[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.

 

 

[Book Review] Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I get a lot of my reading done on my morning commutes, and it has been a while since I have read a book that makes me want to defenestrate myself from a moving vehicle. This book was one of those.

But firstly, let’s get the plot out of the way.

Never Let Me Go is a book narrated by one Kathy H., a 31 year old woman who has been a “carer” for “donors” for almost 11 years. This introduction of Kathy is graciously done in the first two pages of the book, and so one has a fairly good idea what the book is about from the get go.

We are introduced to Kathy’s back story and her two close friends ,Tommy and Ruth, growing up in a special school known as Hailsham and later transiting to fulfil their life’s purpose. As it turns out, Hailsham is one of the centres for cloned children in the country, who are brought up for the sole purpose of making organ donations upon the completion of their training. Before the donations, however, the clones become carers for other donors, which I suppose is meant to create a self-sustenance for the system.

Cool story, right?

Wrong.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

The writing: At first I found Kathy’s narration to be too fragile, like you would speak to a friend to whom you’re about to break terrible news. Except the foreplay doesn’t materialise into the grand becoming. For a premise that is so dark, I expected the narration to be utterly brutal, gory and pained. Instead, I found it shy and sentimental. A bit later into the book, there arose acute elements of circuitousness, where Kathy would magnify insignificant and inconsequential details of her experiences, moving back and forth back and forth ad nauseum. To me, a majority of the chapter conclusions sounded something like this;

That moment wasn’t significant because of what I just told you for the last few pages, it was because of what happened a few minutes before and a few days after

Rinse, Repeat.

The Story: Perhaps because I haven’t read much dystopian fiction,  I naturally found the story to be highly original. However, and this is important, the book feels like it doesn’t care about its own premise. It skirts around it all through, pages crawling with anecdotes about Kathy, Tom and Ruth’s friendships. Which is alright if well augmented with everything else, but even then Kazuo struggled to make Ruth likeable. She was antagonistic and sour and I just didn’t buy it that her friendship with Kathy and Tommy was founded on care for each other. In my opinion, the book’s misguided focus came in the way of its answering basic questions about the story and the characters, not to mention that the lingering on the characters’ love triangle for pages and pages was unnecessary.

Overall, I struggle to point out anything I particularly liked about the book. Not the tone, not the writing, not the execution of the story. Merely thoroughly underwhelming blurbs.

Rating: 2/5

[Book Review] Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

I finished Disgrace over a week ago, and has since been at pains to write how I feel about it. For one, reading this book felt like self-flagellation.

Twice-divorced, David Lurie is a Professor of Communications and Poetry at the University of Capetown in South Africa during apartheid. While he does not particularly have any respect for his job, he goes through the obligatory motions, don’t we all sometimes? His personal life does not ooze or inspire much excitement either; he has paid sex once a week and spends his free time struggling to interrogate the works of famous poets. Until he has a chance meeting with a girl who is also a student of his, and his life noticeably changes. For a while, everything revolves around this girl, and they have a whirlwind sexual relationship [that I found to be deeply disturbing]. But in the hastiness in which this book unravels, this relationship quickly comes to an anticlimactic end, with the girl filing sexual harassment charges against David. And as is often the nature of these things, his misfortune quickly unfolds into a public spectacle, which forces David to resign from his position at the university, in lieu of a public admission of guilt.

Following this ignominious end to his career,David heads to his daughter’s farm in Grahamstown. It’s a good hideout, no one knows him here, or even remotely appreciates his intellectual capacity. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, is dry but functional. Life is boring, but he gets by. Until one day he and his daughter are victims of a gory attack, and things quickly come to a head. His relationship with Lucy strains, then bitterly sours, and towards the end [of the book], there is a series of bizarre events and decisions-better experienced inside the pages-which are hard to move on from.

This book is brilliantly written. The poetic references especially make even the errant sentences sound important, well thought out,consequential. And at the same time, I felt like some of the pages had that coarse first-draft feeling about them. Raw.I found this nothing if not refreshing.

But I did say it felt like self-flagellation, especially in the days after I finished it. For instance, why did J.M Coetzee write Lucy to be such a complex character, with a decision system that is so hard to understand? Why did he arbitrarily bring up the prospect of a same-sex relationship, and then promptly abandon its pursuit? A relationship, by the way, that I so desperately wanted to see developed. More importantly, why did he, a white man as far as I can tell, decide to write his black characters as he did? Was it in a mere pursuit of a story, or was he deliberately provoking some thought?

Overall, this is a book I am keen to recommend. It is the first of 2017 that made me curse out, shed tears and want to rip it apart. Only in a span of a few pages.Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5