My 2015 in books

As 2015 comes to a close, its time to review my mission to read 52 books in 52 weeks in 2015. I have been documenting them as I read them on my Goodreads page, as well as on my Instagram account. (Goodreads has a nifty ‘year in books‘)

Below are the books that I rated 5 because I enjoyed them very much, and that I want to reread. I have added  some that I rated 4  because I have referred to them often in class or in conversation. They are all worth reading if you have not already.

  • The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking  – Oliver Burkeman
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  • Why Orwell Matters – Christopher Hitchens
  • Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life – Eric Greitens
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love – Cal Newport
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Sahota
  • Satin Island – Tom McCarthy
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions – -Dan Ariely
  • The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph – Ryan Holiday
  • Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative – Ken Robinson
  • The Wife Drought – Annabel Crabb
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness – Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine

Here’s a numbers listicle from my 2015 books.

  • 1 – number of people who read the least read book on my Goodreads
  • 3.6 – my average rating for books read
  • 4 – books I rated 2 stars
  • 6 – number of books I gave up on
  • 4.21 – highest Goodreads rating for a book read
  • 10 – books I rated 5 stars
  • 11 – memoirs/biographies read
  • 17 – fiction books read
  • 24 – books I rated 4 stars
  • 25 – books I rated 3 stars
  • 32 – numbers of pages of shortest book read
  • 63 – number of books read
  • 282- average number of pages per book read
  • 515 – number of pages of longest book read
  • 1933 – earliest publication year read
  • 15,779 – total number of pages read
  • 1,364,978 – number of people who read the most read book on my Goodreads


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Book Review: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

What is this book about?

This book is about four people who have ended up connected and intertwined in each others lives. The book is a the story of the contemporary migrant experience especially the recent wave of the low end of middle-class Punjabi migration into places like Australia, and the UK. Two of the main character are male Sikhs – Avatar and Randeep – who have come to the United Kingdom legally – one as a student and the other as a Visa marriage. Avatar and Randeep are neighbours that are connected to each other through Avatar’s on-the-quiet girlfriend. The third character is a young man from Bihar – Tarlochan- which is a code that only is explained in the later part of the book for those who don’t understand Indian society. He has left India not only because he is the poorest, but also because he has nothing to left to stay for. He has made it to the UK illegally in trains and trucks. The fourth character – Narinder – is a woman who is born and raised in the UK, but whose life is the performance of piety and sanctity that no longer a part of modern India. Her journey to actualisation is the site where the three men fight their fights .

The book started in Sheffield, with the three men living in house with other Punjabi men working illegally, and living hard. The book moves seamlessly through the shorter chapters in the UK and longer chapters about the lives in India. The second part of the book is where the four lives intertwine as things get more fraught and desperate. They compromise their values becoming selfish and eventually stealing – whatever it took to stay alive and try to eke out a survival.

Why should I read this book?

Given the contemporary debates about migration, Sahota provides some light of the stories behind the tabloid headlines of job-stealing migrants, visa abusers, fake students, and other various ‘illegals’. The book itself is very well written. While it is an ‘Indian Book’, its not overwhelmed with descriptions or untranslated words – its a strongly underwritten books. A lot takes place in the interstices of the words, as it does in the smaller adjuncts in the story. While dealing with grimness and the actions of the worst of humanity when dealing with the powerless, as well as the actions of desperate men, Sahota lets the reader make the decisions on how they feel about it. And this makes it that much more emotional for the reader. Narinder is the proxy for so many of us with intentions of goodness, and well-meaning. She challenges us to move beyond the performance of piety and goodness. She examines her religiosity – to take her cue from its Gurus, or from its societal and institutional forms. The book is not just useful to understand the contemporary migrant experience, but for us – the privileged readers – to listen to our inner Narinder.


Migrant stories from India -things are bad – to UK – things are worse. Get worser. Everyone survives in their own way.

