Month: October 2014

Rafael Nadal’s Rafa

“I don’t really understand his decisions and choices. It was weird for him choosing to play despite the pain, but he really gave all he had. He gave his best.” – Roger Federer, on Rafael Nadal playing at the Swiss Indoors, Basel, upon recovery from a wrist injury, but with appendicitis.

Rafa: My Story, Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

rafa

Rafa, the book, is moulded around the 2008 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. As for how close that match was, how thrilling, I can only tell you that as I watched it Live, my sleep-deprived young heart nearly failed. In Spain, Wimbledon was not a tournament that they wanted their heroes to go after. For the Spanish, Roland Garros was Sanctum Sanctorum, Davis Cup was their Moksha. But they didn’t see that this young man called Rafael from Mallorca would one day stand to be a serious contender of the Championship, not once but more than three times; and each time, the matches were juicy, adding to his glory.

Rafa is an awfully contradictory person. He is terrible at making decisions off court, but he nears perfection on court. He cannot function without his family off court, but will do everything in his power to isolate himself from reality and people, in the moments before a match begins in a bizarre ritual (during which he bellows “Vamos! Vamos!” in the changing room; and sprints up and down the cramped space). He works out in the gym with crazy intensity (“each and every time” – this is drilled into you by the time you finish one-third of the book), but he cheats on his diet by eating chocolate cake (his uncle, Toni Nadal, gives him hell for it).

Speaking of hell, Rafa’s training regimen is hell. It is so intense that the hard work he puts into it is relied on more than his talent, during a match. This insane hard work gets to him eventually, when injuries surface. He plays through pain, and he says so in the book in a disturbingly casual fashion. With a note of anguish, though, he says: “being a professional sportsperson is not healthy.”

The injury department is overcrowded. He has a rare condition in his left foot which forces him to “kill” the foot before he goes to play, because the pain is too great if he does not. Due to this foot condition, the sole of his shoes is an on-going experiment, so as to soften the blow his foot takes; and due to this continuous change in shoe sole shape, other parts of his body suffer injuries (his knee and back). But the guys who treat him make him invincible, despite these bodily failings and his mind makes him the Goliath on court. The book gives you an insight of this. In my opinion, the tenor of the chapters that explain and analyse Rafa’s moves on court at tough situations is the most captivating part of the book.

His team is close knit and is very close to Rafa. He is a person who simply cannot live away from his family and team (which he treats like family) for too long. Rafa’s biggest strengths are his parents, his team of physicians and friends and most importantly, Uncle Toni (he’s ruthless, partial against his nephew, crazy about his nephew’s constant improvement (constant vigilance!), and is often unreasonably critical of his nephew. But he’s immensely loved by this tennis great).

The book shows you how Rafa is a hard working, dedicated, and supremely disciplined tennis player. His modesty is explained the Mallorcan way in the book. His success is attributed to the Nadal family. This is a book for every sportsperson. It teaches you the best kind of lessons about discipline, perseverance, humility, love and hard work.

3.5/5

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Pulping non-fiction: “I dare you, I double dare you!”

doniger

Here’s a book that has not been read, for reasons that you will know and probably fail to understand, like I did. This is us, here, voicing our problem with banning scholarly books. The book we are discussing here is The Hindus – An Alternative History.

Wendy Doniger, an American Indologist (someone who studies India), is a Professor of History of Religions since 1978 in the University of Chicago. Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History was published in 2009 by Viking/Penguin. It was received well, in India as well as America, by topping the bestseller list in the non-fiction category in the week of October 15th, 2009 in the Hindustan Times [1].

Doniger’s work, like every other work that challenges the religious fabric of India, was soon met with ‘crusaders’ of the religion who filed a lawsuit in a dingy Indian district court. The Indian Penal Code outlaws acts that “intend to outrage religious beliefs.” This was the premise for filing the case. The plaintiff is one Mr. Dinanath Batra (a retired school teacher at the helm of Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti [2], he is an RSS pracharak – a member of the Hindu fundamentalist group).

The Ban Man, as he is known, Dinanath Batra, has at his disposal the cadre of RSS. This very force of people have allegedly threatened books into being pulped and are responsible for reducing the space for well-informed debate on culture, tradition, Hinduism. Upon his decree – he sends out legal notices to publishing houses to inform them of the ‘hurtful’ books that they are publishing – books deemed unfit for an Indian audience are taken off shelves. It speaks volumes about the disturbing reluctance of the said publishing house and the supposed guardians of Hinduism (who want to inculcate its values into young children via, hold your breath, books. Books penned down by the all-knowing scholar Batra himself. I can’t wait to review one of them) to admit anything in a religion that was meant to espouse, well, everything.

