Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Soul Matters by Shreyas Shankar – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘The book Soul Matters is built on the writer’s lifelong fascination for the human psyche and answers to humanity’s great questions. What started as timely observations of life’s intricacies collected in a bookshelf that screamed to be heard in some form. From being one of the thousand voices yearning to be heard, it now stands to be read in the shape of a series of 18 wisecrack quips and befitting explanations.’

Soul Matters is a short collection of thoughts from the artist Shreyas Shankar. In this, the author has presented a few quotes and given his interpretation for the same.

The quotes are largely philosophical covering the topics of life - such as the process of learning and also certain one's relationship with the soul. On any such book, I try my best to not let my personal opinions get in the way - for instance, I don't consider the body and soul to be different or independent of each other. The same disclaimer appears here as well before I get into the review. 

I liked the way in which the author presented his book - a full page allowing you to fully read the quote before getting into the chapter to read his take on it. If it was on the same page, we could be tempted to immediately get into the interpretation rather than read a vague quote. I enjoyed reading some of his thoughts, especially on aspects such as silence, perfection, expertise, inter alia. This book was also a very ideal short read and could be ideal to spend to read during your regular commute - for I took just half an hour to complete the book. 

That could perhaps be annoying to some of the readers as they might feel that the book finished as soon as it started. Considering that the author is quite young, both in age and in his career as an artist, this is a first step and I hope in future, this book is expanded by the author. There was an interesting excerpt of a fantasy novel that the author is in the process of writing and I look forward to the publication of the full novel. 

As aforementioned, this is a great short read, but at the same time, could have been much more enjoyable had there been more of his wisecracks and a deeper plunge into each of these thoughts. On that note, I shall award this book a rating of six on ten. 

