Book 84: The Vendor of Sweets by R. K. Narayan

PIMG_7034The Vendor of Sweets by R. K. Narayan

Finished reading on October 30th, 2013

Rating: 7/10

R. K. Narayan (1906 – 2001)  was an Indian author, who was one of the leading figures in early Indian literature in English.

“The Vendor of Sweets” is one of his short stories that was first published in 1967 and  was another one of the stories that was set in Narayan’s fictional town named Malgudi  in South-India. This short story follows a short period in the life of Jagan, a man who is about to turn 60 and owns a Sweet shop.

Jagan is a rather curious character as are many of the characters I’ve come across in previous works by Narayan I’ve read. Jagan follows a really strict diet and life philosophy and has over years accumulated quite a lot of money from his sweet shop, which he keeps at the best possible level. He’s life if filled with routine until one day his son Mali decides he doesn’t want to go to college any more. Instead Mali wants to become a writer and write a novel in about five months for a contest. Jagan is fine with that, as he can proudly say that instead of reading what other people write, his son is now giving other people something to read.

However for some reason or other Mali’s novel doesn’t seem to get anywhere and after the contest deadline has passed Mali suddenly wants to go to America to study how to write novels.

And that is where the everything else ensues. He studies in America and is sending back letters to his father about the life there, not mentioning much at all about what he is doing. Although in one part his letter did make me chuckle:

“I’ve taken to eating beef, and I don’t think I’m any worse for it. Steak is something quite tasty and juicy. Now I want to suggest why don’t you people start eating beef? It’ll solve the problem of useless cattle in our country and we won’t have to beg food from America.”

Oh, the young people!

So a little while later Mali arrives in his home town with a girl! Who his father thinks first is Chinese and thinks to himself:

“Don’t you know that one can’t marry a Chinese nowadays? They have invaded our borders…”

But that’s just the beginning of the story. Now having studied and gotten wiser Mali wants to start a business (and not take over his fathers sweet shop) and that’s something that is nothing but trouble as you can find out in the story as arguments and misunderstandings ensue about whether Mali is really married or not and why has Jagan suddenly dropped the prices of the sweets in his shop. And of-course someone has to go to jail and someone has to want to leave home.

What surprised me about this story is that Jagan goes through real growth in the stories scant pages. In the beginning he is really shy with his son, always wanting to please him and almost never even talking to him directly, but through some middle-man. But by the end Jagan has gained some kind of confidence, he doesn’t care anymore what his son thinks of what he says and while throughout Mali’s life Jagan has tried to make his life as comfortable as possible, in the end, when Mali ends up in a police lock-up Jagan won’t even take the time to go and see him, but instead is hurrying to a bus-station to get out of his old life, away from the sweet shop and to start something new with his life.

A really interesting story.

 

 

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Book 83: The Book Nobody Read by Owen Gingerich

PIMG_7030The Book Nobody Read by Owen Gingerich

Finished reading on October 29th, 2013

Rating: 7/10

In the book “The Sleepwalkers” the author Arthur Koestler claims that Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus was a book that nobody read. Owen Gingerich shows in his book however that the claim is wrong, and that Copernicus’s book was read rather widely as he located a lot of annotated first and second editions.

“The Book  Nobody Read” is mostly about Gingerich’s search for the first two editions of De Revolutionibus and what happened on the way, but it’s also about what can happen to rare old books, one might also learn a little about how to recognize facsimiles in books, although that’s still a bit fuzzy…

But besides that you can also learn a little more about some of the 16th and 17th century astronomers and other notable people who owned that book.

In parts it’s more reminiscent of a crime novel, so it’s fun!

 

Book 82: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

PIMG_7026The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Finished reading on October 28th, 2013

Rating: 8/10

It is slightly difficult to put it into words what this book is like. For most of the time when I was reading it I just would have wanted to see it all as a sort of doll-house and just grab the characters and send them somewhere where they’d all be happy and just eliminate some of the others.

“The Namesake” is about the life of Gogol Ganguli, an American born to a Bengali family named Gogol after the famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. For about half of the book the name “Gogol” is the main problem. Not to me. To Gogol and a little to his parents in the beginning as well.

The book starts with Ashima Ganguli’s pregnancy.

And there was a nice description there about being a foreigner:

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.”

This is why it’s difficult to write about this book. It sort of makes you feel uncomfortable for the characters, for the Ganguli’s. The kind of feeling that you want to let them rest somehow, like after a long week at work you’d just want to sleep until lunch-time on the weekend. I got that kind of feeling that that’s what they’d need only in a slightly different way, but that seems impossible, because even when the Gangulis go to Calcutta for vacation they don’t seem to be much more at home, at least their children aren’t…

So I found the book quite sad and a little depressing. It is good though, but the people seem a bit ghostly and out of touch with the world around them just because of not quite fitting in.

