2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

Screen-Shot-2019-01-02-at-5.30.57-PM-213x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghEvery year, Konversai advisory board member and passionate bibliophile Ajit Singh writes a review of his top 10 books of the year. Genres featured in this book review include fiction, philosophy, management/economics, history/politics, science, and mathematics. If you’re looking for some good reads, this guest blog post is definitely for you.

 

 

Fiction

  1. Maggie O’Farrel. Hamnet. Knopf, 2020.

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_Hamnet 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghMy friend, Geraldine Brooks, whose People of the Book I reviewed in 2008, says:

“Hamnet is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure… In Hamnet, Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet brimming with love and passion… This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art—it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays—and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself does it… O’Farrell has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world… We can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed, and we can see how the pale London sun ‘reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps in buildings to illuminate the rain glazed street’… As the book unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage, and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.”

Brooks is a master of the craft of historical fiction. Her endorsement was a compelling reason for me to read Hamnet—O’Farrell’s second work of this genre.

In late sixteenth century, “a playwright of repute in Stratford-upon-Avon” lost his 11-year-old son. This tragedy inspired him to create one of his finest plays—which he named after his son. O’Farrell’s novel is magnificent attempt at parsing the life of the young boy and the creases that his death etched on the life of his mother, Agnes—the central character of the novel—as well as on her complex and tumultuous marriage to (presumably) Shakespeare. The story is richly entwined with the backdrop of societal machinations that made up sixteenth-century Renaissance England.

The ease with which O’Farrell imbues poignancy, vulnerability, and authenticity in the voices of her vast tapestry of characters is at display throughout the story. Here is an illustration:

If the plague comes to London, he can be back with them for months. The playhouses are all shut, by the order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public. It is wrong to wish for plague, her mother has said, but Susanna has done this a few times under her breath, at night, after she has said her prayers. She always crosses herself afterwards. But she still wishes it. Her father home, for months, with them. She sometimes wonders if her mother secretly wishes it too.

Hamnet’s prose is a masterfully laid out mosaic in time where the patterns evade us just as we begin to discover them. There are two dominant chronologies between which the story meanders—one emanating from the point when Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is struck with plague, and the other, a throwback into the past when the love story of Agnes and ‘the Latin tutor’ begins.

Agnes is an indiscernible character—a complex interplay of passion and paranormal, of free spirit and secrecy—who grew up a life punctuated by her stepmother’s tirades and abuse. Her paramour is a tradeless boy who teaches Latin at her home to pay off a family debt. He is eighteen and she twenty-six and pregnant when they marry. With time, the tutor becomes a successful playwright and moves to London. Their marriage, passionate and yet in a persistent state of disarray, is thrown into its final upheaval with the death of Hamnet.

The two streams of storytelling arrive at a confluence at this point.

The rest of the novel is as much a nail-biter – that toothache of mind – as it is a raw narrative of the vagaries that the grief of losing a child inflicts on a relationship, and of the conjoined journey that we call healing.

This is O’Farrell’s eighth book. I have not read any of her earlier works. Her debut novel from 2000, After You’d Gone, is now on my reading list. If you would like to hear some passages from Hamnet in the author’s voice, start with her interview at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

 

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_HurricanSeason-186x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh2. Fernanda Melchor. Hurricane Season. New Directions, 2020.

This is an odd book by an author I had never heard of. Why, then, did I choose to read it? There are several reasons.

First, while I have always been fascinated by writers of Latin American origins (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Carolina de Robertis), I have recently been introduced to a few beautiful works by Mexican writers (Juan Rulfo, Sandra Cisneros). This led my curiosity to look for some contemporary writing from Mexico.

Second, the translation is by Sophie Hughes. I had first heard about her from Carolina de Robertis, who pointed me to Hughes’ translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder last year. It was spellbinding.

Finally, I want to start learning Spanish this year. I am not sure if I will be able to experience the full richness of its literature any time soon, but I would like to try. Recently, a friend of mine insisted on translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel lecture, The Solitude of Latin America, for me. After reading the translated script, listening to the original speech left me in tears (even though I didn’t understand a word).

