Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Underrated underworld undertones.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a book that pits romanticism against idealism not in a classroom, or the halls of a government – but in the bleakest background possible – a segregated reform school. It explores the possibility of empathy in the face of cruelty, of movements in the face of racist stagnancy.

The book revolves around a single friendship between two boys who embody these warring ideals – two boys with similar objectives but wildly differing paths.

The books begins by tracking Elwood, a young African American on the fast track to college with all the “desirable” traits – conscientiousness, intelligence, righteousness and industry – the traits the American dream sells us on. The fact that such a boy ends up in a reform school masquerading as front for the near torturous, murderous, and often paedophilic urges of it’s administrators is a stunning indictment of American police. They saw an old white man and a young black man in a car – and immediately arrested Elwood for car theft.

The problem is this – Elwood wants to believe in humanity and people. He wants to hold on Martin Luther King’s assertions. He wants to break up fights on campus and report errors to authority. He still wants to pay his dues, “graduate” from Nickel Academy quickly and continue with his life – an objective which even he realises quickly to be naivety.

The book not only tracks his journey through Nickel, but also the trauma after. The fundamental realisation that just like war, abuse at levels so pervasive has permanent impacts. The idea that there are naturally inviolate parts of us, thresholds not meant to be crossed, sanctum sanctorums that we are meant to protect – parts that if fiddle with, can have unfathomable impacts.

But the beauty in this book is in it’s specific symbolism – how on their escape from Nickel, idealism (Elwood) is shot, while skepticism (Turner) runs faster and further without looking back. How Turner realises that maybe he could have protected Elwood from being the Icarus that flew to close the son. How Elwood interacts with his grandmother Harriett – the war-weary soldier who lost her husband and children, and now stands to lose Elwood.

The realisation that in a world as shattering as 1960s Florida, life takes and it takes and it takes, and they keep giving anyways. The realization that life-shattering circumstances steal from our heart and whittle us down to our essence – that the parts we decide to give up decide the sculpture we are carved into.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuinston

Delightful, wholesome, ambitious.

I went into this book skeptical. It was so far outside my typical genre selection that I had nothing but my best friend’s recommendation to go by. YET another romantic novel featuring lovey-dovey teenagers?

Red White and Royal Blue is a delicious book. It tells the story of angsty, lovesick, intrepid oddballs who literally have to fight the world (the Queen of England included) for their love.

It’s a story so populated by lively characters and insanely courageous bonds that it gently warms one’s heart into a wide, wide smile. It’s a book that makes you feel alive – as the characters and words and actions and settings fly off the pages in sumptuous paragraphs.

That’s why I said the book was delicious – it’s a book to devour. It’s not a book that felt like a chore to read. It’s a book that laughts in the face of deriving beauty from sadness and fragility and introspection – chosing instead to derive beauty from friendship and love and the present.

A book like no other, it lucidly weaves together the tale of a presidential campaign, a delicate royal image, personal frustrations and desires: and most importantly, places the unconventional on the center stage with the spotlight flashing brightly on it.

The Mom Test by Robert Fitzpatrick

Recommended reading for my Nu School summer program, this book redefined my perspective on my own projects. You see, as an engineer at my core, my first instinct has always been to open an IDE and see how I can fix the problem. WRONG!

This book provides an excellent framework that everyone can utilize to interview users. A lot of times, we tend to ask bad questions: – “Do you think this product is a good idea?” – “Would you pay X for a product that does Y?”

These are examples of questions that WILL make people lie to you, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. This book leads you away from fluff, compliments, and mere annoyances to facts, data, and real world user problems.

It’s written in a dry, real style. It gives advice so practical that you could read this book and go off and ask questions.

“It boils down to this: you aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution.”

How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen Petranek (TED Books)

Ah, what a monumental book for me. Listening to the TED Talk was how I got into Mars colonization in the first place, and re-reading it was what sparked my post about Mars on day two of 100DaysToOffload. All in all, this book is very well-written. Providing a structured understanding of the steps we need to take to get to Mars – from the funding to the food/water/shelter on Mars, to the colonization and terraforming – if you want a quick overview of how these things are going to be carried out, this book is the place to go.

It offers succinct explanations that can be understood by the layman (I mean, I first read this in 6th or 7th grade). My biggest gripe while re-reading this book was the optimism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with optimism- but I found it a little concerning Mars was depicted more as a heroic adventure story than an engineering challenge of magnificent proportions.

I utilize this book mostly as a Mars 101 lecture, which after all, is what TED is all about.

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.

Been wanting to read this book for the longest time, and finally got to knock it out. A 300 page read, this book has one of the most unique “voices” I have come across. The book contains short, crisp sentences in fragmented narrative structures that bounce back and forth between timelines and locations – and yet the book manages to feel seamless, expansive and smooth. Heavily descriptive and mastering “show don’t tell”, the book manages to get us both in the head and the surroundings of our main character – “Offred”.

In the introduction, Margaret Atwood writes:

“If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.”

It is very important to understand this basic perspective to consider Atwood’s novel.

