Exploring Life’s Randomness with ‘Figuring’ by Maria Popova

Exploring Life’s Randomness with ‘Figuring’ by Maria Popova

Figure (verb): to calculate or work out (an amount or value) arithmetically

What is the true measure of a meaningful life? Is it prestige? It is love? In Figuring, author and cultural critic Maria Popova seeks to answer this complex question by exploring the interconnected lives of history’s most celebrated writers, artists, and scientists. While men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, and Johannes Kepler make appearances, the narrative is primarily focused on women – starting with Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, and ending with the beloved biologist Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Written in near-poetic prose reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit, Popova’s debut book is a nexus spanning four centuries and connecting the dots between women who defied cultural norms to leave their mark on the world. While the likes of Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Hosmer are staples in art and literature classrooms around the world, this book breathes life into the personal anecdotes you won’t find in textbooks, humanizing historical figures we laud as “great” or even “genius.” The book elicits a somewhat somber overtone in telling these women’s stories, which often include unconventional relationships and unimaginable heartbreak. Popova’s soulful excavation into their lives demonstrates how personal experiences often shape not only the way we perceive the world, but also the way we contribute to it.

My interpretation of Figuring is difficult for me to articulate, partly because it’s impossible to summarize 545 pages of eloquently-written insight, and partly because I am still wrapping my head around its meaning. The book is not a quick or easy ready, and as I finished the final pages this weekend, I initially found myself filled with a despondent sense of emptiness. At first glance, the final chapter seemed to imply that no matter what impact we make on the world, on society, or even individuals that we love, our stories are a mere drop in the ocean. The universe existed long before we did and will continue to exist long after we are gone. So why does living a fulfilling life even matter? 

But then I started to think about the general theme of interconnectedness and realized that while the universe is both inconceivably random and inconceivably infinite, there is a thread that ties the tapestry of it all together, and that thread is beauty. Throughout history, the interconnected disciplines of art and science has helped humans make sense of chance, create an illusion of permanence, and ultimately search for meaning. Furthermore, you could argue that all prominent figures in science were driven by an awestruck appreciation for the beauty of our natural world – from Maria Mitchell’s youthful fascination for the night sky to Rachel Carson’s infatuation with the Maine coast. And while I sat reading this book on a California beach 3,000 miles and more than five decades away from Carson’s existence, I realized that our lives – like all lives – are inextricably and beautifully linked. Perhaps it is this interplay of all human lives that give us meaning in an endlessly random universe, because “nothing once created ever fully leaves us.”

I applaud Maria Popova for following in these women’s footsteps by using literature to expand our understanding of the universe. I highly recommend this book, as well as her blog of the same format, Brainpickings.

“Comets–icy clumps of soot and stardust shed by the eternal as emissaries of the ephemeral–serve as anchors of periodicity by which to moor ourselves to the uncertain flow of existence and space out segments of being along the fleeting interlude of life…As birthdays temper the delicious illusion of our own inevitability with the hard fact that we were once inconceivable, so comets remind us that the life of the universe operates on cycles independent of and far grander than our own lifespans.”

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

I recently finished reading The Cartel by my favorite author Don Winslow, who I was lucky to meet a book signing in La Jolla a few years ago. Sequel to The Power of the Dog, the novel is a work of fiction loosely based on true events involving the Mexican drugs cartels. Winslow wrote both novels after conducting decades of research in Mexico, research that likely endangered his life. I am a huge fan of Winslow not just because he write ingenious novels with complex storylines and intriguing characterization, but because he challenges my assumptions. Reading both novels and hearing him speak has opened my eyes to what’s really going on with the drug wars so commonly pegged as Mexico’s problem, when really that’s not the case.

