Wonder, by R.J.Palacio
[Image courtesy of Goodreads]
Depending on how you normally view things in the world, this book can read like one that inspires hope. Or it can read like one that sounds so phoney that it’s almost like a fantasy story.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the book, and it made me feel really good reading it, especially with the fact that I have a young child and how she copes with school life (and real life) worries me all the time. The story reassures me that there is more kindness than meanness in the world. People are born good, and bad behaviour loses its attraction over time.
Plus, the writer’s manipulation of events and situations in the story, and his ability to make the voices of the characters sound so authentic make the story a great read. A kid sounded like a kid, and a teenager sounded like a teenager.
Yet, I can’t help feeling that what happened in the book seems so far from reality most of the time. I mean, how often do we get children (and adults for that matter) like Summer and Jack who can resist being part of the popular group and have the courage to stand up for what they think is right or better? I’m not saying there aren’t such folks around, just that they are few and far between. I’m not even sure I’d have the courage to be Summer or Jack as an adult.
Nevertheless, I picked up the book because they’ve made a movie out of it, and I wanted to read it before I watched it. I think I’m looking forward to the movie. Of course, the fact that Julia Roberts is going to be the mum helps. I hope it won’t disappoint.
And yes, I will strive to spread a little bit of kindness each day. To quote from Mr Browne’s first precept in the book, it’s more important to be kind than to be right all the time.
VERDICT: Read it before you watch it… if you’re going to watch it that is.
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
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Wow, what a read.
I learnt that sapiens went from the middle of the food chain to the top because our ancestors knew how to cooperate in large groups. And they did that by creating myths – institutions and systems that sapiens believe in. Of course, this is not the only juicy bit from the book, but it was the most striking one for me.
The book raises more questions than answers, and I suppose that is good in a way, and totally expected of an academic writer. Yet, it can get frustrating sometimes, especially when I found myself going through the same section more than once, trying to get to the point that the writer was trying to convey.
Nevertheless, the book is written in a simple style, and certainly does not read like a boring history paper. The writer has tried to communicate big concepts in simple language, and I think he has managed to do it.
The last couple of chapters are more forward-looking, and talks about future possibilities very briefly. He recently published Homo Deus, which is like a “sequel” to this book. Some say it’s an unworthy extension of Sapiens; others find it an equally good read. I’m going to try it out!
VERDICT: Because the scope covered in the book is so wide, do not expect detailed descriptions of what happened in the history of human development. But if you’re looking for something that will help you understand our past and think about what it means for our future, try this book.
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
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This is one of those books that give me hope, and yet make me worry about the future at the same time.
Having just gone through my grandmother’s passing last year, and facing two sets of aging parents from both my husband and myself, the thought of one’s mortality has been on my mind recently. Hearing about my husband’s colleague’s struggle with his elderly mother and a sister who has recently been diagnosed with cancer actually made it worse.. This was when I finally picked up the book, even though I had come across it some time back. I had thought it would be too depressing then.
Reading the book brought clarity to the questions we should be asking, when one is dying and time is short. Medicine and doctors, as opposed to common belief, do not have all the answers. But doing so requires a big shift in perspective, not just for the one dying, but also for the caregivers and onlooking loved ones. The writer has not only managed to capture all these through an engaging storytelling of cases he has come across, but also through his own experiences.
Yet, what worries me is that our ecosystem and society may not be ready for such an enlightened approach towards death. I’m glad this book has forced people to think about the limits of medicine and doctors, and what is possible beyond traditional nursing homes and medical treatments that may not be the best options sometimes.
VERDICT: This is a must read for everyone, not just folks who are in the healthcare industry. Because we are all mortals.
Irresistible, by Adam Atler
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Nope, this is not some saucy, titillating romance novel with the picture of a half-naked man and a scantily dressed woman in a hot embrace.
Instead, the cover picture shows a lit smartphone. It’s a book about behavioral addiction and how technology can make it worse. It’s also about how contributing elements in behavioral addiction can be used to grow good habits.
