Thursday, 30 November 2017

Sita: Warrior of Mithila by Amish Tripathi – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘India is beset with divisions, resentment, and poverty. The people hate their rulers. They despise their corrupt and selfish elite. Chaos is just one spark away. Outsiders exploit these divisions. Raavan, the demon king of Lanka, grows increasingly powerful, sinking his fangs deeper into the hapless Sapt Sindhu.

Two powerful tribes, the protectors of the divine land of India, decide that enough is enough. A saviour is needed. They begin their search.

An abandoned baby is found in a field. Protected by a vulture from a pack of murderous wolves. She is adopted by the ruler of Mithila, a powerless kingdom, ignored by all. Nobody believes this child will amount to much. But they are wrong. For she is no ordinary girl. She is Sita.’

This is the second book in the Ram Chandra Series of Amish Tripathi. However, this book is slightly different from the more famous Shiva Trilogy of the author wherein, the subsequent book picks up exactly from the point where the previous books left off. While the first book unfolded the character of Ram, this book focuses on Sita, the Princess of Mithila.

King Janak and Queen Sunaina come across a vulture defending a little girl from a pack of wolves and adopt her as the Princess of Mithila, a small kingdom in the east of Indian sub-continent. She grows up to be a strong young girl, taking interest in combat and horse riding. Mithila is a kingdom facing acute financial crisis and completely dependent on the Kingdom of Sanskhaya, ruled by Janak’s brother. However, a confrontation between Sita and her uncle over the unreasonable terms he proposed to Mithila changes the destiny of her kingdom and herself, as she is sent away for studies.

Sita’s growth was brought out well, a highly pragmatic individual who does what she believes is right and agrees to something only if she is convinced about it, even if it is from her teacher. This is often shown when she does not hesitate to speak her mind even in front of highly respected Maharishis such as Vashishta or Vishwamitra. There was also political unrest – ever since the defeat of the Ayodhyan Empire at the hands of the Lankan demon king Raavan and the trade sanctions thereon, the people are looking for a saviour who will save them from the menace of Raavan. However, the ones entrusted with the responsibility to find the saviour, have their own interests to look into and have a dislike for each other. Amongst this existing turmoil, Sita’s skills as the Prime Minister of Mithila is brought out where she improves law and order, builds new houses to increase the standard of living among various other things while also looking out for securing larger interests while going out on diplomatic missions as the Prime Minister.

I have always been reviewing this story as something totally distinct from Ramayan despite the novels being based on the book and thus I wouldn’t comment on the deviations thereon. However, I can’t help but notice a few things. For one, I am tired of Amish trying to milk from the populist sentiment going on in India at the time of the release of his books – he did in the first book, The Scion of Ikshvaku (click here forreview). He did it again here – for instance, there was a reference to surgical strike drawing parallel to India’s cross border military operations during September 2016 (click here for more details). There was more, wherein, there was a part in the story dedicated to Jallikattu – a bull taming sport in Tamil Nadu, southern India, where there were massive protests against a ban on the sport in the state of Tamil Nadu during January 2017 (click here for more details). He went on to describe how the sport was far superior to similar sports played in ‘far away foreign lands’, an open reference to the Spanish bull fighting sport – and similar arguments were used by proponents of the sport in Tamil Nadu which the author has merely reflected in the book. I was tempted to do some research whilst reading those sections and I found that the story, according the author was in 4500 BC whereas, neither Spanish bull fighting nor Jallikattu are that old. Of course, there is also the author trying to pander to the overall Indian nationalist sentiment at present by mentioning the word India at every possible opportunity (which was not the case with Shiva Trilogy) and of course, the trademark catchphrase, wherein, Sita was entrusted to ‘Make India Great Again’ (everyone knows that stupid tagline of the current office bearer of The President of the United States of America).

 I would say that I would laud the author for choosing a different format to present the new series (that is dedicating a separate book to build the main characters) and also the way in which Sita’s character was built. But the philosophical discussions, I would say that he was at it again with his ‘masculine thought’ and ‘feminine thought’; and what I could understand by it was that by the former, he meant conservative ideas and by the latter, he meant liberalism / centre-left ideas – he really need not have associated any gender to these.

To conclude, I would say that this novel did enough to keep me gripped but then, was not free from flaws, and I would have really liked if he had just altogether avoided the populist references, especially where some of them had no relevance to the story. I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Charles Darwin: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



Charles Darwin, is a well-known British naturalist who challenged the very idea of creationism by proposing the theory of evolution, which is debated by creationists till date. This is a short biography of his by Hourly History.

Charles Darwin was born at the time when the Industrial Revolution was reaching its peak. He initially studied medicine but very quickly dropped out and started learning taxidermy and about animals which is where his fascination for nature began. The book then goes on to describe his voyages around South America in his ship Beagle and his observations thereon in his book On the Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.

The book covered a good amount of Darwin’s work and also his personal life. It focused on both, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Natural Selection and the subsequent discussions and debates between various naturalists then. However, Darwin was different to Galileo in the sense that despite opposing a popularly held belief of a religious body, he was well recognised by his country and was well respected in his field. This fact was brought out well wherein, many do have the notion that Darwin too might have had a difficult time considering his theory but that certainly wasn’t the case.

