Friday, January 23, 2015

Memorable Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

Continuing from where I left off in my previous post, I actually did manage to read a few non-fiction books - cover to cover - and that's saying something. About the books, that is. So among the few that I read, I recommend the below two books.

Ever since I heard the author's interview on NPR, I knew I was going to read the book. His unassuming humility and enthusiasm for his work is something to aspire for. This book is a collection of all his research findings and insights; his career packaged in an engaging read.

Anyone that's interested in evolution and human biology would find this book interesting and fascinating. There's much to learn and absorb, especially regarding the mysteries of human reproduction and early parenting. It might frustrate some that there are hardly any solid conclusions or answers, but just a very careful discussion of experiments and facts that separate correlation from causality - sometimes painstakingly. If you are a researcher, you would appreciate it. But regardless of anything, your appreciation and wonder for the miracle of life and the mind-boggling complexity surrounding it would only grow upon reading this book.

Oliver Sacks and his books need no introduction.

Music plays a special role in most of our lives. And sometimes we wonder what role it plays in human evolution. Why does it bring so much happiness and comfort? How do we pull out compositions from the brain and store different notes in the abstractness of our neurons? Why and how do the arrangement of some notes bring so much harmony and appeal? etc.

I expected this book to answer some of these questions, but instead it was a collection of anecdotes of Sacks's interactions with patients who suddenly and (supposedly inexplicably) developed an unusual talent and interest in music after a traumatic brain-related injury, and those with special conditions that perceived music in completely unexpected, different ways. The medical cases and stories were interesting, and they further provide evidence that creativity and talent depend primarily on how our brain cells get wired and connected. I am not sure how I feel about that. Should I literally hope to be struck by lightning so that my brain rearranges itself a little, and I can paint and sing better?

In any case, this was a good read, and if you are interested in music and the brain, you would find this book worth your time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Memorable Books of 2014

Last year was an interesting reading year. I ventured into genres that I previously never imagined exploring, and discovered that good writers and engaging themes exist in every stereotypical genre. It opened up my mind and made me less of a book-snob. By my count, I seem to have read more than 80 books last year, and I kept count hoping that I would eventually gather enough motivation to write about most of them, if not all.  But now, I am only alarmed, because most books in that list were light, fluffy reads and nothing exceptional. When I culled through the list, I was disappointed at the paltry few that stood out as good, decent reads. I realize I am in a phase where I can't handle reading serious books with heavy themes because my brain has taken a (hopefully temporary) reprieve.  How I manage to hold onto semi-logical thoughts through the day, I don't know...

Anyway, so here's a short reflection of my reading, and the few books that stood out.

 I dreaded reading this book. When it garnered rave reviews in 2012, I was skeptical and I put off reading it until I picked it up on a whim.
It's a book that deals with sensitive topics regarding euthanasia, the freedom to choose to end one's life, and the struggles of trying to live life whilst paralyzed and trapped in a wheelchair. An active, intelligent mind only makes this worse. Having worked  and spent considerable time with such population of people, I am especially sensitive to this subject. However, this book and the author surprised me on so many levels. No book thus far has affected me like this one. I am sure it has to do with me personally knowing and losing people who have lived similar lives, but nonetheless, I was really moved by the sensitive handling of all the complex themes. Everything about the book is realistic and honest. Nothing is overdone. Almost every dialog, conversation, and situation reminded me of real interactions I have had, and that shook me and wrung out my heart. If there is one element that could have been explored more, it is the technology aspect. Technology has come a long way (but still needs a lot of research) in empowering the physically challenged population. And because of my background, I was awake at nights thinking of all the ways I would have "helped" the protagonist with the opportunities that technology provides... he could have continued with work, his business, started more initiatives, and done so much more! The fact that I obsessed over this fictitious character as if he were real, and wanted to desperately do what I could to help, shows how well written and well-researched the book is.

And there is humor and wit, without anything being the least bit misplaced or insensitive.

Not everyone will "agree" with how things end. But, this is one reality. A tragically real one at that. I know it exists out there, and I have felt enough anguish from people and families to come close to understanding the helplessness of things. The questions and divergent thoughts the story invokes are several people's sad reality. Morality takes a back seat; compassion and dignity come to the fore.

This is a book that makes you feel and think deep, and really brings in perspective to your own life, making you want to live it to the fullest.


 Classified as Romance, this book is much much more than that.

