A Book That Everyone Should Read: Angie Thomas

It’s about Seven. Sekani. Kenya. DeVante. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s also about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

The messed-up part? There are so many more.

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For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to start reading Angie Thomas’ timely masterpiece The Hate U Give. Having read quite a bit about police violence in US and seen the tape of the horrifying shooting of Philando Castile, I knew I was going to cry throughout the book. Even though the book is conceptually very different it reminded me of Malala Yousafzai autobiography in the tone of horrible things seen and described through the eyes of a young girl. This incredibly powerful story of Starr whose friend gets shot by police officer is both eye-opening and heart wrenching and is most definitely far from one-sided. It is an acute portrait of ugliness of racism and violence that at the same time manages to be thoughtful and implicit letting the reader understand the bigger picture through Starr’s experiences. Angie Thomas is Harper Lee of our time and this book is an absolute must read for everybody.

A Book That Everyone Should Read: Naomi Alderman

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I can’t even begin to describe the impact that reading The Power by Naomi Alderman had on me (and I am sure I am not alone). I would even go as far as to predict that this book will become a classic that will keep on being discussed for many decades.

The main premise is the following: at some point teenage girls start experiencing the ability to strike someone with the electricity thanks to the new organ they developed. This new development than leads to complete re-definition of the gender norms on unprecedented scale.

The point that the book is making in the incredible clever and spot-on manner is that the inequality is about power and it has absolutely nothing to do with race or gender by default. I read lots of angry counter arguments to the book stating that if power dynamics were switched women would never ever be so violent or power hungry. But I believe that truth of the matter is when there is an opportunity, means and societal approval people are ready shift their morals surprisingly quickly.

In my opinion, the problem we have nowadays is not there is a better race or gender for politics, computer science or battle against climate change, it is the disproportional representation of people with the certain kind of opinion in the position of power. And what Ms Alderman illustrates wonderfully by the means of extremely readable fiction is that true equality is not that women and minorities can in principle do whatever they want, true equality is the proportional representation of all humans in all the relevant position of power.

2017 in Books

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For me 2017 was all about reading bit out of my comfort zone and expanding my genre horizons. Even though it was fun and I found some delightful books, I am looking forward to go back to my line-up of contemporary fiction in 2018.

The most remarkable fiction I read last year was definitely Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (the book that takes some of the most twisted racial prejudices to extreme consequences in a rather satirical manner – even though the author himself doesn’t like the book to be labelled as a satire). Apart from the fact that The Sellout will make you laugh and cry at the same time, this book is one of the best ways of making a point I have ever seen in any context. Another fiction book I liked, as disturbing as it is, is Han Kang’s Vegetarian (I wrote bit about it here).

I tried to get into sci-fi this year, and some classics like Dune took my breath away, some others, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, completely annoyed me by its blatant sexism (sure in 50 years the travel across the galaxy will be possible, but having a woman engineer would be absurd). The sci-fi book published in 2017 that I absolutely loved is John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire, which is very political and seriously funny space opera with a cast of diverse super interesting characters. I am already looking forward to the follow-up to be published in 2019.

I also read number of biographies (I really wanted to mention Al Franken here, but well… I guess that the book itself is still interesting enough if you feel like reading it). I loved Trevor Noah and Tiffany Haddish books that are both super funny and inspiring.

The annoyed-me-the-most in 2017 is split between Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus and Brian Green’s Light Falls. Yuval Harari wrote a book about a species that Homo Sapiens will develop into due to the artificial intelligence revolution. While the book is making some good points and somehow landed on the reputable recommended reading lists, I was constantly annoyed by the over-simplification and superficiality of many of the arguments. To give Mr. Harari the benefit of the doubt, I think that often he plays the devil’s advocate on purpose (he likes to make a point that the problem with Capital not becoming reality is that the capitalists can read). So I guess that his argument that liberal values only make sense in the world where each member of the society is needed to contribute to GDP might be meant as a provocation of the similar type. Then again, it was a week of rage at the over-generalization that is a direct consequence of selectively picking certain claims about artifical intelligence and creating a false narrative.

