A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

Title: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary
Writer : Anonymous
Published: 1945
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

 

There are countless books written about World War 2 – some are historically accurate while some are fictional accounts. Most of these books highlight the sufferings of the Holocaust victims, which is absolutely needed. Very rarely do we get a glimpse of people on the other side of the war – the Germans. Anne Frank’s diary gave us insights into the atrocities carried out against the Jews and how the general mass stepped up to help the Jews in whatever way they can. This book is a diary of a woman who lives in Berlin and her ordeal at the hands of Russians, long after the war was won by the Allies.

The author remains anonymous to the world, but we know she lived in East Germany, wherein women have made attics and basements their homes to protect themselves from airstrikes as they wait for something worse – Russians conquering Berlin and pillaging the city. The book chronicles the fear as the women wait for Russians to land at their doorstep, the disgust at witnessing the pillaging and rape which the Russian soldiers recklessly carry out and the bravery they show to going to any extent for survival, including striking deals with the soldiers. While the West Germany was conquered by sophisticated enemy of Britain and US, the East Germany people were not so fortunate as they were taken over by the hooligan Russians, most of them being illiterate and rustic.

The author strikes as a woman who is extremely self-aware of her own strengths and weaknesses and the bleak situation she is going to face. The writing is beautiful and tugs at your heart. I knew what to expect from this book – the violence, rapes, starvation, deaths – but this book still left me speechless. The levels to which a human can stoop to took me completely by surprise (or shock). This is not an easy read, definitely not a light one, as the book stays with you long after you have stopped reading it and one needs some time to come out of this painful phase.

Out of all the numerous World War 2 related books, this book stands out for the perspective it brings and its excellent prose. The book is grim and casts a cloud gloom on the reader, but this still remains a very important read.

Entry #3 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020
Entry #2 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

Title: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
Writer : Lori Gottlieb
Published: 2019
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4.5 on 5

Human psychology has always held a special interest for me and it was only natural that I picked up this book as soon as I read the blurb. Lori Gottlieb is a TV writer turned psychotherapist. As a practising psychotherapist, she witnesses the various reasons one can become anxious, addicted, depressed or suicidal in life. While Gottlieb could have stuck to describing these encounters, she instead puts herself in her patient’s shoes and describes her experience as a depressed soul seeking soul nourishing therapy. And this interspersal of her narrating as a therapist and as a patient is what makes this book so engaging and relatable.

Gottlieb goes through a bitter breakup with someone who she dreamt of marrying and this leaves her shattered and depressed. She continues to counsel as a therapist, but denies the deep rooted truth that she too needs to see one to get over her grief. What starts as a therapy session to get over her boyfriend turns into an eye opening series of discussions with her therapist which ends up with Gottlieb facing some bitter truth of her life.

I have seen a couple of therapists and psychiatrists in my life and none of these sessions came anywhere close to the kind of insightful, meaningful discussions Gottlieb has with her patients and her own therapist. The journey of her patients – especially the one who is facing her imminent death and is coming to terms with it – is such an emotional roller coaster that the reader starts cheering for every small win the patient makes and feels totally torn when they veer off the therapy track. This book re-convinced me that therapy is a much needed addition to anybody’s life, not necessarily the depressed and the oppressed ones. And it also helped me realize that the reason my therapy sessions weren’t that beneficial was because I haven’t found the right therapist for me yet.

The book pulls at your heart as the reader make a strong bond with every of Gottlieb’s patients, Gottlieb herself and even her therapist. To see therapist’s troubled past and how he deals with it while counseling Gottlieb is something I found interesting.

With all the troubled pasts and depressed patients, one might assume that this book makes for a heavy read, but it is anything but that. Gottlieb’s writing style is casual and breezy and this makes the book a very easy read. There might be places where you put the book aside and ponder over Gottlieb’s words, which happened often with me.

2020 has started on a high note for me, when it comes to reading (and reviewing – a review after a whole year!). Hope it only gets better from here.

Entry #1 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020.

