Book Review

The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.

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Glitz and Glamour in Singapore

Today’s review is of the book Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

As an urban desi, reading Chetan Bhagat is relateable. Terrible, and a waste of time, but relateable. If only because the mothers are as dramatic as my own and the grammar as vernacular as mine.

Having said that, it’s simultaneously several worlds away from me: supernatural occurrences, romance with professors’ daughters, abusive Army dads… They exist, somewhere, but aren’t representative of Indian society as a whole. I think this is probably how Singaporeans feel about Crazy Rich Asians.

Rachel Chu is a Chinese-American professor at NYU. Her boyfriend, Nick, invites her to Singapore to attend his friend’s wedding, and meet his family.

What Nick fails to mention is that his friend, Colin, is the most eligible bachelor in Singapore and is marrying a fashion icon; his (Nick’s) family is one of the richest in the country and he is the sole heir; and that his mother is controlling and disapproves of his relationship with a Chinese girl of humble origins. Shenangians ensue.

There are several subplots, and they serve to highlight certain aspects of this particular section of Singaporean society- an obsession with wealth and status, a need to maintain family appearances, and difficulties being accepted by the wealthy and influential families when you are not wealthy and influential yourself. There’s a lot of name dropping and money counting, but the family dynamics should be familiar to most- Aunties gonna Aunty, right?

This gets a 3/5 from me for being as substantial and healthy as a large piece of cotton candy.

Edgy Children’s Fantasy

Poor, neglected blog.

Well, here’s a good one to make up for months of emptiness.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? It’s a children’s storybook series in which four children in WWII-era Britain find their way into a magical kingdom with talking animals. And subsequently become rulers of the kingdom and have many adventures. I used to love those stories! It was only recently that I found out that the stories are thinly veiled Christian allegories -who would have expected that giant lion to be a representation of Jesus?- and it’s a little strange to be seeing the series in a new light.[*]

Anyhow, The Magicians features a magical land called Fillory that is reminiscent of Narnia (probably not a coincidence). The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an oddball young man from New York, who has grown up reading and loving the Fillory series. After high school, he gains admission to the poorly-named Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which he promptly joins because “it’s exclusive”.

Brakebills is the antithesis of Hogwarts. Students are overworked and put through multiple traumatic experiences for the sake of education. And they indulge in copious amounts of casual sex, bullying, and unhealthy competition. Despite this  (or perhaps because of this?) they are successful in learning the intricacies of magic.

Jaded and worldly-wise, Quentin and his fellow graduates move to NYC to pursue a life of irresponsible hedonism. When an ex-classmate reveals that Fillory is real, they decide to travel there. They don’t find what they expected though, and an epic battle ensues.

There are several plot points that seem to be poking fun at the original Narnia series, and these inside jokes made the book worth the read. For instance, the difference in the passage of time between the real world and Fillory means that the Kids wind up there in the dead of winter, but by the time they come back armed with warm clothing, it’s summer again. Unlike the knowledgeable talking animals of Narnia, the animals of Fillory don’t seem to have overcome their natural instincts- a talking bear seems more willing to discuss honey than the politics of the land.

Reviews of this book seemed largely critical of Quentin’s personality, and the negative cast this gives to the narrative. He’s immune to the joys of boarding school, because he gets caught up in academic competition. He fails to be awestruck by Fillory, the land of his childhood dreams, because he is consumed by jealousy and heartbreak after losing his girlfriend. I think, though, that this was part of the author’s mockery of children’s fantasy- they so often forget that the characters are teenagers, and more importantly, human. They have personalities and emotions beyond just being awestruck by magic and being heroic.

4/5 from me. Read this if you like dark, bleak stories and also children’s fantasy. This is probably a strange niche.

 

 

[*] Edit to add: Read an article that mentioned another interpretation of the Narnia-verse. You may remember that the series ends with the Pevensies (and Eustace and Jill and the kids from The Magician’s Nephew), sans Susan, dying in a railway accident and winding up in Narnia permanently. This apparently means that they got to go to Heaven when they died, but Susan did not, because she did not believe in Je-Aslan (AsJesus? As-us? Jes-Lan?) any more.

 

Water Wars

This is a review of the book Water Wars: Privatisation, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva.

Water Wars is a great book for people interested in management of water; the kind of people who binge read newspaper editorials on public policy. It isn’t a hugely educative read, though, since almost everyone (newspaper nut or otherwise) is aware of the water crisis looming ahead, and that solutions to it are way more complex than we’d care to admit.