The anger towards publishing the book came out in the sagely belief of being the custodians of the faith. Their authority is not questioned by anyone seeking to have a debate that goes beyond vandalism and the threat of having one’s publishing house suffer from physical damage. Writers and publishers have been here, seen this, and have chosen to withdraw their efforts to stimulate intellectual debate and to truly appreciate freedom of expression as promised by the Land. India is the land in which they have seen freedom being taken away more often than being practiced.

Doniger’s work looks at India’s tryst with Hinduism and she tells this tale by looking at the ‘alternate’ practitioners and beings of the faith, namely, women, untouchables and animals. The Hindu reviewed it when it was released, and it was one that appreciated the scholarly work that has gone into writing it, although it does criticise it for being a little over-indulgent when it came to anecdotes and for being a tad bit too American. [3]

The lawsuit was settled out of court and the case never saw the light of day; in effect, it did not give the writer an opportunity to defend her work. She knew she’d face trouble with, in getting published in India, due to which she even changed some of the text in the book. The out of court settlement also did not give an opportunity to the knowledge and opinion starved folk (the mighty guardians of the faith, indeed) to learn something more than a prayer song or two, or a dozen nationalist (not to mention, loosely worded and offensive) slogans.

Here is an excerpt from the book, one which you and I cannot read, because alas, it is blasphemous work (gasp!) in the pure ether of India. The excerpt acts as the scholar’s closing statement quite well.

To the accusation that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu “had never heard of,” my reply is: Yes!, and it’s my intention to go on doing just that. The parts of his own tradition that he objected to are embraced by many other Hindus and are, in any case, historically part of the record.

The  Hindus – An Alternative History is available online. It is educative, provocative and most importantly, it gives you a different perspective of the Hindu faith. This charade of asking for it to be banned garnered a bigger audience to the book, much to the fundamentalist group’s chief’s chagrin, I hope. Readers in India were curious, and rightly so, when this book was deemed NSFIndianAudience. Don’t we have the ability to read, understand and debate? Don’t we have the right to do so? If only the penguin had more spine and didn’t have cold feet, it needn’t have gone south.

References:

[1] The Hindustan Times http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/top-authors-this-week/article1-465565.aspx

[2] http://deshkosh.org/S/Shiksha_Bachao_Andolan_Samiti.html

[3] The Hindu Centre http://www.thehinducentre.com/the-arena/article5779995.ece

Not quite Federer

Chris Bowers, John Blake Publications Ltd, 2013

federer

After having read through glowing reviews about this biography, here is my take on it:

What should a book about your greatest role model be like? It should be able to have you riveted to the anecdotes and to the words and ideas of the mind behind the force you are so dependent on. Chris Bowers fails to impress. With the book being divided into five parts, of which one of them is called “Nadal the nemesis”, I was put off. For someone who has followed Federer’s life with as much adoration as I did, having Nadal feature in a substantial part of the book was irritating, to say the least. While Federer won titles, and worked on excelling upon the perfection of his game, I would have loved to know how he dealt with life off court, at practice and with his role as being IC President and the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and not only on how his matches against Nadal panned out; no thanks, I watched them Live.

It is unfortunate that Chris Bowers could not access more information. Indeed, this is a biography that has been written independently, as Federer turned down requests to contribute towards an authorised biography.

The good thing about the book is that it feels like an interesting article in a sports magazine. With quirky quotes picked from press conferences and sports magazines, the quilt made by Bowers about Roger is endearing. But, I’m willing to bet my last penny that Roger’s own account  will eb superb; especially those of his childhood, those days he spent blasting through opponents in the junior and the ATP level, when he courted the love of his life, when he injured himself, his work with Roger Federer Foundation and the epic battles at the Majors!

Being an ardent Roger Federer fan and someone who followed his career, I could keep up with the names thrown about in the book. Also, the book made me relive those days when I would scout the newspaper for an article and picture of him. Unfortunately, that is mostly all it does. It is neither earth shaking, nor quotable. This is a book for his fans. His fans will read it, and enjoy it while it lasts. I don’t see myself reading this one again. But I’ll keep it, simply because it probably is the best account of the tennis life of the man I have looked up to. I might even read it again, who knows; for, the title itself will make me.

Chris Bowers, if you’d chosen any other subject for a biography, you would not have sold.

Ebook friendly? I read the paperback. But the language is simple, so it should be okay.

3- Give it a read.