This is a good book giving an insight into both Darwin the person and also his works and if a person needs a quick reference, this could be a good refresher. On that note, I would award the book an eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Narcos (Season 3) – Review



‘Agent Peña, how much do you know about the Cali Cartel?’ was a question directed from the DEA Operations staff in US to Javier Peña, the last words of Season 2 of Narcos (click here for accessing the review of the first two seasons). This story’s entire focus is on the Cali Cartel, which had a very minor role in the Pablo Escobar saga as the patron’s main rival.
From left to right: Matt Whelan as Daniel Van Ness, Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña, Michael Stahl-David as Christ Feistl


Javier Peña is now the narrator in the story and is sharing some light moments back home in Texas before leaving for Bogotá. He has now been promoted and he has two Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents under him – Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness. This is the first time we get to see Peña as the boss -  who plays very tough in front of his subordinates but actually tries to facilitate easier working for them from behind the scenes. It also brings out his courage, being in a more responsible position, he is often seen to take on powerful people within the US Government and the Colombian government.

Cali Cartel was very unlike Escobar’s Medellín Cartel – while Escobar channelled his excess funds to the people of Medellín to gain public support, the Cali Cartel ran banks and were in good touch with the elites. The story revolves around the patriarchs of the cartel – the Rodríguez brothers (Gilberto and Miguel), Chepe (their man in New York) and Pacho Herrera. With Escobar’s fall, Cali’s cocaine business flourishes even more but then, Gilberto makes a revelation, that in six months, the cartel is going to surrender to the police under a deal and in these six months, they are going to maximise their wealth.
From left to right: Matias Varela as Jorge Salcedo and Francisco Denis as Miguel Rodríguez


The story showcases a lot of aspects here, such as how the Rodríguez who were so united – start to see cracks in their relationship as a crisis emerges – there is ego clash, the need to show who is a superior boss, among various other things. On the other side there is Peña, who tries his best not to repeat his past of employing any means to justify the ends but sometimes he is forced to give in. There is also the continued story of corruption in Colombia’s police force in Cali and also among politicians, at the very top level. The frequent arguments between Peña and the Stechner (the CIA agent in Colombia) was definitely one of the highlights of the season.

Another side to the story is that of a security officer of the Cali Cartel – Jorge Salcedo. Cali uses high end technology and Salcedo is an engineer who is in charge of the security of Miguel Rodríguez. Unlike the traditional security men, does not carry a gun and instead, watches what is happening by tapping phones, going through computer records, etc. He wishes to leave the cartel and start his own firm but is unable to come out of the cartel and the show brings out the problems he faces in his personal life owing to the continued association of his with the Cartel.

An aspect that could have been better was to have focused a little more on Feistl and Van Ness who were merely being Peña’s puppets. Even Feistl was occasionally shown to be an intelligent person and someone with a strong sense of judgement but Van Ness seemed a mere addition to the whole plot.

However, I would say that this scored on fact checking better than the previous two seasons wherein most of the main characters were in fact real, barring the fact that it was not Javier Peña who was involved in bringing down the Cali Cartel as he had returned to US along with Steve Murphy after bringing down Escobar.

The producers of the series had a good story to tell, with characters built with good amount of detail, especially Jorge Salcedo and Javier Peña, but then, one could say that it was a little too short and the mighty cartel fell apart in quick succession. However, out of that, serendipitously, there was extreme pace at which the season was carried out keeping the viewer gripped till the very end.

On that note, I would award the series a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Thomas Jefferson: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



The name that immediately comes to our mind for an early American president after George Washington is that of Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. This is a short biography of Thomas Jefferson from Hourly History.

Jefferson is from Virginia and was part of the elite of the society. His family owned plantations and several slaves and he himself owned several slaves during his later years. However, he also pursued a career in law and has several times, argued for the freedom of certain runaway slaves. The book then goes on to his disagreements with President John Adams whilst he was vice-president, then on to his own Presidency, where he organised the Louisiana Purchase and enacted certain controversial Acts removing the natives from the area. The book then focused on his post retirement career of an academic, establishing the University of Virginia.

It was a well-structured biography – from the times Jefferson was a patriot to the cause, then his stint as an Ambassador in Paris, followed by his entry into politics, presidency and finally retirement with each given an individual chapter. The various disagreements he had with his political masters, his paradoxical personality (refer the above slave example) – was brought out very well. There was also a decent focus on his personal life without going too much into it.

However, the book also excessively referred to aspects of US history surrounding the independence even in places where Jefferson was not involved and need not even have been mentioned. Without it, perhaps the book could have focused on some of the finer aspects of Jefferson’s presidency without compromising on the ability of the book to be read within an hour.

Based on the structure and the depth of the overview that the book gave, I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (#1 of A Song of Ice and Fire) – Book Review



Age group: 16+

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher’s write-up:

 ‘Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men. All will play the Game of Thrones.

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. It will stretch from the south, where heat breeds plot, lusts and intrigues; to the vast frozen north, where a 700-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from dark forces that lie beyond. The Game of Thrones. You win or you die.’

