Raghu Srinivasan


Summer 2021 Book Recommendations

The Death Of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book. It is set in Africa and follows an Indo-African family as they grapple with the death of their son, Vivek, in what starts off as mysterious circumstances. It travels back and forth in time as each of Vivek's friends and family members recount their time and experiences with him leading up in the very end to the denouement of the tragic circumstances leading up to Vivek Oji's death. The character development is excellent and the story stayed with me long after I finished the book itself. I hope this gets made into a movie.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

I picked this book up on the day the Academy Awards were announced. This book was made into a movie of the same name which won 7 Oscars including those for Best Picture (ChloƩ Zhao) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand). I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. The author, Jessica Bruder, is a professor at Columbia and this was a three year project in which she spent months on the road with people who have chosen to become nomads: they had literally left their homes because home ownership was/is becoming unaffordable to many in modern day America. Bruder takes us on a fascinating journey through the community these nomads built, the jobs they take on (mostly, it seems, as seasonal Amazon workers) and their health care issues (traveling across the border to Mexico for low-cost dental care that would be unafforable in the US because they lacked regular jobs and therefore regular health insurance). This book can be read either a paean to the can-do attitudes of Americans of a certain generation or a lament to how the social fabric has developed gaping tears. Rips large enough that even 'middle class' people who have a college degree and had worked in the federal govenment or had 6 figure jobs in the private sector now find themselves roaming the country living from seasonal job to seasonal job as they age and their prospects seem to get ever dimmer. Perhaps both things are true?

Futureproof by Kevin Roose

Kevin Roose is a technology columnist for the New York Times. His day job needs him to immerse himself in the latest technolgies and gadgets and help figure out what impact they have on us as society - in fact at one point he confesses to wearing waterproof headphones so he can listen to podcasts as he showers! So it makes sense that he's a good candidate to write this book. I was hoping for more than a 'The Robots are coming. Hide!' perspective and Roose to his credit does more than just that. In a fairly even tone he does call out the risks of technology's progress. To some extent the robots are coming: for example if trucks can begin to drive autonomously - even just on highways where the engineering challenges are simplest - what does that do to society? There are (and this surprised me) some 3.5 million truck drivers in the US - that's 2% of all US jobs that are at risk in a very tangible way already. Add to that Robot Process Automation (one RPA company, UIPath, just went public with a $35B valuation and another, Automation Anywhere, is set to follow with it's own IPO) and you start to see the enormity of the challenge. While it may be true that technological progress does lift society over time, the key phrase there is 'over time' and that is of no consolation to anyone whose life is turned upside down during that phase. A phase that could easily last decades - an entire generation's working life. His suggestions for proofing oneself against the future are interesting but I came away not feeling entirely convinced that one can effectively futureproof oneself. Some societal turmoil does lie ahead.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. This book made it to Oprah's book club and deals with Wilkerson's exploration of social hierarchy for which she uses somewhat confusingly, at least for me, the term caste. She uses three societies as the framework for this exploration: the United States with its centuries old racial disparities, India with the even older and more entrenched caste system and Germany with its thankfully short but chillingly horrific Nazi era (even if anti-semitism in Europe is also over a thousand years old). It was a very sobering read throughout as Wilkerson walks through how such hierarchies or castes get embedded into people's thinking, laws and societal norms in ways that makes it seem like there is no real long-term solution except education and greater self awareness, especially among those of us with privilege and power.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Another fiction recommendation. This is the ultimate 'What If' story as seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Nora Seed. The story begins with her death from where she heads to the eopnymous Midnight Library which is a sort of staging area between life and the hereafter. In that library she has the opportunity to explore every other option her life could have taken: where a left turn at the fork would have led when she, in real life, took a right. It was really well-written: as one might imagine, a book like this so many alternative paths and story lines could easily get out of hand but Haig does a great job of staying focussed on Nora's perspective.

On deck are The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson, How to Avoid Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, and Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

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