Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

Title: Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve
Writer : Ben Blatt
Published: 2017
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

If you love statistics and you love books, this book is a must-read for you. Blatt digs into numerous books – some classics, some contemporary, some bestsellers and some fan-fiction and churns numbers to answer many interesting questions.

Blatt starts with an anecdote in which two scholars use statistics to determine the authors of essays published anonymously. While these scholars had painstakingly manually mined the data in those years, Blatt achieves the same by writing a program to mine the data. He confirms what was claimed by scholars years earlier. Using this as a base, he expands his program to mine books to answer some interesting questions.

We have all heard about using adverbs sparingly, but did Ernest Hemingway really follow his own advice? Blatt mines Hemingway’s books and confirms that Hemingway did stick to his own advice. Blatt also realizes that men write a lot about men and little about women, but women authors do not discriminate. How many authors use cliches and how often? Is the writing style different for British and American authors? Which author uses the most exclamation points and in which book? And of course, the question which the book title answers – what is the author’s favorite word? These are some of the questions which Blatt answers in this book.

Some questions/answers are more interesting than others, but the whole book keeps you engaged. Given the nature of the chapter, you can read these chapters in any order. Blatt details out his data sample (what books are considered and what are not), justifies his choice and explains the technique he used. He makes it very clear what data he is after and how he achieved the results. His idea of mining fan fiction works for some of the question is genius.

The book is not set out to teach you writing techniques or make you a bestseller author overnight. This book answers some of the questions any book reader would have wondered one time or the other. I wish the book was longer and hope the author is planning on a second book already. I wonder what questions he is going to answer next!

Save

Save

The Chimp Paradox

Title: The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness
Writers : Steve Peters
Published: 2012
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help
My Rating: 4 on 5

With so many self-help books on the market (on the library shelf, in this particular incident),¬† I was wary of picking up this one which claimed to help me achieve ‘success, confidence and happiness’ all at once. I flipped through the pages right there in the library as I was curious to know how the author plans to do this. As I started reading the first chapter, I was hooked. And the book naturally came home with me.

Steve Peters is a well-known psychiatrist who is said to have helped many sportspeople in managing their minds which helped them win Olympic medals. Peters starts off with explaining that our mind is made up of two parts – Human (the logical part) and Chimp (the emotional, irrational part). He uses some real-life incidents to explain how we react and behave depending on whether Human or Chimp is in control. He also creates a ‘Computer’ which contains basic autopilots on how you will behave depending on your past experiences. Peters also introduces Gremlins and Goblins which are some undesired behaviors/autopilots which the Chimp has installed in the Computer. He also introduces some moons of confidence and whatnot, which to be honest was a bit too much for me.

There is nothing new in what Peters puts forth – we all know there is a rational and irrational part in us and we behave differently depending on which part is pulling the strings. But the way Peters creates two images – Human and Chimp – and explains when each one of these are in control is eye-opening. He suggests some exercises at the end of the chapters which really help. He goes on to explain the differences between Goblins and Gremlins and how we need the moon of confidence and happiness to balance the solar system. This is where I lost interest and I just flipped the pages to get it over with.

I have always had a problem with anger and I have tried quite a few things to manage it. With the help of exercises in the book, I realized my Chimp is much more in control than my Human (no surprises there) and I learnt how to handle my Chimp. I can feel the anger rising up in me but immediately my Human comes into picture and the Chimp goes to a corner and gets busy eating a banana. I have started feeling calmer and less angry ever since I started practicing this. I have taught a trick or two to my 8-year old son too and I see it working with him as well.

This book does not offer any groundbreaking theory or solution – there is nothing new which we don’t know already. But the book works because it has laid out commonly known facts in simple terms and it offers practical solutions to handle situations. I have been going ga-ga over this book and ‘Human’, ‘Chimp’ and ‘Banana’ have become part of our common lingo at my family these days.

 

 

Save

Save

When Breath Becomes Air

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Writers : Paul Kalanithi
Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and who passed away at a very young age due to lung cancer. This book is a record of his short but fruitful life and his brave journey of staring death in its face until he finally embraced it. Kalanithi was an English Major with his goal set on getting into literature and becoming a writer. He was interested in knowing what makes humans think, where do brain and mind connect and during the course of his life, changes his direction from writing to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi ponders about this role as a surgeon when he has to make decisions which could cost or save a life. He also wonders how surgeons are bearers of bad news – patients are informed about their terminal illness and relatives are informed about the death of their loved ones. He sees the mysterious working of human brain when he meets patients who speak only in numbers or who appear to be in another world altogether.

When Kalanithi is in his final year of residency with dreams in his eyes of making it big in the medical world, life gives him a wake-up call as cancer comes knocking on his door. Even as a doctor, he can’t help but live in denial that it is not cancer but some stray pain in the body. When the news is confirmed, Kalanithi is devastated and so is his wife, but as doctors, they immediately kick into a action mode. They consult the best oncologist and thus begins Kalanithi’s treatment.

Death may be a one time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

This book has no spoilers – we all know Kalanithi dies. The journey from turning from a neurosurgeon into a cancer patient and the moral questions that he asks and answers on the way is the meat of this book. During his first visit to this oncologist, all he wants to know is how much time does he have to live. His doctor refuses to answer that and instead veers him to look at his values and live by them. Kalanithi has plans in life.

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?

There is no self pity or melodrama in Kalanithi’s voice. It comes straight from the heart and touches yours. The afterword by Kalanithi’s wife is heart breaking. I cried and sobbed while reading her chapter.