With the popularity of the Netflix hit show “Narcos”, everyone has become fascinated with Pablo Escobar and the Colombian drug cartels back in the 80’s. But what some people don’t realize is that history is repeating itself, and this time a lot closer to home. Even with the surprising extradition of Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (whom Winslow based a character off of), the cartels continue to wreak havoc south of the border. In the past decade, they have murdered an estimated 179,000 people, including women, children, and innocent people. As portrayed in Winslow’s novels, the cartels’ merciless tactics bear similarities to terrorist groups – kidnappings, tortures, and beheadings are their trademark. The world already witnessed the brutality Escobar inflicted on the beautiful country of Colombia, and it saddens me that the same thing is happening to Mexico, a culturally-rich country that should be known for its warm people and diverse tourism, instead of its cartel-controlled battlegrounds.

But as sadistic as the cartels are, Winslow suggests that the source of the problem actually lies on our side of the border.

“Just across the bridge is the gigantic marketplace, the insatiable consumer machine that drives the violence in Mexico. North Americans smoke the dope, snort the coke, shoot the heroin, do the meth, and then have the nerve to point south (down, of course, on the map), and wag their fingers at the ‘Mexican drug problem’ and ‘Mexican corruption’.” ― Don Winslow, The Cartel

At the booking signing, Don Winslow brought up an interesting point that completely changed my perspective — it is so easy for us, as Americans, to place the blame on Mexico, saying “Mexico is so corrupt.” But what about the corruption in our own society’s soul that has allowed for there to be such a market for drugs, essentially fueling if not causing the violence in Mexico? As drugs pour in north of the border, money pours in south. Without the United States drug market, these criminals wouldn’t be in business, and the violence would not exist.

“As for corruption, who’s more corrupt—the seller or the buyer? And how corrupt does a society have to be when its citizens need to get high to escape their reality, at the cost of bloodshed and suffering of their neighbors?” ― Don Winslow, The Cartel

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Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

It’s been a while since I read a book that I could not put down but Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson was so gripping that I finished it in a matter of days.

A book equally as fascinating as it was disturbing, it tells the true story of a defiant Saudi Arabian princess the author calls Sultana who lives a life of fabulous wealth while imprisoned by the men in her life, valued only as a bearer of sons. A genuine autobiography, the story is told by Sultana through the words of the author in order to protect the princess’ identity. The book documents the reality of life for Saudi Arabian royalties, revealing barbaric traditions. suffocating rules, and shocking depravity aimed to control women, who during the time in this country had zero rights, treated as mere property by their fathers, husbands, and even sons. The oppressions women endured in this country range from simple breaches of basic rights, such as being able to drive a car or travel without written permission, as well as the freedom to control their own lives, with many young girls denied education while being forced to marry men triple or even quadruple their age, as a third or fourth wife, which often led to a life of merciless abuse and confinement. But that’s not where the injustices end. At times this novel was difficult to get through, describing in detail stories of sickening cruelty: fathers drowning their daughters in the family pool, sexual enslavement of foreign workers, and heart-wrenching accounts of rape and domestic violence. Hypocritically, women who act out were sentenced to the harshest of punishments, such as getting stoned to death by their own families. One tragic story that stuck out to me was that of a 22-year-old Saudi princess was sentenced to a lifetime in a pitch black prison cell with no interaction with other humans. She would live out the rest of her life in darkness, never again hearing a human voice. Her crime? She fell in love with an American.

The book is a bit dated, I’ve read that Saudi Arabia has since progressed and opened itself up to modernization, especially under the current king. I am also aware that Sultana’s story does not apply to all women in Saudi Arabia, and that not all Saudi men treat women so appallingly. But unfortunately injustices for women do still exist, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in many other countries around the world. After reading this book it seems silly to me that women fuss over petty inequalities in America when there are women out there who are truly oppressed and need our help.

It is worth noting that Sultana never blames Islam for her suffering. Because Saudi Arabia is ruled by Islamic law, it would be easy to link the abuse and oppression to the religion, but Sultana clearly demonstrates how it is a cultural problem, not religious. In fact, throughout the novel Sultana shows the upmost respect for Islam, often drawing the strength she needs to survive from her religion. She suggests that the men who mistreated her did not do so in the name of religion, but rather used to Koran as a tool to justify their evil ways. Sultana does not even suggest that the Saudi men were following a misinterpretation the Koran as one would think, but rather that they created their own self-serving interpretation.