The book captures beautifully the humans in tyranny- those that simultaneously suffer from it and uphold it. It depicts the deep, flawed guesswork that goes into forming friendships and alliances in a dystopian world, and the longing and nostalgia for love that has been lost.

It’s a classic for a reason.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Thinky, scientific, philosophical.

A collection of 10-odd short stories revolving around a few big questions.Ted Chiang’s writing is often compared to one of my favorite TV series, Black Mirror.

Ted Chiang lives up to that reputation, intertwining stories of humans in the backdrop of science and technology. Themes like free will, time travel, religion and science, the future of technology run through the length of the book. Ted manages to keep the plots fresh and interesting, however, the writing feels at times hollow and repetitive.

If you are new to these topics, this book and multitude of perspectives it provides to each topic will be definitely be engaging.

My favorite stories were:
– The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
– The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
– Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
– Exhalation

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Academic, vast, imaginative.

Though this book is set in a science-fiction environment, it is not, inherently, a science fiction story. This book contains 5 inter-connected short stories about politics, societies, and governments, as well as the religion of science. The story is of a Foundation set to preserve scientific knowledge in the backdrop of a crumbling Empire – and the internal and external power struggles that are involved in the protection of this planet. It was a thinker’s book full of fascinating ideas.

However, this book really falls apart in it’s prose and characterisation. While diversity of race was not an issue, I did note that the entire book had exactly one female character, who too, was the sour wife of a political leader. Furthermore, the plot proceeded at a constant pace, the rhythm of the stories and the actions of the main characters felt almost repetitive after a while – so the writing did feel somewhat monotonous.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabelle Allende

Sweeping, beautiful, human.

The single best thing about this book is Allende’s prose. Quickening, slowing, and stopping altogether the pace of time almost seamlessly, she constructs simple yet powerful prose.

The inter-generational progression of character lines combined with constant change in setting, their sufferings and hopes – it is a simple tale about simple people. People separating and people reuniting. Distinct people with different desires and approaches to life. High emotional investment in characters was almost a given – reading the book was like growing up with the characters.

Allende also skillfuly ground her fiction in historical fact: from the Spanish Civil War, the exodus to France, the Winnipeg and Pablo Neruda, to the coup in Chile and the death of Franco – just reading the book acquaints one with political history. She manages also to get the little details right – how three volumes of philospohy books could stop a bullet, the numerous real-life historical figures, and the newspaper rhetoric against refugees (which is alarmingly similar to what we hear today). Finally, the uneasy negotiated tension between the right and the left, the depths of hatred and love between strangers and family members is relentlessly true-to-life.

Inter-generational and set across multiple countries – Chile, Spain, Venezuela, Argentia, America, France, the book deftly and gently telescopes and microscopes into the hearts of people and nations.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Solid, simple, moving.

You do not read this book for the plot – you read it for the writing style and the characters. It is simply Murakami’s prose that holds your attention through what amounts to 300 uneventful pages. Every page was oddly calming and meditating, as he described the ins and outs of the college life, friendships, and relationships of a “ordinary” kid called Toru Wanatabe. What saved this book were it’s last 90 pages – which brought the whole meandering tale to an epic close. From Midori’s letter to Naoko’s death, to his conversation with Reiko, everything about those pages was evocative and poetic.

Without them, I would have to knock off a hypothetical star from the rating. When the book was finished, it left a sort of profound emptiness inside. The beauty of this book isn’t in something tangible – it’s quite literally in the subtext and themes and vibes.

In conclusion, if you find yourself moved by Murakami’s writing style, and have the patience to sit through at least 250 pages of meandering character development, there is legitimately quite a moving and epic payoff in there for you.

Gemina by Amie Kaufman

Cinematic, gorgeous, FUN.

A cracking plot full of twists and turns, and a healthy dose of corporate skepticism and science nerdiness, and perhaps the best execution of the “did he/she really die?” trope. In terms of the plot, I did notice a few striking parallels to the first book in the series. For most of the book, it felt like it was going to be simply a grander, better version of Illuminae, but it really shone in the end, with the alternate reality sequences. Everything from the concept, to it’s beautiful formatting on paper, and just the simple text, really saved this book.

gemina book cover

The book was also surprisingly easy to read, provided that it was full of reports and text logs and surveillance summaries. Most of the characters were a riot, and the writing style (despite the constant death and destruction) alternated between being wisecracky and grandiose. In terms of the sheer science-fiction, it wasn’t as detailed as say Andy Weir’s The Martian, but the authors definitely knew what they were talking about.

The characterisation in this book was somewhat interesting. Our two protagonists Hanna and Niklas, closely resembled Ezra and Kady from the previous book. Kady’s resemblance to Hanna is even explicitly alluded to in the book. The character development in this book was quite straightforward, involving Hanna a stereotypical “station commander’s daughter” and Niklas, a reluctant member of a Russian drug cartel, rising up the occasion and heroically saving the station. We also witnessed a host of side characters, including the Beitech invasion team, and other works onboard the Heimdall station. I felt this was the only place the book was lacking – in moral complexity or emotional frailty. Although the book did have its moments with jasmine corsages and Hanna’s sketches, for the most part it remained focused on the plot – which in the end turned out to be the right choice.

Definitely excited for the next instalment.