2/5

Nostalgia in a book

I’ve been laid up with a recurring infection that has put me behind on my reviews. Not to mention my reading, though that has been on the back burner for years now.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning graphic novel published as recently as 2015. Rose is twelve, and is spending the summer in her family’s cottage in Awago with her parents. She is reunited with her younger friend Windy for a couple of months of swimming and midday candy.

But twelve is that awkward age when one is old enough to notice adult things happening, but still too young to understand them. Rose’s mother is behaving strangely, and her parents are arguing. She notices an older boy, and toys with the idea of ‘like liking’ him. She watches an older girl struggle with a difficult decision.

All the events are very relatable, and the illustrations are lovely. It’s just the extreme awkwardness that put me off this book. I basically walked (hopped?) around with my foot in my mouth during my teens, and it’s still a struggle to not be a self-obsessed, pretentious a**hat. But Rose is really awful at saying the right thing, or being perceptive. She accidentally insults Windy (who’s the adopted child of lesbians) multiple times, slut-shames a girl with no guilt, and has no sympathy for an upset family member. It’s a bit cringeworthy.

All in all, this is a very realistic depiction of an uneventful summer through the eyes of a girl who has just begun to grow up. It’s a short read, and I would recommend it if you are a female who likes graphic novels. 2/5 from me.

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No Child’s Play

There is something exquisite about children’s books. There’s joy and wonder in the discovery of new things. There’s unbounded love. Most importantly, there’s the tremendous responsibility of nurturing and molding young minds. Shouldn’t that make reading children’s books a great learning experience?

This post is a review of a famous children’s book, Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H Porter, and a book of compiled letters to Indira Nehru, Letters from a Father to His Daughter, by the inimitable Jawaharlal Nehru.

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The ever so happy Pollyanna

Pollyanna is a book about the little child, Pollyanna, who is glad about everything under the sun. She is the person behind the adjective Pollyanna or pollyanaish. If she finds nothing to be glad about, under the sun, then she just digs deeper till she hits the goldmine of gladness. She’s a delight. She’s a great person to introduce to children, especially in times such as this (cue dramatic music), because she is an embodiment of hope and joy, and possesses the power to transform even the grumpiest of people.

However, since I am, I think, an adult, I didn’t find Pollyanna to be enlightening or even cute. In fact, I felt intensely sorry for her. What would ever happen to her when she grew up and saw the purple flowers, like Celie did far into her adulthood? I would definitely not want to witness her bubble bursting. Of course, when reading a children’s book, one is supposed to wear one’s most childish pajamas. But, try as I might, I couldn’t pretend not to be an adult when I read this book. Besides, it also didn’t help that I am biased towards books that are based on plausible dystopias rather than books that are desperately trying to be about a utopia.

Apart from the main selling point of the book, I also disliked the way it is written. I had always thought that writers before the mid 20th century were very conscious of their grammar and punctuation. But, it turns out, I’m wrong. Porter has unfortunately used big shouty letters to emphasise words, rather than effectively use simple words.

If you’re a child under 10, or know a child that young, gift him or her this book. It will act as a balm when he or she ever feels let down by their worlds. I’d root for Black Beauty and Heidi though, instead. Anyway, if you’re an adult, it’s a 2/5.

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Young Indira Nehru

Pollyanna doesn’t make for a great present to a 10 year old, but Letters from a Father to His Daughter does! The book is a compilation of letters that were written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter, Indira Nehru, who would go on to become the first female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The letters were written with love and devotion, and published with the hope that “such of them as read these letters may gradually begin to think of this world of ours as a large family of nations“.

The letters cover the creation of the earth, evolution of life and man through civilisations, stratifications based on race, gender, caste, class, creation of social institutions, and their relevance today*. The simple language and the breadth of information compressed is wonderful. It made me appreciate the exceptional talent every parent must possess to answer their children’s infinite queries.

What stood out in the letters was the lack of sermons. Nehru treats little Indira as an intelligent person. There’s the glow of constant engagement between father and daughter; as if her education never ceases and as if she was always thirsty for more. Nehru emphasizes, in the first letter in the compilation, that to truly understand the world, it is important for Indira to step out of her comfort zone. “If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born,” he wrote. We also see Indira being groomed as a world leader, a humanist. Nehru’s words are timeless. He wrote, “As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

As an adult (clears throat), I had a good time reading the book. The book gave me an idea or two on how to smother my little nephew with love and be an overbearing aunt at the same time. I thought the book could have packed in more illustrations, though, seeing as the ones that made the cut into the book are as pretty as they are. Also, in some parts of the book, I had an undesirable urge to argue with Nehru on some of his ideas. But, even so, the letters don’t truly belong to any school of thought, per se, and the book is an enjoyable and age-appropriate read throughout.