I really liked the ending:

“For now, he starts to read.”

Finally! That’s what I was expecting all along, and now he finally has the time! But still the book is sad.

Surprisingly I couldn’t really understand Gogol, I felt closer to Ashima and Ashoke they seemed a lot more relate-able… The novel goes from Gogol Ganguli’s childhood and schooldays to his life at the university and later as an architect all the way until he’s 32, that’s when the book ends. But in between there’s marriage and death and divorce and all sorts of complicated things.

And there’s a movie that was made based on the novel! I have yet to see it, but the trailer seems fine and IMDb rating is 7.4.

Book 81: What Is Relativity? by Jeffrey Bennett

Finished reading on October 27th, 2013

Rating: 8/10

“What Is Relativity?” will be out on March 4th, 2014. I was lucky to get access to it sooner through netgalley.com.

As the book’s title suggests it’s about relativity. Both special and general theories get explained and they’re explained well using a lot of thought experiments and nearly no mathematics whatsoever.

It goes a little bit further as well, showing  the implications rising from relativity – black holes, expansion of the universe etc.

It was surprisingly fun to read and it took me two evenings to do it and considering it’s a book about relativity then that’s saying something. It’s not too simplified though, you still have to think every though experiment through if you want to understand what’s going on with the time dilation and what happens in a black hole.

I think this book would be a good read even for younger readers, as “What Is Relativity”  explains relativity in an accessible way and there are no equations to scare you off.

And finally it was just interesting and fun to read.

Book 80: Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

PIMG_7022

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

Finished reading on October 24th, 2013

Rating 10/10

I’m not quite sure whether or not it is a good idea to give a 10 point rating to such a popular astronomy and space exploration classic as Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”, but giving any other rating would mean there’s room for improvement.

This book is the first astronomy book I’ve read by Sagan, as I’ve tried to rather read newly or recently released books to keep up with the new stuff, but “Pale Blue Dot” seemed to be calling my name on the bookstore shelf just a little bit too loudly to be ignored.

It was originally published in 1994, but in most chapters you wouldn’t even notice it, although just the thought that it’ll be twenty years from when it was first published is a little scary.

“Pale Blue Dot” is about how humans have discovered the planets and stars and the whole universe and realized that it’s a huge place we live in. It’s also about how scientists have discovered how hot is the surface of Mars and that the largest volcano in the Solar system is on Mars. The content here is rather varied and really exciting and interesting throughout going from history of astronomical discoveries to terraforming other bodies of the Solar system and searching for extraterrestrial life and dodging near-Earth asteroids.

A fine read indeed!

Book 79: COMETS! by David J. Eicher

Finished reading on October 17, 2013

Rating 9/10

As probably every person who keeps up with astronomy news knows, comet ISON is getting closer. That was the reason why I wanted to read this particular book.  Luckily I got access to this book via netgalley.com .

This book is all about comets. Eicher starts with recounting possibly all of the most important comet observations in history, which there are so many that it was even somewhat surprising to me, as I thought I was pretty well acquainted with history of astronomy etc., but now I do find that it makes sense to read more about particular astronomical objects, as not all of them would fit in a simple story about astronomy, where a lot of pages would be given to biographies of astronomers anyway.

Now the part with historical comets gives the basic data – who observed it, where, when, how did they describe it etc.

Then there’s a part about the great comets, or the ones that are/were really bright. There’s not much to say about that except that one might get the urge to travel back in time just to see some of those comets, let’s hope time machine’s are possible and will be available in the near future…

Then after all of those accounts of historical comets there’s a different view – while the first chapters deal with observations of comets then the next part dealt with theory and ideas about comets in history. This was a really entertaining part, as one might guess when you know that comets throughout the history have been considered bad omens. So then reading about how in China there were more than 20 classifications for comets according to their appearances that foretold a certain kind of event – for example a long war, or illness, or death of someone in the royal family…

Now after all of the history and culture part we finally arrive at the physical and chemical characteristics of comets – depending on where they come from and how long are their orbits etc. And then there’s also that always exciting part of what kind of part might the comets have played in enabling life to exist on Earth.

It’s all quite theoretical this far, with a lot of accompanying pictures throughout though, but the last few chapters of the book are the cherry on top of a cupcake – they’re about observing comets – how to hunt them down, how to sketch them and how to take images of them.

There are some books that have those kinds of practical advice parts in them and they make you think “oh, well, that’s nice, but I wouldn’t do that, not quite that interesting…” and then you trail off somewhere, maybe even lose interest in the book or lose the book… but this is not one of them.