When comes to Brian Green’s book, let me just say is it really okay in 2000something write stuff like: Einstein was stressed because Hilbert was closing in on him and he had to deal with angry outbursts of his wife while facing the pressure to marry his mistress. Really?

Let me finish with honorable mentions of other great books that I warmly recommend: Hope Jahren: Lab Girl (thoughtful and beautiful memoir of a biologist), Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (super cool popular science book), Andy Weir: The Martian (perfect nerdy sci-fi).

Non-fiction corner

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In general, I am a huge fan of literary classics and a contemporary fiction, and I spend most of my time reading it. Lately, I tried to extend my literary horizons by adding some new biographies and non-fiction books into this years reading list. I wasn’t disappointed and enjoyed throughly some contemporary perspectives from talented individuals with fresh and eye-opening points of view.

Let me start with Giant of the Senate by Al Franken, which is genuine and funny autobiography of the junior Minnesota senator. There is many funny stories making the book light and super entertaining read, but at the same time he doesn’t come out as a person who is living his life just to create a lot of funny stories about himself. There are underlying ideas and standpoints strongly present and Al seems like a person who genuinely wants to make the world a better place (I guess the fact that I happen to personally agree with much of his political ideology kind of helps there:)). Of course, he is little bit full of himself, but at the same time he is able to make fun of himself and also convey very strongly motivations for his political stands and principles.  At the moment, I am reading another of his books, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which he wrote during the Bush administration before he became a senator and I must say I find it to be an extraordinary piece of political satire and if you ever been frustrated with Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly reading it definitely brings a lot of humorous relieve..

Another memoir I read recently was Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. In this book Trevor concentrates on his growing up in South Africa during apartheid and right after it was dismantled. Even though he is still his usual funny self, he shows much more serious side in his book and well, most of his experiences are extremely chilling. Reading about the ‘perfect racism’ of apartheid is extremely scary… and then you get sad and scared even more when you realise that there is still way too many people around the world who subscribe to those points of view (which for some reason become somehow acceptable if you deviate just slightly enough from appalling apartheid rules). I must say that I found mostly admirable how he dealt with the difficult situations he was put in and found the book overall great and worth reading.

New book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, is a pure pleasure to read (or listen to, which is what I did, since Neil narrates the recording himself). I have been raving on this blog about how great job is American Museum of Natural History doing in making science fun and accessible and Neil of course contributes to that greatly. He has wonderful storytelling skills and cool ways to explain science without unnecessary trivialisations. As a physicist I am always wary reading popular books about physics, because there is only so many popular explanations of entanglement I can take, but this book was an overall pleasant surprise. Well, I’m not an astrophysicist, so maybe some of them would beg to differ. But I really liked the science explanations (even the LIGO detection of gravitational waves was included!), and while I don’t necessarily agree with all Neil’s philosophical points of view I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to everyone, a scientist or not.

Finally, I read Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. This was definitely the lightest of this portion of my non-fiction reads content-wise, but still interesting, serious and sufficiently scientific investigation of how the newest technology is impacting the human relationships. Aziz is a great writer and the studies presented seemed serious enough to me, even though I don’t have experience in social science. The conclusion presented is basically this: while we are in much better position to find a partner that is a right match for us compared to the generation of our (grand)parents, we get overwhelmed with the amount of choice and put much less effort into actually cultivating relationships with the people we meet. So while our parents had to make a choice about a spouse from a very small set of people, they were generally valuing the relationship more and tried to put more effort into making it work (because, well, that was the person they were supposed to be stuck with for the rest of their life), we tend to dismiss people based on tinder photo or weird text and never talk to them again.

In addition to this I am re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird mostly because I feel like everyone around me keeps quoting Atticus Finch and I barely remember any details from the story since high school, so I feel perhaps I didn’t appreciate it enough as a teenager and want to give it deeper look.

