At the start of 2009, I committed to read one book per week, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. I'm happy to report that among my many resolutions I made I have managed to stick to this... and this resolution alone.
For someone severely lacking discipline as my self, I'm surprised at my devotion to sticking my face between the pages of books. Since January, I've in fact significantly cut down my online surfing time in the evening to give way to reading.
The rule is I should be reading by 10 p.m. and I should read at least two hours per night. We all know what a challenge that is to my infamous attention span, chai mai?
Often I finish a couple of books per week. That obviously is one book beyond my quota and is an accomplishment in itself considering what a sloooooowwwww reader I really am.
OK, enough about me.
Let's read books, all right?
Below are some of my more noteworthy reads in the past few months:
Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood
"Immortality," said Crake, "is a concept. If you take 'mortality' as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then 'immortality' is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the fear, and you'll be..."
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, having been previously spellbound by The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, and The Blind Assassin.
Oryx and Crake is an apocalyptic tale of the future of humanity (or the lack of it) if man acts god. This novel gives readers a glimpse into the many horrible things that could go wrong with our civilization, thanks to global warming, hyper-entertainment, corporate megalomania, and most strikingly, the perils of genetic modification.
Using vivid language, Atwood does not preach, rather she leaves you spooked and perplexed (in a nice way). A total must-read for those who are into novels that raise questions more than give answers.
The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall (2006) by Ian Bremmer
All states on the left side of the J curve are eventually headed to instability and fundamental change, because repression and isolation from the outside world cannot be maintained forever. Every wall erodes. Over time, for every repressive action, there is an equal and opposite reaction of resistance.
The J curve is an adroit way to illustrate that a nation's stability is dependent on its level of openness. From the left side of the curve, as a nation opens up it becomes less stable initially and eventually transitions to stability.
Bremmer explores the cases of extremely closed states (Cuba and North Korea), moderately closed states (Saudi Arabia), states that reached the bottom of the J curve (South Africa and Yugoslavia), and more open states (Israel, Turkey, and India), and these countries' peculiar historical, social, and political contexts that landed them on certain points of the J curve.
Essentially, the author suggests that only by giving citizens (starting from the middle class) of closed states a means to interact with the rest of the free world - and absolutely not through economic sanctions - would autocratic governments be pressured from within to increase their level of openness.
Despite its scope, the book is very easy to grasp largely because of its clear language and coherent argument. The framework obviously makes it easier to understand the complexity of geo-politics. I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in international relations and globalization.
The Geography of Bliss (2008) by Eric Weiner
Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.
... so concludes Eric Weiner in his brilliant, brilliant, and I mean brilliant book on searching for the happiest places in the world. This book served numerous "aha!" moments to me.
The author travels to various locations in the globe to explore happiness... Iceland, Switzerland, Bhutan, Moldova, Qatar, the UK, etc. What he discovered is that there is absolutely no one formula for happiness. He says, "Places are the same. It's not the elements that matter so much as how they're arranged and in which proportions... Getting the balance is important."
Interestingly enough, the author also made a stop over in Thailand where he observes in a chapter called "Thailand: Where Happiness is Not Thinking"...
... on Thai permissiveness: "They merely acknowledge human urges, erotic and monetary, and get on with it... [an author wrote] that in Thailand, 'Anything too big to be swept under the carpet is automatically counted as furniture'. The Thais might not like the furniture, might constantly be bumping into it, but they don't deny its existence."
... on the Thai smile: "Just as the Inuit are said to have may words for snow, the Thais have many words for smile. There is yim cheun chom, the I-admire-you smile, and yim thak thaan, the I-disagree-with-you-but-go-ahead-propose-your-bad-idea smile. There is yim sao, the sad smile. And my favorite: yim mai awk, the I'm-trying-to-smile-but-can't-smile... It's all fascinating, but I also find the Thais' variety pack of smiles disconcerting."
... on mai pen rai: "It means "never mind". Not the 'never mind' that we in the west often use angrily, as in 'Oh, never mind, I'll do it my self', but a real, just-drop-it-and-get-on-with-life 'never mind'. Foreigners living in Thailand either adopt the mai pen rai attitude or go insane."
So there, the book weaves all these anecdotes from different cultures. For more good-humored insights into how different societies interpret and pursue happiness, I definitely recommend this superb book.