Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Book Review

I just completed reading the 50th anniversary edition of this classic book, "To Kill A Mockingbird", by Harper Lee. A mockingbird entertains the listeners by its pleasant songs often mimicking other birds. The title of this book roughly implies that it is always a crime to harm a person who has always been helpful to you. This subtle lesson for everyone's life has been effectively conveyed by Harper Lee through the eyes of a third grade girl child called 'Scout' Jean Louise Finch. The main protagonist of this novel being her father Atticus Finch. Though the novel is bit dated, it is a pleasurable read even today. Let us see why.

The plot of the novel is based on the incidents in a county called Maycomb in the US. Widower Atticus Finch, an advocate by profession, lives with his two children - 'Scout' Jean Louise Finch and 'Jem' Jeremy Finch. They are accompanied in their house by a cook called Calpurnia, who is a Negro. Jem is elder to Scout and they have their neighbor Dill who accompanies them during vacations. Atticus defends a Negro called Tom, a married man, accused of raping a white woman. The girl's father Bob Ewell is a notorious trouble maker. The novel unfolds how the hierarchy in American society influences the lives of Atticus and his family.

I really liked the character of Atticus as a father. Jem and Scout learn a lot of good habits from them and Atticus never loses his cool even when his children do some mischief like poking neighbor Boo Radley. The entire story's soul is Scout who is the narrator of all the incidents leading to the fracture of Jem's hand. Their affection towards Dill, a deprived child, moves you. The first person narration of Scout brings out the innocence evident in a kid of her age. Other characters like Tom Robinson, aunt Alexandra, and cook Calpurnia are all very realistic. Even the characters such as the neighbors of Scout, Bob Ewell, and Heck Tate keep the story more interesting.

The only complaint about this novel may be that it stagnates at times on even minute details. But all the loose ends are tied and well knit towards the end making this novel a sort of thriller. It is an irony that Harper Lee never wrote another novel after writing this one. She might have surely felt that the expectations would be sky high from the readers after producing a timeless classic like "To Kill a Mockingbird". She might not have wanted to risk trying to exceed the perfect story telling evident throughout this novel. I liked this novel and strongly recommend to readers who enjoy English classics.

This novel is really a must read as it educates one as how parents have to live by example to make better humans out of their children. It also exposes the disparity prevalent in societies across the world. There was incidentally an English film of the same name based on this novel. Gregory Peck won the best actor Academy award for portraying the role of Atticus Finch. There were two more Academy awards for this film that year. However, I feel the entire credit for the film must be attributed to Harper Lee. She was instrumental in delivering a masterpiece which may be classified as one of the best English novels ever written. This novel is an important addition to any one's bookshelf.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan - Book Review

I recently read "The Dragons of Eden - Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence" by Carl Sagan. I was inspired by his more famous book on the universe called "Cosmos" which I had read last year. I would personally rate this book more interesting and insightful than Cosmos. Cosmos was expected to be a great book as it was a product of one of the great space scientists ever. Human intelligence and neuroscience had never been Sagan's area of research, which he himself acknowledges in the book. In terms of explaining the basic human brain function, Sagan has topped even most of the present day neuroscience researchers.

Though I have a masters degree through research in neuroscience (Hippocampus, in particular), I never had the access to the amount of in-depth knowledge which Sagan provides in this book. I have developed a new sense of love for neuroscience and human intelligence after reading this book. Sagan, being a strong supporter of evolution, provides ample evidences to support his causes. The beauty about Sagan's writing is that he accepts as mere speculations those ideas which he himself is not confident. This is indeed the true character of some of the top notch researchers, whose percentage is sadly dwindling over the years.

I was amazed how Sagan uses the mapping of the entire evolution of universe to a single calendar year and explains evolution. Sagan provides credit to top researchers wherever it is due, which makes the book even more credible. I liked the sections of interaction of right and left brain hemispheres through corpus callosum. I could relate such ideas with the popular neuroscience texts I read over the past 6 years. Sagan even talks about the brains of other species and how the human intelligence is more to do with the evolution of a larger cortex region. Sagan also provides an analysis of what happens when one dreams and digresses at many places without getting the reader bored.

This book is a real treasure for those who are interested in understanding the evolution of human intelligence through the words of the best popular science writer. I have already ordered for reading his another masterpiece, "The Demon Haunted World", which exposes pseudo and fake science. Sagan condemns such fake irrational ideas proclaimed as science towards the end in "The Dragons of Eden". I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining knowledge of basic neuroscience, cognition, and evolution. I can guarantee that it will be an once in a lifetime experience of tracking own existence at present. This book is a must read for people of any age who can understand basic English.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das - Book Review

After a long time spent in reading mediocre books, I was searching for an ideal book to revive my reading habit. This fantastic book, "The Difficulty of Being Good - On the Subtle Art of Dharma" by Gurcharan Das, was recently released as a part of low-priced popular Penguin initiative. Gurcharan Das was an Ex-CEO of Procter & Gamble India. He took an early retirement to concentrate more on his literary contributions. He is mostly known for his other famous book called "India Unbound" which promotes capitalistic ideals of modern India. Though I started reading "India Unbound" inspired by his book on Dharma, it did not impress me much.

The book, "The Difficulty of Being Good", landed me in a whole new world of Dharma (being good or perfect, roughly) and its various implications as suggested through various incidents in the Indian epic Mahabharata. After 6 years of research reading Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das has indeed delivered a masterpiece. Though there are various versions of Mahabharata and its commentary are prevalent, I have never seen such an in-depth analysis of the major incidents of Mahabharata. I was not mature enough to understand the epic completely when it was shown in Doordarshan long back.

The beauty of this book is that one can directly read this book without having ever come close to hearing about this Indian epic. Gurcharan Das, in particular focuses on 2 types of Dharma in the epic called 'Sva-Dharma' (perfectness based on oneself and his/her tradition) and 'Sadharana Dharma' (perfectness which is universally accepted). Different Mahabharata characters like Yudhishtra, Arjuna, Karna, Krishna, Duryodhana, Dhridharashtra, Drowpadi, etc. are used as tools to explain the intricacies of the Dharma. It might be a spoiler, but I can't resist admiring how Das primarily employs Yudhishtra to explain the different phases of Dharma one has to go through in real life.

Even a person well versed with Mahabharata will find this book full of wisdom he/she has never learnt before. I am amazed how the tricky incidents of Mahabharata are being repeated in various forms often in this modern world. Another extra-ordinary attempt by Das is that he does not view this epic as a Hindu religious book, thereby avoiding biased religious views from affecting the perfect understanding of the Dharma as illustrated in the Mahabharata. I strongly recommend this book for anyone in this world who would like to delve into the world of Dharma and the practice of it in everyday life. I enjoyed every page of this book thoroughly. A Must Read.