Let us examine (more like race through) a passage from Hurricane Season:

“They called her the Witch, the same has her mother; the Young Witch when she’d first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some timework, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a name and surname like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had very called her otherwise. She’d always been you, retard, or you, asshole, or you, devil child, if ever the Witch [the mother, who is also known as the Witch] wanted her to come, or to be quiet, or even just to sit still under the table so that she could listen to the women’s maudlin pleas, their sniveling tales of woe, their strife, the aches and pains, their dreams of dead relatives and the spats between those still alive, and money, it was always the money, but also their husbands and those whores from the highway, and why’d they always walk out on me just when I’ve got my hopes up, they’d sob, what was the point of it all, they’d moan, they might as well be dead, just call it a day, wished they’d never been born, and with the corner of their shawls they’d dry the tears from their faces, which they covered in any case the moment they left the Witch’s kitchen, because they weren’t about to give those bigmouths in town the satisfaction of going around saying how they’d been to see the Witch to plot their revenge against so-and-so, how they’d put a curse on the slut leading their husband astray, because there was always one, always some miserable bitch in town spinning yarns about the girls who, quite innocently, minding their own business, went to the Witch’s for a remedy for indigestion, for that dipshit at home clogged up to his nuts on the extra-large bag of chips he ate in one sitting, or a tea to keep tiredness at bay, or an ointment for tummy troubles, or, let’s be honest, just to sit there a while and lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness that fluttered hopelessly in their throats.”

This was a single paragraph—and one of the shorter ones. While I found the composition strange in the beginning, I got used to it very quickly. The long-form paragraphs and drawn-out sentences, while they are a mouthful, are not tedious. Quite the contrary. The prose is set to a rhythm that keeps you engaged even though breathless. The characters have so much to communicate that any punctuation would be an interference. This is storytelling equivalent of driving with gas pedal stuck.

The novel opens with a group of kids finding the corpse of a woman known as the Witch in a small town in Mexico. In the words of the NPR reviewer, “Abducted and murdered women (you don’t want to know what happens to the bodies) are just the start. There are abusive mothers, ruthless drug dealers, unemployed junkies, unwanted pregnancies, and constant bloodshed here. Melchor doesn’t shy away from any topic—even things that will make readers cringe. However, her approach is unique: Instead of being preachy, she shows what drug abuse, poverty, alcoholism, corruption, homophobia, and misogyny do to shape people and communities. This makes Hurricane Season a rough read. Brutality abounds, and the violence, often directed at women and gay people, is so close to real events that it almost qualifies as nonfiction. The Witch is dead at the beginning of the novel, but she’s still the main character because everyone has a story to tell about her—or something to blame on her. The last narrator, for example, blames her for his substance abuse and homosexual experimentation, saying it was ‘all on the Witch: the beers, the alcohol, and sometimes even the drugs, anything to get the gang to hang out at her place, which she seldom left.’ Hurricane Season is a dark celebration of language that pushes against the rules with its collection of unreliable narrators, its shifting realities, and its endless sentences peppered with Spanish and songs. Yeah, at the end of the day, Melchor is the witch and this novel is a powerful spell.”

Hurricane Season was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

If you are interested, check out this interview of the author and the translator—also at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

If the genre of Latin American literature is of interest to you more generally, almost all of my past reviews have at least one book in this category. More specifically, if you want to explore writers of Mexican decent, my two recent favorites are Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (Published in Spanish in 1955, English translations in 1990 and 1994), and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (Original written in English, 1991; Cisneros grew up in Chicago).

 

Philosophy

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_ChangingTheSubject-200x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh3. Raymond Geuss. Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno. Harvard University Press, 2017.

When I look back at my early years in academia, I feel very fortunate to have met some truly brilliant minds. Raymond Geuss was one of them. I intersected with him at both Columbia and Princeton, and then again in Germany a decade later.

When I finished my Ph.D. qualifying exams (Ah…them “quals,” my torment), Steve Unger told me, “Now enjoy Columbia. Go crash some courses in every department—and justify the tuition you are paying.” I reminded him that my tuition was free. He responded with a rare twinkle in his eyes, “Okay, then crash a philosophy class. That’s all you deserve for free.” “Unless it is a Raymond Geuss lecture,” he said, correcting himself. That evening, he walked with me to 1150 Amsterdam Ave to give me an orientation of the Philosophy Hall. Eventually, a semester later, I gathered the courage to walk into a class of Prof. Geuss. I enjoyed it. And I learned a new word: nihilism.

