Bookshelf - Fall 2019 - Part II (Deux)

7 minute read |

I didn’t stop at those four and for that I am grateful! Getting into reading is harder than it seems. Unlike many other activities, you cannot just do it offhand. You need to set aside enough time for it to be meaningfully productive, and energy to be able to focus well. This round of additions to my bookshelf borrows from very different sources and visits a diverse set of themes.

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
I bought this book a long time ago! Unfortunately, I never completed it. The story of the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai, is extraordinary, to say the least, not just in the hardships and upheavals that she and her family went through because of the Taliban, but in her utter defiance to the oppression that she was subjected to, driven by her innate sense of equality and liberty. The book goes over her life before and during the Taliban insurgency and rule in her hometown of Swat Valley, which she is keen to argue, was and remains the most beautiful place in the world. Born in a society that offers condolences on the birth of a daughter, she was welcomed to this world by a proud and loving father whose immense passion for education clearly passed on to her. Her story begins with a vivid account of her hometown in the pre-Taliban era complete with personal anecdotes of her life as a child, her family, her village and school, and experiences that she translates into life-lessons through careful and honest self-reflection. Her story then transitions into a detailed and highly personal account of the arrival of the Taliban. Life for her and others in Swat Valley takes a dire turn as the Taliban further their reign of terror which forces her father to become publicly active against the Taliban. Malala, idolizing her father, follows in his footsteps during which time she starts writing her diary with a BBC Urdu correspondent under the pen name “Gul Makai”. Her courage and firm belief in her core values and ideals is incredibly moving. Her perceptiveness and attentiveness to the overwhelmingly complex and terrifying events around her, make her account offer both a very graphic and yet realistic depiction of the harsh realities of her world that are otherwise beyond the comprehension of most. Sadly, what follows is the despicable event that brought her into the international spotlight. The book follows her heart-wrenching journey from the scene of the event all the way to Birmingham and her struggles there. Apart from her own story, Malala’s book humanizes a population of people that media often broadly paints as either terrorist themselves or sympathizers. Her recollection of the innocent ongoings of everyday life in one of the worst affected areas by the Taliban reminds us that common people seldom if ever, ask for such extremism in any form or purpose. Her struggle and fearlessness in the face of imminent danger show us that, good people willing to fight against oppression, fundamentalism, and extremism exist everywhere - all they need is a voice!

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond
No nation is a stranger to turmoil, instability, crises, and upheaval. However, only a few of them emerge with renewed vigor and strength. What sets them apart from the others that results in their apparent resilience? Or, is it just chance? Jared Diamond sets out to answer this incredibly difficult question in his new book. He creates an adaptation of the factors related to the outcome of personal crises into a set of analogous factors related to the outcome of national crises - acknowledging the crisis, recognizing concrete problematic features, reaching out to allies, problem-solving based on existing models, strengthening identity, honest self-appraisal, using historical experiences, working around constraints, and embracing core-values. The book then goes over 6 case-studies including Finland’s Wars with the Soviet Union, Japan’s Reformation, Chilean Revolution, Indonesian Revolution, Germany’s confrontation with its WW-II demons, and Australia’s identity crisis. The most impressive aspect of all this is Jared’s ability to extract and examine the most critically important factors amidst the seemingly never-ending twisted chaos that obscures these events. At the end of each chapter, he very carefully applies his framework to the situation, allowing the reader to soak in its beautiful complexity and nuance. Finally, the book uses this new lens and peers deeply at the problems that lie ahead for Japan, the United States, and the World at large. One of the key features of this book that stood out for me was its ability to make foreign lands in distant times with unimaginably complex problems feel accessible without losing their core essence. With his unique sense of clarity, Jared Diamond does these critical events justice and makes yet another intriguing read!

Pan’s Labyrinth, by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke
Rightly dubbed as “Alice in Wonderland” for adults, Pan’s Labyrinth transports us to a dark and dangerous world where the innocent curiosity and a desire to escape the harsh realities around her set off a young girl on a grim adventure, full of magic, terror, ghastly creatures and monstrous men, that ultimately claims her life. The book, based on the famous movie, very effectively evokes the same horrifying and tear-jerking emotions. The beautifully made macabre illustrations add to the immersive experience as we get to understand the deeper emotions of each character. The book, to top it all of, also has short fantastical folk tales that add more context to her dark bleak world. I found myself feeling and acting like a child sitting around a campfire captivated by the story being told. When the story is not focussing on Ofelia, the young girl, it exposes us to the dark side of the bloody conflict - its bloodlust, cruelty, malice, oppression, and suffering not only for those fighting but of their loved ones and families as well. Pan’s Labyrinth is a deviation from the norm of Disney fairy tales with a happy ending. Instead, it brings us back to what was perhaps the original form of such stories told by travelers passed on by word of mouth. The book offers a deeper dive into the psyche behind Ofelia and the other cast of well-developed characters which strengthens the bond the reader would feel for them and their motivations. It complements the movie very well and though it cannot match the movie’s raw visual visceral impact, it compensates well enough by immersing us into Ofelia’s heart, her world, her eternal escape, and her tragedy.

The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe
Meditation and Mindfulness were not new terms for me. I had heard them countless times before but never made an effort to really understand them. Growing up, for me, these terms were tainted by having a close relationship with extreme religious devotion, existential nihilism, or even apathy! Furthermore, spiritual “gurus” and cults had ruined these words for me even more. However, lately, I found that they were coming back in vogue and I felt that it was time to actually find out the reality behind them or at least one popular version of it.
The book starts off by setting the stage - motivation, benefits, some disambiguation of terminology along with a brief glimpse of his own past. Next, Andy explains the Approach to meditation and mindfulness through anecdotes and analogies that were passed on to him in monasteries and retreats by monks that he spent time with. The analogies are surprisingly rigorous and clear with a lot to unpack - “Meditation does not make you think, it shines a bright light on your thoughts and brings them to the center of your attention”. A large part of this section is devoted to meditation and emotion. Contrary to my previous disposition, Andy’s depiction of meditation and mindfulness paints a picture of profound kindness and empathy by arguing for imagining your unpleasant emotions as the discomfort of others you care about and vice-versa, and similarly, with imagining your pleasant emotions shared and given away to others. The goal here is to let go of attachment and resistance - easier said than done! There seems to be a very subtle line in grooming empathy this way and becoming a grey emotionless blob. Some people may even find it frustrating! Another concept Andy writes about is that of Gentle Curiosity - a gentle intrigue and open non-judgemental curiosity with a soft, open, and patient interest in the journey - a very romantic idea! The next sections on Practice, Integration in everyday life, and Practicalities all aim to make meditation and gaining mindfulness (or headspace) as conveniently accessible, non-intimidating, every day, and effective as possible.
This is not an academic text, nor does it aim to remove the “mysticism” associated with meditation and mindfulness. Andy’s work through this book and his venture, Headspace, aim to bring these tools to the masses for their benefit. Although there are academic texts that do question the apparent perceived philosophical underpinnings of meditation and mindfulness as publicized by him (or in the west in general), it doesn’t take away from the fact that Andy’s work remains one of the most accessible gateways to get started with these tools and begin enriching your life through them!