Just as well, the book is a worthy read because it is spirited (you can almost hear Shiva crying her voice hoarse about the ills of privatisation of water). Also, literature on conserving and saving our environment is necessary, so any literature at all is welcome.

Shiva is an advocate for community led maintenance of water. Her arguments are premised on the idea that communities are democratic and non-discriminating between sections of society. But is that the reality of communities across the country? Caste, class and religion based conflict, related to water, at the village level, are not uncommon in India. It was Ambedkar that said that villages can be the cesspools of narrow-mindedness – are they, then, equipped to solve water crisis equitably? It’s a pity that this point was not critically examined by Shiva.

She also believes that community management can be a replacement to govt efforts. Very well. But every successful case study on community led water management quoted came with the support of the State. For example, Swadhyaya, Pani Panchayat. So reading her ideas about replacing the state in service provision is a little bit of a hypocritic pill to take.

Predictably, the book signs a huge no to privatisation of water services, be it extraction, distribution or recycling. The reasons being that it leads to pollution, inequitable distribution.

Speaking of pollution, a much needed chapter is devoted to the effect of Climate Change on the dialectic on water scarcity. The bad news (not so much news anymore) is that there is no good news at all. Shiva believes that the solution to climate change induced water and food scarcity, and disasters, lies in enforcing action through international instruments like the Paris Agreement (she mentions Kyoto, actually; the book was released many years ago). But there is no way to enforce these agreements, truly. Finally, in a last breathe effort, she says, we need climate justice. That means a paradigm change in lifestyles of people, and a goodbye to the American lifestyle of consumption. But that’s pretty much impossible.

At this point in the review, I think it’s appropriate to point to some of the great despondence that the writer probably experienced while writing the book. These are the not-very-compelling parts of the book: Many pages are spent in saying that private companies (ranging from Coca Cola to Monsanto) are trying to claim all water services, with the help of the IMF and the World Bank. They’re not do-gooders – they’re trojan horses, apparently. So beware! Also, Public Private Partnerships are very dangerous – it’s all about making public good unavailable and making a profit out of it with public money! These statements are not based on facts or figures, rather, they’re based on strong opinions. I did say the book was spirited.

The book ends with a chapter on how rivers are seen as sacred by most civilisations. It was an appeal to the spirituality of the reader, I think, to conserve our water resources. To me, it was interesting for the narration of all the mythological stories related to rivers and other water bodies.

Solutions?

Shiva’s main emphasis is on local solutions to water problems, and she squarely blames states, countries and international organisations, and especially private interests, for the water crisis.

In Water Wars, fierce arguments to save the planet’s water resources by not doing certain things (like privatisation and monetisation of water) are put forward.

But there are no sweeping solutions that are on offer. While the case studies are quoted as a blueprint to solve issues related to water pollution and scarcity, it is also a fact that these stories are not scalable. Abstract ideas of justice and equity are provided as the panacea for water management. Mostly, the author exhorts countries to look within at solutions offered by communities and at traditional methods as ways forward.

If only that worked all the time.

While compelling, the book does not fully quench the thirst for solutions to water problems and water wars.

3/5.

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

weekend reads

I’ve often noticed that my reading tastes vary based on the intellectual demands of Real Life. Now that I have an adult job complete with crazy bosses and unreasonable expectations, my poor brain finds itself unable to cope with the demands of Literature. (In contrast, I read Sophie’s World– while taking notes- during the winter vacation of my first year in college)

It’s been particularly crazy of late (I notice I’ve been saying that for months. Hmm) and chick-lit is what I’ve turned to in these desperate times. SD already reviewed The Rosie Project, so I’ll review its sequel, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

Unlike SD, I liked The Rosie Project enough that I picked up its sequel immediately after finishing it. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cartoon-y and crude, complete with stereotypes and random fistfights, but it’s entertaining enough.

At the end of The Rosie Project, clueless Don Tillman and the edgy Rosie got together. Now they’re married, and have relocated to NYC for no apparent reason. And guess what, Rosie is pregnant!

The serious themes of this series are overshadowed by silly comedy. Why does Rosie stop taking her birth control without informing her husband? Why does Don have panic attacks and descend into alcoholism when he finds out he’s going to be a father? Also, it is heavily implied that Don has Asperger’s, but this is played off for jokes.

But who cares, because this book is funny in a way that The Big Bang Theory will never be. Consider this quote (in my own words, because Google failed me): “Success! I had rebooted her relationship. Unfortunately, Rosie had rebooted in safe mode. She had some questions.”