Some years later, I was accompanying my boss’s boss, (brilliant but easily annoyed) Juergen Radomski, in a car to see him off at the airport. I mentioned that I was reading John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker. His first reaction was, “Oh, you have to listen to Prof. Geuss to appreciate Wittgenstein.” This was most happy I ever saw him. I learned later in that car ride that his Ph.D. thesis was on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Mr. Radomski arranged for me to meet Raymond Geuss for lunch later that year; he was a visiting faculty in Frankfurt at the time.

I have followed his work over the years.

The chapters in Changing the Subject are: Socrates, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Montaigne, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Lukács, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Adorno.

Why these twelve?

Frederick Neuhouser of Columbia University explains:

“One first notices the unusual character of Geuss’s history in its table of contents: among the twelve philosophers treated in the book, four— Lucretius, Montaigne, Lukács, and Adorno—are usually regarded as marginal figures, if noticed at all, by Anglo-American philosophers. Meanwhile such giants as Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant are missing from Geuss’s list and, as far as I could tell, never mentioned in the discussions of other philosophers. Geuss’s history, in other words, does not aspire to completeness, at least not according to the standard understanding of that term. The remaining thinkers treated here are Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. I was initially disappointed not to find Marx on this list, but his thought is well represented in the chapter on Lukács. What, if anything, explains this unusual selection? My guess is that two factors were decisive. The first is the book’s preference for practical over theoretical philosophy: questions about the good and other aspects of ethical, political, and social philosophy occupy center stage, and this is indicative of where Geuss takes philosophy’s real significance to lie, namely, in reflection on, broadly speaking, the kinds of lives we ought to lead. This consideration might be sufficient to explain the exclusion of Descartes, but what about Aristotle and Kant? Here, it seems to me, a second consideration must be appealed to: Geuss has chosen to write only on philosophers he finds especially compelling and (because of this) about whom he has something enlightening to say. These principles of selection make his choice of philosophers idiosyncratic but not arbitrary. Indeed, one can be thankful for this species of idiosyncrasy (or modesty) since it enables Geuss to avoid the principal pitfall into which more comprehensive histories of Western philosophy—Bertrand Russell’s, for example—tend to fall, namely, that of presuming to pronounce on the merits of philosophical positions one hasn’t begun to understand.”

The key attribute of Western philosophy that Geuss wishes to convey is that it evolves not when a philosopher addresses an open question on our existence or our being, but rather when they pose a different question or “change the subject.” To this objective, he illustrates that his selection of the twelve philosophers is truly apt.

Unfortunately, there are not many video lectures of Geuss online. One of the few I could find is a rare gem: the last of his seven-part series on Nietzsche.

His 2019 essay, A Republic of Discussion, is as insightful as a conceptual discourse as it is a practical discussion on relevant geopolitical issues of the day. An exceptionally clear, readable, fine piece of penmanship.

 

Management / Economics:

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_ExperimentationWorks-200x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh4. Stefan H. Thomke. Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments. Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.

This is a simple (and simple-minded) book. But it is a practical book.

The key premise of the book is application of the scientific method to a business: running controlled (business)-experiments, testing hypotheses, comparing alternatives, and deploying the insights thus generated in execution.

The concept, per se, is not new. It has been used extensively in online businesses and in social media marketing for deciding where best to deploy advertising and marketing dollars and for determining what campaign will result into the lowest cost of customer acquisition or will accelerate customer acquisition.

The key contribution of the book is twofold: the rigor of designing large-scale business experiments (i.e., what makes a good experiment), and the generalization of the approach beyond online businesses to the brick-and-mortar world.