Princess was an eye-opening book, not to just to the oppression of Saudi Arabia’s royal women, but on a larger scale. It’s alarming to see how an entire country can become so accepting of their depraved culture to the point where they are actually blind to the disgusting injustices they have created, carrying on with what seems to be absolute inertia. It makes me wonder what injustices I have become blind to in my own culture.

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Life’s a Trip

Life’s a Trip

Koh Samui, Thailand

“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is the generation that travels the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite & never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience— And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.”

― Alex Garland, The Beach

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Gifts of Unknown Things

Gifts of Unknown Things

Have you ever had a feeling that you were going to run into someone and then you actually saw them moments later? Of course, it’s a common thing that happens to everyone, and it’s typically shrugged off as a mere coincidence. But in the haunting novel “Gifts of Unknown Things: A True Story of Nature, Healing, and Initiation from Indonesia’s Dancing Island”, renowned biologist Lyall Watson explores the notion that this kind of event is not a coincidence at all, but the result of people picking up on the invisible vibrational frequencies that everything- rocks, trees, animals, and even humans- are constantly transmitting. If this sounds like a bunch of hippie mumbo jumbo to you, bear with me, because Watson is actually an accomplished biologist who completely changed my perspective by merging scientific facts with supernatural phenomenon.

In the novel, Watson tells in vivid detail the true story of time he spent on Nus Tarian, a tiny Indonesian island east of Bali, in the late 1970’s. No ordinary island, Nus Tarian is a place where inexplicable events, magic, and psychic healing are commonplace, where superstitious tradition and primitive religion rule the tight-knit community, and where the primary language is dance. Most of the book’s events revolve around Tia, an extraordinary young orphan who comes of age with the ability to interpret sound as color, heal people with her mind, and transform the island through mesmerizing dance. But this is not a book about mysticism. On the contrary, because Watson is a renowned biologist, he takes an astonishing look at the science behind the supernatural happenings on the island, leaving readers with a profound understanding of the true power of human intuition. He suggests not that humans have supernatural abilities, but that we have an innate power to harness our intuition, which is something we no longer realize like the people of Nus Tarian who rely on it. I will not even attempt to go into detail about the theories Watson presents in the book because there’s no way I can express them as eloquently as he, but I will say that this book makes you think about- and believe in- the true power of the human mind and our symbiosis with nature.

Throughout the novel, Watson weaves in stories and anecdotes of other mystical events he has witnessed throughout his travels, from Indonesia to South America, and it seems the common factor is that it happens only with indigenous people. He always stresses the fact that although these people do not have access to computers, books, or higher education, they still possess complex knowledge of physics, nature, and the human body- and this is how they are able to survive. Perhaps “advances” in society might actually be digressions. Maybe the more we depend on technology, the less we rely on our natural instincts, and the more we lose touch with our ability to harness the power of the human mind. Animals are commonly regarded as “less intelligent” than people (because people are the ones who define intelligence) but when you think about all the amazing things animals can do that we cannot, it paints a different picture. From whales and dolphins who can communicate through echolocation, to sheep who know exactly which medicinal plants to eat when they are feeling sick, and even beetles that can navigate by the light from the moon, you could argue that animals are actually more clever than humans because they follow their instincts instead of trying to supress them.

Diving in deeper to the novel, Watson suggests that maybe we are too quick to dismiss intergalactic order as “supernatural”. Through haunting examples, he shows that there is a natural cycle and rhythm of the world that we have become numb to as we ignore our inherent intuition. Watson suggests that if we can just tap into the reservoirs of human sensitivity, we can unlock the mysteries of the universe (woah). To call this novel brilliant would not be doing it justice. It is a life-changer.

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The Lotus

The Lotus

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“Egypt loved the lotus because it never dies. It is the same for people who are loved. Thus can something as insignificant as a name- two syllables, one high, one sweet- summon up the innumerable smiles and tears, sighs and dreams of a human life.”

-Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

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