4/5 for geeky jokes. I may need to examine why I related so much to Don.

Hi I’m back

This is my review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green.

Will I ever outgrow YA? It looks like I finally am. Teenaged protagonists are finally starting to sound whiny and self-obsessed, as opposed to misunderstood and mature.

This protagonist, Aza, has a legitimate reason for being self-obsessed, though. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, an ailment that Green suffers from himself. He does an incredible job of painting a picture of this illness. Initially, Aza just seems quirky. Later, she seems anxious and neurotic. It’s only later that her OCD is revealed as the life-threatening disease it really is. Worried about germs and an infected cut? Ok. Drinking hand sanitizer to get rid of gut bacteria? Not so ok.

All this is the backdrop to a mystery of sorts (Or is the mystery the backdrop? Aza’s obsession tends to take over her life) and a realistic, kind-of-sort-of teen romance. I could definitely relate to random philosophical conversations (It’s turtles all the way down!) between almost-strangers when life gets too difficult to handle.

3.5/5 from me for a solid YA entertainer that provides some food for thought while still being very readable. It’s not particularly memorable, but worth a couple of hours.

Public Institutions in India: a cross-sectional view

Public institutions are the instruments through which modern states carry out their tasks of governance and development. Indian public institutions require close scrutiny, given that the Indian State is a paradox of, among other things, governance stability and political chaos, to both, good and bad effect. Public institutions in India especially merit much ink and thought for an administrator because of the implications that it holds for her, while she is a player in the game and creator of the same.

The study of public institutions has been carried out in two tangents – in drawing causations between institutions and certain outcomes that they produce, directly or indirectly. Public Institutions in India, on the other hand, is a study of public institutions themselves; on what affects the performance of different institutions rather than how the institutions affect broader aspects of the country’s life. The editors, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contend rightly, that a better grasp of how our public institutions function is imperative in order to appreciate India’s political economy.

Public institutions may be defined as a set of rules and norms that determine roles and which create and foster expectations from each other. When reading this book, though, it is important for a reader to remember the other definitions that enhance our understanding of institutions, ranging from the Marxist to the structuralist (the one ascribed to in this book). Ultimately, it is also to be borne in mind that institutions are but creations of people, and are liable to be preserved, or changed by them, with everyday and epic revolutions to that effect; and in this bottomline, lies the fact that the study of institutions is essential for administrators. To the end that it serves administrators, Public Institutions discusses the design, performance and adaptability of the key institutions of governance in India.

Public Institutions regards a wide range of institutions, from the Parliament, to the Reserve Bank of India, and to the Election Commission of India. The cross-sectional view of these institutions, though, is a tad bit dated today, given the many mutations that the institutions have gone through.

Nevertheless, the book will be enjoyable for the intellectually inclined. That said, it doesn’t conform to the recent trend of books being mediums of storytelling, even if non-fiction (Sapiens, for instance). If the book weren’t in the form of compendium of essays and it had a common thread pulling the reader along, it may have been a different sort of read, but would not necessarily have taken much out of the work. But then again, it may not have been easy to do it, given the vast difference in writing styles of the different writers and the assortment of topics.

As a reader primed to note biases in texts, some biases of the analysts, that even the best statisticians and researchers face, such as confirmation, hindsight, overconfidence bias, were sometimes too stark to skim over. For instance, the Pratap Bhanu Mehta essay concludes that the courts in India have predominantly intervened for the realisation of the duty of the State, as given by the Directive Principles of State Policy, as opposed to preserving and guaranteeing civil liberties. The examples stated to show the courts’ preference to intervene in the former and not latter have been selectively listed, in a classic case of confirmation bias. Mehta’s analysis does not pass the test for bias, given cases that contradict his view, like AK Gopalan versus State of Madras and B Muthamma versus Union of India. That said, the essay on the Judiciary is informative for the uninitiated and delves deep into the malaises and strengths of the institution.

The best part about these essays is that they deliver on their promise – they look at various institutions in depth, their interactions, as they aid or subvert each other, and their future prospects. An example would be the analysis of democratic durability and economic performance of the Indian political economy by Devesh Kapur. He states that despite the political instability that India has seen, she has remained a relatively very stable economy. He suggests, with numbers and graphs (indeed!), that it is perhaps the out of phase life cycle of institutions and political cycles that has reduced the covariance risk and has given more systemic stability to the State.