The table of contents aptly illustrates the practical, no-nonsense style of writing:

Preface: A Tribute to the Scientific Method (Why I wrote the book and why you should read it; Understanding the power of thinking and acting scientifically; Entering a new age of large-scale business experimentation)

Introduction: The Business Experimentation Imperative 1

Why Experimentation Works (The role of business experimentation in innovation; Understanding the power of tools and the experimentation process; Leveraging the operational drivers of high-velocity learning)

What Makes a Good Business Experiment? (The elements of a good business experiment; Seven questions that yield better management decisions; Appreciating the limits of experimentation)

How to Experiment Online (The business value of A/B testing; Leveraging the power of incremental innovation for business performance; Learning the best experimentation practices from leading digital companies)

Can Your Culture Handle Large-Scale Experimentation? (The seven attributes of a true experimentation culture; Diagnosing and addressing cultural obstacles; Adopting a new management model for experimentation organizations)

Inside an Experimentation Organization (The operating model of a true experimentation organization; Democratizing testing through process, management, and cultural discipline; Using technology, scale, and velocity for competitive advantage)

Becoming an Experimentation Organization (The steps to becoming a true experimentation organization; Using seven system levers and the ABCDE maturity framework to analyze your situation; Deploying experimentation tools most effectively)

Seven Myths of Business Experimentation (The myths that undermine experimentation and innovation; Realizing that your actions will lead to opposite reactions; Addressing fallacies that slow down progress)

Epilogue: A Brief Look at the Future (The future of experimentation is already here; Understanding the role of AI; Adding value to automated testing and decision making)

The motivation for the book is best expressed in the author’s own words in the preface:

“Four hundred years ago, in 1620, Francis Bacon published Novum Organum, the classical formulation of a new instrument for building and organizing knowledge: the scientific method. Thinking and acting scientifically has had an enormous impact on the world. For centuries, we’ve built and organized scientific and technological knowledge through testable explanations and predictions. These, in turn, have given us modern medicine, food, energy, transportation, communication, and so much more. The engine that has powered the scientific method is the humble experiment. I have spent over twenty-five years studying experimentation in businesses and, along the way, benefited tremendously from the work of many scholars and practitioners who are referenced throughout this book. I think that they would all agree with me: Experimentation Works! But to fully benefit from the surprising power of business experiments, companies have to invest in experimentation works—systems, tools, organizing principles, values, and behaviors that enable today’s managers to think and act scientifically, with high velocity, with precision, and at large scale. This book will show you how it is done.”

If you would rather read a short compendium version, this interview is a good start (and finish).

 

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_DeathsOfDespair-197x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh5. Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Uwe Reinhardt introduced me to Anne Case in the late 1980s when Anne was finishing up her Ph.D. at Princeton. When she returned to Princeton as faculty in 1991, I was teaching my AI in Health Sciences course for the first time. It was with her help and Uwe’s that I was able to read up just enough on Health Economics to include a lecture on the subject in my course.

More recently, I reconnected with Anne at Uwe’s memorial service a few years ago, and then again in the summer of 2018 at the 25th Princeton Conference of the Council on Health Care Economics and Policy where she gave the Uwe Reinhardt Memorial Lecture, “Changing Mortality Patterns in Working Class America.

Sir Angus Deaton is the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics. He is married to Anne Case.

The table of contents of the book is as follows:

The Calm Before the Storm

Things Come Apart

Deaths of Despair

The Lives and Deaths of the More (and Less) Educated

Black and White Deaths

The Health of the Living

The Misery and the Mystery of Pain

Suicide, Drugs, and Alcohol

Opioids

False Trails: Poverty, Income, and the Great Recession

Growing Apart at Work

Widening Gaps at Home

How American Healthcare is Undermining Lives

Capitalism, Immigrants, Robots, and China

Firms, Consumers, and Workers

What to Do?

Let’s reflect on the basic thesis of the book—generally and specifically.

The general premise of the book is best understood in the authors’ own words:

In The Great Escape, published in 2013, one of us told a positive story about human progress over the last two hundred and fifty years. The story there was one of previously unimaginable material progress, a decline in poverty and deprivation, and extensions in the length of human life. The generation and application of useful knowledge made this progress possible. A star of the show was capitalism, which freed millions from dire poverty… This book is much less upbeat. It documents despair and death, it critiques aspects of capitalism, and it questions how globalization and technical changes are working in America today. Yet, we remain optimistic… Capitalism does not have to work as it does in America today. It does not need to be abolished, but it should be redirected to work in the public interest. Free market competition can do many things, but there are also many areas where it cannot work well, including in the provision of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of which is doing immense harm to the health and wellbeing of America. If governments are unwilling to exercise compulsion over health insurance and to take the power to control costs—as other rich countries have done—tragedies are inevitable. Deaths of despair have much to do with the failure—the unique failure—of America to learn this lesson. There have been previous periods when capitalism failed most people, as the Industrial Revolution got underway at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and again after the Great Depression. But the beast was tamed, not slain… We hope that this book, while not as heartening as The Great Escape, will help put us back on track to make the progress in this century that we have generally made in the past. The future of capitalism should be a future of hope and not of despair.

