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nbarman

nbarman

Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood I happened upon Christer Isherwood's 1939 book, "Goodbye to Berlin" on the shelves of The Strand in New York City. George Orwell had endorsed this book with the statement - "Brilliant sketches of a society in decay." This sparked my curiosity to read more about 1930s Berlin, and I now feel tremendously rewarded for having read it.

"Goodbye to Berlin" is technically a fiction novel, but it is a largely autobiographical account, based on the author's diaries while living in Berlin. Isherwood gives us novella-like glimpses into the lives of a variety of characters that he encounters, befriends, lives with and shares moments with during his time in Berlin.

What strikes me about the characters in this book and the lives he describes is how utterly modern 1930s Berlin is - and how similar it is to, say, New York City today. There is Sally - adventurous, independent, proud of her crude sense of humor and her numerous affairs; there are Peter and Otto, the gay couple who can't seem to get along; there is Natalia, always speaking in the repressed, schoolgirlish tone of an overprotected daughter from a patriarchal family ("I do not understand what this modern books mean when they say the mother and father always must have quarrel with the children. You know, it would be impossible that I can have quarrel with my parents. Impossible. Absolutely impossible, because I know that my father and my mother love me. And so they are thinking always not of themselves but of what is for me the best"); there is Otto's mother, surviving with little money and little family support - it is a collage of ordinary Berlin society - each person with his own history, her own sufferings and longings for the future.

Amidst this all, Germany's political situation fraught. Nazi sympathizers are all over town, just as there are communists, gays, Jews and Nazi opposers. Coffee-shop conversations about the political situation are as heated or as mundane as what you might hear in any American city today. Academics and intellectuals feel lightly repressed but they either feel that things will blow over or they are apathetic to attempt bringing any real change.

As the novel progresses, so too does the rise of the Nazis. What happens with Frl. Schroeder is symptomatic of what happens with all of Berlin - "It's no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about 'Der Führer' to the porter's wife. If anybody were to remind her that at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town."

This paragraph was important in the parallels it draws to mind with our present time. The idea that entire communities simply acclimatize is a scary one. That's what happens in Orwell's "1984". It's also similar to what Dave Eggers is writing about with regard to social media in "The Circle." When societies suspend rationality and disbelief, when discourse ceases or is supplanted by sound bites, when politics become ideologically driven, the foundation of a civilization weakens and dangerous possibilities suddenly become viable.

I will close this review with a scene Isherwood describes. He witnesses a boxing match where all the boxers are essentially actors performing a role. One boxer is told to win, the other one is told to lose, one is told to look injured, etc. The audience can witness everything that's going on - "The referee… calls for a challenger from the audience. Before any bona fide challenger can reply, another young man, who has been quite openly chatting and joking with the wrestlers, jumps hastily into the ring and strips off his clothes, revealing himself already dressed in shorts and boxer's boots. The referee announces a purse of five marks; and, this time, the Negro is 'knocked out'. The audience took the fights dead seriously, shouting encouragement to the fighters, and even quarreling and betting amongst themselves on the results. Yet nearly all of them had been in the tent as long as I had, and stayed on after I had left. The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything."

This ability to believe "in anybody or anything" creates an environment that power brokers often exploit - whether it's Nazi Germany, "Big Brother" in 1984, the "Dear Leader" in Kim Jong Il's North Korea, or the ominous not-so-fictional world of Dave Eggers where slogans ("All that happens must be known" and "Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft") supplant critical thinking and genuine political discourse. In each case, it is the ordinary citizen that suffers, it is the exploited that become further exploited and it is tacit acceptance by mainstream society which allow civilizations to crumble.
The Death of the Liberal Class - Chris Hedges I found this to be a very worthwhile book to read because it really makes the reader think and question socioeconomic trends and norms that we often take for granted. Other reviewers have done a really strong job in critiquing the book's shortcomings - among them a lack of practical actions that the author recommends, an editorial sense of disorganization about the book, etc, but in spite of these legitimate shortcomings, I found this book to be an important, very important, social critique that really ought to be widely read by any thinking citizen who cares about the world we are inhabiting and cultivating. Next, however, there needs to be more dialogue about solutions.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory - Anuvab Pal I'll deliver the good news first. After a not insignificant amount of patience and perseverance, I managed to read this book in its entirety, and came away thinking that it somewhat redeemed itself toward the end. It ended up being poignant and leaving the reader with a delicate set of experiences to ponder. But now for the not-so-good-news, which is that the book was poorly written and poorly edited. Dialogues and scenes lacked credibility, the author's various biases entered into the characters' world views, and the language of the text itself was awkward and amateurish. I can't quite recommend this book very strongly, but at the same time I don't regret reading it. This author may have something in the future where he is able to write in a more authentic and credible voice.
The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro I enjoyed the book from the first page to the last. It's a light read, part thriller, part art-world exposé, part historical period piece, but the most important thing I can say about this book is that it had me intrigued from the first page to the last. As far as lighter reading goes, this book nails it masterfully.
Status Anxiety - Alain de Botton This was an entertaining, serious book of comparative philosophy that eloquently communicates its thesis about the history of "status" in society. I greatly enjoyed, and benefited from reading it.
Lovers - Daniel Arsand, Howard Curtis I thought this was a beautiful book - masterfully crafted, sparsely written, artistic. What Arsand has done with very few words in this book is remarkably poetic.
The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson This book is tremendous. It will shake you and keep shaking you through the roller coaster ride that is the North Korean narrative. This book even overshadows other dystopian fiction like Orwell's 1984 simply because it is so much more than an author's imagined creation. It feels as though someone read 1984 as a field guide and used it to conjure up a real place, except that the real place is even more jarring, even less believable, even more shaped by the power of propagandist narrative than Orwell's fiction could have conjured.

