Jishnu Mohan


View My GitHub Profile

3 January 2016

2015 Year in Books

by Jishnu

So this blog had no posts in 2015. Although I didn’t write anything, I did manage to read a bit. Quick thoughts on what stood out.

Mirrored Mind / Geek Sublime
Vikram Chandra

Found the style oscillating from easy and light (in the chapters on programming or code) to difficult, in the chapters on Sanskrit and beauty. This oscillation made from a rather choppy reading experience. A lot of extremely interesting threads and arguments, even if they don’t come together perfectly. What was new for me was the exposure to ancient Indian theories of beauty and meaning in art and poetry.

Vladimir Nabokov

Great prose, but the rather weird topic is off-putting sometimes. Personally found that the rich prose made it hard to read at a stretch. Also didn’t enjoy repeatedly looking up the translations for the significant amount of French peppered through the book. Nabokov’s portrayal of (small-town) America is pretty great and in some ways reminiscent of American Gods. (In what ways exactly, I can’t really tell)

Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman

I loved American Gods so went into this with high expectations. While it is set into the universe, Anansi Boys is a family drama compared to the epic scale of Gods. This book was less thought provoking, but was a breezy fun ride with a great reminder about the importance of family.

Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe

Short and great. Really powerful and haunting ending caps a fine book about a continent and culture about which I knew very little. Ending really captures the essence of small human tragedy, which was but one of the countless losses that took place in the clash of cultures that colonialism marked across the globe.

Franz Kafka

Wow what a depressing read. I had the amazing idea of reading this novella while in Prague, Kafka’s birthplace. The gains of the poetic aptness were more than offset by the influence of the novella’s themes of alienation and ennui - not the best feelings to have when on a trip to one of the party destinations of Europe. Perhaps that speaks to the evocative power of Kafka’s writing.

Nick Bostrom

Bostrom’s writing is far from an easy read - I am not convinced that the stilted and sterile writing was necessary to convey the arguments, and it felt like a needless sacrifice of a more general audience. The arguments themselves are very convincing. By refusing to commit on the more controversial question of when a general artificial intelligence could be achieved and diving into the ethical and practical challenges of having a ‘friendly’ superintelligence, a lot of value is added without having to rely on shaky assumptions. Other than the interest of the topic itself, the questions about final goals and decision theories offer a neat way to introspect about the final goals and decision theories we are implicitly employing in our everyday.

The Martian
Andy Weir

A very easy read - perhaps too easy. The book is very entertaining - the protagonist is funny and likeable, as are most (all?) of the other characters. The tension is built up well - I could physically feel myself read faster in the tense climax. I came away slightly disappointed though - perhaps because the book was oversold to me. The high fidelity of the science and NASA-related facts of the mission did not do much for me - I guess I don’t have a high enough awareness to appreciate the higher accuracy of this work. Also, the humorous and light tone of the book felt slightly fake to me (is that really how an astronaut abandoned on Mars would react?). The high selflessness exhibited by most characters, and a general staying away from ‘deeper’ questions made the book feel like a missed opportunity. Still great fun, though.

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad

Great in parts, but the end was rather underwhelming . Was surprised at how similar it was to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which I absolutely loved. The scene setting in HoD was as good as Apocalypse Now, with the scene of the ships firing at the African coastline being especially powerful. However the absence of the wicked humour of the movie and Brando’s intense portrayal of Colonel Kurtz, Conrad’s novella feels like a step back from the movie.

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000
Lee Kuan Yew

Overall a fairly dry read for me - the absence of a chronological narrative made it hard for me to get pulled into the experiences of one of the greatest post-war leaders. Instead, the book is organized into topic - based chapters, such that the effect for me was to have to struggle through dry descriptions seemingly lifted straight from my old Social Studies textbook to fun and illuminating tales of foreign policy intrigue. Especially interesting was a refreshingly different and sympathetic take on the Chinese regime.

Flood of Fire
Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh’s description of the opium trade is an interesting end to a great trilogy - his rich prose makes for an immersive experience. Opium as a thread tying together myriad cultures and walks of life really works, without feeling forced. My only complaint can be a slightly unsatisfying ending - this is a personal opinion but the epic scale of the book seemed to be leading to a conclusion where the good and bad receive their just desserts. Ghosh’s rejection of such a neat conclusion was discomforting to me.