Friday, February 22, 2008

book reviews

My favorite two edged sword of train travel (especially general class): I cannot sleep without laying down in a pretty comfortable spot (I know, it's sad, I'm not yet adapted my sleep for this country) so I usually just stay up all night reading. That means I got a lot of reading done in my last two weeks of travel. Here's my short review in no particular order:

The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre:
A Calcutta book that's sold at every book stall. An inspiring and maddening work. To see the courage of the people living in this terrible place and how much compassion that they have for others starkly contrasts the inhuman response by the government to their plight in a slum of 70,000 people on the area of three football fields. Lapierre weaves three stories together: a Polish priest who came to the slum in sneakers and a T-shirt and just moved in to start helping, a young doctor who wanted to take a year off to do some good and had to deliver a baby from a leper woman on his first night and a family with the familiar tale of being forced by drought to leave their village for the big city. It eventually turned into a movie with Patrick Swayze playing the young doctor.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins:
Another excellent book on evolution by the master. I found it a little simplistic for me but I enjoyed his elegant and simple explanations for complicated phenomena. He did throw out a theory about the origins of life that I never heard before and which I found quite captivating. He advocated the inorganic mineral theory of life versus the more commonly expressed organic soup theory. I plan to write a post to explain this is in more depth. A great book for any laymen interested in evolution (which I happen to think is the one of the most fascinating things you can ever study)

Atonement by Ian McEwan:
A decent book. I'd call it a high level beach read. I don't think it deserves the reviews so lavish that they call the author the best living english language writer. It got shortlisted for a Booker Prize which is probably why I liked it. If it won the Booker Prize, I would not have liked it. I've read five (I think) books that won this prize and I only liked one: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The rest were flowery horse shit like the Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo. I think of it as the Booker Curse.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini:
Wow. Three books in a row that got turned into a movies. I haven't seen this movie but a friend recommended the book. Not a bad fantasy book. Very creative world and strong driving plot. However, the plot holes and stupid decisions main characters got on my nerves. I mean, you're trying to hide your dragon but you let it fly all over a huge mountain range and then act surprised when somebody notices the first dragon in 100 years. And you have the last hope of humanity in the form of a 16 year old kid and you let him wander around the royal city alone where everybody is trying to kill him while you go off for a beer with an old friend. Argghhh. Still, the author wrote this book as he graduated from high school at 15. It'll be interesting to watch him as he matures into his writing.

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
The NYTimes called his "One Hundred Years of Solitude" the first book that should be required reading for all of humanity since the book of Genesis. He published three books of short stories and this book collects them all into one. I found his first book to be downright weird. Only one story connected with me. The rest seemed to be this dark Kafkaesque works about being trapped physically or socially. Very disconnected.

However, his next two books contained some of the most clear and touching short stories I have ever read. You can see the growth of his particular and wonderful brand of magic realism. His "Artificial Roses" about a young woman and her blind grandmother stunned me. In fact, words fail me. Read it. It's the best.

Don't You Have Time To Think by Richard Feynman:
The collected letters of the world's coolest theoretical physicist. Richard Feynman cracked safes at the Manhattan Project to make a point about security, wrote equations on strip club napkins and showed a free spirited brilliance that always challenged authorities. He won the Nobel Prize and gave brilliant informative lectures. Admittedly, his letters are not that fascinating to read but I enjoyed the portrait they presented of this warm man. I got to see the beautiful romance between him and his first wife who died young of tuberculosis during the Manhattan Project. He had a reputation for little correspondence other physicists but wrote extensive letters to cranks, amateurs and young students. A good book for Feynman buffs.

The Village of Stepanchikovo by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
A comedy by the king of novels. Dostoevsky created the character of Foma Fomich Opiskin, a pretentious and despotic pseudo-intellectual who dominates the protagonist's uncle's house though the adoration of its women. He holds the entire household under his thumb but without any goal in mind such as money or sex, simply for the preening vanity and artistry of being center stage in the absurd theatrics. Sound familiar? He created this character 60 years before Rasputin's rise to power.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri:
This book made me tear up a number of times. It seemed to wonderfully capture the strain of growing up Indian in America, especially when your family decides to name you Gogol. I think it also just got turned into a movie that I'm excited to see.


Nadia Chaudhury said...

re: The Namesake:

Compared to the book, the movie is kinda disappointing. The actors who play his mom and dad are amazing, though.

Anonymous said...

I just reread The Namesake and really liked it better this time. Make sure you read Interpreter of Maladies, her collection of stories. Wonderful!