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The how of a speech

In a recent post, I wrote about creating a elevator speech. While that post covers the what of a speech, someone asked me about the how of a speech. So here is a quick post on the how of a speech. I will find some time soon to write a post on my thoughts on both speaking and listening.

Bonus: If you are  interesting in mindfulness, I really like Tara Brach’s video on Mindful Speech.

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Creating an elevator speech

A elevator speech is a short speech – usually of 30 seconds – that is a pitch to an accidental meeting in an elevator with someone whom one wants to make an impression on. The objective is to not to deliver information about yourself or your projects, but rather to entice the other party to continue the conversation outside the elevator, or at minimum, exchange business cards. That is vital – more storytelling, and less information.

How do you build an elevator speech? Use the following as a guide.

  1. Why? There must be a reason that motivates you to make that speech, and an objective that you hope to achieve. This is help to give you speech a focus.
  2. Who are you? Most people seem to forget to prepare this part. Since most social interactions start with salutations, it means that when you do deliver the speech, that start is stilted and unsure. So when writing, you include a greeting and an identification. Also, when practicing your speech, use role-playing to get acclimatise yourself for the entire interaction.
  3. So what? This is the main purpose of the speech. Remember that you are trying to entice the other person, and as such, need to speak from a place of passion and authenticity. If you are not bursting from the awesomeness of your idea, why would anyone else. An elevator speech is about selling, so you need to be comfortable with that. And as long as you believe in what you are selling, channel your passion, and speak in your own voice, you will do well.
  4. To whom? Right, so you are passionate and authentic, but you are still talking to one person. Always keep that in mind. It is not about you, but what you are offer the listener. So craft the speech to entice that person. Importantly, you are trying to entice them with your idea, not impress them with your vocabulary. Leave the embellishments and bluster for another day, keep the language simple and the focus precise.
  5. Test and Practice. You should record yourself when practising your elevator speech. Listen to your vocal inflections and disfluencies. While you want it to sound like a conversation, and not an overly rehearsed scripted recitation, there is a degree of performance to it.
  6. Create a next action. Remember that this is a conversation (albeit a starter), so having a next action is important. This could mean an exchange of name-cards, which then allows you to follow up via email, a solicitation of their opinions on your key idea (no. 3), or even to just continue the conversation. This varies depending on the context, and the circumstances of the meeting. The key is to get them to engage with you, to contribute to the conversation.

When writing a speech, keep in mind the following;

  • It is a speech, so even though you are writing it, you need to make it conversational. So practise and testing is vital.
  • Keep the language simple and clear. Avoid jargon, slang, or institutional language.
    Humanise your language. You are writing about yourself so be authentic. Write naturally.
  • End strong and have a purpose. There is no next time, so don’t leave them wanting more. Just give it to them.

Bonus: Think about being at a dinner party and one of the guests asks you, “what do you do?” Can you answer in one sentence such that they understand what you do?

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Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

What is this book about?
Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her time working in a crematorium has the thesis that we need to stop denying the physicality of death, and go back to incorporating death into our lives. She writes about her experience working with death bodies from retrieving them in a van, preparing them for viewing, their cremation, and the retrieval of the ashes. The book is peppered with gristly details about embalming, decomposition, desquamation, putrefaction, liquefaction, and other such words. Doughty is unsentimental and unrelenting in her descriptions, but it isn’t voyeuristic. Rather it is to demystify the funeral process – and it is an industrialised process. That’s part of her lament – the commodification of death and its sanitisation from our experience. Further to that, the funeral industry itself is part of the problem – up-selling funerals with unnecessary adornments, metal caskets, elaborate wreaths, and embalming.