Johnson has done a stunning job of blending together a compelling narrative along with deep research into a land that most of us have only vague notions about. While reading this book, I started reading North Korean news websites and watching YouTube videos and documentaries that were accessible to me. What I started realizing was how accurate Johnson's depictions were, and how little embellishment there was even for some of the most unbelievable scenes.

It has now been over a month since I read this book but it still remains fresh in my mind as an eye-opener, a thriller, an educational journey and a good piece of literary fiction to read. I highly recommend it.
Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success - Ken Segall Okay book but 90% of it is recycled material, so it doesn't contain much that's fresh or new.
Nine Lives - William Dalrymple This book is absolutely brilliant. Dalrymple takes a socio-cultural and anthological look at some very diverse and non-mainstream forms of religious practice and spiritual pursuit in India. What Dalrymple has done, in a single book, is amazing. If you're interested in learning about how religion might have begun (all over the world) then evolved, grown up, turned into something mainstream, and ultimately something that has largely become standardized in large parts of the world, this book will mesmerize you. India is one of the only remaining places where ancient and non mainstream religious practices have survived over countless centuries. Dalrymple describes these practices through rich, vivid profiles of nine very different lives, all seeking spiritual enrichment in their own communities through very unique ways. I recommend this book to everyone interested in the subject. I found myself highlighting large parts of the book so I can revisit them.
The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides I agree with the majority of readers that the book can be a bit of a discouragement during the first 100 or so pages. But as I read on, I was impressed with the scope and breadth of Eugenides' writing. There is a lot to like in this book, although there is a lot that could have been better edited. Overall though, I found the journey of the narrative to be enjoyable, I admired how the characters developed and by the end of the book, I was glad to have read it.
The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India - Siddhartha Deb For those of us that live outside of India and take trips there, it is easy for us to wax eloquent about how much "fun" India is, or how affectionate people are or how glamorous things can be or how much easier life in India is with the help of servants and drivers and relatively inexpensive labor. What lies just beneath the surface, however, is something we mostly miss out on not living there. And for those of us that live there, we are doing what is necessary to survive in what is essentially a brutal place.

This book is a stark reminder of the constant brutality that lies just beneath the surface but is all pervasive in Indian society. Helplessness for just about anyone is a real fear. Even those who are privileged and seemingly above it all are affected by the brutality. One is either being brutalized, on the brink of being brutalized, conducting brutality upon others, or simply complicit by buying into the system. And for the remaining few who are not complicit, well, they're usually living in self-created bubble of ignorance, borne almost always out of privilege.
The Stranger's Child - Alan Hollinghurst I normally write my own book reviews, but this one review was so spot on, and it reflected my own thoughts so closely, that I'm including a link to it instead:

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/267985179
Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything - F.S. Michaels This is an entirely worthwhile book to read because the central premise of it is so right and so powerful. However, as another reviewer has pointed out, the writing is weak and the way the author has structured his argument could have been much more powerful. The main reason to read this book, though, is to grasp the concept of a monoculture and recognize that we exist within one here in the United States. People who travel to other countries and cultures will recognize this reality very readily. I think the description of the monoculture in the United States put forth by Michaels is incomplete though. The thesis posited here should be further explored and more work should be done in this area.
The Sly Company of People Who Care - Rahul Bhattacharya This book took me a while to get into, but oh what a book! Rahul Bhattacharya has done a beautiful job chronicling his (purportedly fictional) wanderings through Guyana and neighboring countries. Bhattacharya's prose is lyrical and poetic, he is an adept observer and an even better mimic who manages to entertain, enlighten and make you poignant all at the same time. The book is not specifically engaging, nor does it have much of a plot, but that is beside the point. The narrator meanders from one place to another, experiencing one set of people and then another, one adventure or tragedy followed by another and he goes on taking it all in. There is a sense of privilege about the narrator, for being able to do this in a land where priorities and perspectives are necessarily hardened by the realities of survival. To read about Guyana from the perspective of an Indian; moreover to see the narrator's modern Indian outlook juxtaposed with a transplanted rural outlook derived in large part from India and re-enacted with local flavor in Guyana is simply spectacular. Many realities play themselves out in the same space. The author is participant, narrator, chronicler, observer and player all at once. Read this book for a unique and adventurous journey. Forgive it its minor blemishes - this is Bhattacharya's debut novel and in some parts it shows. Read it with an open mind and it will take you to magical places.
By Nightfall - Michael Cunningham This was a very quick read, and I generally enjoyed the book. It captures, in quite a real sense, the existential crisis of the protagonist. I enjoyed the development of a romance that never quite was, and the possibilities that never took root. I cannot say that this is an important book or a particularly literary one (though Cunningham does write some beautiful sentences), but it captures some real experiences in a time and a place that are relatable.
Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible: Seven Radical Principles That Will Transform Your Business - Daniel Burrus, John David Mann Burrus highlights some key frameworks for where technology is taking us in the future. A lot of his examples are inspiring, and a lot of them are slightly obvious. Nevertheless, Burrus has some very valuable points in this book and it is worth reading for anyone either in business or interested in technology.