Truth be said, I read far fewer books in March than I did in January. This is because of a combination of being away from base, being busy at work and simply reading books slower. However, over the last couple of months, I did manage to read a few interesting books. After I finished some of these books, I wanted to write long posts about them and these never materialised, so I thought it better to just leave short blurbs and impressions and who knows maybe that might interest you to explore them further?
The only non-fiction in the collection: River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
It’s hard to describe this book. A work of non-fiction, it is a meditation on life and the universe. Maybe that is a boring description. The River of Consciousness is a series of essays by Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist but not just. In his grasp of various subjects, Sacks seemed more the man of the Renaissance than the scientists of today, ever concentrating on narrower and narrower specialisations. The book is a collection of essays published posthumously and they range from talking about Darwin, botany and evolution; remembering and forgetting in scientific theories; speed of perception and action; and even a humorous short essay on mishearing things. One things that Sacks writes about and that I have personal experience with is the ‘subconscious creative self’. It’s where you let things stew in your head for a while before either getting to work on them or for the solution to hit you when you’re falling asleep or waking up. These days when I’m about to embark on longer or slightly challenging writing projects (and if I have the luxury of time), I often gather all the base materials, read through them carefully and then go on to do something else for a few days before coming back to work on that original project. I do feel better placed to tackle whatever is ahead of me as I think my brain has chewed on this problem subconsciously whilst I’ve been doing more mundane things.
There were loads of things that I learnt from this book- how Darwin was a keen botanist and published many books on Botany that furthered his selection theory. He was essentially the one who pointed out that flowers cross-pollinated. Until then people thought flowers self-pollinated. Another interesting factoid was about how the opening of Das Rheingold came to Wagner as he was falling asleep. Leaving all the negative associations of Wagner aside, the opening to the Rheingold is just a brilliantly layered piece of music. I cannot remember the number of times I have churned out essays and papers listening to Lorin Maazel’s intepretation of the Ring cycle ‘The ring without words’. It’s almost as if the creative genius that fuelled the musician and flowed into music further kept fuelling others who listened to for ages hence.
There were many, many things I liked about this book but one particular quote stood out:
“Magnolias, my mother explained, were among the most ancient of flowering plants and had appeared nearly a hundred million years ago, at a time when “modern” insects like bees had not yet evolved. So they had to rely on a more ancient insect, a beetle, for pollination. Bees and butterflies, flowers with colours and scents, were not pre-ordained, waiting in the wings and they might never have appeared. They would develop together, in infinitesimal stages, over millions of years.”
Book 2: Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
“If that’s what you’re willing to do for someone you hate, what would you do for someone you love?”
That question is at the centre of this futuristic space opera. When was the last time we could not fall in love with something non-human like a spaceship’s AI behaving infinitely human? I was blown away by the book which worked on so many different levels- as a simple love story where the protagonist is eventually avenging a loved one to a hard core science fiction space novel.
One thing that struck me when I read the book was how the central culture in the novel assimilated various subsidiary deities and religions (from conquered lands) into its Pantheon and I thought its treatment remarkably similar to how Romans treated their subjects. When I read a Q&A with the author at the back of the book, turns out the author had also had the exact same inspiration. Way to go!
Book 3: Invisible Planets by Ken Liu
What we English readers often fail to realise is that there is literally a literary universe out there that is not crafted in English or the English literary tradition. There is a wealth of stories, materials and ideas out there chiseled out by individual cultural and literary traditions. A few works get translated but the majority remain out of our reach. Ken Liu (translator of Cixin Liu’s Three Body books and sci-fi author in his own right) has published a collection of Chinese science fiction. My favourite stories included ‘The Night Journey of the Dragon Horse’- an eerie end of the world story when a mechanical dragon outlives its creators and ‘Folding Beijing’- truly a remarkable story and an amazingly original idea.
Incidentally, the dragon horse story has a real life inspiration (and it looks amazing)
So what have you been reading lately? Do you have any recommendations?