 

 

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Title: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Writers: Ashlee Vance
Published: 2015
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
My Rating: 3 on 5

Elon Musk needs no introduction. He is almost always in the news for both right and wrong reasons, and the latter, more often than not. I am a fan of his vision, his larger-than-life ambitions and his fearlessness. I decided to read this book for two reasons – to know what kind of a life Musk led before he came into the spotlight and also to understand what makes him, him. While the book did give a glimpse of his life and answered my first question, it barely answered the second one.

Ashlee Vance gives a brief account of Musk’s life – his carefree parents, troublesome childhood due to getting bullied, strong bonding with his siblings, his strong urge to move to the US, and the trigger for his entrepreneurship and the eventual founding of companies. He intersperses this with the current happenings in Musk’s life, so this does not follow the chronological order. Vance also tries to explain the troubled relationships Musk has had with his spouses. In short, this book gives us a pretty good idea on how Musk’s life has been.

Vance also touches upon some of the behaviors which is scrutinized by the world. Musk’s recklessness in taking risks, in pushing people to an extent that they reach a breaking point and in being a total control freak. Musk dreams big and so do many visionaries. What makes Musk stand apart is proclaiming to the world on when he is going to achieve that dream even before having a first cut plan on how to achieve it. On multiple instances, Musk has announced release dates and his team had to run amok to meet that date. Setting up aggressive schedules is one thing, but what Musk does is suicidal. He is constantly pushing the team to the brink of breaking with his cold behavior which borders on being abusive.

Vance almost hero worships Musk and such a person cannot do justice to a biography. Even when Vance is discussing Musk’s questionable behavior with his first wife, it is as if Vance is defending Musk’s behavior. Musk is sometimes horrible to his employees and Vance has to say something justifying that. Vance does say he refused to let Musk read this book before publishing, but it certainly looks likes someone edited this book heavily before it hit the press. This book reads like a big list of justification defending Musk’s objectionable behavior.

Vance’s commentary and the numerous interviews barely give a glimpse of why Musk does what he does. And this is my main issue with this book. Musk’s voice is completely missing. I understand this is a biography and not an autobiography, but there is always a way to bring out the inner voice of the person in question. This book is like shadowing Musk and going around watching what he is doing, but what I wanted was to get into his mind to see what was going on. Why does he care so much for the human race that he goes to the extent of setting up a colony in Mars as an alternative world, but is abusive to his wife and demeans his employees who work for him? What kind of an empathy is this that you care for the overall race, but treat the individuals like slaves? What kind of a human  celebrates life but chides his employee for missing work to witness the birth of his child?

I still am a fan of Musk’s vision and his larger-than-life ideas. But a fan of this book, I am not. I will wait for the day when Musk decides to write his autobiography.

 

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Open by Andre Agassi

Title: Open
Writer : Andre Agassi
Published: 2009
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

Andre Agassi was the first tennis player who I came to admire from the time I learnt what tennis is. I remember watching the first tennis match of Agassi with his bandanna (so fitting that I don’t recall who his opponent was) and rooting for this guy without even knowing his name. There was something about Agassi – his passion, his resilience to not quit and more than anything his vulnerability (he lost that match) was so attractive. I went on to become his fan.

Agassi is honest and transparent in his autobiography. His life is like an open book (heh), so I don’t need to delve into what part of life he covers and what he leaves out. Starting with his early childhood days of growing up under a strict father who put Agassi into a very rigorous training – so rigorous that Agassi starts hating tennis. His teenage years of fighting with himself and the world, getting wild haircuts and attires just to be invisible, which the world thought was to gain attention – this journey is so heart wrenching. Agassi recalls every critical match in his life and dissects it with a retrospective view and comes up with reasons on why he lost matches and why he won some. It is so difficult to digest that Agassi lost some really pivotal matches in his life. And it all comes down to the player’s state of mind. A player can predict how the match will go based on just one’s own state of mind. To see the happenings in the player’s mind, up close, coming straight from the horse’s mouth is incredible.

Agassi explains a tennis match in such a beautiful way, by comparing it to life.

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.

Despite the rich and stardom status, Agassi was always grounded. There are so many instances in the book where he came across as an average human being and reached out and helped others and not throw his weight around. His own struggle when his coach’s child is fighting with a life threatening disease shows how close he is to his “team” and treats them as family more than anything.