Rating - 6/10 

Have a nice day,

Monday, 29 July 2019

Moneyland by Oliver Bullough – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:
‘Investigative journalist Oliver Bullough reveals the obscene dark side of globalised finance, a shadow realm of oligarchs and gangsters, unimaginable power and zero accountability. It’s a place you are unlikely to visit, buy you can see its effects everywhere. Just look around. 
How did we get here? In the 1950s, a small group of bankers in London had a clever idea: ‘offshore’, an imaginary zone where money could flow free. Their breakthrough created a vast reservoir of secret wealth, one that bends the laws of every nation on Earth in order to protect its masters. 
Thanks to offshore, for the first time thieves could dream big. They could take everything – which is exactly what they will do, unless we stop them.’
Moneyland is a book with the subtitle – Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take it Back, from the investigative journalist Oliver Bullough. Moneyland is the term the author uses for describing the current financial structure. The case is built over nineteen chapters in the book as to how in this hypothetical country sans physical presence, those with money can legally enjoy their wealth, regardless of its source. 
He begins building the case with Ukraine – and this is taken as the prime example of kleptocracy throughout the book where corruption is so rampant and still; how their former President Viktor Yanukovych had large amount of wealth in London. He also describes how even most basic healthcare services cannot be obtained in Ukraine without bribery. He then describes the problem in most developing nations in Africa or former Soviet states as to how; there is extreme inequality with those in power holding unusual amounts of wealth, all hidden in offshore assets and with properties all over the world, expensive clothes and watches (for which he gives the example of Angola), etc. It was an interesting observation he made that in the Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International; while countries like Angola or Ukraine have a very low rank, their wealth is stashed away in UK, Switzerland, Cyprus, etc. who rank very high on the corruption index and in a way, they are guilty. 
He also talks about how corruption can completely destroy the economic prospects of a country and criticises Western complacency over developing nations that they would eventually transform themselves into economies similar to that of the developed world. However, he explains how it is against the interests of those in power to be more transparent and so long as they are able to hide their assets, they prefer maintaining the status quo. 
The author writes about various financial instruments and how they have been misused, be it the Eurodollar bonds, or the offshore companies in Cayman Islands or Saint Kitts and Nevis, how even diplomatic immunity is available for purchase, the misuse of libel laws in London and so on for if I keep going, I would be listing all the chapters. While I appreciated the deep research involved in all of these topics – it was evident considering the sources mentioned at the end of the book; however, I had an issue with some of the sweeping statements, an example of which I am giving below:
‘You may have read how millions of dollars have been sent back to Nigeria, Indonesia, Angola or Kazakhstan, and that is true. But they represent less than one cent of every dollar that was originally stolen.’ Chapter – Aladdin’s Cave, Page #13
While I am not defending the record of any of these countries but when such statements are made in a book of this kind, it must be backed by sources and number. How many millions went back to the countries (some references are made in future chapters) and what is his basis for making the less than one cent for every dollar allegation? He probably has a basis for this claim but I expected a footnote or some such detail and considering this was something I read in the very first chapter, it put me off. 
I appreciate the author for building the case against corruption and I could relate to most of the examples considering I lived most of my life in a country which ranks 78 in the Corruption Perception Index and many of the problems he cited in Ukraine are very similar. His fundamental basis for making the case was ‘money could move borders, but laws do not’ and thus, how the corrupt manage to move their stolen wealth to countries with favourable laws and exploit the same.
The author admits that there could be genuine reasons to use offshore accounts to hide their money from vindictive governments but the issue of laws being different is fundamental to the very fact of us having so many different jurisdictions in the world. The reason why I am saying jurisdiction instead of country is because the author explains how within US, they exploit favourable laws in Nevada making it a de facto tax haven. 
The author also cracks down on the ability to purchase passports and while it is true that many exploit it, it is also a very practical solution in many cases. Imagine a business person holding a passport and is called for a meeting by the client; someone holding the right passport just needs a ticket, otherwise, you need to apply for a visa and prove your credentials and tell your client to wait till then which simply isn’t practical. The author being someone who holds a British passport would never be able to understand the pain of a visa application process; I can even cite a personal example where I once joked with a HR in one of their random questions – ‘what would you do if you win a lottery?’ to which I responded that I would secure a Maltese nationality. Much as I would like to satisfy requirements in a proper way, if there is a legal alternative available, I would take it in a heartbeat; a lot of opportunities are denied for the sheer lack of a passport and thus, several countries are definitely going to offer schemes to overcome this ridiculous system currently in the world which has no logic whatsoever.
To end the digression, I would say that I certainly enjoyed reading the book but the author did mention ‘how to take it back’ and all he did was dedicate one chapter to it; that too mentioning that he does not have a very clear solution. I am fine with that, the author I understand is not from a banking / financial services / legal background and has presented the case well; but in that case, he should have refrained from promising the sky in the cover page.
To conclude, the book is informative, and can be read by those who are not finance professionals as well (no unexplained jargons); and my hint is do not be deceived by the title. I shall not let what I disagree with on a personal level get in the way of my review (like the passport issue) and so, I award the book a rating of six on ten.
Rating – 6/10
Have a nice day,

Saturday, 27 July 2019

The Relic by Eça de Queiroz – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Teodrico Raposo, the novel’s anti-hero, is a master of deceit; one minute feigning devotion in front of his rich, pious aunt, in order to inherit her money, the next indulging in debauchery. Spurred on by the desire to please his aunt, and in order to get away from his unfaithful mistress, he embarks on a journey to the Holy Land in search of a holy relic. The resulting fiasco is a masterpiece of comic irony as religious bigotry and personal greed are mercilessly ridiculed.’

The Relic is a novel set in the late 19th century from the Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. It features Teodrico Raposo, a well-educated man who wants to inherit the wealth of his rich aunt. How I stumbled upon this book is something similar to what I mentioned in my review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – that is, buying an English version book of a local author as a souvenir; in Porto (incidentally in JK Rowling’s favourite bookstore).

Teodrico is a brilliant young man, who lost his parents when he was seven but under good care from his rich aunt. He was sent to study law in the best university in Coimbra; but spent most of his time in taverns and with women while feigning piety through the letters to his aunt. This goes on till Teodrico asks permission to go to Paris; and the conversation turns around with eventually Teodrico agreeing to go to the Holy Land and seek a relic which will cure his aunt of all his ailments. However, the intention with which he agrees to go is solely to ingratiate his aunt and get the inheritance, which she might well bequeath to the church.