The writers also suggest ways forward for the institutions that they have analysed, some of which stand out for being forward looking and optimistic. In the essay on the police in India where the multiple linkages to the institution and its effects on society are analysed, it is also suggested that the institution needs to look within and at the society, with research at the core of policing.

The volume following this one is on Rethinking Public Institutions, in which the same institutions are analysed again, after over a decade, by other researchers. This time, with a reinvigorated zeal to suggest reform, with little and great revolutions within.

The purpose of the book, Public Institutions in India, is to appreciate efficiencies, comment on absurdities and highlight lacunae through a cross-sectional view of Indian public institutions. This, it does exceptionally well. The book is a must read for those interested in public policy and administration; preferably over a cup of piping hot tea or warm coffee. It is inevitable that this body of intellectually stimulating work will be discussed and debated in the halls of Indian public policy and administration, for it is one of a kind, and a good one at that.

4.5/5.

Dark reimaginings of children’s books- fun times!

This is my review of Alice by Christina Henry. It is a dark reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland universe, in which Alice and the Hatter (here, the Hatcher) are locked up for their visions. I really enjoy this kind of fiction, (okay, yes, fanfiction) and love Alice, so decided to give this one a shot.

The reason I enjoy new takes on old stories- movies, or fanfiction, or TV series- is that I don’t usually visualize scenes while reading books. So seeing new material is literally like adding a whole new dimension to an old experience. What’s not to like?

I’m not sure whether to categorize this as fanfiction – it is published as literature, but unashamedly takes characters and themes from the original Alice in Wonderland. It is unique enough to pass for a new story if the names were changed (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades), but keeping them the same triggers an ‘aha’ in your mind and makes you appreciate Henry’s cleverness a bit more.

Alice and the Hatcher are locked up in a prison for the mentally unstable. Alice is here because a sexual assault triggered her to violence, but the Hatcher’s shady past is not fully revealed at first. They’ve been cooped up in neighbouring cells for years now, and have begun a tentative romance (that reeks of Stockholm Syndrome). They break out, but must deal with new dangers. It’s been a while since they’ve been out in the world, and it turns out that Alice’s attack brought down a very dangerous gang leader, and he is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the Hatcher’s got his own plans for revenge…

Given that this book was basically written for me, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. The story has too many dark themes than is necessary- rape, violence, sex trade, PTSD. Having just one of these themes explored completely would have been daring enough, and made enough content for a whole book. As it was, it was a fast paced stream of horrifying situations.

In Henry’s hurry to utilize all the characters from the source material, she has neglected to flesh out the ones she does have- this is very much an action driven story.

Despite a few hiccups, I’d give this one a solid 3.5/5 and will be reading the sequels, in the hope that the writing improves with experience.

Genre: Asian-American YA?

Because I apparently didn’t learn from last time‘s mistake, I once again succumbed to the siren song of the Bestseller. This time it was the Summer trilogy by Jenny Han.

The names of the books should have let me know what I was getting into- The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, We’ll Always Have Summer. (Followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer?)

The main character is Belly Conklin, a teenaged girl who has spent most summers at a holiday home belonging to her mother’s best friend. With her mother, brother, and the sons of her mother’s friends. One summer, she turns pretty. I’m not sure how exactly this happens, but it’s acknowledged by everyone that Belly is now Hot. Of course, the boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, are both immediately in love with her. Which one will she choose? It takes 3 books to find out.

Apart from the slightly worrisome fact that Belly is involved with two brothers, there were many things I disliked about these books. Firstly, the writing is very simplistic but at the same time, vaguely nostalgic and dramatic. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it was annoying. “I decided to get a strawberry milkshake instead of vanilla. Little did I know it, but everything was about to change, irretrievably and all at once.”

All in all, a coming-of-age story set in a culture and environment that’s utterly strange to me. Vacation homes? Getting married in college? Being hot? Nope.

A very generous 1/5 from me.

Addendum:

I am incorrigible,  I also read To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. This is the first novel of another trilogy by Jenny Han. The protagonist of this one, Lara Jean Song, writes secret letters to the boys she falls out of love with- what happens when *gasp* someone sends them out? This is not a terrible beginning, but Lara Jean is all of sixteen, which makes me skeptical that she was ever really in love in the first place. Oh, and one of the boys is her sister’s boyfriend. Much like Belly, Lara Jean is childish and self-centred – I don’t recall being that immature at sixteen. Sex is a big part of it- somehow Lara Jean is young enough to be shocked by it, yet old enough to do it? Maybe it’s a cultural thing that I missed.