The specific context of the book is the disproportionately high rates of death by suicide, drugs, and alcohol in working class whites (as compared to blacks and Hispanics, as well as whites with a college degree). The authors sift through a vast repertoire of data and look for correlations with various factors such as obesity, income level, and income inequality and find an unexpected insight: there is little if any correlation with these factors. Instead, the strongest correlation is with the rate of unemployment. Geographies with larger percentages of unemployed people have the higher rates of “deaths of despair.” The assertion holds true for the death rates because of suicide, drugs, or alcohol individually as well as in aggregate. The explanation rests on the following observation: there is less stability of employment for the lesser educated – uncertainty of duration, uncertainty of hours, and uncertainty of health benefits. Further, the duration of joblessness between two jobs is longer—during which time access to healthcare is minimal and full of bureaucratic roadblocks. This, along with the cultural stigma associated with joblessness—which is highly pronounced in the US compared to other developed economies—leads these large cohorts of population to despair, and consequently, higher rates of mortality. According the authors, “Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.” All said, the book is not merely an analysis of the problem and its root causes. It is also prescriptive. The authors give us a rational and well-founded reason for optimism. They also offer a series of potential solutions – complete with tradeoffs, need for (political) capital, and long-term benefits.

If you prefer a shorter read before committing to the book, this Boston Review interview is a good start. Alternatively, the lecture hosted by EPI will be an hour well spent, both for its content, but also for observing the dynamic between Case and Deaton. It is endearing. (I kept contrasting it with scenes from the Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce movie Wife in my head.)

If you do read the book, it will remind you at times of J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy that I covered in my 2017 review.

After you have read the book, you might be drawn to other scholarly work by Case and Deaton. “Rebottling the Gini: Why This Headline Measure of Inequality Misses Everything That Matters,” Prospect, January 2020, is an intellectual delight.

Finally, a less rigorous companion to Deaths of Despair is Kevin Scott’s Reprogramming the American Dream: From Rural America to Silicon Valley.

 

History/Politics

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_ShakespeareInADividedAmerica-195x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh6. James Shapiro. Shakespeare in a Divided America. Penguin, 2020.

In Fall of 1988, a play was enacted in the auditorium at Dag Hammarskjold Lounge at Columbia University. The theme was the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India. The director, Shonali Bose (now an acclaimed award-winning film director), was a Columbia student and the wife of a classmate of mine, Bedabrata Pain. The audience was almost entirely Indian, save a few Caucasians. One of the Caucasian guests engaged with Shonali and Bedabrata at the end of the performance. Being one of the very few Sikhs on campus and the only one in the audience, I was naturally pulled into the conversation.

He was very thoughtful in his questions about the riots and very authentic in his feedback on the performance. He spoke about the immense value of mapping societal and political events—especially the ones of larger magnitude and impact—onto literary and performing arts. He also told us about the scholarly work he was doing in understanding the relationship British attitudes towards the Jews and the writings of Shakespeare; the influence is markedly bidirectional.

He was Professor James Shapiro.

In Shakespeare in a Divided America, Shapiro speaks to us of Shakespeare’s impact on (and mapping to) the sociopolitical mores of America through eight vignettes:

1833: Miscegenation

1845: Manifest Destiny

1849: Class Warfare

1865: Assassination

1916: Immigration

1948: Marriage

1998: Adultery and Same-Sex Love

2017: Left | Right

Each chapter takes on the interplay between the relevant Shakespeare work and the prevalent social and political manifestations.

For instance, the book begins with the performance of Julius Caesar at the Central Park soon after Donald Trump’s election. Shapiro says, “the play spoke directly to the political vertigo many Americans were experiencing.” The reaction to the production was distinctly bipolar, with the extreme right going as far as interrupting the play, having perceived the assassination of Caesar as an attack on Trump.