Reading those last chapters it made me want to become a huntress, go out in the darkness of the night just before dawn and hunt for small fuzzy balls of light, or maybe go out and start sketching or take photographs. And it’s all helpful information, almost step-by-step guides on how to do everything, so it’s really nice.

And now we come to the end. I rated this book highly, and as such I recommend it to any amateur astronomers who wants to know more about comets. Now as far as young readers might go – it’s not particularly difficult to read and there’s a glossary at the end, but there’ the danger that young reader’s might be possessed by this book and want to stay outside looking for comets for the rest of their lives, so be careful!

Book 78: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Finished reading on October 10, 2013

Rating 7/10

It seems impossible that there would be someone who’s never heard of the story of Frankenstein, however it doesn’t seem to unlikely that not many have read the actual book.

For some time I’ve been proud enough of my knowledge that Frankenstein was not the monster, but the maker of it. However that was the knowledge with which I went in to it.

I was expecting something slightly different I guess, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

First off it’s told from the perspectives of a few characters and there are parts that give away something that has not yet happened.  That is it jumps from the end of the story to the very beginning on how Victor Frankenstein goes off to Ingolstadt to learn medicine. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have much in common with the professors who condemn him for believing in the old practices that were not in use anymore but about which Frankenstein had read a lot about. And is still interested in. So in a way the book starts with showing how the higher education system doesn’t prevent mad scientists from unleashing monsters… although Frankenstein wasn’t really insane, he was just curious in a rather usual way being interested in a rather unusual topic. And naturally he had to try it out, to see whether he can create a living being.

(So in a way if his professors had at least told him that trying to make a living being out of pieces is a bad idea, then it might have helped as much as physicists saying you can’t build a perpetuum mobile…)

And then there’s the creature!

And suddenly Frankenstein becomes really sick after having given life to this monstrous and after the descriptions a hideous creature of awful proportions.

In a way that reminded me of Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment” where Rodion becomes sick after having committed the crime.. or maybe he became ill even a little while before. Those two books were published 40 years apart, but it’s neat  how the same kind of psychological and physiological disorder occurs because of a real or perceived crime.

But back to the book – so monster’s gone, Frankenstein is sick and the Frankenstein’s brother is murdered. This leads to Frankenstein returning home and realizing that his brother had been killed by the monster…and he naturally wants revenge as William’s nanny was hanged innocently.

Now’s the part where it gets exciting. Frankenstein meets the creature and hears his story, which is rather interesting, as he tells about how he learned to speak and understand language, and about the people he was living next to until one day when he tries to make friends with them, is driven away. Unfortunately the monster, although big in proportions, is acting rather childishly and wants revenge on his creator,  who made him so ugly and big that he can never know love and affection and the happiness that can be gained by the presence of women. And also he burns down the house of the people who drove him away…

That’s why the monster goes after Frankenstein. The monster first tries to make a deal with Frankenstein so that the latter would create another monster of the opposite sex and he’ll leave Frankenstein and all of humankind in peace after that. And Frankenstein agrees.

When Frankenstein’s almost finished with his other monster, he suddenly realizes that maybe it’s not a good idea, since the second monster might be even worse than the first one and then they’d breed and there might be a serious threat to humankind… So he destroys the second monster before finishing it and has to feel the wrath  of the first monster.

That is one of those parts where the story could have gone differently – Frankenstein finishes the second monster and the two leave and are never seen again except in stories where there’s talk of yetis or snow-people etc… So what if that would have been it? Everyone lives happily ever after? Or maybe indeed the monsters would have started killing even more people than the one already had and later did? I guess it’s one of these times when it’s either saving yourself or humankind…

Well there are several murders and after that Frankenstein decides to pursue the monster and kill it or die trying and ends up in the Arctic sea on a boat. And that’s where he tells the story.

I found the book interesting because it wasn’t all about the same settings and characters and moods – it starts with the excitement of trying to create a living being, followed by the dismay and sickness after realizing what was created. After that there’s the dread and then the monster jumps out and tells his fluffy pink story of how he wanted to be friend with everyone and nobody likes him because of his appearance… And then there’s Frankenstein feverishly trying to make another creature to satisfy his first creation. And then running from him or trying to be ahead of him and protecting his friends and family. And it all ends with Frankenstein running after the monster to put an end to it all. And then there’s the fluffy monster again saying he would have been fine without killing so many people if only Frankenstein had done this and that…

And here’s the morale of the story:

Never make big ugly monsters, always make sure your monsters are small cuddly and cute! 😀