Ever since HBO launched a TV show based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; where the TV show was named after the first book of the series, Game of Thrones. While I was suggested the TV show by many of my friends, I could never get past twenty minutes, for I found it too gory but then, I decided to give in years later when I picked up the first book of the series.

 It happens in a new world created by the author which is simply referred to as the known world­ in the books. The story is divided into chapters told from the third person perspective of the main characters which include Eddard (Ned) Stark, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Brandon Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.

In Westeros, a continent to the west of the known world, Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King (chief adviser) of the Seven Kingdoms, dies under mysterious circumstances. Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and a close aide of King Robert Baratheon succeeds as the new Hand and moves to the capital with his two daughters and starts investigating the cause of Jon Arryn’s death. His daughter Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the song of King Robert and Queen Cersei. However, strange events start to unfold – Ned Stark’s young son Brandon is pushed off the tower and whilst he was being treated, there was another assassination attempt on him. Catelyn Stark, the Lady of Winterfell gets to know that the knife used in the assassination attempt belonged to Tyrion Lannister, from the house which Queen Cersei belonged to. This leads to political instability and a war between the House of Stark and the House of Lannister.

On the other side, in the continent of Essos, you have the Targaryen siblings – Viserys, the pretender to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms and his sister Daenerys, plotting to retake the throne for the family. The Targaryens were ousted by Robert Baratheon twelve years ago by means of a rebellion. Viserys is trying to form an army large enough to travel back to Westeros and retake the Kingdom and for this, he secures an alliance with a nomadic tribe, the Dothrakis, by marrying his sister to their leader Khal Drogo.

There is also another angle to the story, from the point of view of Jon Snow, who joins the night watch, who guard the Northern Wall of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon Snow is the bastard son of Ned Stark and the more he spends time at Night Watch, the more he gets to know the truths of the order.

The plot was slow, and the title was highly misleading, for, the Game of Thrones does not even begin till the death of the King, which took place after I was much more than half into the novel. Till then, all I had was some childish fighting between teenagers – Sansa and her sister Arya, Arya and Prince Joffrey. The first 500 odd pages of the book effectively seemed like a filler wherein the story was going directionless, there were three different perspectives, and within that, excluding Daenerys and Jon, the six others are at different locations within Westeros, each of them pursuing different interests. And when you have so many perspectives, inevitably you also have so many characters that it was becoming extremely difficult for me to keep track of characters, events, the setting and the whole unfolding of the plot lacked coherence. I had to take multiple breaks while reading this book and from the time I started reading this book till the end, I read six books in between to keep me distracted from the utterly boring pages of this book.

I understand that this is a long novel and I have experienced something similar with The Luminaries (which is slightly longer than Game of Thrones) and there too, I felt lost for the first 200 pages but it didn’t run as long as in the case of this book. But I would concede that the author did a reasonable job in establishing the characters during the initial stages – Ned Stark as the man bound by honour and duty to the king, Tyrion Lannister – the cunning yet witty dwarf of the Lannisters, Cersei – the manipulative queen, Joffrey the arrogant young prince who feels too entitled, Sansa the conformist and Arya the rebel. I felt that Tyrion Lannister proved to be the only saving grace whose presence would help the reader to at least look forward to the next chapter from the perspective of Tyrion for at least, they were interesting.

After the death of King Robert, the novel, took the turn for the better, with things moving fast, the war for succession getting very tense, with the Starks on war against the Lannisters, the King’s brothers staking a claim to the throne, I breezed past the final third of the novel and considering that the series would continue along similar lines, I would give the series another chance and would eventually read the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire.

With that said, an interesting final third does not exonerate the author for boring me with fillers for a substantial part of the book and on that note, I would award Game of Thrones, a mere five on ten.

Rating – 5/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

James Monroe: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



We know about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson when it comes to initial Presidents of the United States. However, beyond that, most external observers tend to know only from Abraham Lincoln onwards. However, the 5th President of the United States, James Monroe – the last of the founding fathers to be President was most famous for his Monroe Doctrine. This is a short biography on the former US President by Hourly History.

Monroe was the third time a Virginian became the President of the Country (after Washington and Jefferson). The book starts with his origins in Virginia, from a wealthy slave owning family. It then moves on to his period in the army, where he has fought wars on the side of the settlers and subsequently against the British during the American War of Independence. It then touched upon his time as the United States Ambassador to France, overseeing the Louisiana Purchase. The book then moves on to his two term presidency and his eventual death.

The book brought out aspects of US history, which I did not know much about, which is, the period between Jefferson and Lincoln. It also brought out Monroe’s personality as a sound diplomat – wherein he developed relations with France and at the same time, maintains good relations with the British in order to enforce his Monroe doctrine – which stated that Europeans shouldn’t colonise the Americas any further and he needed the British naval support to enforce the same.

The book was disappointing that the focus on his two term presidency was not elaborated much and instead, his personal life was given a lot more focus, with repeated mention of how his daughter’s wedding was the first ever wedding to be conducted at the White House.

The book was a reasonable read, but there was nothing significantly noteworthy to call it as a must read of Hourly History. I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Narcos – Pablo Escobar Saga (Seasons 1 and 2) – Review


Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar

Disclaimer – My usual norm for TV drama reviews apply, that is, I analyse only the story and not the other aspects of a TV drama such as acting, direction, background music, etc.