Similarly, Shapiro explains the 1849 riots in New York. There were two rival productions of Macbeth in town—with the lead actor beings an American and an Englishman. This was at a time when there was a potent mix of anti-British and anti-immigration sentiment in the society. Layer this with the fact that the working-class demographic identified with the American actor, Edwin Forrest, while the economically upper echelon favored the British, William Charles Macready. This divide eventually boiled over into riots.

The author moves between the narrative and the reflective very seamlessly, discussing the role that theater performances play in shaping public views—subliminally, but sometimes also vociferously: “Theaters were imagined as more contentious versions of town hall meetings, democratic spaces where all could speak their minds; to challenge these unspoken rules was un-American and a provocation.”

The chapter on Abraham Lincoln was an unerring reflection of the societal fissure—in full view in the mirror of theater. Lincoln was a Shakespeare enthusiast with an immense ability to recall and quote the Bard’s writings and could quote from the works at length. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, acted in Shakespeare plays and had performed in Julius Caesar in the months leading up to Lincoln’s re-election. Booth’s last words just as he shot Lincoln were those of Brutus from Julius Caesar: “Sic semper tyrannis.”

In short, an absolute masterpiece! An adept display of creativity and imagination, a deep understanding of history, and a marvelous feat of penmanship.

 

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_Caste-198x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh7. Isabel Wilkerson. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Random House, 2020.

“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

Wilkerson’s definition of caste is as precise as it is real—the way it gets practiced on the ground. By the inclusion of “benefit of doubt,” it is also the most bitingly complete.

Having grown up in India, I was exposed to caste—in its most benign and its most toxic, violent manifestations. In my early teens, I saw our neighbor refuse a cup of chai at our home because our servant—who served the tea—was of a “lower caste” and had touched the tea kettle. I saw the sister of a friend of mine not allowed in the kitchen in her own home when she was menstruating. And I saw a priest kick a pregnant woman from a lower caste for coming near the temple to pray for her child, as she had had several miscarriages in the past. And I have seen an entire shantytown burnt to ground following a threat of activism and uprising by a community of leather workers in outskirts of Kanpur. Caste-based discrimination, marginalization, and violence are deeply rooted in the psyche of a large proportion of the Indian population, despite laws against it. Most of the time, authorities are either helpless or complicit.

When I arrived in the US in 1985, the sense of equality and human dignity in my immediate environments—in Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and New York City—was refreshingly new and reassuring for me. Hearing a cab driver addressed as “Sir” sounded as euphonious as it did polite and civilized. Over the years, however, I was to learn new terms, realities, and stories like microaggressions, walking while black, white privilege, white disadvantage, working class, go back to your country, and medical apartheid, to name a few. The politeness and the courtesies, while genuine most of the time (at least as seen from the lens of my experiences) were often the fragile skin under which the caste system lay intact.

This subcutaneous malignancy is what Wilkerson articulates in the definition above and about which her real-life stories and insights meander through The Origins of our Discontents. The book was an enlightening, mind-expanding read for me.

Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has been as prolific in the newsroom as she has been in the classroom; she has taught at Emory, Princeton, Northwestern, and Columbia. Her earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, was covered in my Top-10.

To give you a peek into the breadth of coverage and pithiness of writing, the following are the titles of three consecutive chapters:

Through the Fog of Delhi to the Parallels in India and America

The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste

The Evil of Silence

I truly, honestly had never imagined these three phrases next to one another anywhere, let alone in a book about the state of the society in America. Similarly, I was surprised to learn of some remarkable pieces of Nazi history of which I was completely unaware. For instance, the Nazis used America as a model. “There were no other models for miscegenation law that the Nazis could find in the world… Their overwhelming interest was in the ‘classic example,’ United States of America,” writes the author.

Beautiful prose, impeccable research, and deep, heartfelt humanity. I will have to read the book again in its entirety to fully appreciate its beauty and its scholarship. In the words of the New York Times reviewer, “This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing… Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word ‘racism,’ yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature… It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.”

This short 20-minute video allows you to race through some salient points in the book. It is bound to draw you in. Also, Wilkerson’s TED talk is a quick CliffsNotes-in-Video introduction to her seminal work on the Great Migration.

Given the kind of year 2020 was, I read many books on similar themes as the two I have included in this section. A few other notable ones are: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder; A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America by Elliott Currie; The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits; Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin; How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; and Twilight of Democracy, by Anne Applebaum.