The book attempts a humorous take on religion and bigotry and it is a bold piece of work for the period in which it was released. The parts of the novel where Teodrico and his German friend - Dr. Topsius spent in the past was hilarious and was well made satire. The book could also be described as a good 19th century travelogue where the lead character travels to Alexandria and eventually to Jerusalem, giving you a glimpse of how these cities were in the 19th Century (Jerusalem, which Teodrico agreed was worse than Braga).

However, with that said, when you are writing a novel based on an anti-hero, the story needs to be character needs to be convincing. It is not exactly a good example when I shift to manga and anime but then, to me, Yagami Light from Death Note was a very convincing character for an anti-hero.

Coming to Teodrico, he wants to enjoy the pleasures of his youth but at the same time, is extremely keen on his inheritance; while he knows that he cannot have both at once. Much as Teodrico hated going to the church and detested feigning being pious in front of his aunt and her friends, he was not exactly an atheist either. Very often, especially in Alexandria and even in Jerusalem, he had the feeling of superiority because he was a Christian even though he was not too keen on his Portuguese identity – he even claims himself to be a citizen of the world unlike his German companion who bordered on jingoism when it came to Germany. Moreover, Teodrico genuinely looked a relic rather than falsifying that too (if I reveal how he got around it, it would be a spoiler).

While I enjoyed the satire, I felt it was a tad too much and that it got boring beyond the first 12-15 pages. Had the lead character been built better, this book could have been a lot more enjoyable but then, all we have is Teodrico and as a result, the book enjoys a rating of four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a story of irreconcilable love and infidelities in which Milan Kundera addresses himself to the nature of twentieth-century ‘Being’, offering a wide range of brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations. First published in 1984, Kundera’s masterly novel encompasses extremes of comedy and tragedy and was hailed by critics as a contemporary classic.’

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a narrative written by Milan Kundera which covers various philosophical aspects such as connection of an individual with their body, misunderstood words, human relationships and infidelities with a touch of politics. The political aspect is made interesting by the fact that the plot is based in the backdrop of a Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia.

This is based on two couples during the Soviet era in Czechoslovakia – and 3 of the principal characters involved are Czech. The story features Tomas, a married man whom I believe to be anywhere between mid-30s to early 50s as the story progresses. He is a womaniser and has strong views about love and sex – wherein, he loves his wife Tereza but at the same time, has multiple sexual partners and sees no contradiction in this position. Tereza does not object to Tomas’ behaviour and instead sees it as her own weakness; she herself has strong views and is a photographer – often involving in dissident photography. Then there is the character of Sabina who is an artist and Tomas’ mistress and the story mainly revolves around these three characters.

It is not often that a book completely gets me gripped within the first twenty pages, but this was one such book. The fact that I had very little expectations was another factor – where I have the convention that my souvenir in any place is normally an English translation of a book from a local author and after a long search for a book from a Slovak author in Bratislava, I settled for this book originally written in Czech (from a writer of Czech heritage who prefers be identified as French).

It started with a very interesting character – Tomas; and threw in a lot of ideas which are revolutionary even in today’s time that it was interesting to read. The best aspect of the book was the complex characters the author built – Tomas and Sabina with the characteristics as mentioned earlier and Sabina herself, had very strong views on love and commitment. The story also deals with other aspects such as homesickness such as homesickness, where Tomas and Tereza settle in Switzerland and longed to return to Prague despite the regime. Being someone who enjoys Greek mythology, the allusions to the myth was another highlight of this book (like the story of Oedipus).

The book had a proper blend of politics, romance while retaining the philosophical nature of the book. My bone to pick might be the fact that the author went back in time so late into the plot; wherein, there is a point where sub-plot involving Sabina goes way ahead of time and then it returns to the past (which for large parts of the novel is the present from the reader’s perspective). The book was also not free from repetition when it came to the repeated mention of destiny and coincidence – the repeated reference to the Beethoven symphony I felt was one too many.

