Saturday, 31 May 2014

Capitol Limited by David R. Stokes – Book Review



Publisher’s Write-up:

‘Long before they famously debated each other during the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the merits of the new Taft-Hartley labor law in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in April 1947. But their minds were clearly on bigger things.

As fate would have it, Kennedy and Nixon shared a Pullman compartment on a famous train called The Capitol Limited, the pride of the B&O Line, for an overnight trip back to Washington. They stayed awake all night talking about their lives, hopes, and visions for a better world. Capitol Limited is based on a very true story.

Bestselling Author David R. Stokes imagines how the conversation might have unfolded that long-ago night. Based on extensive research, and complete with a lengthy and unusual-for-a-novel biography, Capitol Limited gives readers the change to eavesdrop as two men have an animated conversation about history, world leaders, and the brewing geopolitical issues they would one day face as leaders of the free world.

It was the dawn of the Cold War, and these two formed naval officers were developing a vision for the world, one that would be “tempered by a hard and bitter peace”. And years later, the political torch would be passed to John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who represented “a new generation of Americans”. They would become America’s premier Cold Warriors.’

Capitol Limited is a book written by the American political commentator, broadcaster and columnist, David R. Stokes. It features the two newly elected members to the US House of Representatives post the Second World War, Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

The story begins with the news of Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon recollecting his past experiences with Kennedy. It goes back to 1947, when the two newly elected Congressmen had to visit the Pennsylvanian mining town, McKeesport for a debate on the Taft-Hartley Labour Bill. While the debate was hardly the highlight of the novel, it was the return journey of the two, back to Washington, from McKeesport, where they have a conversation over nearly every contemporary issue, personal, what is best for the country, the incidents around the world, Israel, the rise of communism in Eastern Europe, et cetera.
I was really keen on reading this novel since historical fiction is my favourite genre and I’m highly passionate about politics. Moreover, my knowledge on the political environment of The United States till 1990 is rather superficial especially on Richard Nixon, on whom I had known nothing about barring Watergate and him being the only American president to have resigned and despite that, I’ve been told by some of my American friends that he is the best President that they’ve ever been under; and hence, I thought this could be an excellent read. True to my expectations, I had an extremely well written and well-presented novel with adequate actual historical references (marked in bold and italics, during the course of the novel).

What I really liked about this novel was how he the author brought out as to how Nixon and Kennedy are different in every way barring the fact that they had both served in the navy but are still such close friends. Nixon and Kennedy had come from totally different backgrounds, while Kennedy was from a well to do family whereas Nixon had to struggle to come up the ranks and despite this, both of them represented political ideologies contradictory to their background which was brought out well during the debate at McKeesport. I also really loved the way in which the author had brought out the personality of both the future presidents, with Nixon being the shrewd dedicated politician who thoroughly researches on something before making any statement whereas Kennedy is more of a politician by accident relying more on his innate abilities as a journalist but living the dream of his deceased brother.  The friendship between the two of them was something really good, considering how it is nearly unimaginable today, especially when the rivals run such bitter campaigns, particularly the 2012 election between Obama and Romney.

The only thing that I found on the flipside was that, I found Kennedy to be someone too weak who was just trying to be a shadow of all the other world leaders he had met so far (like Churchill, where Kennedy was continually referring to Churchill’s mannerism to justify his own, including for eating a boiled egg!) whereas I believe the reality is far from it. Probably, I got under this notion because during the course of the novel, I agreed more with Nixon than Kennedy, owing to my personal capitalist views.

I’d conclude saying that this was an excellent retelling of a historical event clubbed with an excellent imagination and could be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in politics and considering the aforementioned points, I’d award this book a seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10


Have a nice day,
Andy

Friday, 30 May 2014

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘In wartime Copenhagen, the world is suddenly a scary place for ten-year-old Annemarie. There are food shortages and curfews, and soldiers on every corner in the city.

But it is even worse for Annemarie’s Jewish best friend, Ellen, as the Nazis continue their brutal campaign. With Ellen’s life in danger, Annemarie must summon all her courage to help stage a daring escape.’