If you’re a young child of 8-12, this book can be rated 5/5. For a person older than that, however, the book comes close to 4/5, for its simplicity, its power through knowledge and, also, by being the book that possibly shaped the life of one of the most prominent leaders of the world’s largest democracy.

Children’s books are a thing of beauty, and I have realised through the act of critiquing them, that they’re tricky and a joy to read. Nevertheless, I figure, children’s books are no child’s play.


Feature image: Aaron Shikler’s painting of a young JFK.

Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

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When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

tuesdays

The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Will the Adivasi dance?

‘Adivasi’ is how most tribes in India identify themselves, at least as far as names go. Adivasis or Tribes have long confused the Indian State and her non-tribal people. Indeed, the diversity among tribal groups is astounding. While the Nagas tribes were notorious for head hunting, and the Andaman Sentinel tribes are brutally protectionist about their territory, the Nagas are also a political compact of people who aspire to political autonomy from/within the state, and the Dhongria Khond people are one of the most notable nature conservationists.

The non-tribal people (non scheduled tribes (ST), that is) can attribute their knowledge about tribes mostly to films that depict a colonial viewpoint of tribal people, as brutish, terrible, and uncivilized. On the other hand, the State knows just how powerless these groups are, and in far too many cases, exploits them due to it. For instance, in P Sainath’s book, we saw a tribe was asked to move out of their land and were subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ four or five times in a single generation; for such is the authority that the state commands with eminent domain (right to acquire private land for public use).

In the spectrum of perspectives that one may have on tribal groups in India, there are two that have been made into books recently – one, in the form of short stories, speaking of the lives of some tribal people, and the other, a book on the history of a violent struggle waged by many tribes against the State. This is a review of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and Hello, Bastar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015, for his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories set in the mineral-rich Jharkhand. The book includes stories about a young man who migrates to Gujarat only to find that eating meat is subject to heavy social sanction, a young girl who is moving to West Bengal in search of work who has to sleep with a policeman at the price of two soggy bread pakoras, a Troupe-Master who is beaten up because he refuses to dance for the President of India, a prostitute who falls in love etc.

These stories are written with a sardonic tone of a man who seems to have seen it all; the raw human desire, the vulgar display of power, the chill of fear, the gnawing hunger for wealth, love, power, status. His stories are not meant to entertain as much as they are meant to help you introspect, such as when you read of a young woman being thrown into prostitution as a way of life, you wonder why there is no alternative for her. But his stories are also slightly over-dramatic in their style. It might just be my personal preference talking, when I say that too many of the women in the stories exclaim and over-react altogether too often,  making the narrative seem like it’s meant for a play rather than a poignant story book. The best part about this book, however, is the diversity of issues Hansda brings out, ranging from religion, tradition to persecution, patriarchy, and what not. They mostly feel like a collation of stories out of a newspaper, and hence must be read that way, with some piping hot chai or coffee in the garden. 2/5

Hello, Bastar, written by Rahul Pandita, on the other hand is a whole different ball game, while still being on the subject of tribes; but this time, it’s the tribes of Bastar, in Chattisgarh. The book steers away from the topic of tribes and traces the history and life of one of India’s biggest security threats. The essays (or stories?) in the book describe the beginning and acceleration of the “Maoist” movement, the crackdown on the movement in Andhra Pradesh, the infamous Salwa Judum, the capture of the (in)famous leaders of the movement etc. More importantly, while doing so, the book also allows us to pore over the motivations and simple ambitions of the armed men and women.

Rahul Pandita travels and lives with the “Maoists”, and provides us this chilling tale of their lives. The offhanded tone and the apparent normalcy of the movement makes the essays all the more disturbing. The repression of the state and the ideology of the Maoists is described in the book to give us a perspective other than that obtained in the mainstream media, and that’s reason enough to read it, in my opinion. What the media doesn’t always tell us, but which Pandita covers eloquently, is that the movement is a mixture of ideology, repression and revenge, unattended peoples, lacunae of the state, and army-fatigue clad Naxals who fill that void. While one might hear people say that there should be no sympathy for such “Naxal movements”, I don’t think not listening to them will solve this security threat either. Understanding what troubles them, their motivation, and their wishes, is an important part of our democracy. To that end, this book serves one well. 3.5/5