The first I heard of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord from Colombia was whilst reading about the footballer Andrés Escobar (not related to Pablo) who was shot in Medellín, Colombia, in 1994 following Colombia’s elimination from the football World Cup owing to the own goal he scored. I read that if Pablo had been alive, the incident would not have happened as he is a die-hard fan of football and the Colombian team and nobody would have dared to attack a footballer in Medellín, Pablo’s hometown.

Thanks to the recent crime thriller from Netflix, being Narcos, on the life of Pablo Escobar – I could get to know more about him. The story is told from the perspective of Steve Murphy, an officer in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States who arrives in Bogotá on a mission to take down Pablo Escobar. He joins his DEA colleague Javier Peña – a Texan who has already been in Bogotá for a while.

The story then moves to Pablo Escobar, who starts his career as an ordinary smuggler of electronic items and cigarettes before starting to enter the cocaine trade – sending the drug in large quantities to Miami, US – and inevitably, the US has strong interests in bringing down the cartel. It shows the rise of Pablo Escobar in Medellín – how he forms an effective cartel combating his enemies, including Colombia’s communist guerrilla M-19 wherein he brings drug lords together to combat M-19’s kidnapping tactics. The story brought out the aspect of Pablo Escobar’s rise very well – how he rose to prominence so quickly.

The story then moves on to his next ambition – Escobar had a lot of money, and as he couldn’t hide it, he started distributing it to the people, building houses for them that he became very popular. As a result, Escobar ran for parliament, with ambitions of becoming the President someday but the fellow Congressmen were not too welcoming of Escobar’s presence in Parliament. As a result, Escobar’s downfall began when he started to kill politicians opposed to him. From here on, the series proceeds with the story of Escobar till his death.

The story had an all-round focus – the situation in the US embassy; the tiffs between the DEA and the CIA; the political situation and the campaigns for presidency in Colombia and Escobar’s interests in suppressing the campaigns; how the war affected the personal lives of two of the central characters – Steve Murphy of the DEA and Pablo Escobar himself.

From left to right: Maurice Compte as Horacio Carrillo, Boyd Holbrook as Steve Murphy and Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña
The story also brings out the character of each of the main persons involved – Javier Peña – who is willing to risk the means so long as it satisfies the ends, Steve Murphy – who becomes too attached to the task of finding Escobar that he begins to start to feel at home in Bogotá and even picks up a bit of Spanish, Horacio Carillo - the fearless head of the Search Bloc of the Colombian police and one of the rare incorruptible officers, Pablo Escobar – the astute and megalomaniacal drug lord who is also extremely concerned about his family, Gustavo Gaviria – the loyal cousin of Pablo and his right hand man, César Gaviria (not related to Gustavo / Pablo) – the Colombian President who begins his tenure on a principles and eventually starts to make compromises in the war against Escobar. The perspectives of the characters were portrayed so much in depth that at times, you’d have some sympathy for Pablo Escobar.
From left to right: Juan Pablo Raba as Gustavo Gaviria and Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar

In this story, they bring out a lot of aspects – such as the society in Medellín back then, corruption in the police, politics and media, etc. It also was a story dealing with various human obsessions such as power, greed, pride, jealousy and revenge making Narcos rather a complete package.

The first episode of Narcos starts with a quote:

‘Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.’

We read / see a lot of characters doing absolutely unbelievable acts and we wonder someone could do it in real. On that note, Narcos scores high as they did pick up a real character, often showing real footages and photographs from the police records (such as Escobar’s mugshot) and videos from the Colombian political campaigns. The very fact that this story is about a real person and most characters who appear are people who are real and still be interesting is something that provides a significant boost to the series.

However, on that note, while the producers agree that there are fictional elements for the purpose of dramatization, that makes fact checking a very important activity for a trivia crazy person like myself. While most characters were real, there were a few who weren’t such as Horacio Carillo; who was an entirely fictitious character. Some names have been changed of key characters but I would understand that as owing to certain legal constraints (such as Escobar’s wife and his journalist contact – both of whom are still alive) but I felt having key fictional characters was something that could have been avoided. Moreover, the show suggests a lot of conspiracy theories which alleged Escobar to be the brain behind the incidents such as; the attack on the Supreme Court of Colombia carried out by M-19 and also the murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán to be actually carried out by Escobar whereas in reality = the link between M-19 attack and Escobar is yet to be established and Galán murder is unsolved till date. 

Considering that, I might have preferred if they had taken an entirely fictional approach based on Pablo Escobar which would have given them full creative liberty and at the same time, weave an equally interesting story. Instead, I had to often pause my viewing and perform fact checking and sometimes, was disappointed over the producers portraying as though at a particular point in time, Escobar was in fact the most powerful man in the world. I don’t know whether other viewers also would tend to pause the video often while watching but in case they didn’t; they might believe in the portrayal of Escobar verbatim.

Furthermore, I felt that they prolonged the story a little, just a brief look at the timeline, the first season portrayed Pablo Escobar’s life from the start of his activities till 1992 and the second season for the same length, covered till his death, which just happened a year later, in 1993.

