Book 174: Talkative Man by R. K. Narayan

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Talkative Man by R. K. Narayan

Finished reading on May 23rd, 2015

Rating: 7/10

This is another one of Narayan’s stories taking place in the fictional city of Malgudi. This time the story is narrated by an aspiring journalist, whose family fortune enables him not to worry about his livelihood.

One day a man in a blue Oxford suit turns up in Malgudi and stays in the train station’s waiting room apparently working ‘on a project for the UN’.
To start off the stranger seems quite annoying, and the station master is trying to get rid of him, as the waiting room isn’t really meant for people to stay there for days on end. The journalist is trying to help and ends up inviting the stranger to stay at his home.

The story gets quite mysterious as one day a woman arrives and tells a part of the stranger’s story, and we hear more of it later on because the journalist goes snooping around in his letters…

All-in-all in this novel we’re dealing with a classical Don Juan – a charmer and a liar, who has many women chasing him for one reason or another.

It is interesting, although mostly I just felt bad for the townsfolk who were fooled by the stranger, and especially for the young girl that falls for him and the poor taxi-driver who hopes to be able to get a fancy car if he keeps driving around the generous stranger.

Book 173: Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius

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Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius of Rhodes

Finished reading on May 23rd, 2015

Rating: 7/10

This is the classic tale of the Argonauts who go out to get the Golden Fleece as Jason was ordered to do. Among his companions are Heracles and the twins Kastor and Polydeukes and countless others whose names didn’t say much to me.

Basically it’s a long naval expedition where the heroes meet quite a lot of challenges and are saved many a time by the intervention of goddesses Athena and Hera who for some reason support Jason.

It was more interesting than I dared to hope and quite clever as well – accidentally leaving behind Heracles, their strongest hero and then coming across a ruler who wants to box with one of the members of the crew.

My favourite part however was where the little boy Eros came in – where he has apparently just cheated when playing with Ganymede – now that’s an ingenious part!

It’s just another one of the stories with a fancy fellowship on a mission, not unlike what came along more than two thousand years later.

Although a piece of classical literature, you shouldn’t be afraid of reading it – it’s a manageable length, although there seem to be hundreds of characters, you don’t really have to follow along with them all.

I’d even consider it quite suitable as a bedtime story if it weren’t for Jason cutting down the earth-born men who grew out of dragon-teeth and Jason and Medea’s wedding night…

Book 172: Genius by James Gleick

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Genius by James Gleick

Finished reading on May 21st, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Richard Feynman is a name that you might most likely have heard if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory or if you’ve taken a course in particle physics. I can make checks in both :)
“Genius” is one of several biographies of Feynman, who seems to me as the best example of a misunderstood genius, despite being highly acclaimed and having gotten a Nobel prize in physics.

I picked this book up quite soon after reading his correspondence, and as I’ve read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” last year, most of it didn’t seem new, but it was still interesting and it gave a better idea of Richard Feynman as a person, and it was the first time I could actually read about his contributions to physics.

The thing that strikes me the most about Feynman, was the way he worked – not reading the new paper in physics fully, but only until he got an idea of the problem and then trying to solve it himself and spending a lot of time on questions that he never published anything about, although many others would have. That’s just curious. The first explains his great grasp of physics, the second is just a mystery to me, as in my imagination you’d try to publish any significant results. Maybe that’s just it though- he probably didn’t see it as significant enough or as not a big enough contribution?

The book did change my opinion of Feynman in some ways, as previously I had seen him as an ingenious joker, and now I’m not so sure, as it all seems quite tragic.

I did like that you do see quite a lot of his contemporary physicists, so you won’t get the idea that he was the only one working on it, but you see it as everyone contributing something – some more, some less, and find out about their relationships, and you see Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger and Freeman Dyson appear in the story – it brings Feynman out of vacuum and gives a broader view of everything.

I feel like there’s no reason for me to actually do a short overview of Feynman’s life, as that’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather I’d just say that if you’ve enjoyed stories about Feynman, this biography might be enjoyable, and if you’re studying physics, it’s also quite motivational. I dare you to start reading this and not want to pick up a physics textbook!

Also, I’d really recommend reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” before this one.

Book 171: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai by Koda Rohan

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Pagoda, Skull & Samurai by Koda Rohan

Finished reading on May 19th, 2015

Rating: 8/10

“The moral of the story is….” would be a way to finish off a review of these three stories by Koda Rohan, a 20th century Japanese novelist. I got this book when I first got into reading books by Japanese authors like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, however I never picked it up for long, as the idea of having to deal with a samurai story was just a bit too much.

Now I’m that much smarter…

“The Five-Storied Pagoda” had the strongest moral in a story I’ve ever read and tells the story of two builders, one who is well-known and loved, and the other who is considered a simpleton and slow. The latter gets the idea that he’d like to build the new pagoda, although the contract has been already given to the first. It’s an interesting tale, as you find out how the abbot deals with it, and although it at first seems too much as if he’s just breaking the bread in half between the two, it’s so much more difficult and there are real mind-games going on, that make it very realistic and the end even more so.There’s also a little touch of supernatural in the story that kind of lost me for a while…

“Encounter wit a skull” was my favourite out of these stories, and also the shortest of them. It’s about a wanderer who wants to take a dangerous journey over a mountain in bad weather and meets a mysterious young woman living in a lonely mountain hut and goes on cheerfully with their discussion as to who should get to sleep in the bed or stay awake – the poor stranger who’s a guest or the young woman. It was quite funny until you get to the end of the story.

