Sunday, 16 February 2014

I moved!

I've relocated the blog (and all the posts) over to scicommbobulate.com.

Monday, 20 January 2014

52-book Challenge

Last year I think I read between 25 and 30 books but only wrote up a review (either here or on Goodreads) for a handful of them. This year I have set myself the challenge of reading (at least) one book a week for the entire year.

To avoid my personal challenge being just a numbers game I’m vowing to write up at least a couple of hundred words for every single book I read this year. I read very differently when I know I have to write about it afterwards; it forces me to really think things through and reflect on what I have just experienced and not just move on to the next book, which I am sometimes guilty of doing.

White Tiger was (review below) the second book in my 52 books in 2014 challenge, the first was Bo Burnham's EggheadWeek 3’s book is AC Grayling’s Liberty in the Age of Terror, which I finished reading today. I’ll post a review either Wednesday or Thursday.

Next up is Erik Tunstad’s Juks, a Norwegian book about scientific fraud. I’m also very privileged and lucky to be reading a pre-publication copy of Greta Christina’s Coming Out Atheist. I’ll be reviewing the book as one of the Contributing Editors for the new Rationalist Magazine being set up by Sanal Edamaruku - but that’s for a separate post. Coming Out Atheist will be released in April and my review will be in issue two of the magazine, out sometime early May. I've not decided what the book for Week 5 might be; Genes, Cells and Brains by Steven and Mary Rose has been on my reading pile for a while so it might be that.

The plan is to post a list of the 52 books at the end of the year and try to arrange them into some sort of Top 10. Incidentally, my favourite fiction book of last year was Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (book three was released in September, so it counts); there was no real runaway winner for non-fiction so I’ll have to have more of a think about.

Book review: White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The best word to describe White Tiger is discomfiting. Discomfiting for the way it unflinchingly details the brutal lives of many millions of India’s poorest, for the way it exposes the contradictions at the heart of Indian society, and for the way it lays out the lengths people will go to in order to stay out of poverty or get out of it.
The white tiger of the title is a man who comes from such poverty that he doesn’t even have a name of his own. As a child growing up in ‘the Darkness’, the rural India home to its poorest, he goes by munna (an affectionate term for ‘boy’) until he is given the name Balram by a school teacher (his surname, Halwai, is the name of an Indian sweet and Balram comes from a cast of sweet-makers).


Later, as he weasels and schemes his way through various jobs in servitude to something resembling middle class respectability as the owner of taxi service for the growing mass of Bangalore’s IT workers, he adopts the name Ashok, after his former boss – the one, we find out very early on, he both thought of as a father, and murdered. It’s an act that is a mix of respectful tribute and sick joke, capturing the heart of the story and the nature of our ambitious anti-hero, who is both thoroughly despicable and yet funny, smart and, in many ways, admirably just making the most of a bad situation.

The narrative takes the form of a series of letters, written daily over the course of a week and addressed to the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. It’s a premise that allows Adiga to make some neat, and admittedly very funny, observations about the similarities and differences between ‘the brown man and the yellow man’, the East and the West, but, for me, it feels contrived and in many ways undermines some of Adiga’s good work and satire. What’s essentially a straightforward first-person account, which takes in detailed personal reflection and verbatim recollections of conversations held long ago, doesn’t sit well with what is supposed to be a written letter. Having the narrative suddenly shift as Balram directly addresses Jiabao (‘Sir’) is jarring, pulling you out of the story, and his purpose in writing the letters in the first place is never explained.

Where the book is excellent is in its depictions of a modern India that is struggling to reconcile a ballooning middle class (made rich by the West outsourcing much of their IT infrastructure) with a population of millions still living in abject poverty, in a modern democracy where everyone still has their price and corruption is rife. For those that have never visited India, I can vouch for the book's savage intensity and uncompromising description of life there.

Balram’s philosophy is that ‘people should be treated like people and animals should be treated like animals’, but there are countless ways in which we see that this is plainly not something that guides his actions, or those of anyone around him. In the Darkness, the bison eats before anyone else in the family; Balram’s father is reduced to being a beast of burden as he hauls around the marginally wealthier in his rickshaw; the rich, conniving landlords who preside over the farms and coal mines are given nicknames like the Mongoose, Buffalo and Stork, two poodles are fed and bathed more regularly than most men. Balram’s other philosophy, ‘eat or be eaten’ rings more true.

In critiquing some of the ills that plague modern India, Adiga sacrifices characterisation. Aside from Balram, most of the characters are little more than loosely drawn caricatures, particularly the evil landlords, who are made very much in the mould of traditional Bollywood bad guys. They often feel as though their sole role is for Adiga to score points, rather than add any particular depth to the story.

As the winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, I had perhaps expected a little more, despite the book being peppered with some wonderful, lyrical observations. In many respects, White Tiger is a traditional rags-to-riches story, but the decidedly unconventional anti-hero and the spice afforded by the Indian setting makes it a much more captivating read than it may actually deserve to be based on Balram's adventure alone.

My thanks got to my friend and colleague, Hana, who bought he book for my birthday last year!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Book review: Egghead: or, You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham

I can always count on my cousin for an off-the-wall book as a Christmas present and he out-did himself with Egghead, a collection of modern poetry by the young comedian, songwriter and performer, Bo Burnham.

The poems range from half a dozen words to two dozen lines which flit with dizzying frequency in tone, style and subject matter; serious and melancholic on one page, or even on one line, and whimsical and absurd the next. Candid, heartfelt, and occasionally surprisingly cynical musings on love, life and loneliness are interspersed with ditties on chameleons riding sex toys, golgi bodies and ant farms.


You never really know what to expect next other than that when the sucker-punch comes it’ll catch you off-guard and startle you in the way it reveals something about human nature.

Each of the poems are complemented by Chance Bone’s deceptively simple line drawings. Some of the illustrations are literal interpretations of the text, others are more obtuse; some echo the frequent non sequiturs in the poetry - they appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the words on the page and are just little stories unto themselves.  The juxtaposition of text and drawing draws your eye across the page whilst also taking your mind off in different directions, again adding to the impact of the punchline or observation.


Burnham’s self-awareness ripples through the book, but it stays very much on the right side of become irritating because it’s just so damn funny and clever in the way it plays with your expectations of him, the idea and the format. In Absurd, he writes “If the poem you’re writing is silly and dumb, / make sure that it rhymes at the end. Bum.” Verging on childish? Perhaps; Clever? Definitely. The self-awareness even extends to the subtitle. You can very well survive on ideas alone – Bo Burnam burgeoning career is proof of that; and long may it continue.

Fans of Tim Minchin will find a lot to love about Burnham's musical comedy.