The Internet is Awesome (or, Some Ways To Waste Time)

1. Tumblr

If Twitter is blogging for the ADHD kids, Tumblr is for the dyslexic. Set up an account and follow the (predominantly visual) blogs of your choice to create a news feed of sorts. You create your own blog by sharing other people’s pieces, or creating ones of your own, a la Twitter. It’s quick, simple and addictive!

Before the literary snobs scoff at Tumblr’s picture book appearance, I have to mention that you can follow pages by The New Yorker, The Guardian, the Paris Review and Reuters. I’ve also found several pages with interesting infographics and gifs illustrating mathematical or scientific concepts (computational fluid dynamics anyone?). There are also many, many fan pages for TV shows that post hilarious gifs almost as soon as a new episode releases.

Highly recommended for anyone into art, illustration, or English TV and movies. Others might find it a little harder to find worthwhile blogs to follow, but definitely worth a shot.

2. Reddit

They call themselves the front page of the Internet. Pushing it, but this question and answer site is definitely very entertaining. And addictive. Extremely addictive. There are subreddits for everything under the sun, from television to music to science to fitness to recreational drug usage. My current favourite is r/suggestmeabook, where people put up their preferences and get recommendations from other users. It’s a very different experience from the automated suggestions you get on Goodreads and other book database sites.

A bonus: the redditisfun app is well designed and the plaintext format of the site lends itself well to viewing on a small phone screen.

3. Coursera

One of the largest platforms for MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – today. You can study courses as diverse as Biochemistry and Philosophy, all in the comfort of your home. And for free! Be warned, though, that you’ll probably only get a general idea of the subject unless you have the motivation to complete all the assignments and exams. For more technical topics, explore the MIT CourseWare and Stanford Online courses as well.

The question on everyone’s mind: Can I put this on my CV? The answer: NO.

4. Stack Exchange

I owe the guys at Stack Overflow half my salary. That aside, did you know that Stack Exchange has pages for language, cooking, travel and board games? This site’s USP is it’s no-nonsense, formal style. Correct answers are marked, and poor or off-topic responses (and questions, too) are downvoted into oblivion. So rest assured that any information you get from this site is accurate. Well, more accurate than most of the stuff floating around the Net these days…

5. XKCD/ PhD comics

PhD comics provides insight into the lives of grad students that’s alternately inspiring and disturbing. As a bonus you get valuable life lessons such as: never title your project reports something like report_final.txt. It’s like asking fate to smite you.

Silly, geeky and sometimes touching, xkcd is a must read for anyone who knows what angular momentum is. The what-if section is legendary amongst the geekiest of the geeks and for good reason. Humour+science+stick figures= WIN.

Strongly recommended for all engineers. Yes, even you pseudo-engineers. XKCD provides explanations for all their comics, so there is no excuse!

Review: Gone Girl (Archive)

This one’s from earlier this month.

Author: Gillian Flynn

It’s been a long time since a book truly creeped me out (the last one was Crooked House by Agatha Christie) but this book had me glancing over my shoulder every few minutes. Hyperbole aside, here’s my review.
The story opens with a scene that could be straight from a Nicholas Sparks novel: Amy Elliot Dunne, the ‘girl’ from the book’s title, is making crepes for her husband on the morning of their 5th anniversary. By noon, she has vanished. When evidence of violence is found, suspicion falls squarely on her husband, Nick, who apparently has the looks, charm and calm demeanor of a killer.
Information is dealt to the reader in bits and pieces, and each new tidbit made me (in armchair detective mode) change my theories about the case. While this was gripping for most of the book, I lost my patience with a twist that happens three quarters of the way in (spoiler: the psycho ex boyfriend is- guess what? – psycho). The book ends in a sort of insane dynamic equilibrium that was, to me, very unsatisfying.
Coincidentally, a movie has been made based on this book, and it’s releasing on October 10, 2014 (tomorrow!) in India.(Edit: Release postponed to 31 October) A Google search tells me that it has been directed by David Fincher, who previously helmed Se7en and Fight Club, which are two of the best psychological thrillers made in the recent past, in my opinion. This kind of adaptation seems to be his specialty and I’m sure he won’t disappoint. Looking forward to this one!
Rating: 3.5/5
eBook friendly: This book is a bit on the long side, around 450 pages. Read the hard copy if you can.

The Dystopian Novel (Archive)

Hello World!

We recently decided to move to WordPress from another blogging platform. So the first few posts will basically be our old pieces. This one’s from way back in December 2012.

