Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I came across this book quite by chance while randomly browsing some other books on the web. The title of the book caught my eye as did its blurb – a mother and a son jointly read books together and then discuss them, at a time when the mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have very long to live.

To say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book would be an understatement. Firstly, the premise itself is quite unique and nothing like anything that I have read before. Secondly, it is a book about books – it is quite liberally sprinkled with all the books that the duo read for their 'book club' with their varied observations on it. As a bookworm and a bibliophile, I could not be more thrilled. Thirdly, we often do not read about a son talking so passionately about his mother; there are several instances of a father-daughter and a mother-daughter bonding.

When Will Schwalbe learns that his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he does not know to react. But he decides to turn to books. As he mentions, “Books reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person.” They form a book club where they frequently exchange books and discuss them.

What I found fascinating while reading the book was that Will's mother, Mary Anne, was a perfect example of 'Lean In', much before Sheryl Sandberg coined the term. She was the first female director of admissions at Radcliffe and then Harvard. She also headed a girls' school in New York. In her 50s, she started helping refugees around the world visiting war zone places like Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burma, etc., eventually founding the Women's Refugee Commission. She also helped raise money for a national library and cultural center at Afghanistan's Kabul University. Basically, she achieved what most of us can only hope to achieve in bits and pieces.

Through the 'book club', Will and his mother were not just reading and discovering books, they were rediscovering themselves as well. Will notes, “I was learning that when you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time. Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favourite books without thinking of her.” I completely agree with Will on this point. I just find it wonderful how we build memories as we read books. And don't most of our relationships have as their foundation a common love for reading?

During one of the book discussions, Mary Anne said, “Every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge. When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same things: books.” She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose is the greatest entertainment and also is how you take part in human conversation.

The book also touches upon a very important point, one that Atul Gawande is now making with his book 'Being Mortal' – end-of-life care. This focuses not just on managing pain but also on helping patients and their families maintain the best possible quality of life throughout the course of an illness. Towards the end, when his mother realized that any treatment would only reduce her quality of living, she chose to be home with a caring nurse amidst her books and her collection of pottery surrounded by her family.

Though you know right at the beginning what the end is going to be, I would still urge you to read this book. It fills you with a sense of hope and a sense of wanting to do something with our limited time on this planet. Mary Anne's life should inspire all of us; her warm nature, her deep involvement with society, her commitment to her family and friends, her passion with reading different genres of books and her belief that, at the end of the day, kindness begets kindness. With this book, I would like to believe the author Will Schwalbe has paid a perfect homage to the memory of his mother.

As an aside, I came across an interesting tidbit as I read the book. Will's sister-in-law Nancy was commissioned by the second-richest family in India to do a giant mural for the ballroom of the house they were building in Mumbai, which would be the tallest private house in the world. For those of us who stay in Mumbai it is not very difficult to imagine who that family could be. For the others, does Antilia ring a bell?

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

I picked up this book with a lot of hope and excitement. I have been fascinated with France, and particularly Paris, ever since I started learning French from the 8th grade. But the book disappointed me. It is, not as I expected, about the many walks through Paris and the author's personal favourite. It is rather a collection of observations the author has about Paris, only some of which are related to him being a flaneur.

But, that is not to say I did not enjoy the book. It does mention tidbits about Paris and its literary inheritance which a lot of visitors may not know about. The author, who lives on rue de l'Odeon boasts of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company run by Slyvia Beach; Slyvia lived in the author's building where James Joyce often visited as did Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. So, one may say, John Baxter is quite qualified to write about Paris and its walks from a literary angle.

The author mentions that Paris belongs to its pedestrians. He quotes the writer Edmund White who wrote, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail.” If the Paris of pedestrians has heroes, notes Baxter, they are Georges Eugene Haussmann (who got people back on the streets in the late 1800s) and Andre Malraux (the minister of culture).

Before the author came to Paris, he lived in Los Angeles which had “persuaded him that going anywhere on foot wasn't just unusual but downright unnatural, even illegal.” He mentions Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” set in a future Los Angeles where nobody walks. The only man who defies this custom is hauled off by the Psychiatric Center because “Who but a madman would walk for pleasure” I would tend to agree. On my travels to the United States, I have observed that nobody walks, not even in the suburbs. People drive down to the nearest park and then take a walk there. The US is certainly not a country for flaneurs in my opinion!