The Adivasi Will Not Dance may seem like a cute book on the lives of faraway people, and Hello, Bastar, may seem like a war-memoir. The beauty of both the books is that they have a subtext that is intensely human and pleading with us for attention. The exploitation and treatment of Adivasis, as if they’re meant to be in zoos, must give way for a decent and “good life” for them as well. An emerging economy like India cannot afford to continue to watch her Adivasi children die of malnutrition related ailments (death by starvation, some call it) or wither due to lack of education; and she cannot shell and persecute her people in the name of internal security, without incurring heavy damage to her democratic psyche. We, as a people who choose our politicians, have a moral duty to understand the Adivasi’s dreams, persuade the state to guarantee her the right to life with dignity, negotiate with her if she’s upset, and not wait long enough that she takes to army-fatigues and gunfire.

The Rosy Project

This is a review of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

It famously featured on Bill Gate’s recommendations. Contrary to what Bill Gates says, this book did not keep me up for hours into the night to read it.

Firstly, The Rosie Project is a short novel. It’s written in simple language, sans much depth (say, like Dorian Gray). Secondly, it’s predictable, so I sort of guessed how it would end by the time I had read one fourth of the book. Lastly, The Rosie Project reminded me of TV characters, something that was highly off-putting. So I finished reading it in a total of four hours, was not very curious, was not enraptured, and was slightly irritated.

That said, the book is hilarious if you can get past the (odd) ways of the protagonist, Don. Plus, it’s a pleasant chick-flick-esque story. It’s a happy and rosy book; a “happily ever after” kind of storybook. As an added bonus, it also makes you chuckle every five pages or so.

Don is an extremely smart person who teaches genetics in a famous university in America. He is also fit, has a favourite chair in his house, has a fixed meal system, times his appointments to the minute etc (remind you of anyone?). He is on a quest to find a wife. He calls this his “Wife Project”. While he’s at it, he meets a woman, Rosie, who is unconventionally awesome, beautiful, etc. She tells him that she’s looking for her biological father. So Don tries to help her in what he calls “the Father Project”. In the process he does a lot of entertaining off-beat stuff. In the meantime, he also meets a super-hot super-nerdy woman, as she ‘applies’ to his “Wife Project”. But he eventually figures out that he loves Rosie. Ergo, The Rosie Project, to win Rosie over.

It’s a 2/5 from me. The movie adaptation (duh!) starring Ryan Reynolds might fare better. Might.

The Indian Economy, in the 90s

This is a review of books by former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan, India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century and The Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects.

These books offer a great ring side view of the working of the Indian economy. They are, however, dated. To be fair, these are old books, published in the 90s. Nevertheless, they are still relevant to some extent.

For instance, in Problems and Prospects, Bimal Jalan speaks of corruption and how to deal with it, by differentiating the supply and demand for the same, supply being the side of the transaction where people are willing to bribe, and demand being the side where people want, demand, bribes. He puts forth a model to stop both sides of this transaction. His suggestions have, hearteningly, been implemented under the Prevention of Corruption Act, where the bribe taker is heavily penalized (although this has been pushed a tad bit too far by penalizing even lack of action which may result in indirect benefit to unrelated persons causing a loss to the exchequer; it penalizes complicity in corruption, which many believe is doing more harm than good, by making bureaucrats slow and averse to doing risky things, thus compounding the problems of red tapism). He also says that the whistle-blowers should be protected and incentivized for their courage. This seems to be a logical way of thinking about corruption.

Some observations by Jalan made me laugh, mirthlessly. Like, “Indian democracy is schizophrenic” by which he means that although we romanticize democracy (freedom liberty equality!), we’re deeply suspicious of how it works (everyone’s corrupt!). Hence our civil society is weak, parliamentary representatives are not motivated to work for the people and seek to gratify self-interests. General will is all but thrown out the window. But this is changing, as we have seen with “people’s movements” and a burgeoning civil society that increasingly dictates policy. This is a great shift in our democracy that people haven’t taken much notice of!

In his book, India’s Economic Policy, he talks about the weight of Public Sector Enterprises and the losses they incur to the exchequer, and recommends that the state shake them off. This has been a popular demand in India, and the recent governments have taken cognizance of it as they have initiated strategic sales of many of the state concerns.

India’s Economic Policy reads like a journal of the Indian Economy in the 90s, as we were bubbling with hope and trepidation after the giant LPG reforms of 1991.