Does this book answer questions on morality? Not really. But Kalanithi does show us how to live life fully, no matter how short it is. He also shows how to die – staring death right into its face and embracing it with a smile.

Save

H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.

10% Happier


Title: 10% Happier
Writers : Dan Harris
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

The name of the book is actually “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”, but it is too long, so I call it “10% Happier”.

This book is written by Dan Harris who is a TV news anchor with ABC News. Dan faces a humiliating panic attack on national television (which goes unnoticed by many) which is a pivotal point in his life which forces him to find a way to handle the stress in his life as well as find answers to some philosophical and ethical questions. When Dan is asked to cover spirituality for ABC, he naturally starts his quest in the spiritual world.

The book chronicles Dan’s journey through the world of meditation which¬† starts with him reading Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ as part of his new assignment. He tries meditating and being mindful and what starts as an attempt has him hooked. Dan goes on to interview some big names like Deepak Chopra and Dalai Lama (of course, Tolle too) and probes them in answering questions on how to control our emotions and stress and how to achieve enlightenment and so on. He even goes on a 10 day Vipasana silent retreat.

Dan’s writing is engaging and funny at times. The tone is casual and I felt an instant connect when Dan says he wanted to call this book ‘My inner voice is an asshole’. Instead of taking on a preachy tone (which many self-help books tend to do), Dan writes straight from the heart which makes it slightly easier to take in what he has to say.

There are many pause-and-ponder moments throughout the book. A quote from the spiritual gurus or an observation by Dan or a reference for a book – my Kindle is full of highlights and notes for this book.

Coming to the name of the book – there is no data backing up Dan’s claim that meditation has made him 10% Happier. This is his answer when someone asks him why he meditates.

If you are looking for a how-to on meditation and it benefits, this book is probably not it. Dan has provided instructions and FAQ for newbie meditators, but this is definitely not a how-to-meditate book. It is a funny, fast reading book on a man’s experience of how he found meditation beneficial.

Start With Why

Title: Start With Why
Writers : Simon Sinek
Published: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

Like many others, I picked up this book after watching Simon Sinek’s TED talk. The 20-minutes talk had me hooked and I wanted to read more about the Golden Circle. Simon extends his talk to a full fledged book (or is it the other way around?) and builds on the essence of his talk: start with why.

Simon gives many examples of companies (and people) who have a clear definition of why they exist and how they went on to achieve success. He also gives examples of how companies lost their definition and fell off the wagon. We hear about Apple and Steve Jobs (repeated so many times that it hurts) and why Apple is so successful because they know why they exist (to break away from the tradition). Simon also talks about Martin Luther King and how he was able to influence such a large population to follow him – with a clear sense of why he was doing it. The Golden Circle is explained well in the book – start from why and then how you are going to achieve that and then the what part of it.

The first few chapters are really interesting. This is where I introspected and wondered about “my why”. I was looking forward to more such insights in the coming chapters, but sadly, they were more or less a repitition. Simon goes on and on and on about the same things: Apple, Martin Luther King and it gets well, repititive. The writing style is more like talking and that does not make it a good read. Simon could have easily chopped off half the book without losing any message.

Bottom line: Ditch the book and watch the video.

 

Lean In

Title: Lean In
Writers : Sheryl Sandberg
Published: 2013
Genre: Non Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

Around a year back, everybody I know had read this book and was talking about it. It was as if the world was taken up by a storm and everywhere I see, I was seeing references to this book. I read the blurb of this book and I was intrigued. As a working woman (and a working mother), I wanted to know what advice Sheryl Sandberg had to give me and so I bought the book.

Sandberg starts off with the facts that we already know. Women are underpaid, the man-woman ratio in the corporate industry is pathetic and working women play a tug of war between home and work. It was somewhat consoling to know that the COO of Facebook faces the same kind of issues that an average woman faces. What I really wanted to know is how she tackles them.

From the point of view of solving these issues, I don’t see this book being very useful. Sandberg shares her issues and insecurities and tells us how she dealt with them, but just like with most things in life, these are very subjective and may not work for everybody. I cringed when I read that a woman would make her kids sleep in school-wear to save 15 mins in the morning. Does it work? May be. Would I do it? No way. Also, having a spouse who is more flexible than you are and also affordable and reliable childcare is not available for everybody. In India, even if I am ready to spend on childcare, it is difficult to find one which is trustworthy. Mainly because there are no strict regulations for day care centers and even if they are, they aren’t really followed. These are some issues that no Sandberg can solve.

Some of the things that Sandberg mentions are eye-openers. Not speaking up in meetings, tending to stay behind shadows, not negotiating for salary hard enough and so on. She also talks about how it is acceptable to switch jobs even when you are or planning to be pregnant. She might be open minded enough to hire a pregnant woman (and Marissa Mayer for switching jobs), but not all organizations are like that. I personally know of a case where a woman’s offer letter was withdrawn when they realized she is pregnant. Of course, no organization is dumb enough to cite this as a reason, but this still happens.

Sandberg comes across as someone who thinks a woman’s life is valued as long as she is working or doing something worthwhile like charity. I take an issue with this. A woman can just be at home, cooking and cleaning and taking care of kids and still be valued, as long as that is what the woman wants to do.

While I didn’t really get all the answers I was looking for, I was glad to know women all over the world are constantly battling the same issues that I am. It gives me some solace that I am not alone. I would recommend this book to every woman, working or otherwise. You can always take away something from this book.