The author also mentions that since nobody walks like the French, they are the people who have raised the political walk to near perfection. Parisians grow up with the promenade, or stroll, as a natural part of their lives.

Baxter gives some interesting tidbits about the various metro stations in Paris, at least I found them wonderfully fascinating. Pont Neuf, nearest to Le Monnaie, displays old coinage and an ancient hand press. At Concorde, each tile bears a single letter, as if for a giant game of Scrabble. At Varenne, nearest to the Musee Rodin, full-size replicas of his Thinker and statue of Honore de Balzac rule the platform. Louvre-Rivoli station is elaborately decorated with facsimile Egyptian status and other antiquities.

During the course of the book, the author takes us through some amazing anecdotes about Hemingway's life; he takes us underground Paris's streets where the catacombs lie; he talks about the fascination painters have with the city; and how the French really love their food.

At the end of the book, he also gives some tips to visitors. I found the following ones interesting:
  1. A true French cafe breakfast remains one of the great pleasures of life in Paris.
  2. Paris's twenty arrondissements spiral out from Notre Dame, with something interesting in each of them.
  3. Paris's rare-book market takes place every weekend on rue Brancion in the fifteenth, in what used to be an old slaughterhouse.
  4. Afternoon hot chocolate at Proust's favourite cafe, Angelina.
  5. Climb the famous stone staircases of Montmartre around 5.00 a.m. or take the little cable car, buy coffee and rolls, and eat breakfast on the terrace below the Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur.
Though the book did not live up to its title, I did enjoy reading it and the various little pieces of information it offered me in terms of its past inhabitants and how they came about to shape and build the city as we know it today. Rest assured, when I do visit Paris, I will be taking this book along with me if only as a kind of a tour guide.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Book Review: The Winner's Curse by Dee Walker

The Winner's Curse is a political thriller about national ID numbers, power and greed. It narrates the story of how a group of IITians use their knowledge and networking to create a governance technology based on national ID numbers and how greed for power leads to their doom.

The story seemed quite interesting and topical. If you have been following current news for the last two-three years, you will be able to link and identify situations and people. UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) was launched in India with such fanfare in Feb-2009 and most of us have already obtained an AADHAAR card. The book also touches on the sensitive and controversial topic of governments spying on its citizens; something that Edward Snowden exposed quite shockingly to the entire world in Jun-2013. Also, the book's characters be it businessmen or politicians are easily identifiable as they seem to be inspired by real-life people.

The book's story moves across New Delhi, Haryana, Dubai, Bangalore, Dharwar and San Jose. It has an equal mix of businessmen (telecom moguls Harsh Mittal & Rajan Khosla), politicians (the Master), Govt. officials (Raghav Badhwar & Aravind Pandey) and activists (Kamal Pandey). There's also the Master's son-in-law Robbie who seems quite similar to a certain famous son-in-law quite in the news these days. Kamal Pandey's middle-class, activist image seems to be inspired by another 'Aam Aadmi'. Savita Bhambi, the influential PR person, reminds us of another PR lady who was in the news quite sometime back.

Though the book's primary plot is setting up a national identity number system and using that to set up a secret surveillance system, the plot does not begin to unravel till almost half the book is over. Also, the author has tried to include too many sub-plots as part of the book; this leads to there being too many characters spread across multiple locations. It tends to get quite confusing at times.

In addition to the primary plot, there is a civil activist who is trying to expose the business-political nexus; there is a mining scam in the state of Karnataka and there is an IIT JEE preparation coaching class.

All the central characters have studied at IIT – the country's premier educational institution. However, each person chooses his/her separate path towards achieving their goals – be it power, money, status or serving the people.

The pace of the book is quite fast befitting a thriller. However, since there are multiple characters, I had to go back and forth several times. Also, the intimate scenes/hints at them seem to have been inserted merely from the point of selling the book; they do not seem to have any connection with the story whatsoever.

I am going with 3/5 for this book for the way in which a topical story is narrated linking together disparate items. I only wish the author had restricted the sub-plots. Also, the editing is very bad; words and entire paragraphs have been repeated.

I was given a review copy of this book by the author.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: God Is A Gamer by Ravi Subramanian

Let me confess, at the outset, that I am a huge fan of Ravi Subramanian's books. His 'The Incredible Banker' remains one of my favourite books till date. I also happened to win an autographed copy of 'Devil In Pinstripes' in one of the contests on Twitter.