Amy Harmon writes beautifully in this coming of age story that sounds simple, that seems to address hackneyed themes on beauty/inner-beauty like countless other stories, but this one stands apart. This struck chords within me so deep, there was such resonance. It triggered so many many memories and reminded me of my blessings in life. Maybe the emotional resonance is why I like the book so much.

It is moving and thoughtful, with some extremely beautiful quotes sprinkled throughout the book.

"Have you ever stared at a painting so long that the colors blur and you cannot tell what you're looking at anymore? There's no form, face or shape - just color, just swirls of paint?
I think people are like that. When you really look at them, you stop seeing a perfect nose or straight teeth. You stop seeing the acne scar or the dimple in the chin. Those things start to blur, and suddenly you see them, the colors, the life inside the shell, and beauty takes on a whole new meaning."

That about sums up the book. Parts of it might be unrealistic, but the strong thoughts and emotions it conveys make up for those parts.

What does infidelity mean to us? Is physical infidelity different from emotional infidelity? Is one worse than the other? What if one follows all the "rules" but still blurs the lines of fidelity? When is the spirit of fidelity violated when all the rules are followed to the tee? And is it even possible to equally love two people?

Interesting questions, interesting explorations. I am drawn towards subjects with such gray areas, so no one will be surprised that I found this book to be an absorbing and interesting read all the way until 2/3rds of it. Then it became yet another romance novel and things turned mushy, and everything was tied up neatly, far too neatly in the end. But it's okay, happy endings are good too, and for the most part, things were honest.

I was pleasantly surprised that such topics are being explored in "new adult"/romance genres. Even more refreshing was the fact that there was not much drama in the story, just a lot of angst and introspection, and open communication. Plus, none of the characters were stereotyped - no one is termed pure bad or pure good. Well, the guy is too good to be true - a talented musician/computer programmer with a severe hearing impediment - but, oh well. My heart melted into a puddle at several instances.

All in all, a different, unexpected read. Other books by the same author were not that interesting, though.

Enough with all the angst and sorrow! For an intelligent, hilarious, emotionally moving read, turn to this lovely book. Even Bill Gates recommends it ;)

The premise of the book:
What if someone like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory sets out to scientifically find a wife?

If you are a nerd/geek or are frequently in the company of such specimens, you will appreciate this book all the more. I am a nerd who is almost always surrounded by super smart geeks that make me (unknowingly) feel dumber than rocks, and I'm married to an obsessively logical nerd. So, it is an understatement to say I could appreciate every line of the book. I deeply, deeply appreciated and empathized!

This is not just a fun read. It is intelligently written to explore topics on identity, acceptance, and the hilarity of social structures and stigmas.

This is a combination of light and deep read - if that makes any sense. You can dig deep through simple lines, if you choose to, or just enjoy the craziness of Prof Don!


And finally, onto something that totally falls under the guilty-pleasure-reading category. Yes, these books are unapologetically romantic, but so very different from the usual angst-ridden, nauseatingly irritating ones.

No one would believe me, but until 2014, I'd never read more than 2 romance novels in my life (well, if you discount Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte). I hated them with a passion. I wanted to burn most of them. Yet, last year, I happened to fall back on the comforting fantastical notion of rainbows and unicorns to escape my reality for a little while. And I somehow discovered Julie Garwood, laughed my way through the first book, and got hooked. Humor along with romance seems to be my cup of tea. After all those Wodehousian years, it's not much of a surprise...

Julie Garwood writes romances that balance all the elements I enjoy. There is plenty of humor, strong-willed, intelligent (yet flaky) heroines that boldly speak their minds to hilariously gruff warriors and pirates, lots of heart, warmth, some intrigue, witty and humorous dialogues, enjoyable characters, and good writing. This is like my perfect recipe for chocolate cake.

If you read one book, you pretty much know the rest, because yes, they do follow a "recipe" of sorts. But just like you resort to your well-worn, fail-proof recipe when you crave for a piece of chocolate cake, I resort to Julie Garwood when I need a dose of fantasy every couple of weeks. I know what to expect, and yet there are enough differences and a decent plot to provide a truly satisfying read. And don't worry if you are a feminist - you would find these acceptable too ;).

I have read around 11 books of hers so far, but if I had to pick, the above three (The Gift, The Secret, and The Bride) would be my top 3 favorites. I laughed out loud in the middle of the night and woke the house while reading them. And I wonder whom I'm reminded of when I read about flaky, accident-prone, absent-minded women with a pitiable sense of direction...

Hopefully I read better books in 2015!