Why should I read this book?
I read this book soon after I read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, in which the last chapter was Memento Mori – in a strange way, it was a great continuation of looking at death as a way of life. She founded The Order of The Good Death – ‘a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality’. (She has been running a Youtube channel ‘Ask A Mortician‘ since 2011.) The book is a memoir of her journey to becoming a mortician, as well as a study of the different death rituals from different times and from different cultures. Doughty wants us to bring death and the dead back into our lives – washing and preparing the bodies of our dead – instead of outsourcing our death rituals, and distancing ourselves from the process. This book is worth a read, especially if you are rethinking your post-death options, or a just interested to know what happens to your mortal coil once you have passed on.

Memoir-manifesto-study of death, death rituals, and of working as a mortician.

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At least, he did not shit in my car – a stoic mindset

We cannot choose our external circumstances,
but we can always choose how we respond to them.
Epictetus, The Enchiridion

(continued from previous post)

One of the axiomatic phrases that I live by is – tomorrow this will be a funny story. It is an attempt to put some perspective on whatever I am experiencing at that time. So in the weeks after the break into my car, I was telling the story to friends and others, with the punchline – hey, at least he did not shit in my car.

This usually lead to 2 types of reactions from people; first was that I was a glass half full kind of guy, and the second was frustration at the lack of anger on my side. The second reaction was a real surprise to me.

I do not think of myself as a glass half  full type, and I think many of the people around me would say the same. As a stoic, I try to practice negative visualisation as much as I can. At the risk of oversimplification, negative visualisation is about the contemplation of catastrophe, of which death would be the worst outcome. The Stoics talk about contemplating that you will never see your friends again when you wave them farewell, or to contemplate your children’s death when you kiss them good night. Negative visualisation would be a contemplation of everyday life which could end quite unceremoniously at any moment. Seneca writes that when one contemplates catastrophes, robs them of their power. I also think that this practice helps one to anticipate and potentially avoid catastrophes as well.

It did not, however, help me avoid having my car broken into.

It did mean that I could continue my day, doing the things I needed to do, meeting the people I was going to meet, without any significant distress or unhappiness. It meant that I still owned my day. And that was something powerful and productive. When  something bad happens, it can often derail our plans, and our ambitions. This could be for a day, a week, or as long as we allow it to. To me, this practice of negative visualisation has become part of my approach to being productive.

The second reaction – others’ frustrated at my lack of anger – is puzzling to me. I still don’t quite know what it means. I got the sense that it wasn’t frustration on my behalf, but frustration at me. Perhaps I had disappointed them by not reacting in a manner, that to them, was expected and normal. Perhaps I had cheated them out of an opportunity for mutual outrage on the evils of society. Or perhaps it is because, as one friend says, I am a pod person.

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Book Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need by Daniel Pink

What is this book about?
This is manga about a young man who has begun his job after leaving university. He is struggling and lacking in motivation in his job. A life coaching angel comes his way who he can then summon by breaking disposable chopsticks! She gives him six chopsticks and each time he breaks one, she turns up to give him one axiom of wisdom. Each axiom helps him take the next step of his career, but but this step inevitably needing to break another chopstick to get another axiom to help him out of that career crisis. By the end of the book he has six axioms, and a clear sense of what he once in his career.

Why should I read this book?
I really enjoyed Daniel Pink’s book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, so was looking forward to reading this one. Plus it’s a manga. I read this book more as a resource for students, rather than a book for me. So I will review it in that spirit. It is a good starting point for thinking about what it takes to be successful in one’s career, beyond one’s technical abilities. While this book in of itself, would not provide much grist for the mill, it is a useful starting point for university students and people very early in their career. Think of it as a kickstart. A further reading list at the end of the book would have been useful.

A simple and useful manga style career guide for university students and those early in their career. 4 stars

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Today’s thief, yesterday’s child – an empathic mindset

Men have come into being for one another;
so either educate them
or put up with them.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Torn Soft Top WindowIMG_0479

IMG_0482A few weeks ago, I had parked my car on my street overnight and in the morning discovered that someone had taken a knife to the window of the soft-top and broken into my jeep.