This book is an excellent read unless the reader is a person who already has strong views on a lot of these subjects where a conflicting view strongly disturbs them. Rather than just penning down a non-fiction philosophy book, the author has made an interesting plot with complex characters and political backdrop while sticking to the larger objective.

On that count, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Incidentally Creative by Vijay Subramaniam K – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Ever thought about why someone is creative when someone else is not? Incidentally Creative is a collection of poems written over a span of 8 years in which different ‘incidents’ and experiences gave rise to words which have been penned down. Everything from hobbies, work, studies, occurrences, and what not have contributed to the poems in some form or the other. Without intending to be creative, when being penned, the words that form these poems, turned out to be incidentally creative, alluding to the title. Poems like Voices of life, Frozen Light, Choices and True Men will leave one introspecting on their life. Then there are ones like Ardor, Odium, Like Her and Plagues of Humanity where emotions run rampant. The incidents behind the poems are commonplace; as will be the connection a reader has with these poems.’

Incidentally Creative is a collection of 30 poems written by the poet Vijay Subramaniam K. It covers a variety of topics involving human relationships (friendships, familial and romantic), hobbies, the poet’s general views on the world, the poet’s appreciation of nature, aspects of life such as school, work, hobbies, bereavement, inter alia. It covers a diverse range of topics within the given thirty poems.

The poet uses a style that is normally abstract and uses imagery to put forth his point; much as he has a clear idea on what he is trying to say, he leaves a bit to the reader to interpret. The poetic devices used were mostly imageries, similes, metaphors, alliterations, occasional satire, and even some free verses. The fact that the poet has compiled thirty different poems is a great aspect for a book on poetry as you get to cover a diverse array of topic. Moreover, this is also a book that gives you an insight into the poet’s process of growing up into an adult from a teenager, as the book contains poems he wrote when he was a fifteen-year-old till date and the poet is still young in his early twenties (as on the day of writing the review) – and so, there is a potential for a lot more poems to be added up as time goes by.

However, while the poems span over a nearly ten-year span, it must also be noted that poet, if I may so, has deftly not placed them in a chronological order – giving the reader the scope to guess which stage of his life he was in when he wrote the poems and can accordingly adjust their interpretations.

The poems are quite difficult – both in terms of language and content and to enjoy it best, the reader requires a peaceful surrounding and not read too many poems at once – unless they are an absolute poetry enthusiast who can go on marathons. However, to ease the tensions, in anticipation of the fact that a lot of readers might be a novice when it comes to reading poetry, the author has given the background to each of the poems he has written.

With that said, the background could be the first bone of contention to poetry enthusiasts – as it sets boundaries to the limits of your imagination in terms of interpretation. It is true that poetry is often interpreted based on the life experiences of the poet and thus, a very elaborate ‘About the Poet’ in the book could have sufficed.

The same could be said for the poems not being in chronological order, wherein, in some cases, it could also be a curse – especially for a poem like The Life of a Detective ; where the premise had so much scope and after reading great heart felt poetry like Frozen Light, Ode to Trees, Plagues of Humanity, etc. the expectation on this was rather high for me but it was evident that it was written something early on and did not live up to the premise.

With that said, there is another detail to this review I need to add – I never disclose my prior association with the writer of the book even if there was one (in the 200 odd reviews I have written) but I believe I need to make an exception on this. The poet in question here is one of my closest friends, since school days and in fact, I was the reviewer for most of his poems – during school days and later on, even in our professional lives. In fact, I have been party to some of the incidents that inspired the poet for the poems (including the very first one in the book). The reason I am disclosing this is for two reasons – the fact that it was probably easier for me to interpret and as a result, I may not be entirely objective over the review. However, I would assert that I have made my best to ensure that the personal relationship has not been a factor in anyway.

I would look forward to his next compilation of poems (I know a few which were not part of the book but deserve to be part of the next). I would say that this is an excellent book for poetry lovers and on that basis, I award this book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating - 7/10
Have a nice day,
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