The last story, “The bearded samurai” reminded me the Lord of the Rings, though I doubt anyone else would see the resemblance. Here we have the story of a samurai who has been captured and is telling his story as he awaits for a capital punishment. First the samurai is depicted as a purely evil and vain creature, while as the story progresses you start to like him.

In general the stories were quite entertaining and thought-provoking.

Book 170: Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Richard P. Feynman

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Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Richard P. Feynman
Finished reading on May 3rd, 2015
Rating: 9/10

If you’ve ever thought what could a famous scientist possibly communicate about with other people, then this collection of Richard Feynman’s letters is a great one to read, as you can read his correspondence with other scientists, relatives and fans.

I quite liked it – you can see what Feynman’s attitudes were on different subjects, and I’d even say it’s inspirational .

I very much enjoyed the letters he wrote to students, who were asking for advice on what to study, and Feynman’s advice to always study what you’re interested in and do what you love, no matter where it might take you, but possibly still keeping your grades up :)

I was thinking of reading this and then continuing straight with Gleick’s “Genius”, but now I feel like I’ve gotten quite a good idea about his life and work, so I might not get to “Genius” quite as soon.

Now I want to read Feynman’s Lectures On Physics instead….

Book 169: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Finished reading on May 2nd, 2015
Rating: 8/10
Having not read any reviews or blurbs about the book before starting it and just knowing how it’s considered a great book, I went into it rather blindly, which was probably for the best.

The story goes around an extended family and their lives and troubles, of which there are so many… Among the characters are twins Esthappen and Rahel, their mother Ammu, grandmother Mammachi, great aunt Baby Kochamma and uncle Chacko, his ex-wife Margaret and their daughter Sophie and finally a factory worker Velutha.

The story is told in several flashbacks, so already in the beginning of the book you find out about some events that are only told about in more detail in the end. I found it quite interesting, although confusing in the beginning as well. Since the topic of death is represented in the book I think it’s a fascinating way of basically playing with the reader -if someone dies in a book in the beginning and we don’t know much about their situation at all, it doesn’t elicit much of an emotional response, while when you get to know them after that and see their lives, it makes it ever so much sadder.

Also since events happen without the reader knowing what came before or why, it keeps you reading – you might know someone ends up dead for half the book, but it won’t stop you from reading.

As for the story – it is sad and disturbing – not sad enough to make me cry, but just enough so feel bad for the characters and wish for a sudden miracle to change their lives – that doesn’t happen though.

Without wanting to discuss the plot of the book, I’d just say in conclusion that there are several characters that I despised for their actions, although they wouldn’t take the blame for what happens 100% – rather they just make things worse, but then there are characters who don’t mean anything bad, but it’s just careless of them, or they do things in a fit of rage etc.

Book 168: The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell

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The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell
Finished reading on April 29th, 2015
Rating: 9/10

If you’re one of those people who might have heard of the Voyager missions in passing – maybe while reading up on planets on Wikipedia, or in an astronomy book, you’re most likely to think that the Voyagers are history – they were launched such a long time a go and they’re literally far gone.

However this book gives a different perspective to it. Yes, the probes were launched in 1977 – a long time ago for me, but the book brings to life the whole “feel” of the missions, as you read about the teams behind Voyagers. That is something that I very much appreciated while reading this book, that it gives it a human perspective. Does a spacecraft or telescope make discoveries? No, no matter how much we might anthropomorphize the spacecrafts in use, they are still just tools (Believe me, it’s difficult to write, I’m as likely as the next nerd to consider my telescope’s feelings or think that my computer is being moody when it’s not responding), that are used by people to do a job.

In The Interstellar Age you get to live through all the planetary encounters, and what’s fascinating is, that you see it through the eyes of the author who got a chance to be there when the data from those encounters reached Earth. That in itself isn’t maybe spectacular, but what is, is that you get the point of view of someone who appreciates the missions and the work and data, while not having a large hugely important role to play at the time.

I enjoyed this book a lot, having read S. J. Pyne’s “Voyager” a couple of years before, it wasn’t all new to me, but a lot of it was – maybe I’d forgotten a lot of what I’ve read about the missions before (there’s a tiny chance of that happening), but it was interesting to read. Especially reading about how the golden record came about and reaching termination shock. Also I liked the authors last points that he made in the book – that the Voyager spacecrafts are probably going to outlast humankind and as such are in a way a monument to it, and all the other spacecraft that leave the Solar system are as well, and it is a somewhat poignant realization.

Just to think that maybe it would eventually encounter life, and some kind of life form will hear the sounds of Earth and see the pictures, when maybe there’s been a runaway greenhouse effect on the planet and all life here has died – then the spacecraft are in a way a tiny blip of a description of an artwork that was destroyed….

Ok, but back to the book – you do find out what was discovered during the Voyager missions and learn more about the people who worked then and now with it.

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.