The blurb of 'God Is A Gamer' states: What happens when you cross gamer, banker, politician and terrorist with virtual money? From the bestselling author of If God Was a Banker comes the first ever bitcoin thriller. God Is a Gamer is a world where money means nothing, martyrs are villains, predators are prey, assassination is taught by the ancient Greeks, and nothing is as it seems. Moving from Washington's Congress to Delhi's finance ministry, the beaches of Goa to the corporate boardrooms of Mumbai, this is Ravi Subramanian's most gripping novel yet.

The premise of the novel is definitely interesting – a thriller that connects an ATM heist in New York with a website Cotton Trail which enables transactions in bitcoins to the addictive world of online gaming and the workings of multinational banks and the hacking risks they are exposed to. The story connects the murder of a senator in Washington with the suicide (?) of the CEO of a MNC bank in India to a hit-and-run case and laptop users getting burnt due to overheating of their machines. It is quite unusual in the sense that it moves effortlessly across seemingly disparate incidents and distinct locations (Washington, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Ukraine, New York City, Sangamner, Stanford, etc.)

The book is certainly a page-thriller and I finished it in almost one sitting; the chapters are shorter and crisper compared to his earlier novels and make for easier reading. I liked how he has incorporated into the story the tale of how Socrates died; I also liked the way John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' appeared in the narrative. All the characters such as Aditya, Varun, Tanya, Swami, Malvika, Sundeep,etc. were developed quite well with their mannerisms and intricacies told in a detailed fashion. Ravi has quite intelligently given the characters real-life names: Vijay Banga (President, Mastercard International) sounds similar to Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard; Aditya Rao (pioneer in banking in India) sounds similar to Aditya Puri, MD of HDFC Bank; Malvika Sehgal, CEO of New York International Bank could be any of the leading female bank CEOs in India currently – Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma, Kalpana Morparia, etc.

Ravi has done quite a bit of research while writing this book – explaining the intricacies and technicalities of bitcoins (digital currency which not many are familiar with yet) and online gaming (including advertising it on Facebook and the manner in which it generates revenues). However, sometimes it got too technical for me and I had to re-read entire paragraphs to try and understand what was being said.

I felt the author has tried so hard to write about multiple elements that it has become quite a mish-mash. At times, it became quite difficult to keep track of who was who and what role that person had played so far in the story. Combining so many elements into a single story meant that no story really grew on its own; it seemed as if all of them were stretched liberally to connect in the end.

Also, there were quite a few grammatical and spelling errors in the book. For instance on Page 36, the sentence reads as “It was only on her mother's insistence that had she come back to India in the intervening period.” The word deposition is misspelled as depostion on Page 196. On Page 219, the sentence reads as “She couldn't take her eyes of the glittering diamond ring.” Towards the end, it appeared as though the author was in a rush to finish the book – the last chapter seems to be written hurriedly, almost in bullet points-like sentences.

All in all, the book makes a good read but I would not call it one of the author's best works till date. Read it to enlighten yourself about the intricate web of online gaming, bitcoins and banks' security systems.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata

I happened to pick up this book purely by accident while browsing one of the online websites. And I am glad I did. Kolkata is one of those old, charming cities which its inhabitants seem to adore completely, despite the traffic & the pollution. To me, Kolkata conjures up images of the Hooghly bridge and Durga Puja, of the underground metro and the tram, of sandesh and puchkas.

Indrajit Hazra has captured all this and more beautifully in his ode to the lovely city. Hazra discusses the intricacies of the geographical spread of the city (North vs. South), the political scenario – past & present [including the Naxalbari movement], the movie industry, the bookstores & eateries on Park Street and the different communities co-existing peacefully in the city [prominently, the Marwaris who migrated from Rajasthan to Bengal in the 17th century to trade in cotton, opium, salt, cloth and indigo].

Hazra has lived away from Kolkata for the last 15 years. He says he is one of the best people to write a book on the city because “After all, you don't see the Mona Lisa from inside the frame; you have to stand in front of it.”

There are quite a few nuggets of information liberally spread out across the book. For instance, I learnt that the Calcutta Club on Lower Circular Road changed its rules to allow women members only in 2007.

