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.

Back to New York

I’m trying not to love New York in that kitschy soapy hollywood way, because yes, it totally has all it’s glamour, but also cockroaches on the subway and Trump buildings everywhere. Then again, Guggenheim is the cosiest and most comforting place in the universe, MET Opera has the best productions in the world and all the super cools bars and modern galleries and amazing views do not hurt. So yes, while I have my reservations and all those people without home in the streets break my heart, I also like coming back for the undefinable feeling all the movies always promise.

I don’t even know where to start with highlights from this last visit. So MET Museum totally rules this spring: they have Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons exhibition, amazingly staged, really hard to understand and pure pleasure to look at (also with the merch designed exclusively for that exhibition:)). Secondly, there is Irving Penn retrospective, which I suppose is little bit more mainstream and less controversial, but I loved it immensely. I also found couple of pieces by my beloved Jean Arp. For me, there is something incredibly comforting and grounding about his art. I have pictures of all his marble statues I’ve seen in my phone and look at them whenever I need to calm down.

The huge surprise for me this time was Brooklyn Museum, which is one of the best designed art buildings I’ve seen. It’s just a perfect space with expertly curated super interesting exhibitions. Don’t just stay in Manhattan and go there, it’s so worth it! There is ongoing exhibition about gender identity in ancient Egypt, that is based on the recent discovery that women after they died had to be temporarily transformed into men so their soul could leave the body and they could be reborn. Only after the re-birth was complete they could turn back into a woman. Then there’s an exhibition of black female feminist artists and activists from 60’s through 80’s. It really offers different take on feminism, because of course black women had hard time to identify with white middle class feminist ideas. It’s spectacular.

Finally, I got to hear Mahler’s 4th from NY Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert with solo performance of Ying Fang. She’s amazing! I hope her star will keep rising and soon we’ll hear her in more MET Opera leading roles. Also, I got into the shoot of my favourite show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee!! Then there’s Strand bookstore and the reason why my next move will be very very difficult. Their selection is just so amazing and staff so qualified that I simply can’t stop myself. Lastly, I want to give a big shout out to The Museum of the Natural History for spending their money wisely on education and updating their exhibitions in the coolest way. This time I saw a wonderful feature on whales told by Ewan McGregor and I’m sure if every kid would watch that together with the rest of the museum the world would be full of compassionate and environmentally responsible people. Actually, yeah…I wonder if Donald even went..

 

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!

Reasons to love Berlin

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  • Most amazing orchestra: I just had a wonderful opportunity to hear Berlin Philharmonic playing Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Riccardo Chailly. It was a supremely powerful performance. Requiem is just one of those intense pieces that are absolutely best enjoyed live and I am forever grateful that I had a chance to hear it in such a great space with wonderful soloists and an amazing choir.

  • Coolest non-mainstream places to eat. We tried Cookies and Cream this time — a great vegetarian place which is sort of hidden in a narrow dark lane behind other buildings. It’s a perfectly cool place that has excellent food, wine and the secretive exclusive vibe that just form the perfect mix together.
  • Impressive mixture of edgy galleries and classical museums in the most impressive buildings: While Museumsinsel has this majestic Munich-y vibe (I especially loved archaeological treasures of Pergamon, and yes I know Berliners will probably hate the Munich comparison…), just few steps away from it you find the coolest mixtures of cafes and ultramodern galleries.

And I guess I could continue with Humboldt uni, cool shopping, Kreutzberg and allover artsy atmosphere. If you are looking for a weekend trip, you should definitely put Berlin on the top of your list!

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).

The First One

 

Does the world really need the quantum/cultural mash up of the research papers and commentaries that I intend for this to become? As doubtful as that is, I decided to start a blog nonetheless. Hopefully it will not only be a list of things I care about in the world of both science and culture, but also a place, where I stand up for the things I believe in, as scary as that may be. 2016 was not a good year for many people and it is sometimes painful sitting on the sidelines in the world where most of the reasonable contributions get diluted in the sea of cat video retweets at best. At the same time, there are many amazing things happening and there are admirable people doing wonderful jobs in science, politics, arts and really every area one can think of. So I would like to make this a catalogue of the inspiring research papers, amazing books and all things that make the world a better place.