Whilst I generally don’t have the patience to watch TV shows, Narcos proved to be something different, it made me binge watch, often six hours (excluding the hours spent on fact checking) at a stretch. This was a highly gripping plot and those who enjoy a story containing crime, politics, police procedural, all at once, Narcos is certainly a must watch. On that note, I would award the show a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Nikola Tesla: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



Nikola Tesla is quite the cult figure, especially after the 90s with a lot of inventions being attributed to his vision and experiments including wireless communication. However, he is also the scientist who became rather obscure after his death in the 1940s and even during his life; he was often described as the mad scientist. Best known for designing the modern alternating current (AC) supply system, this is a short biography of the scientist by Hourly History.

The book starts with his birth in modern day Croatia, how he was very sharp in studies but eventually dropping out of college because of his gambling addiction. It goes to describe his working life with telephones at Budapest and job as a teaching assistant in Prague before finally moving on to the United States. He initially worked for Edison and later, with his game changing invention of a working alternating current (AC) system for Westinghouse, became Edison’s direct competitor. It talks about his legal disputes with Marconi over the invention of radio. Tesla was debt-ridden and the book eventually ends with his death in absolute penury and moving into obscurity.

The book brought out the fact that Tesla was a visionary very well; that he imagined things and he worked to create them, even things which were unimaginable in his time such as wireless technology or alternating current. It also brought out how Tesla didn’t care for money so long as he was given his space to conduct experiments and invent things, such as how he tore up the royalty agreement with Westinghouse when the company was in crisis.

The book was slightly annoying in parts, wherein, no less than three times was it mentioned that it we must all be thankful to Tesla for the radio, the smartphone we are holding, the tablet we’re using, etc. While the need to acknowledge his contribution is fine, I don’t think it is logical to expect people to thank Alexander Graham Bell when they dial a number, John Logie Baird when they switch on the television, etc. Similar to my point on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s biography by Hourly History, Tesla too was an engineer and some diagrams and illustrations would have helped (such as the Tesla coil).

Tesla did achieve a lot of things, but certainly not as what the cult projects, as being the inventor of practically everything and I might have appreciated the book more had they dedicated a small paragraph in the conclusion debunking those myths (such as Tesla inventing radar technology).

I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan – Book Review



Genre: Short stories – narratives

Age group: 16+

The author Perumal Murugan is no stranger to controversy and before too long and considering his name continually featuring in the news, one can’t help but be curious of his works. The Goat Thief is a collection of ten short stories of Perumal Murugan in Tamil, translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman.

The stories explore various kinds of people whom we don’t normally read about – a night-watchman guarding a haunted house, a bunch of youngsters who discuss and offer solutions for every problem of the society but were unable to identify the problem in their own backyard, a goat thief in a village who is chased by a violent mob, an old woman who has forgotten nearly everyone in her life suddenly finds a meaning considering the unexpected visit by her great-grandson, etc.

The author in the preface talks about how the stories he picked up were featuring people who were exceptions in the society rather than conformists. The author touches upon various human qualities – for instance, the author brought out possessiveness and the need for space in the story Musical Chairs where there was only one chair in the house and the wife fights to get a second chair and gets too attached to it. In The Night the Owls Stopped Crying (my personal favourite), the author brings out how the night-watchman in his desperation to interact with people, especially women, decides to engage in conversations with a spirit of a rape victim in a haunted house he guards. The Goat Thief brought out the intention to seek revenge of a mob, which over the course of time becomes more of a matter of pride to attain the revenge than to seek any gains. The Man Who Could Not Sleep explore the jealousy and rage of an old man wherein his sons are lacking a vision whereas the neighbour’s son is building a house with a tiled roof at the age of 25.

I would not reveal the synopsis of any of the other stories but I would comment in general that wherever the stories had a rural setting, the author brought out the setting very well – a well, muddy roads, a house with a pyol where people sit and gossip, etc. The way in which the author brought life into non-living objects in some of the stories was also done very well, such as the well in The Well and the chairs in Musical Chairs.

What could pull down these books are normally the translations, but then, the translator has done a good job in bringing out the crux of the plot and even where he chose to retain the Tamil words (usually in case of pronouns), he did add a line to what that meant. Only translating proverbs was perhaps a grey area, wherein, some of them sounded weird like – ‘even a neem oil bowl could be of use someday’ – while the crux of the meaning is conveyed, a word for word translation makes the proverb lose the charm.

I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed nearly six of the stories and partially enjoyed two of them but then, while abstract elements with a lot of metaphors are quintessential of a short story, sometimes, it also renders the story incomplete leaving the author without a proper conclusion. I would also say that in this collection, two of the stories, The Well and Sanctuary was on very similar themes, just that the latter was less macabre and I felt that this repetition could have been avoided by placing some other short story of the author in the anthology.

This book would certainly be enjoyed by those who do enjoy short stories filled with imagery left to the interpretation of the reader and I did enjoy most of the writing and on that note, based on my above review, I award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Christopher Columbus: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History



It is this trivia that we hear in school - Columbus discovered America. While that statement is inaccurate on many counts, considering, the Viking explorer Leif Erikson arrived in Newfoundland around 500 years before Columbus did, and the first European explorer to first set foot in the American mainland was Amerigo Vespucci. Despite all these, Columbus did possess a lot of courage and introduced the Europeans to a whole new world and this is a short biography attempting to recollect the life and journey of Columbus.

