Announcing a new category!

A few months ago I semi ranted to a semi-friend that I wished I had a proper creative outlet for all the seemingly “useless” info I gather through books. I posited that since some/a lot of the details in books do not constitute the main subject matter, one often ends up forgetting them with time, and I’m one keen on optimising the outcome of my reading routine. At the time of this conversation I was reading a book about Ebola by David Quammen, and my friend kind of bored from the whole convo suggested that my best outcome would be to apply for a job at Amref. Cue…Ohmigaahd! Just. Stop. Whining!

But I kept thinking about this, before it hit me that I was looking for what I already had; an accessible, laid back, fun way to learn in depth about some of the issues shallowly laid around in books as excrement of the main subject. Namely, this blog. For instance, I am currently reading The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and some of the anecdotes revolve around the politicisation of science,shocking medieval treatment methods, Eugenics, the greatest events that changed the course of science etc. Now, since the core of the book is the history of the gene, Siddhartha understandably doesn’t launch into a research log of medieval medicine for instance, except to the extent that it aids his points about Genetics. That’s where I come in.

The idea is to have an opinion/research/article piece about an issue/object/concept that features in a book, but not prominently enough to be explained by the book. In the Gene, I would not write an article about the history of the Gene for example as a) I’ll already have covered this in the review of the book and b) This would be mere regurgitation without much benefit to readers who already have or intend to read the book. Since I like writing,  this will ensure a constant flow of ideas to execute.

The pieces will run concurrently with the usual Book reviews, but as stand alone posts and will cover every book I read [and some that I have read], including fiction and (Auto) Biographies. From time to time they will take a “How Things Work” approach, interrogative approach, an approach solely in the Kenyan context etc. I will also mention the book that inspired the topic and my basis for deciding to delve into it.

You will notice that even though I post a review on average once every two weeks, I don’t have strict preset timelines. I shall post a review and accompanying post once I’m done reading a book. Hopefully this will be twice a month [4 posts], hopefully it’ll be more frequent. Lastly, posts in this series will have 500-1500 words, as opposed to the 500-600 words we write in reviews.

See you on the other side!

 

 

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[Opinion] Books by Bigots

Specimen I

Like most preteens in the 90s, I read and was entranced by Dr. Ben Carson’s books in primary school. And like clockwork, I remember for a fleeting moment after reading Think Big and Gifted Hands thinking to myself…well,well, I think I would make a damn decent neurosurgeon.

I suppose the book accomplished its intended purpose, which I presume was to inspire generations towards excellence; For a while we could all agree that Ben Carson and/or neuroscience was the hero the world needed. And a black hero? ah, awe-gasms!

Perhaps with a tinge of unwelcome nostalgia, I have recently found myself thinking that had I known what I now know about Dr. Ben Carson’s personal ideals and stupidity, I would probably not have read any of his books. A lot of people feel the same way, while some feel that he was writing merely as a medical practitioner, and since there’s no reason to believe that he misrepresented the facts in that regard, the books are just as read-worthy as they were those many years back. I, too, was one of those objective people a couple of months ago, but I have since discovered a delicious pettiness.

Specimen II

A few months back, a beloved Kenyan writer without a modicum of evidence publicly claimed that a woman who alleged sexual harassment had been lying about the incident. The outlines of the facts were that the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was a semi-famous individual and writer, and homeboy came to his defence based on the typical “that guy would never do that”.  His books had been sitting on my TBR for a while, and after the tweetstorm I promptly wrote him off.

Specimen III

Recently, I accidentally came upon the information that Peter Thiel, Paypal’s co-founder was one of the most vocal supporters and campaigners of Trump. Peter is the author of Zero to One, a book I have not read but have purchased [for a lot of money] and been meaning to read. It is a book about success in Start Up businesses, and I would therefore imagine it has few to no political views, much less on the Trump administration and Peter’s involvement thereof. Be as it may, however, I now find it very difficult to read the book and I’m looking to purge it as soon as possible.

Look, nearly everything under the sun is subjective, and authors even those writing about highly objective topics [science for instance], have been shown to derive a lot of influence from their personal worldviews. (Consider a field like Eugenics, whose history predates modern Genetics, the science the field claimed to defend). That worldview then at some point interacts with the readers. It may or may not influence them, but the intended effect is that it’ll create a ripple, that will create another ripple that may create some change [of whichever kind] down the road. If that worldview is marred with bigotry, however implicit or undetectable, I am unable to get behind it. I will happily read a book written by/about a christian astrologist who doesn’t believe in the solar system but believes in aliens, but I will not read a book by a self-identified bigot, even when said bigot is the founder of some of the most successful businesses in the world.