The book is an easy read and, at 145 pages, a quick one. The author's writing style is free-flowing & informal. Since the book speaks about different topics, it is not necessary for one to read it from start to end. Read the book for a different take on the city – a take of an insider, who's now an outsider. And the cover of the book (by Turmeric Design) is stunning - really captures the essence of the city.

On my first, and so far only, visit to Kolkata in March-2010, I took time out to visit the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and Flury's – all of which find mention in the book. I also took a tram ride and visited the oldest banyan tree in the world. Though the book may not be intended as one but you can also use it as a travel guide, bookmarking sights & activities that you may wish to tick off when you visit the city.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

I picked up this book quite by accident; was browsing through Goodreads and came across this title. The book highlights the role women played in helping to end World War II; it is a story of a township set up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, where the workers did not know the true nature of their tasks till the end of the war. The name of the book is a giveaway and I would not want to include any spoilers in this review.

The premise of the book is quite interesting; while most men were away at war (World War II), the book brings forth the untold story of the women – most of them working as chemists, laboratory assistants, administration executives, secretaries, etc. who played quite an important role. These women were recruited from all across USA, made to work in a new town which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement but which ended up becoming permanent, and basically sworn to secrecy about the work they were doing there.

Most of these women were quite young and fresh out of college who were quite excited at this prospect since the pay was good and they were hoping that the war would end since most of them had family members aware at war. This motivation was quite essential for them since the living conditions at Oak Ridge were not exactly ideal. They still made the best of their situation and many of them went to marry on their colleagues and settled down with their families there.

The author Denise Kiernan has done a lot of research for writing this book, including interviews with some of the women, who are in their 80s and 90s currently, who worked on the project. She is able to bring out the detailed lives of the women at Oak Ridge, including their work schedules, their homes, their socializing and the lack of avenues for doing that, the tribulations that they had to undergo owing to the secrecy, etc. It is quite shocking to read some of the things that we take for granted at our workplace – exchanging gossip about work, for instance – was absolutely not an option for these women. They could also never know whether or not to trust somebody for they never knew what would get reported back to the authorities.

The book also intersperses the chemical details of the project in between the personal lives of the women including the contribution of German scientists, primary of who were women as well. This was a real eye-opener for me to read about how the women’s role was sidelined and the men took the credit for all of it.

Some parts of the book do feel like repetition which could have been avoided by better editing. And there are some grammatical errors as well. However, all in all, I enjoyed reading the book and going behind the scenes of that one huge, secretive project that changed the world, as it existed before then, forever.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: The Book Thief

I might possibly be one of the last few to read this book so late in the day considering the book has been released in 2005. And with a movie release in 2013, the book's popularity has only soared with the author winning most of the major awards.

To me, what was interesting about the book was the fact that the story offered absolutely nothing new. It centres around World War II in Germany. We all know what that entails.  The rise of the Fuhrer. And the humiliation & persecution of Jews. What the book does, however, is takes this as a base and using Death as a narrator, tells us a love story. The love a girl develops for words & books. The love two pre-teens develop for each other. The love a father has for his daughter. These again, mind you, are not novel themes. But the way Zusak handles them is what makes this book what it is.

The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, is someone who will stay with you for a long time after you have read the book. She is like any other pre-teen would be except for a tiny detail: she is living in Germany during WW-II and placed with a foster family by her mother. A large part of the book deals with the relationships Liesel forges with the various characters in the book: her foster parents, her best friend Rudy, the mayor's wife, and my favourite of all, Max (the Jew her family takes into hiding). Each of them have been narrated in great detail and it is very easy to visualize them as you read along the book.

Zusak's writing is different and unlike any other I have read so far. He writes long sentences. And short ones. There are highlighted & bold sentences in some chapters. And since he uses Death as a narrator, the conversational tone becomes even more interesting. I did get a bit bored with some of the descriptions but that could be because I was keen to reach the end of the book.

The book, in addition to the personal relationships, also handles certain other themes such as death (which is the narrator & thus omnipresent), the travails & hardships of German citizens during the War in terms of lack of jobs & income, how the War was responsible for forming certain relationships & destroying others, guilt (at escaping death, getting some food, etc.)

The book does not purport to be a report or guide on the Holocaust. As I mentioned in the earlier part of the review, it is essentially a love story. And though it is fiction, it could very well be fact. At least, that's what Zusak's narrative made me believe. Go read the book & discover for yourself.