Columbus was from Genoa (present day Italy), and was from a middle class family. His brother Bartholomew was a cartographer and Columbus too was passionate about ships and the sea. It then moves on to Columbus' adult life, sailing as a business agent to various parts of Europe. Columbus always believed that there was a route to Asia through the west and believed that it wasn't too far away. However, his ambitious project didn't receive sufficient funding, and the King of Portugal was not interested in funding his expedition. Queen Isabella of Castille did respond and accepted to fund his expedition and he finally ventured past Azores, something carried out by no European in the past. It then talks about his three expeditions, his discovery of Hispaniola, Cuba, among various other islands and governing them on behalf of Castille. There were also scandals that broke out, saying Columbus was a fraud, and also on how he treated the natives and others.

The book brought out the fact that the task undertaken by Columbus was very daring, because Europeans were already comfortable with the Cape of Good Hope route to Asia and were not interested in taking such a big risk. The description of his disappointments upon realising that it wasn't Asia was also brought out well, his misgovernance, treatment of slaves and in fact, the slave trade he carried out with the natives, was all described very well in the book. I felt that in an hour, this book covered the details in a manner in which you could read it all in an hour and at the same time, revisit some of Iberian history of the 15th century.

The book concluded on how Columbus should be viewed - whether as a daring explorer who opened up Europeans to a world beyond Azores or someone who ill treated the natives, indulged in slave trade and forcibly imposed his religion on them. The book left the judgement on Columbus to the individual reader.

Based on my experience with it, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.
 

Rating - 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez – Book Review



Imagine going on a voyage on the sea and your ship capsizes, your fellow sailors drown and all you have is a raft and a few oars right in the middle of the sea. This was the reality of the Colombian sailor, Luis Alejandro Velasco, in the year 1955 and he stayed on that way for ten days. Years after his ordeal, he was interviewed by the then Colombian journalist who later on went to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gabriel García Márquez who weaves an interesting novella from the perspective of the sailor Velasco.

On February 28, 1955, eight crew members left Mobile, Alabama, United States towards the Colombian port of Cartagena aboard the destroyer Caldas. En route, the chip capsizes and one of the sailors survive and make it to Colombia, surely, everyone would want to know his story but that is where the complications arise. Colombia was under military dictatorship back then wherein the regime declared all the sailors dead because of a storm. However, there was no storm and in fact, the ship was overloaded with contraband leading to a major factor for the accident and the government didn’t want the shortcomings exposed.

The story has a lot of parallels with that of the Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, however, there were some significant differences. Crusoe had Friday as his companion, Velasco had none; Crusoe had arable lands, Velasco’s sources of food was minimal. But then, both deal with the survival instinct and that aspect was brought in well wherein Velasco, desperate for food, commits the cardinal sin for a sailor, which is killing a seagull.

In this quest for survival, there were a lot of other things that were happening to Velasco, wherein, though he didn’t have Friday like Crusoe, he hallucinated a friend and indulges in conversations with him. It also gets him thinking about Caribbean islands with cannibals and starting to feel safer at the sea than land. Despite the fear, he was overjoyed when he did arrive at land and saw a fellow human being and shout for help. That was an aspect that this novella lacked a little, wherein, his arrival and first interactions back in land could have been described better.

The author also brings out how Velasco being celebrated as a hero and his sudden increase in marketability (considering his endorsement deals) started to lack meaning to him, as, if he had supplies in the raft, his story wouldn’t have been half as popular. The story did have a price, for Velasco, though, with the truth exposed, he was forced to retire into oblivion by the military regime and was soon, forgotten.

For once, I had a relatively light read from Gabriel García Márquez and I think this book does a very fair job in bringing out the story for a novella. I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Golden House by Sir Salman Rushdie – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from Bombay takes up residence in a cloistered community in Ney York’s Greenwich Village. Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent and the unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya; Apu, the flamboyant artist; and D, who harbours an explosive secret even from himself.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in India, the unravelling of an insidious plot.’

Who are you? It might sound like a very easy question but over the years, the issue of identity has been made so complex that there is no longer a very direct answer to the question any more. Although whether the complications are required or not is an entirely different debate altogether, Sir Salman Rushdie in his thirteenth novel explores the various identity crises in the society.

It starts with an aspiring filmmaker, son of Belgian academics, René is writing a film featuring his new neighbours, moving in to New York on the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated. But who were they – a man and his three sons (or is it?) trying to dissociate themselves from their old names, with the patriarch naming himself Nero Golden, with his sons assuming Roman names themselves – Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apulius (Apu) and Dionysus (D). Predictably so, René’s film is called The Golden House and the question he asks is – who are they? Is it really possible to be completely shed all your past identities?

In his quest, René does get some of his answers, the Goldens are an extremely wealthy family with Indian origins where the patriarch seems to have made the decision to move out of his past life post the death of his wife following the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26th November, 2008. But is that the only reason? While René tries to find the answers and to learn about the Goldens for his own film, René gets too involved that he becomes a part of the story of the Goldens himself.