That is not to say I only want to read books by shiny moral absolutists. I want to read books by people who have effed up, (I mean, Biographies of Silicon Valley CEOs who are intrinsic arseholes and can’t help but fuck up is one of my favorite genres). On my TBR is a book about Hitler, but I can’t bring myself to read a book *by an active living hate lord.

So maybe the bigger issue is this; books cost me. They cost me money and time [both acquisition time and time to read and interact with the writer]. These are resources I highly value, resources I would be transferring to a guy who continuously seek to diminish the spaces I and others inhabit. I’m not okay with that.

[Book Recommendations] Nerdy and Sad Books

I am at that point again where my reading rate has well overtaken my posting rate. I have four reviews in draft, and I foresee myself spiralling out of control faster than Jubilee’s nominations. So in my attempt to clean up shop [which I suspect will become a necessary ritual], I came up with a list of book recommendations, which cleverly incorporates the books I am yet to review.

I am a bit of an everything kind of girl, except self help books (although I have been considering reading Christian/Religious fiction because I think I’d have such a great time el oh elling at it all). I do find myself leaning heavily towards heavy metal nonfictions though, and especially recently. For fiction I am all over the place, but I like a book that can make me laugh or cry hard (there are not a lot of those). Today’s recommendations are batched up in two categories, “nerdy” books and sad books. Quotation marks around nerdy because I don’t think they are particularly deeply nerdy, I am just grammatically insolvent at the moment [which I suppose wouldn’t happen with a real nerd].

And without further ado, let’s get into it.

1. The Biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

There is a plethora of Steve Jobs Biographies out there, and since I haven’t read them all, I won’t go as far as to say this is the best one or the most accurate. It is, however, by far the most popular and on which the movie, released posthumously and starring the incredibly handsome and talented Michael Fassbender, was based. Biographies of titans have tendencies to sanitise and saint-ise their subjects, and it is remarkable how unbiased Isaacson tried to be on this account. While you read you meet the genius Steve that gave the world the mac and the iphone, but you also meet the inconsiderate, self-obsessed douchebag who drove his employees to the wall. None of these versions invalidate the other, they are just complete as they are. I read the book a couple of years back and watched the movie last year. I hope to read it again this year, and I highly recommend it.

2. The Biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is one of my favorite people in the world. He is the founder of SpaceX and Paypal, CEO of Tesla Motors and Chairman of SolarCity. He is, by most metrics a true genius. Most importantly [to me at least], he is the man with the vision to take mankind to Mars. For a long time I didn’t know he had a Biography because I live beneath an actual rock but once I did I devoured it in only a couple of days. By the end, I had a completely different understanding of the man. He *is a genius, he *is extremely focused and driven, but he is also a good ol’ arsehole. Just like Steve Jobs. From an African reader’s standpoint, it almost appears as if the Silicon Valley tech genius genetically predisposes one to the uncontrolled oozing of bullshit [Uber’s Travis Kalanick anyone?]. Although I remember a typo with pain, this Biography is splendidly written and an important piece of work. It provides good background of Elon and circumstances that may have contributed to what we now call his genius, good insights on the problems SpaceX had to deal with building their rockets from scratch, how SpaceX had to prove itself over and over as a worthy NASA competitor, politics at Tesla Motors and the OCD that makes Elon both great and a douche. This is one of the books I aim to re-read by the end of this year because it was just so good and insightful.

3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book has been on many recommendation lists over the last year, and not by accident. It is one of the most mindblowing nonfiction non-biographies I have ever read. And just as it sounds, it is a history of Sapiens through the couple hundred thousand years we have been in existence. From our foraging days, through discovery of fire, the cognitive revolution [which gave rise to writing and language], the agricultural revolution, imperialism, the Scientific Revolution, the rise of capitalism etc and how that has evolved and affected or been affected by gender, race, religion and other social strata. At the end of the book, Yuval propounds on the future of mankind, as largely driven by Science and Technology. How long till Sapiens can rid itself of mortality, how long till the widespread of cyborgs? It is clever groundwork for his sequel Homo Deus [which I cannot wait to read] and a poignant close to the book. I only finished this book a few weeks ago, and I just have so much respect for what it accomplished and what it was trying to. You may not be interested in reading Biographies of vastly douche-ic tech titans, which is okay, but you really should want to read this book. While its size might seem intimidating, it is accessible to every type of reader and even makes a few attempts at humor.

4. Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

If you have ever read any book by Malcolm Gladwell, this book is exactly like that. The objective of the book is to demonstrate how poorly human beings deal with failure and the prospects of failure, and how we can harness failure to become better at failing. Perhaps to its own detriment, this sounds very self-helpy. Even the title is self help-y, which made me a little nervous. Once I dug in though, there was no looking back. Matthew begins with an in depth analysis of the aviation industry, and the industry-wide culture that has made flying one of the safest modes of transport today. He then juxtaposes that against the healthcare industry, a high-stakes industry plagued with repeated errors as there is often no system devised to incorporate medical mistakes into practical lessons. The stigmatisation of failure in healthcare, and indeed in many industries stands in the way of people owning up to their mistakes. It puts their reputation and livelihoods at stake. It is scary to think that there are probably many people who have died of the same types of medical negligence and errors. According to this book, it is why fields like psychotherapy and astrology have grown so slowly, while experimental physics has been growing leaps and bounds. The feedback loop in the latter, which is starkly missing from the former, ensures there is always data to improve with and upon.