Number the Stars is a Newbery Medal winning novel written by the American writer, Lois Lowry. It is based in Copenhagen during the Second World War, featuring the ten year old Annemarie Johansen and her Jewish friend Ellen Rosen.

This happens after Denmark falls into Nazi control and Copenhagen is stationed with German troops all over. Like any other day, Annemarie was walking back from school along with her sister Kirsti and friend Ellen and as always, they were racing back home, only to be stopped by two German soldiers and being strongly reprimanded. Eventually Annemarie is informed by her parents that Jewish shops are being closed and the Germans are planning to arrest all the Jews in Denmark and Ellen would have to stay with the Johansens. The story’s main theme is to move the Rosens and other Jews to Sweden till the war is over.

There are a few things I liked about this book; to start with, its simplicity (I’ve never read a simpler holocaust novel) and how you can actually read the whole book in hardly three hours. Another equally good aspect of the book is that of Annemarie’s character – determined and smart, especially when she pulls the Star of David necklace off Ellen so that the Nazis fail in identifying Ellen as a Jew. Her determination was also seen when she had put her life on the line to deliver the package to her Uncle Henrik on time so that he could ferry the Jews over to Sweden. Another aspect I liked about this book was how the author was able to convince the reader that there are occasions when it is better to be ignorant (something continually told to Annemarie by her Uncle Henrik).

The problem for me was, when I chose this book, I didn’t know that Lois Lowry is someone who is into children’s literature. Moreover, I got it at a throwaway price of 29 INR (roughly around 30 pence) since a bookstore that was closing in my locality was offering discounts and I thought it might be worth a try. I was carried away by the write-up behind the cover and expected a wonderful holocaust novel along with an excellent Scandinavian touch but then, this was too childish and a way too straightforward to an extent where the simplicity was a drawback. Also, there was no other noteworthy character barring Annemarie and her deceased sister’s fiancĂ©, Peter Neilsen. I also felt that the author could have researched Denmark better – while I’m no connoisseur when it comes to knowledge on Denmark, I’m pretty sure that the name is spelt ‘Nielsen’ in Danish and also that cupcakes were popular in America for a long time but spread to the rest of the world only after the second world war (just to confirm this point, I found that it was introduced in Denmark in 1990) and Annemarie longing for cupcakes that they once had seemed to be rather inappropriate.

On the whole, I’d conclude saying that this is a below mediocre holocaust novel and you can read this if you wish to have a light read with a happy ending.

I’d give this book a rating of 4/10.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Three years, and counting

17th May, 2014, this day, that is, marks the third anniversary of this blog. Over these three years, a lot of things have happened, both for me personally and for this blog. For starters, when I started, I was still in school and yes, looking back at my initial reviews, that fact would seem more than evident.

This blog started solely because of a grave personal failure of mine, that being, writing my own work of fiction. While, the term ‘writing’ alone might seem misleading considering I’d have written close to 1,000 the seven year life of that ambition, but the misfortune being, the 1,000 pages were accumulated over 30 different plots; with me rejecting each one of them after the very first self-review and ultimately, none of them were completed. Yet another constraint to this ambition of mine was that reading was hardly a hobby of mine, and I had always preferred to create my own rather than read someone else’s. Unfortunately, it took me too long to realise that my writing isn’t good enough – considering how my expectations were so high and I was never able to meet them.

Just then, I had come across a blog of my friend, who wrote anime reviews and that is when, there was a thought that came by, a move by which, I could save my writing habit, and at the same time, come closer to making my ambition of becoming an author closer to a goal than a dream. That is when I decided to take a sabbatical from crafting works of fiction on my own and start reading works of other authors and get an idea on how to go about the job and after reading a book (after all, taking idea from a source is plagiarism, but if the same is done over several sources, it is deemed to be creativity in this world), I’d write a review on the same, thereby retaining my habit of writing something on my own (not as creative, but a reasonable alternative). So, finally my blog, http://vata312.blogspot.com (I beseech you, please don’t ask me for the expansion of vata or the significance of 312) going by the name ‘The Viscount’s Reviews’ (as I said, I was still in school when I opened this up and just before opening this blog, I had read about Horatio Nelson, and the fascination about led me to give myself the self-proclaimed title). The first review up was on Ian Rankin’s Knots &Crosses – the first book in the Inspector John Rebus series.