The other identity issues that the author raises through his various characters are intriguing – one is that of Petya and alcoholic and agoraphobic, Apu – an artist who longs to return to his homeland and original identity and that of D, their half-brother who is confused about whether he is man or a woman or the category of transgender he falls under. The women have a significant role too, Riya D, helping her boyfriend (or girlfriend) D through the identity crisis and at the other end, Nero marrying a significantly younger Russian woman, Vasilisa, whose entry eventually makes all the sons leave the Golden House as she assumes absolute control.

The author has made a good decision to return to realism rather than the usual genre of his being magic realism. This book lacks any element of magic and in the era of post-truth or truthiness (coined by comedian Stephen Colbert) the question is always as to whether everything we hear or see or told is actually the reality. The author doesn’t leave that stone unturned and frequently makes allusions to the current President of the United States as the story moves towards the end of Obama’s term. Without ever taking names, he refers to the winner of the 2016 Presidential Election as The Joker and his principal opponent as Batwoman. Considering René’s own background, he makes a lot of pop culture references, from Batman to The Great Gatsby, which considering my lack of knowledge in the area, started becoming difficult to follow and appreciate.

The author fills the book with various other allusions as well – such as Nero himself alluding to Trump, a rich man who considers himself all powerful and invulnerable, with a young wife from Eastern Europe, and a highly murky past from when investigated would open a can of worms. The author also brings out that even if you wish to shed your identities, they would eventually catch up to you and when it does, the Goldens start to fall apart.

René the narrator was very unlike Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children wherein, René is not the principal protagonist and as a writer of the Golden family’s mockumentary – what he describes as a story where he assumes the events whenever he wasn’t present, what we often do about people around us. Thus, René being the narrator rather than being one of the Goldens was indeed a very good choice.

The final third is where the author chooses to bring up the murky past which again, has a lot of allusions to reality and this is where, the extent of thrill would vary based on whom you are and the extent to which you know the history of the city of Bombay / Mumbai and how closely you followed the campaign of the current President of the United States. Since I am reasonably aware of both, it was very clear to me as to where he was alluding to Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim (Mumbai gansters) and also Donald Trump and based on the sequences, I could predict what was going to happen.

However, for those who aren’t familiar with those, along with the various issues of identity he has raised – touching upon blind nationalism, gender politics, other identity issues, this would also be a thriller plot unravelling along with an interesting political backdrop. But it could also be argued at the same time that for the plot, the political background was quite unnecessary.

The author has taken up a courageous task, of making political connections on an interesting plot, and that too, taking a position contrary to the trend in the two countries he hails from – being United Kingdom and India and also the country where he is currently residing, being the United States.

To conclude – it is an intriguing plot that keeps you gripped till the end and on that note, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Joseph Stalin by Hourly History – Book Review



Stalin is known for his moustache, his role in the Second World War, and his controversial deportations. policies leading to famines and labour camps resulting in deaths of millions of people. This is a short biography of the Soviet leader, whose name translates to ‘Man of Steel’.

The reason why I didn’t say Russian leader was because Stalin was in fact not Russian and this book starts with his beginnings in Georgia as Ioseb Jugashvilli, going on to work in a factory in Tiflis, Georgia, rising up as a union leader, gets arrested and exiled to Siberia. The book then talks about his meeting with Lenin in Siberia and how he gets influenced by the Communist ideology. The book marginally touches upon the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution leading to the establishment of the new Communist Government with Stalin rising up as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. It moves on to Stalin’s role, his attempts to broker peace with Hitler in 1938, eventually leading to a war against Germany, and how his charisma urged the Soviets to fight the Germans unto death. Post his victory in Stalingrad and Second World War, it talks about Stalin’s rise in stature as he had a commanding position in the Tehran Conference with Churchill and FD Roosevelt. It then talks about the eventual decline, his administrative mishaps leading to criticism and denouncement from his successor, Nikita Khruschchev.

The book covered most highlights of Stalin’s life, if not all important aspects. How the Soviets were totally in awe of him and in a position to demand anything from public was brought out well in the book. His skills as an astute negotiator was also brought out, from his days as a union leader, then as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, his negotiations with Hitler and finally, the Tehran conference.

With that said, the book was quite short, and I think it took me barely half an hour to read the whole thing. While there is nothing wrong with it being short, it missed out on his schemes which lead to mass famines, his policy to deport ethnic Tatars to far off places such as Kyrgyzstan, among various other things leading to a death of a lot of people. Stalin, often considered as a villain in history, a biography on him is incomplete without coverage of both sides of the coin.

On that note, I would award this book a rating of five on ten, where the aspects of his rise to power, his ability to negotiate and his war tactics were brought out well but not so much, for his flawed policies.

Rating – 5/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Elizabeth I: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



Most are aware of the current monarch of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, but not so much about her 16th century namesake, Elizabeth I. This is a short biography of the English monarch by Hourly History.