 

Science

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_TheAngelAndTheAssassin-198x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh8. Donna Jackson Nakazawa. The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine. Ballantine Books, 2020.

I first learned of Donna Jackson Nakagawa through an article she wrote for HuffPost in 2017. She talked about how childhood traumas lead to illnesses of the body. She had a severe autoimmune disease for most part of her 40s. In her early 50s, her physician asked her, “Were there any childhood traumas or stressors that might have contributed to the extreme level of inflammation you’re experiencing as an adult?” She spoke about her illness and recovery, and how understanding the 1998 study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) helped her through her recovery. I had some exposure to this general subject over the years, but her article was an eye-opener for me.

I was led to The Angel and the Assassin through a podcast of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. In short, the book is about microglial cells.

It was the prevailing dogma in psychiatry and neurology that the brain was immune-privileged, essentially meaning that the immune system did not impact the brain. However, scientific research over the last decade challenged that assertion and showed that microglial cells in the brain behave much like immune cells, such as the white blood cells. Nakazawa’s book essentially makes this body of research accessible to the layperson.

In 1932, Pio del Rio-Hortega published a paper, “Cytology and Cellular Pathology of the Nervous System.” For most of documented history of neuroscience since then, the function of microglial cells was understood as removing damaged cells from the brain. More recent research gives us two new insights.

First, microglia are the unique in that unlike neurons and other central nervous system cells, they originate in the embryonic yolk sac and migrate into the brain around the eighth day of gestation.

Second, they start out as immune cells before they migrate into the brain. Just like immune cells in our bodies, microglial cells respond to environmental stressors or infections by activating the mechanisms to help us put up a defense. As a corollary, under extreme stimulations, microglial cells can turn on us and attack our neurons and synapses.

A natural sequel to these discoveries is the science of regulating microglial cells. For instance, we now understand that the genes connected with depression are expressed in microglia. Consequently, microglial cells also regulate the chemical imbalances that occur during depression. Bringing these cells back into hemostasis then becomes the key to treating, or even reversing, the disease.

Drawing upon a vast body of science across various interconnected disciplines, Nakazawa explains these concepts in a fast-paced, easily readable narrative. She has managed to strike a careful balance between scientific rigor and simplification. Her writing is accessible, but not oversimplified.

While the book was valuable for me on its own merit, it also inspired me to explore the new body of research on the general subject of childhood traumas. Serendipitously, around the same time, a new acquaintance of mine introduced me to Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. I also read the 1998 paper on the ACE Study: “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults,” as well as a more recent article on the epigenetic changes resulting from childhood traumas: “Child abuse, depression, and methylation in genes involved with stress, neural plasticity, and brain circuitry.”

These are fascinating reads, and they will hopefully generate new approaches for clinical management of stress-induced inflammatory illnesses. If you want to explore this topic, Maria Popova’s blog post from some years ago will be an excellent start—readable, precise, and replete with humanity.

 

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_ADominantCharacter-200x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh9. Samanth Subramaniam. A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

My desire to better understand Haldane started at a very odd point. The year was 2008. A friend of mine and I were in a car driving to her mother’s home in Calcutta. We stopped at Dew Drops to pick up some ice cream. As we were waiting for the driver to go around the block to come back and pick us up, I noticed the street sign: J.B.S. Haldane Lane. It is not uncommon in India to see streets and locales with British names. But Konkona pointed out to me that this one was for a different reason. Haldane had left London and moved to Calcutta in 1956. He took a job at the Indian Statistical Institute and lived in Calcutta and Bhubaneswar until his death in 1964.

Haldane’s deep sense of belief in the scientific method, as well as his love for India, are well illustrated in the following:

No doubt I am in some sense a citizen of the world. But I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this. On the other hand, I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the U.S.A, the U.S.S.R or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organization. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So, I want to be labeled as a citizen of India.

I have read several books by Haldane over the years. Samanth Subramaniam’s A Dominant Character is the first book that I have read on Haldane. Subramaniam is a journalist. Trained at Penn State and Columbia, he now lives in London and contributes regularly to The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian.

