things are very different. It might be good though – if you’ve seen the movie, read the book, you’ll be surprised as to how much more happens in the book.

Book 159: Sextant by David Barrie

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Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans by David Barrie

Finished reading on December 31st, 2014

Rating: 9/10

If you enjoy a good travel journal, then this book might be for you… on the other hand, if you’re interested in celestial navigation, this book is definitely worth a read.

In “Sextant”, throughout the book you can read about the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht in the 1970s and in addition you get to read about different expeditions through centuries where navigation was obviously very important and either made the expedition a success or a failure.

It was quite fascinating, I would have even liked to read a bit more about the explorers like Flinders (who explored the coast of Australia) or George Vancouver, who explored the coast of Alaska and in general the northwestern Pacific coast of North America or Robert FitzRoy who was the captain of HMS Beagle and took Charles Darwin with him on an expedition…

When I was in my early teens I got obsessed with explorers – not just any explorers though – they’d have to be polar explorers. I was fascinated with the cold and the snow (and in my 58 degrees north location, there are winters where temperature can fall to minus 30 degrees Celsius) and the people who would want to spend months on skies to cross Greenland (Nansen) or spend months aboard a ship wintering in sea ice… or defy the Southern seas and a continent covered in ice and aim for the South Pole – even in my essays I’d be writing about Scott and Amundsen or Shackleton. I’ve still not quite gotten over that obsession. But now I also enjoy reading about expeditions to other locations.

This book does mention Shackleton, as in his expedition it’s easy to imagine how errors in navigation would have made the already bad situation even worse.
In case of other expeditions as well – the stories are presented in only a few pages, but you get a glimpse to the importance of celestial navigation at the time and why just having a map doesn’t help you on the sea if you don’t know exactly where you are. In my case it was something I’ve never really thought about (except on a cruise ship going to Stockholm and imagining how could ships get there before modern technology)…

As I enjoy finding out where there are empty spots in my knowledge, I found the book excellent. It gave me lots of ideas what to read next (I just have to read some expedition diary… any suggestions?) and in general several times made me think “oh, that’s so fascinating!”

In general I’d say there are several good reasons for reading this book:
1. gives an idea how mariners navigated on the sea, what methods they used and what were some problems associated with them
2. gives several examples of naval expeditions and some of the hardships the people had to overcome
3. you won’t take knowing your location or precise maps for granted.
4. you might just catch a little wanderlust bug…

Oh and it’s 2015 in the Eastern hemisphere, so happy new year!

Book 158: What If? by Randall Munroe

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What If? by Randall Munroe

Finished reading on December 31st, 2014

Rating: 10/10

If you like science mixed with comics,then “What If?” is the book you should find. Written by the XKCD web-comics author Randall Munroe, the book is a compilation of “what if?” questions and answers to them accompanied by some Munroe’s stick-figure comics.

With questions from such varied areas of science as genetics, rocket science, chemistry and astrophysics, there’s something for everyone and the answers are so humorous that even if you might have hated chemistry in high-school or despised anything to do with physics, the book shows that they’re actually harmless and quite interesting if well explained.

The book took me about six hours to read from cover to cover and I was quite sad to reach the last question, as the book certainly leaves you wanting more of that nice proper humorous sciency fun :)

My favourite question was one about a bullet as dense as the matter in neutron stars and what would happen if it went through the Earth or was near the ground and also one about draining Earth’s oceans.

If you’ve read it, what was your favourite question/answer?