It starts with how when Elizabeth took over, the country was in turmoil. She took over from her half-sister Mary, notoriously known as Bloody Mary for her aggressive push to reintroduce Catholicism in England. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII from his second marriage, to Anne Boleyn and many Catholics in the kingdom viewed her claim to the throne lacking legitimacy, as they didn’t recognise the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage. It goes on to talk about how Elizabeth had to initially consolidate her power and at the same time, also maintain religious harmony between Catholics and Protestants. However, she was faced with succession battles from both internal and external forces, with the French supporting Mary, the Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s cousin) to succeed the throne and many Catholics in England seeing her as the legitimate successor. It then elaborates on her decision to not marry and keeping her suitors guessing and also about her various military victories, most famously the Spanish Armada. It also focused on her relationship with her cousin, Mary the Queen of Scots and the eventual souring of the relationship, considering the latter’s constant push for claiming the throne herself.

This book revisited English history during the 16th Century, the constant question of succession looming over Britain. The fact that there was a looming threat of political instability throughout her reign was brought out well. Her ability to deal with the nobles within her own kingdom and negotiate with other kingdoms, such as Spain and Netherlands, was also well explained. Ultimately, this also fit the time frame of one hour, as that was all it took to complete it.

The aspect that was lacking in the book was that though it asserted that Mary and Elizabeth shared a close relationship, it was never convincing, as, throughout, Mary had been plotting to usurp the throne and mercy seemed to be only from Elizabeth’s side. Perhaps, if the authors had substantiated one of the letters that had been exchanged, it could have been brought to the fore better.

On the whole, this was a well compiled biography and I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golf Stories by PG Wodehouse – Book Review


Publisher’s write-up:


‘Who but P.G. Wodehouse could have extracted high comedy from the most noble and ancient game of golf? And who else could have combined this comedy with a real appreciation of the game, drawn from personal experience? Wodehouse's brilliant but human brand of humour is perfectly suited to these stories of love, rivalry, revenge, and fulfilment on the links.’

The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golf Stories is a collection of stories with golf as its background theme and the British author PG Wodehouse attempts to bring out some humour. To start with, I am neither a fan of golf nor a fan of Wodehouse but I would solemnly affirm that I did not read this book with pre-conceived notions.

Most of the stories involved humour (attempted) around golf, with a golfer being in love with a woman being the central theme in all of them. It starts off with the Oldest Member narrating a golf story off his memory. The stories are as follows:

1.       The Clicking of Cuthbert – The title story where Cuthbert Banks who is passionate about golf, falls in love with a woman who prefers intellectuals and fancies a writer.

2.       A Woman is only a Woman – Two friends, also amateur golfers, fancy the same woman and decide that the one who wins a golf match get to propose her.

3.       A Mixed Threesome – Mortimer, a rich man who is totally disinterested in golf; is engaged to a woman who loves golf. She fancies one of Mortimer’s friends – an explorer. Mortimer himself starts to learn golf for her sake.

4.       Sundered Hearts – Mortimer is the main character in this story as well, now so passionate about golf, gets married and his wife goes missing, getting Mortimer to exhaust all his wealth in search of her.

5.       The Salvation of George Mackintosh – This is about George Mackintosh, a golfer engaged to a woman. The only problem with George is that he can't stop talking. 

6.       Ordeal by Golf – The post of treasurer goes vacant in a company and the Oldest Member suggests the proprietor to decide the candidate through a game of golf. 

7.       The Long Hole - Two friends fancy the same woman and they decide to settle it through golf. They get into a lot of arguments over ‘rules of golf’ and leading to funny humorous incidents.

8.       The Heel of Achilles – An American millionaire is engaged to a woman who lays a condition that she’d marry him subject to him winning the American Amateur Golf Championship.

9.       The Rough Stuff – Ramsden Waters fancies a woman, teaches her golf and they pair up for a golf match.

10.   The Coming of Gowf – A group submits a story of King Merolchazzar modelled along the lines of a Babylonian kingdom but seems to be in the vicinity of the British Isles. The king embraces Golf as his new religion.

The book maintained the consistency – each of them was around twenty pages. The book had a really good start to the stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert was excellent, humorous, short and well written. I would say the same for the A Woman is only a Woman, mostly because when I first read a story with that theme, it was funny. Apart from that, Sundered Hearts was an enjoyable read and so was The Long Hole, especially the golf lawyer aspect in The Long Hole, notwithstanding the repetitive nature of two men fancying the same woman.

Barring those, the other stories were repetitive or silly or mostly, it was both. I mean, what sort of a woman accepts proposals solely based on golf skills? While the whole thing is meant to be light hearted, there is no point generating humour through means of absurdity which is what PG Wodehouse always seems to do. There could have been a variety of aspects from which he could have generated humour surrounding golf but then, the author chose the same – mostly two men fancying the same woman. I felt the story; The Coming of Gowf was not funny and totally absurd. I also don’t understand why the author chose be a narcissist through his own stories – wherein, in Clicking of Cuthbert, a Russian author in the story claims, ‘No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad.’

On the whole, as seen above, four stories were good and six were bad, and the last was quite awful. The stories were highly repetitive and after reading this, I continue to maintain my stand that PG Wodehouse is highly overrated (refer my review of his book Pigs have Wings). Going by a wholly mathematical approach, four out of ten stories were good, so the rating of this book is four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,
Andy
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