In a sudden burst of enthu-ness, yours truly will be reviewing three dystopian novels in a single post. Here we go.
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
This trilogy (yes, an actual trilogy!) is pretty popular right now, and was made into a movie as well. And for good reason. They’re short, easy to read, and work on many levels. Action, ‘cute’ romance and sharp political commentary, they have it all. Don’t miss the jibes at media, advertising, and popular fashion squeezed between the near death battles and starvation/torture.
Rating: 4                        e-book friendly: yes
*Whatname will review this again, later.
A Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
This is a famous contemporary British novel. The story is very slow and not very gripping, but the thoughtful writing style makes up for all this book’s shortcomings with respect to plot and pacing. Set in a dystopian future where women are no longer respected , the story follows Offred, the official ‘mistress’ of a high ranking official, as she begins to rebel against the oppressive and cruel society that took away her freedom.
Rating: 3                        e-book friendly: yes
A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess
The movie based on this book is a classic, and you can see why. The opening few pages will horrify you, but keep you hooked. Alex is a not-so-nice teenager, a juvenile delinquent in fact. Murder, assault, vandalism and rape are part of his daily routine. What happens when classical conditioning (an old psychological trick, remember Pavlov’s dog?) is used to turn him off to the idea of violence? You get one of the most epic novels of all time.
One warning though: the narration uses a good amount of made-up slang, and it takes a bit of getting used to.
The novel gets its name from an old Cockney phrase, ‘Queer as a clockwork orange’, which refers to ‘a queerness so extreme as to subvert nature’.
Rating: 5                        e-book friendly: no
Other novels of this genre you should try: 1984 (classic!), The Giver, Fahrenheit 451.

Seeking a great perhaps: Looking for Alaska

When my friend suggested that I read Looking for Alaska, I did not go tearing into a book store to buy one, as he expected me to do; instead I downloaded the e-book that this maniacal reader suggested, like the equally voracious book reader that I am, after reading which I vowed to buy a copy. Alaska is a girl who seems to live as though she were perpetually preparing for something life changing. She studies in Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama where Miles Halter, the protagonist, joins to attend junior year – “…to seek a great perhaps.” 

He has a fetish for people’s last words. Endearing in a morbid way, really, even to the other characters in the book.

Miles Halter makes friends, one of them being Alaska. As a fivesome, his friends and he pull off pranks- an annual tradition- at the school. The fun and frolic, with the smuggled alcohol and cigarettes, and the smart conversations they have around their ‘coffee table’, funnily enough, will resonate with teenagers and adults.

The Coffee Table

The Coffee Table

With extensive quotes from beautiful poems by great poets, in typical John Green fashion, the book keeps your curiosity alive, while it taps at your witty bone, with it not-so-parliamentary jokes and subtle humour. Looking for Alaska certainly shows you how and why John Green, the world historian and the charming writer can steal many a heart away with mere words.

Alaska steals your heart away. @John Green: Well done, with the character building.

I will leave you with what my friend said when I asked him for more such book recommendations “I just read it, I want it to sink in, it’ll take a while before I think about a next…

Three and a half.

The Fountainhead: read, re-read, reviewed (again) after 6 years

The Fountainhead is about an architect, Howard Roark, who lives his passion. He struggles in the hands of cavalier men who suppress his vision and the art he submits himself to, that which the orthodox public look down upon and call Modern Architecture. It follows his complex relationship with different people, making it a romance and a philosophical work at the same time. The romance may not be Elizabeth-Darcyesque but is one that stays with you much after you have turned the last page. Even the philosophy tends to stick. Objectivism and individualism are so utterly beautifully related that you begin to believe in them from the core of your being. The size of the book is endearing, the language is overpowering, and the philosophy it encompasses is life changing. It is said Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s best work. Atlas definitely shrugged for me, while I read The Fountainhead. A five, obviously.

<Edit: 2017 (approx. 5-6 years since I read and reviewed this book)>

Atlas seems to have shrugged again, albeit at a monstrously slow pace, with the reading of works by Marx, Adam Smith, Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar,  Amartya Sen etc. The sad fact of this book is that Rand has used the instrument of fiction to propose an intellectual argument for free markets. She has been unsuccessful at that. To further her argument, though, she played a lot of ideological music into her somewhat gullible young readers (me included). If I could, for reasons other than appreciation of the art of writing, I would reduce the “rating” of the book due to this underlying glamour of the book. However, I’m happy to say that the “shrug” to the right has been reverted for me, personally. Today I stand somewhat at the centre, holding a studied distance from the fanaticism of Howard Roark and John Galt (of Atlas Shrugged). Hence, for providing me with an insight to how far an ideologically charged argument can push me, I am glad I read (and appreciated) the book. I will beware next time.

Nevertheless, for its creative fiction and strength of writing, The Fountainhead continues to be rated at 5/5. May you enlighten more youngsters, Rand! Lessons learned from mistakes are far more powerful, aren’t they?