One of the earliest contributions of Haldane was his work on the mechanism of gaseous exchange by hemoglobin and the chemical properties of blood as a pH buffer. He coined the term primordial soup and worked on a wide range of fields such as genetic linkages, enzyme kinetics, and the relationship between by size and physiology in animals. He explained the genetic basis for the correlation between malaria and blood-borne disorders. He worked on population genetics and published a series of ten papers, A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection. He introduced the term ectogenesis (now popularly known as In vitro fertilization), and consequently influenced the work of Aldous Huxley. Transdisciplinary to the core, he navigated with ease through physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and mathematics. The intricate net he wove across these fields was the hallmark of his brilliance.

One of his important criticisms of the education system in India was that students were forced into dropping mathematics in their secondary education if they wanted to pursue biology. The criticism is as applicable today as it was then. The need to take a corrective measure is even more compelling today if India is to ever establish itself as a home for basic science.

There are layers in Haldane’s work that have darker undertones, such as eugenics, and more generally, the intersection of genetics and politics. As the last few years have shown, such views still lurk amongst us in the narrative of contemporary politics, even if the way they are expressed is less overt. Haldane’s inner contradictions and the dystopian possibilities created by his views aside, his contributions to science, and more importantly, to the scientific method itself, are irrefutable and must be made more widely known. To that end, Subramaniam’s book is an important contribution.

 

Mathematics

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_HotMoleculesColdElectrons-201x300 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh10. Paul Nahin. Hot Molecules, Cold Electrons: From the Mathematics of Heat to the Development of the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Nahin has written numerous books that help physics and mathematics reach broader audiences. I have made references to his earlier books—An Imaginary Tale: The Story of √-1 and The Logician and the Engineer: How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created the Information Age—in my Top-10 reviews in the past. My interest in Nahin’s work rekindled after I started visiting Hiram Chodosh at Claremont McKenna on a regular basis some years ago. Nahin had taught at Harvey Mudd College.

The book starts with the role that mathematics played in the grand unification works by Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell. Then, moving to the next major work of unification, Einstein’s theories of relativity, Nahin points out that mathematics played a central role there as well. Einstein received much help from his former classmate and mathematician, Marcel Grossman, and was able to express mathematically something whose physical significance he already knew intuitively.

Nahin uses these better-known examples to make a case for an older, lesser-known story that he wanted to tell—the story of Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier and his theory of heat propagation in solids (hence the reference to “hot molecules” in the book’s title). Nahin does a remarkable job of helping the reader become literate in Fourier’s math, then deriving the heat equation from first principles of conservation of energy, and finally showing how this was applicable to the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable—a feat that was accomplished thirty years after Fourier’s death. The phrase “cold electrons” in the title stems from the fact that the movement of electrons was in the cable buried deep in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

While the book is rich in mathematical equations, I can say two things to ensure that it does not scare you away. First, you can skip the equations and the rest of the prose will still make perfect sense. Second, the book assumes only the most rudimentary knowledge of calculus. If you remember your high school mathematics, you might actually enjoy the equations, or at least become reacquainted with them. If you were ever labeled a geek, you are bound to go explore the MATLAB code for solving the heat equation.

 

Blog130_AjitSingh2020BookReview_GirlReading-300x200 2020 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghHave you read any of these books? What did you think? Are there others you would add? Let us know in the comments below. Even better, if you love books and want to talk about them with others, you can do so on Konversai—a global knowledge platform that allows for one-on-one live video conversations with anyone, anywhere, about anything. Knowledge providers on the platform have the opportunity to make extra money sharing the things they know and love, while knowledge seekers can enjoy personalized sessions with a live human being catered to exactly what they’re looking to learn on any topic. Sessions are scheduled at times that are mutually convenient for both parties, and neither has to leave the comfort of their home.  All users are encouraged to both knowledge providers and knowledge seekers on any and as many topics as they wish. Any and all knowledge, skills, and experiences have a place on Konversai—the only limit is your imagination. Konversai’s mission is to democratize knowledge, put the human connection back into the heart of technology, and make the world better by enabling meaningful and authentic conversations that can improve people’s lives. Don’t miss the opportunity to be part of realizing this mission. Join Konversai today!

You can learn more about Ajit in his Konversai interview from October 2016, and you can book a session with him on Konversai.

 

Edited by Pavita Singh

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