Some book recommendations

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In full honesty, this post is just going to be random mixture of everything from sci-fi to non fiction. I just read some amazing books last couple of months, so I wanted to create a short recommendation list.

First and foremost, I finally got around to read Dune by Frank Herbert. And while I’m not a huge sci-fi reader, this is just wow! There no words for how good it is. It is extremely captivating story in the very well imagined universe and it’s just pure pleasure to read. Of course, there is this typical sexism thing, but I suppose that’s just a problem of the genre. Luckily there are more and more contemporary books lacking this staple feature. Now I feel like someone who never watched Star Wars and then realized sometimes around fiftieth birthday that the original movies are actually great. This is not just a book that defined a genre but also an absolute must-read.

Next on the list comes The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  It was first published in 1899 and it’s one of the first books of feminist literature. They call it American Madame Bovary for a reason. The story is actually pretty similar, but somehow more real. The main heroine suffocated by the bluntness and boredom of her marriage finds unexpected intellectual stimulation when she falls for young man. Somehow, this book is not a story of an affair, it’s the story of self realization and (not) coming to terms with social and intellectual confinement.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Now super famous winner of Booker Prize in 2016 will most probably make you sick and give you nightmares but at the same time you won’t be able to stop reading. It’s deeply sexual story of insanity and desire competing with the binding traditions. It’s mad and disturbing but also kind of wonderful. One of the most unusual books I have ever read.

We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang is very carefully researched account of events that led to everything that happened in Ferguson in 2014 and also offers broader perspective on US resegregation. It precisely describes the fragility of our historical moment and remarkable perspective on race in general.

Last book I’d like to mention is The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. It’s and absolutely fascinating debut novel that offers a look at the small Irish town amid the country’s financial collapse. The story is put together like a jigsaw puzzle from an inner monologues of inhabitants of the town. It’s brutal and honest perspective at what Europe might be becoming since financial crisis.

Happy reading!

Best books I read this year

Let me start by saying that my picks below were not necessarily published this year, rather they are the books I got around to read in 2016 and I loved them so much that I wanted to make a record of it.

If you want a comprehensive list of the best books published in 2016, I would direct you to the great picks of the Book Riot podcast or this really cool list of The Washington Post.

I have to put two (or five, depends on how you count) books that are very different from each other, but left equally significant mark in my memory at the first place. These two books are the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is a series of four books published in english (translation by Ann Goldstein) between 2012 and 2015. The incredibly honest portrait of lifelong friendship has been a sensation in the literary world and I am forever grateful that I finally decided to read it. It is the sort of book(s) that can be immediately recognised as a masterpiece that will be obligatory to read at schools in, say, 20 years from now. And students will complain about the jungle of characters and length like they do about Dostoyevski. On one hand, the books have this heavy perfection of classic literary mastery (speaking of Fjodor, not unlike Brothers Karamazov); on the other it is modern writing with the unusual breath-taking honesty as a staple. Female friendship is such a complicated and fragile thing to describe and yet Elena Ferrante did just that with a shocking precision.

And if you are the kind of person, who is on this blog for the quantum stuff, you should still read Ferrante. One of the main characters becomes a leading person in the computerisation of a manufacturing process in Italy. My inner geek was enjoying every letter of the super entertaining description of how the first IBM machines were being used.

The second book I would like to talk about it Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Admittedly, it completely destroyed me to read it and even though it was causing me so much pain, I just couldn’t put it down. It is a story of a boy who survived a most insufferable childhood full of violence and abuse, who became a high powered NY lawyer and who is trying not to let his past affect the relationships he managed to form after he left his former life behind. It is so dark, so intensive, and yet it feels like the true huge life and love story of our century.

Honorable mentions: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (this is one of the most impressive debut novels I have ever read), Aquarium by David Vann (really unique book about fish and family trauma), Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (amazing sci-fi book to start with if you not a sci-fi fan yet).