Interestingly, the way the book was written (it’s short and to the point; there are lots of stories; it’s well-organized and allows a step-by-step easy, progressive understanding of the points put forth) can be addictive for the reader. At least it was for me. This is despite the fact that many of the points and arguments in the book were not new to me. I’ve seen many articles, columns and papers written on this topic. What Atler has done is put everything into a concise and highly readable piece that tells us the history and psychology of addiction, how businesses and game developers are using a combination of technology and psychology to hook people (for good or bad), and how not to get addicted. There is even a chapter on what parents can do to prevent kids from falling into that trap from young.
Midway through the book, I was so curious about seeing the theory explained in action that I actually logged on to the Apple App Store and downloaded a few top-rated games to try, just to see if they had the psychological hooks designed into them.
They all had, some more than others.
I like to think that being conscious about those hooks somehow saved me from being sucked into the games.
VERDICT: The book can be an enjoyable read, whether you are into game development, social media marketing, or just concerned about your kids spending too much time online.
The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza, by Cyril Wong
[Image courtesy of Epigram Books]
Another local book by Cyril Wong. It’s a novel this time, albeit a short one.
The plot was predictable, but I think credit must be given for the way Wong has crafted the entire tale, from the way Mrs De Souza’s story was drawn out, to the way different strands of emotion were injected into the storytelling. I really like how Wong has so aptly described the way one’s perception and memory of events can be shaped by one’s biases and beliefs, and can therefore end up being highly unreliable.
Yet, I’m not sure Cyril Wong will ever be one of my favourite local authors, either because of the constant melancholy I feel whenever I read his works, or because of the themes he usually chooses for his stories. I do appreciate good humour and playful jabs at the ironies in life sometimes, and that seems to be missing in Wong’s writings. But I suppose that’s just a matter of style and personal preferences. Wong probably just has something different to say, and that something does not resonate as strongly with me.
VERDICT: If you had tried “Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me” and had liked the short stories, this longer story is written in a similar style and might appeal to you.
The River’s Song, by Suchen Christine Lim
[Image courtesy of suchenchristinelim.com]
I fell in love with Lim’s writing when I was just a teenager and discovered “Rice Bowl” and “Gift from the Gods” in the local library. At that time, she was one of the few local writers who got published, and those two books opened my eyes to the fact that local stories could touch my heart as powerfully as, if not more than, one from a foreign writer.
I cannot remember what happened after those two books, because I’ve not read one of her latter novels since (there have been four, including “The River’s Song”). But I’m glad I found this, again thanks to the recent read-local campaign.
I love the way Lim has skilfully weaved historical and cultural elements into her story of love, life, family and identity. The twist at the end about Ping’s parentage and her relationship with her mother added a dash of surprise and smartly goaded the reader (or at least me) to think about our own assumptions and biases in life. I also love the way local places are vividly described in the story, and how the writer has used Chinese classical and folk music as an emotional thread throughout the book. I could almost hear or feel the music in Lim’s descriptions, and I’m now itching to find some of those pieces to listen to.
I’m going to find those other three books of hers that I had missed out for the last twenty years.
VERDICT: Some might say the plot is not entirely something new, but the writer’s beautiful prose and storytelling prowess more than make up for it. I say try it!
Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me, by Cyril Wong
[Image courtesy of Epigram Books]
Another book of short stories! And a local one too.
Cyril Wong’s books have always caught my attention with their curious titles, but I have never gotten round to any of them. Until now, that is. The bookstore in town had a members’ sale and feeling particularly lavish (and very starved for good books), I grabbed any book that caught my eye while I was there. This happened to be one of them. I rationalized to myself that this was one of those books that had been in my mental TBR list anyway, and the recent read-local campaign was still fresh in my mind.
Ironically, the title story wasn’t one of my favourite ones in the book. It could even be one of my least favourite, despite it reading like the author’s autobiography, maybe even a creative one. Perhaps it’s got to do with the somewhat melancholic tone I detected. I was kind of disturbed at the end of the story. Well, some people might think that’s good, but I sure didn’t like it.
The story that managed to draw me in was the one about a boy who could see spirits. It actually managed to send a chill down my spine. It not only took me a while to shake off the eerie feeling, but also brought to mind how lonely and desperate for companionship we city dwellers sometimes are.
What I got from the stories are probably derived from my own experiences, emotional baggage and perspectives, and may not be what Wong had tried to paint. But I suppose that is the magic of literature.
VERDICT: You will either hate this collection, or love it. But other than a few references to local places, attitudes and slang, you might not even realize the stories came from a Singaporean writer.