From then on, then on, fortunately, the blog has only seen a rise. Understandably so, my initial reviews were too rigid and drab and I still guess have a lot of scope to improve, despite being in this for three years. What came as a pleasant surprise to me was in October 2012, nearly one and a half years after I had started off, when I received a direct request from an author for a review. This was pleasant, considering how, when I had started off, I never knew such perks existed on this job. I’d like to thank all the twenty odd authors (whose names I’m not at a liberty to disclose to prevent my otherwise unquestionable objectivity come under scrutiny) who’ve had their faith in me and I wish to have all your continued support. I guess I’d also have to thank them for the patience they’ve had in me, considering that my reading is extremely slow, for a fact that it was never my natural hobby but something that I’m carrying out with a vested interest.

The Road Ahead

Instead of looking things at retrospect, I’d rather introspect into what could be done in with the blog. Fortunately, before too long, I had renamed by blog Astute (inspired by Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister, who continually uses the word in a rather… astute manner) and followed by a quote from an author whom I strongly admire and deeply respect.

My primary concern, at the moment is the design of the blog which I believe could be presented in a much better manner, which could immediately grab the attention of the reader. The list of reviews for instance, is an extremely user unfriendly list for the reader to manoeuvre through for the review that they wish to read. Anybody who can help me on this, please contact me and I promise, I shall repay you with loads of gratitude (*winks*).

I also plan to expand the base of books in order to turn it into a genuine book reviewing blog. As of now, although I’ve a considerable readership, most of them seem to be for my non-core Scandinavian drama series (as seen below in the screenshot I’ve attached). The only way I see for this is to improve my quality of reviews, presentation, and perhaps, also get a good spin doctor (*winks again*).



While I certainly feel that this blog has come a long way from my first review, Knots& Crosses till I am Malala, with the difference being more than evident, I still thrive to make my next set of reviews to be of a much higher standard than what I’ve done in the first three years.

Ultimately, I’ve to return to my primary goal sooner than later and I hope I hang on to this tomfoolery for a maximum of another 18 months and get back to writing (I do have a reasonable idea for a historical fiction in place) and let me see how that goes.

Thanks to all the friends (whom I’ve asked on countless occasions to review my reviews), authors and of course the readers and I'd hope for all your continued support.

With this, I end my write-up on the completion of three years, and counting, for a long time to come.

Have a nice day,

Andy

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘On Tuesday 9 October 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price. Shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, she was not expected to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, and of Malala’s parents’ fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

It will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.’

The incident that took place on 12th October, 2012 had taken the world by storm. It was just another mundane day for the teenage blogger / activist, Malala Yousafzai who was returning from school when all of a sudden; her bus was stopped by two men who posed a question to everyone, ‘Who is Malala?’ and before too long she was shot at point blank range and in no time, tehreek-i-taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The autobiography, co-authored by the well-known British war correspondent, Christina Lamb covers events from Malala’s birth till her recovery from the bullet wounds. I loved the way in which the book started with description of the incident which put her into global spotlight and moves into the story with a very strong closure on the prologue – ‘”Who is Malala?” the gunman demanded. I am Malala and this is my story.