For someone who breathes, eat, sleeps and lives tennis and whose life was made by that very sport, Agassi’s hatred towards tennis is hard to believe. He really means it when he says he hates tennis – reiterated multiple times all through the book.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

I play and keep playing because I choose to play. Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.

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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!

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

What I have been upto

Before some people start wondering if I am dead or haven’t read a book in a long time, let me come out in the open and say neither of it is true. I am pretty much alive and I have been reading quite a lot. Since time is a luxury these days, I prefer to use up whatever little time I get to read books rather than blog about them.

Non-fiction

Of late, I have taken an interest in broadening my culinary field, so I read a couple of books on food. Eating India by Chitrita Banerji is about her travel all over India in order to experience the varied culinary styles of the subcontinent. She has packed in quite a few states. It is not complete, but for those interested in knowing India’s culinary history, this is a good book. Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by the much renowned Madhur Jaffrey was a letdown for me. Nothing interesting or innovative – the same, mundane recipes. I realized later that the book is not intended for native Indians but for those who want to learn cooking the Indian way. Chandra Padmanabhan’s Simply South is a much better book. Lots of sambhar, rasam, rice, dosa recipes. I tried the recipe for rasam powder from this book and it turned out really well.

Another book that needs special mention here is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. A book that is so hyped up, I don’t see the point why. Yes, it is a good book, no denying that, but what is with all the hype? It is about the author’s journey to three different nations (one of which is India) and her discovery of self, true love et al. I totally loved the author’s writing style – witty and riveting, but the book was so-so.

Fiction

I realized I had been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, so I decided to stuff in more fiction books. I chose popular books since I don’t have time to explore and read reviews and then choose books. Some popular books I read are The Bell Jar, The Lord of the Flies, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Road (yeah, I hadn’t read that!). The Bell Jar by Syliva Plath was so dark, I found myself in depression for a few days after reading that book. The Lord of the Flies was better. I liked the writing syle of William Golding and all the metophoric ‘stuff’ in that book. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a short and sweet book and my first Truman Capote, so I am looking forward to reading In Cold Blood. But The Road was a total let down. I don’t know why I don’t like these kind of books which every other person seems to like. The writing was too descriptive and the book was too long for me. Here, I said it out loud, I didn’t like The Road. Sue me.

After thoroughly enjoying The Secret Life of Bees, I picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair with a lot of expectations and was sadly disappointed. The book did nothing to me. It is supposed to be about a woman realizing her self and identitiy and what not, but really, I prefer the first book, thank you. I picked up Kim Edward’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter on an impulse and this has been the best book of this lot. Intersting story and simple writing, touching and mildly disturbing – I liked this book.

So, this is what I have been upto. How about you?

A Certain Ambiguity – Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal

Ever wondered if there is any connection between mathematics and God? What if I say, the existence of God can be proved or disproved mathematically? The book ‘A Certain Ambiguity’ explores something similar.

The book follows the life of an Indian mathematician and tries to draw parallels between maths and faith and life, in general. While the story and the characters are fictional, the intriguing mathematical proofs are as real as you and I are. The famous Pythagorean theorem, the Euclidean geometry find a place in this book. What occupies the most part of the book is infinity. I had never thought of infinity in terms of an infinity being bigger or smaller than another infinity. The book taught me a lot about infinity and maths in general, which I didn’t know. Was I sleeping through my math class when my teacher covered these?

When I picked up this book, I never expected it to be a page-tuner. For the readers who have forgotten basic math, the authors have thankfully included an introduction to all basic concepts wherever necessary. Anybody having any inclination towards mathematics will love this book. The proofs are beautiful. Even for those who hated maths in school, that non-mathematical part of the book will be interesting. Characters, story, style of writing don’t matter, atleast didn’t matter to me. The very question of ‘Can you prove or disprove mathematically that God exists?’ is intriguing enough for anybody to pick up the book, what say?

Does the book answer that question? Well, that is for you to find out. It might not give you a page of equations which leads to the proof, but it does answer in some way. Only if you think so. You will know what I mean when you read the book.

This book reminds me of another book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, in which the author apparently proves that God does not exist. Has anyone read that book?