Syed then goes on into other areas, such as cognitive dissonance, creativity and high achievement. The book is full of useful anecdotes, spanning from Drew Houston and the founding of Dropbox, David Beckham as the most hated person in the world in 1998 after his red card during the FIFA world cup,  and even David Cameron and George Bush exhibiting shocking levels of cognitive dissonance in 2003 before and after alleging Saddam was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I can’t get into the details of all these, and I’m hoping the tasters will make you pick up the book. I can confirm this is a worthy investment.

5. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This is the book I read most recently, and therefore one I remember very clearly. Don Tillman is a geneticist who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome. If he does have Asperger’s, he’s definitely unaware of it. What he is aware of is that his struggles with social situations are of epic proportions. He wants to find a wife, but as a socially awkward scientist will not suffer through a myriad of dates looking for the perfect woman; one who does not smoke, drink, preferably rides a bicycle to work, exercises, does not wear make up etc. With help from his friend Gene who has interesting use for the data anyway, they embark on the Wife Project, which aims to Scientifically sieve through all incompatible women and deliver Don his perfect companion. Until he meets Rosie, who is the precise opposite of what Don is looking for. She smokes, drinks, exhibits symptoms of acute tardiness and is emotionally unstable. She is a perfect coital companion alright, but is she really a viable candidate for the Wife Project? What happens next is why you need to read the book. This book is cute, a feel good and beyond hilarious [I did cry at some point though because Don was breaking my heart]. If you are looking for that book to get you into a reading mode and into a good mood, look no further.

The second category is the gut wrenching, heart pounding exhausting amount of sadness. I wanted to recommend 5 books for this, but my word count is already three times my typical posts. So I shall recommend just 1.

6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The reason I haven’t reviewed this book is because I do not know what to say. It is rare that I read a book and immediately I finish I want to restart. Not because I liked it that much, that happens often, but because I have a feeling I didn’t quite get everything.

The Bluest Eye is a classic African American literature. Told in three different voices, it’s the quintessential story about impoverished black families reeling from slavery in an overwhelming midst of whiteness. Claudia is a friend to Pecola, who is introduced to Claudia’s family as a result of her father’s violence towards his own family. They both go through untold misery, and especially Pecola who is sexually assaulted, resulting into a pregnancy unwanted by everyone [This is not a spoiler, it is introduced on page one of the book, then revisited later on in detail]. Above all, Pecola wants blue eyes. Blue eyes mean beauty, blue eyes mean acceptance and most importantly blue eyes mean whiteness. And whiteness is access-to love, to basic needs, to public resources, to acceptance.

This is the short of it. There are other back stories therein, of Pecola’s father and his upbringing, her mother’s and hers, life at school, other inhabitants of Claudia’s household and their paedophilia ways, prostitutes who live upstairs from Pecola and are just funny and delightful, and race, and race…and race. It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. But not in a I-am-clutching-at-my-pillow-laying-on-a-pool-of-tears sad. Definitely not The Fault in our Stars or Me Before You or When Breath Becomes Air sad (all amazing books by the way. Read them). Just structural injustices sad. Sad almost in a desensitizing way. The type of sadness you have to extract from shock and disgust and anger.

I am in awe of Toni, just like everyone else. I have only this book by her, but she really is that legend. Her writing is unbelievably poetic and poised, complex and well timed. However, and I feel like this is controversial, because Toni is so skilled I felt like she’s not easily accessible-which is a reason to read her slowly. The way she weaves a story, positioning it just right to ensure you feel disgust for injustice and not merely sympathy for the victim, the way she unloads symbolism, the way she can launch a journey of descriptiveness for an entire page. That way, to me, felt somewhat inaccessible, and at the end, it felt like a book to be read twice to be fully comprehended. First time for context, second time for contextualising. I read the book extremely fast to finish it in time for The Read Club’s discussion, and that didn’t help.

But then again, maybe this is just a book above my reading level. Lol.

I shall be reading it again before the end of the year, much slower second time around, and I do highly recommend it.

PS:

  1. Since the above is a reviews mashup, I did go above the word limit.
  2. I am currently reading How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, you can read it with me if you wish.
  3.  I am looking for The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, hard copy. I have not been able to find it in Nairobi, if you have a copy I’d be happy to purchase or borrow.