To begin with, I’d say the story was structured very well with clear temporal and situational demarcation. In most autobiographies, the lack of this feature is the problem that readers usually face (though, to be fair on them others, Malala just had to cover fourteen years). The first part of the autobiography is on her life in Swat before the entry of taliban, and begins with her father celebrating her birth, which is unusual considering how Pashtuns are a society that prizes sons. Then she goes on to describe her humble origins where money was scarce and her father was pursuing his dream of starting a school in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat valley and the eventual beginning of the realisation of the dream – describing the founding of Khushal Public School (named after the family’s first son, Malala’s younger brother) and how it grew step by step. Malala drew inspiration from her father and developed similar ideologies, be it on the emphasis on education, the love for poetry, oratory, devotion to Islam and also with regard to the disagreement with taliban’s interpretation of the same. It was also good as to how; sufficient focus was shown on giving a reader an insight into the history of the Swat valley (I fail to understand how she feels it is a valley of peace when it is a part of the Pashtun tradition to carry a rifle with them), the history of Pashtuns, their traditions (The Pashtunwali code), the history of Pakistan (need not be very relevant for a reader like myself considering I’m from the neighbouring country and I don’t need any further insight, but certainly for all useful for all the readers outside South Asia).

The second phase of the autobiography was my favourite where she beautifully brings out the gradually changing environment in Swat with the entry of the taliban. I had always wondered as to how the taliban had such a strong support among the locals, be it Helmand, South Waziristan or Swat Valley, Malala gave me the answer as to how the warlords portray themselves as pious people to begin with and win the minds of the people and then, eventually get on with their own agenda. That transition in Swat valley was brought out very well during the second phase as to how taliban gradually began to exploit the trust that the locals had in them and whatever they had taken for granted, such as attending school, singing, dancing, films, television were all banned by them, virtually making the locals prisoners in their own valley (such restrictions would certainly be difficult for someone like Malala considering she is a fan of Western works like Twilight).

The third and fourth phase are what people all over the world know better, that is, the shooting and the aftermath, the only irony that the reader could enjoy is this was possibly one scenario where the Pakistani Army and the Government were on the same page, that is saving Malala at any cost.

The only negative aspect I found in the book was the involvement of Christina Lamb; while I presume she’d have done a commendable job in fine-tuning the work and editing (after all, good editing is when the reader doesn’t get to feel the editor’s work), however, the originality was lost. While I’m sure that giving an insight into the politics and history of Pakistan would’ve been her work which was one of her positive contributions but at the same time, with the reader easily able to spot who wrote what isn’t exactly a good sign. For instance, Malala, who doesn’t even know where Birmingham is, there is no way she could’ve made a comparison between the radius of the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 covering an area close to the size of the US state of Connecticut. I personally feel that the book would’ve been much better had it fully been her own which would’ve been the easiest way of conveying her thoughts and ideologies to the reader.

What makes me really admire Malala is her courage – contrary to the popular belief that she got famous only because of being shot by the taliban; she has been campaigning on this issue for a really long time which is what had brought her into their radar. However, despite the threats that she received, neither her father nor did she budge, and instead, she threw her pseudonym off and started appearing on TV – a sort of courage that is hard to find. Another reason why I admire her is her agenda – that is education for all, irrespective of gender. I’ve known activists who run a single point agenda on girls’ education whereas totally ignoring the other 50% of the population, especially when there are a considerable number of children being denied the privilege of education in that 50% and Malala is certainly not one such activist and certainly runs a much broader agenda and I hope she continues to campaign for the cause even though she is in a place far away from her home where she longs to return (which I guess is unlikely, considering all the appalling conspiracy theories that I hear in the neighbouring countries – even in well-known newspapers).

On the whole, I’d say that this book is an excellent read on all grounds, the content, information, the way in which her experience was presented, her language (I don’t know to what extent Christina Lamb is involved, while I know that Malala speaks English very well, I can’t really comment much on her writing skills) and was completely worth the money that I had paid for it. I’d also like to thank the publisher who cleverly hid Kashmir in the map of Pakistan that was shown for the reader’s comfort before the prologue because had they taken any stance on the demarcation, even if they had plotted the actual jurisdiction, I might have not had the privilege to read the book in my country of residence considering how 31 issues of the British magazine, The Economist was banned back in 2009 over the same issue.

As always, I shall not rate an autobiography, however, I’d say that it is an excellent read which could be recommended to anyone. 

Have a nice day,

Andy
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