Some of the issues that are still very relevant, that I picked up, are

  • Making the party whip less powerful – and making the Indian democracy a true representation of people’s interests, as opposed to being a minion of party interests.
  • Separating policy making from policy implementation (ie., the politician and bureaucrat should have more sharper differentiation of functions, and the latter should be allowed to tailor policy to suit the needs of the grassroots)
  • Decentralize, because overcentralization of schemes and programmes has made them inefficient.

The good news is that most of these reforms are in the pipeline, have been implemented already, or have been tried and discarded. I would still recommend it to someone who’s trying to understand the Indian economy from its roots and shoots. I’d rate Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects higher than India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, for its relevance today and the future.

Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects – 3/5

India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-first Century – 2/5

Bimal Jalan’s books are like a reading of the history of the Indian Economy, and the story of her evolution. They’re good. Easy reading, if you’re conversant with basic economics and have a rough understanding of issues related to the Indian economy. But to understand the economy as it is today, policy, problems, I’d suggest (highly recommend) reading the Indian Economic Surveys. The Economic Survey is cooler – with references to Bob Dylan music, dry and witty sarcasm, it is a giant authoritative perspective of the economy today.

Lean In (or be pushed in)

This is my review of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.

I ought to start with a disclaimer- I have a whopping 14 months of experience in a full-time job, so it’s entirely possible that my youthful optimism (ha!) is influencing my opinions on this book.

I’ll start with the good:

  1. Sheryl Sandberg is unquestionably a very successful woman. She has proved her worth in more than one leadership position. Any kind of advice she gives is definitely invaluable to anyone looking to climb the corporate ladder.
  2. She is open about her flaws and the compromises she has made to get ahead of her career- how many mothers would admit that their kids are more attached to their nannies than their parents?

Now for the criticism:

  1. Most Several of the obstacles she describes facing are, quite honestly, first world problems. She describes being late for a morning meeting when pregnant because of the long, slow walk from her car to the office. She then walked into the CEO’s office and demanded that special parking spaces be assigned to pregnant women- a request that was immediately addressed. Maybe it’s my third world mentality, but this does not really seem like a problem- it was an inconvenience that was removed promptly, without any sexism involved. Most women in the world face much bigger struggles, ones that cannot be so easily overcome.
  2. She is frequently condescending. She wants her mentees to be like a patch of sunshine in a busy day- think about how that would sound coming from a middle aged man. Creepy, no? Yes, being mentored by someone as successful as Sandberg would be an amazing opportunity, and she is definitely not obligated to spend time guiding clueless 22-year-olds. But if she does, it seems wrong to expect anything but gratitude in return.
  3. She expects everyone to make the same sacrifices as she has. I have no sources for this apart from my own observations, but there are lots of women out there who have different family structures. Their husbands may have demanding careers. They may have lower earning potential than their partners. They may be single moms. They may need two incomes just to make ends meet. They may not want to miss out on their children’s formative years. There are dozens of very valid reasons why a woman might want to ‘Lean Out’ or make different choices, but still she urges all women to put their careers first.
  4. While women have their share of societal pressure and constraints to deal with, men aren’t exempt. It is less ‘acceptable’ for them to seek a work-life balance or take time off to bond with family. They are inherently expected to shoulder financial responsibility. They are under-represented in certain careers like nursing and teaching. The list goes on. Women cannot always play the victim card.

All in all, this is a good mix of anecdotes and statistical analyses of gender bias and the Glass Ceiling. It also provides some insight into how the people at the top get there- and what they are forced to give up. As someone just starting out in a tech career, I think this was a worthwhile read. As an Indian woman, it was frustrating to read about the privileges some people take for granted. We’ll get there…

2/5

Coming Up for Air

This is a review of Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell.

832138-_uy200_On the book cover, a reviewer comments about how this is possibly the prequel to Animal Farm and 1984. It thus proves that most book jacket reviews are misguiding. At least, I didn’t see any of the depth that characterised the aforementioned books. Heck, I didn’t see the main theme of Animal Farm or 1984 in this book. Nevertheless, Coming Up for Air holds its own.

Coming Up for Air slips dangerously into being a comedy. On Goodreads it is described as a comedy. I’m not sure all readers will agree.

The book also tries to be a journal of an awfully bored and pensive man, George Bowling. It is set in the late 1930s in England, a time when everyone expected war and large scale poverty.