Understandably, I am not happy about this. I have parked on the street in front of my apartment so many times, and nothing had happened. It was very frustrating that this had happened right under the balconies and windows of other apartments in my building.

As I surveyed the mess that the thief had had, I started to look for what was not taken – the service books, manuals, CDs, the fire extinguisher, the first aid kit, and such. I had a good look to see if there was any damage to the inside of the jeep – ripped seats, broken plastic bits, etc. And I also checked to see if the thief had urinated or worse inside. They had climbed in and helped themselves to approximately $30-40 in coins, iPhone headphones, and Greek worry beads that a friend had just given to me. Other than that, it was ok.

I tidied the inside and carried on with my day.

As I drove around running my errands, I felt a sense of gratitude for my thief. He could have made the whole experience much worse. He could have taken my jeep manual and service books – that would be a really hassle. He could have been very malevolent using the knife, used to cut the window, to cut up my seats. And the most horrifying would be to deal with the aftermath of him relieving himself in a variety of ways – that is not something I like to contemplate.

Later in the day, the gratitude was joined by a sense of sadness for the thief. No one wants to end up in a situation where breaking into cars is a something that one does. This is not the preferred option. This was not the dream or desire of a young person growing up. This was the result of bad decisions, bad luck, and a lack of options.

Somewhere inside the thief was the story of child who was lost a long time ago.

(to be continued)

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Must reads on writing for learners

Looking at employer feedback, one of the skills that they value highly is writing. This is for an obvious requirement in journalism, public relations, and other writerly practices, but it is also a highly valued skill for designers, advertisers, scientists, and even engineers. Being able to communicate clearly and in a focused manner is important to all professions in our information age.

To that end, here is a must-reads list of on writing. I have kept the list to 3, but there are many more. If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments.

  1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and  EB White.  This is a most useful and very important of all the must-reads. At its core, it is a style guide – a writing manual. But it offers a world where clarity of communication is revered and brandisments of language are scorned. There are criticisms of its prescriptive and traditional approach to writing, but its better to master the fundamentals before ornamentals.

    “It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”

    ps: Look for the illustrated version. Maria Kalman‘s illustrations are beautiful.

  2. Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (link to text).  This was an essay that Orwell wrote in 1946 as he felt ‘that the English language is in a bad way’. To him, the work needed to develop the ability to communicate leads to clear thinking and both are vital to the political process.

    “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

    He writes that poor writing suffers from ‘staleness of imagery’ and the ‘lack of precision’ that particularly manifest themselves in four bad habits – dying metaphors, operators, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. He provides us with 6 rules that we can use to counter these bad habits.

    i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    Importantly for Orwell, we must remember that ‘language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought’.

  3. How to Write with Style by Kurt Vonnegut. While this two-page article is perhaps intended for creative writers, as opposed to learners, the rules Vonnegut sets out, I believe, are about writing well and clearly. As he say, “I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”

    1. Find a Subject You Care About
    2. Do Not Ramble, Though
    3. Keep It Simple
    4. Have the Guts to Cut
    5. Sound like Yourself
    6. Say What You Mean to Say
    7. Pity the Readers
    8. For Really Detailed Advice

    His rules focus on the clarity and authenticity of the writers voice, which is the foundation of writing that communicates well, and to the intention of the writer. 

Honourable Mention: Ten rules for writing fiction by various (part one, part two). Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, the Guardian asked other authors for their rules of writing.  This is worth a read.

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Update on #52books52weeks

As I wrote in the beginning of the year, I am going to try to read 52 books this year. I have been taking pictures of the books that I can read so far this year and putting those pictures on my Instagram and Facebook as well as on my Goodreads.

It’s almost 7 months in and I have completed 38 books so far which is 73% done with just over 9000 pages read. I am 9 books ahead of schedule so looks likely that I will hit my goal.

I was thinking of doing some kind of review or such for the books, but being 38 books in I am not sure I want to go back as write them. I might just pick and choose a few outstanding ones, and write reviews about them.

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