The constant theme is a lamentation of change that seems to have been constant. Bowling immerses himself into warm nostalgia about fishing and a quietness that defined villages back in the day, before the war. The Boer wars, Bowling believes, will repeat itself in some form in the years to come; and that the post-war losses and darkness in the future will be the same as after the Boer wars.

As predicted, England announces war. Bowling sees bombers flying over him, and is overwhelmed into revisiting his past. When he goes back to his village to escape what he sees as inevitable, he realises that the village is no more the same. Everything he remembers about it has changed beyond recognition. A void is created in him, which is further widened by his family and the society he lives in.

Despite the overall dullness of the storyline, it does not predict dystopia (unlike the more famous Orwell books). But it drops many hints on why war is an abomination. It is also one of those books that does not help you to relate to, or to feel any kind of affection towards the protagonist, and despite that, it makes you wonder if he will be okay.

The book is lively with respect to the imagery it conjures up. Sometimes it makes you shake your head at the wry and subtle humour, especially when Bowling describes the society and his family.

In sum, it’s a good read on a long weekend if it’s raining and you have nothing else to do. This Orwell book is also recommended if you like fishing. George Bowling loves fishing. So much so that it made me wonder if it was a metaphor for something more significant. Did I miss something here?

2/5

Self-help = Help yourself

I didn’t intend to review this, but it’s been ages since the last post and well, this is what I read. So, without any embarrassment, here is my review of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Ironically, I kept putting this off, and ended up abandoning it eventually (hey, it kept telling me to Get Things Done, and wading through this book wasn’t helping me Get Things Done). I was pretty skeptical about the idea of self-help books, but wanted to give it a shot. Also, engineering education left me with zero work ethic, and study habits that look like this:

  1. Wait for the night before the final exam/ submission.
  2. Ingest copious amounts of caffeine.
  3. Memorize textbook solution manual/ plagiarize code from the Internet.
  4. Hello, sunrise!

This didn’t seem like a very good idea in the long run…

First, let me summarize what I gleaned from the first 50% of this book.

  • The main aim is to get into the Zone, where you are fully focused on your work.
  • Having worries or ‘Oh, I have to do that, too!’ bouncing around your head takes away your focus.
  • Maintain detailed documentation of your to-do list, and an inbox of things that you need to get done.
  • Break tasks down into bite-sized sub tasks (and sub-sub tasks if needed) to avoid unstructured work. All work needs to be geared towards completion of a task- you shouldn’t waste time thinking about what needs to be done next.
  • If any task takes less than 2 minutes, just do it now.

That stuff seems pretty obvious, right? Unfortunately the author goes the business management route of laboriously developing terminology for everything and explaining it before getting to the gist of things. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Mockery aside, there are a couple of tips that could be useful in practice. Pre-planning and breaking down assignments and projects make it a lot easier to start work in advance. Having a giant 12-hour task looming makes it tempting to procrastinate, having a one-hour-long reading to do is less intimidating. However, the planning and inbox system he describes seems super laborious and could increase ‘planning overhead’ time by quite a bit, something he seems to realize considering that 2-minutes rule.

This book could be useful to someone who has a lot of responsibilities (managers, people with households to run, etc), but not so much for students or people with more intellectual jobs (say, code monkeys). Also his writing style is super annoying, and you need to be dedicated enough to plough through the annoying jargon to get to the actual content.

2/5 from me.

More YA.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

This book revolves around two high school guys who share a name- Will Grayson – but have nothing else in common. The interesting thing about this book is that the authors (this is a collaboration) contributed alternate chapters, each writing from the point of view of one of the main characters. The not-so-interesting thing about this book is that it seems to lack a plotline.

Will Grayson is a typical John Green creation- smart, witty and slightly geeky. He claims that his rules for getting through life are 1) Don’t care too much, and 2) Shut up. He proceeds to break both rules repeatedly through the course of the book. will grayson (note the absence of capitalization) seems to have a bit more depth. He has a difficult home situation and struggles with depression. He’s also gay, and has doesn’t have many friends at school. They meet one day in an unlikely setting and this sets off a chain of events…

That are fairly predictable. There are four main characters in the book: A straight guy, a straight girl, and two gay guys. Do the math.

Despite its flaws, this book has some redeeming qualities: it handles the subjects of mental illness and teen homosexuality very well. It shows a society where people (or at least high schoolers) are quick to accept gay people without judgement. will’s depression is shown as an illness that is unfortunate but manageable with medication and support from his family. There’s also a ‘very large, very gay’ musical that provides a few laughs.

I would recommend this book only if you’re a big fan of John Green and/or the Young Adult genre. 2/5