Book Review – “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama

Title: The Audacity of Hope

Author: Barack Obama

Published: 2008

Number of Pages: 375

Price: Rs. 325 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4/5

When Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America, he kindled hope not only in America but across the world. This book outlines the basis of that hope.

Obama argues that in spite of their differences, Americans want the same basic things: jobs, good education for their children and a safe, free environment. And then there are the challenges created by the ideological differences between the two major political parties, the manner in which laws are created and how the legislature works. Not to mention the social and economic challenges brought on by globalization. In ‘The Audacity of Hope’, Obama confesses to not knowing all the answers but does outline a road-map that he says can take everyone ahead.

What I particularly liked about this book are the lucidly explained ideas. Even as someone has never followed American politics in great detail, I was able to grasp most of what was being explained about the legislature. This isn’t a book heavy with details and complexities of how the legislature works but gives us a peek into the lives of U.S. Senators and how they try to align their personal, political and national interests.

I would also say that this is not necessarily an ‘American’ book. The challenges that Obama lists and the common aspirations of the people are a universal story and as applicable to us here in India as to the citizens of America.

Read more about ‘The Audacity of Hope’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

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Book Review – “The Speed Reading Book” by Tony Buzan

Title: The Speed Reading Book

Author: Tony Buzan

Published: 2000

Number of Pages: 217

Price: Rs. 726 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4/5

Tony Buzan lists out various techniques to speed read books, newspapers and magazines. Given that the book was written in 2000, there’s not much on how to speed read on mobile or computer screens.

Still, the book is helpful in order to get started on the speed reading journey. What I think is more important is to persist through all the techniques mentioned, which require regular practice and persistence. Scanning and skimming books and articles also might help to skip through portions which don’t necessarily help in building one’s knowledge base.

Overall verdict: definitely give this a read. I think of this book as a “building block” to reading other books and the benefits will start accumulating over a period of time.

Read more about ‘The Speed Reading Book’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Book Review – “The Complete Guide to Memory Mastery” by Harry Lorayne

Book: The Complete Guide to Memory Mastery

Author: Harry Lorayne

Published: 2008

Number of Pages: 302

Price: Rs. 219 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 3/5

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I was in college. So to be able to finally persist and finish this book almost a decade later is a matter of no mean happiness.

Almost everyone I know wishes to have a better memory. More often than not, they tend to fumble over small things: little daily errands, remembering birthday and anniversaries, etc

What Harry Lorayne does in this book is give us little techniques that can aid us to remember things which we did not think were possible. For instance, the greatest help was linking numbers to words and remembering a mental image. It sounds complicated but is much simpler once you read it.

The book also describes various party tricks and also tricks to remember all the 52 cards in a pack; at one point, I do feel there is an overkill with the number of techniques he suggests. But I understand what he’s trying to do: give us a variety of options and let the reader choose whichever one works best for her.

The second half of the book, “The Secrets of Mind Power” feels more like a self-help book and I personally wasn’t interested in it at all. Still, I feel the first half of the book more than warrants the money one spends on it.

Read more about ‘The Complete Guide to Memory Mastery’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

TSBC Top 10 of 2015

TSBC Top 10 Of 2015

As a part of the activity that The Sunday Book Club (TSBC) ran on Twitter (their Twitter handle is @tsbookclub), I put up a list of the top 10 books that I read in 2015. This is a random list and isn’t a ranking; simply those 10 books that brought me the most joy in the year gone past.

You can read my reviews of some of these books here:

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime – Oscar Wilde

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Arjun: Without a Doubt – Dr. Sweety Shinde

One Part Woman – Perumal Murugan

Book Review – “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Book: Gooseberries (Little Black Classics #34)

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 2015

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Rs. 34 (Flipkart) / Rs. 46 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

I was in a bookstore the other day, browsing for a gift for a friend. I chanced upon a shelf which displayed some of the books from Penguins’ recently published Little Black Classics compilation. What a fantastic selection of books it seems to be! At 50 bucks a piece, each of these seemed like a perfect companion for the monsoon season along with a cuppa of cappuccino.

Within these, I spotted one which was a collection of three short stories by Anton Chekhov. Curious, because I hadn’t read any stuff by him thus far, I picked this one up.

The three stories in this book are The Kiss, The Two Volodyas and Gooseberries.

The Kiss is a beautiful little short story about a meek man, who almost seems a non-entity to his companions, experiencing uncommon joie de vivre when he is the recipient of an unlikely kiss. Although with a tricky ending, I liked the idea of the “little guy” finding some joy in his life and all the emotions, thoughts and doubts that he goes through, almost thoroughly unmindful of the world around him.

The Two Volodyas was a story I would’ve loved to have heard as a radio dramatisation. It tells us of Sofya, who has recently married an older man named Vladimir, in spite of having been madly in love with her childhood friend, also named Vladimir. The two gentlemen, nicknamed Big Volodya and Little Volodya respectively, even share a somewhat notorious reputation when it comes to women. The story is about the misgivings of Sofya about her marriage and how she tries to make sense of her situation as she looks at the lives of two other women who have, so to speak, chosen diametrically opposite lives in a similar condition.

Gooseberries, from which this collection gets it’s name, is a story of two brothers and how differently they choose to define happiness. Although, I didn’t quite get why this needed to be a story within a story. But it was a nice little tale all the same.

A quick, fun read and there’s little more that I can ask of a book of short stories.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about Gooseberries on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “The Woman In White” by Wilkie Collins

Book: The Woman In White

Author: Wilkie Collins

Publisher: Penguin

First published: 1860

Number of Pages: 736

Price: Rs. 194 (Flipkart) / Rs. 224 (Amazon) / FREE (Kindle)*

My rating: 5/5

There is a certain happiness in ‘discovering’ a good book. Have you ever stumbled across a book on a shelf at a bookstore and picked it up on a whim and hours later, having read a couple of pages, you realise what good luck it was to have taken the bet?

This is precisely what I’d felt a couple of years ago when I’d stumbled across The Moonstone while browsing through Project Gutenberg. A cracking good plot set in Victorian England, mysterious characters from halfway across the world, a whodunit; The Moonstone had kept me hooked till the very last page. Add to this the fact that the book was written and first published in 1868, and I was even more impressed.

And so, when a couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Woman In White, I did so with great interest. I am pleased to report the book has exceeded all my expectations.

The book begins one late evening when one Mr. Walter Hartright is returning home to his place of lodgings in London from meeting his mother and sister who live on the outskirts of the city. The road is dark and lonely as it is close to the midnight hour when suddenly, he feels a hand upon his shoulder. He whirls around to see a beautiful young woman, dressed completely in white, looking at him. She asks him if he can point her to some place from where she can get a cab. He volunteers to walk with her till she can find one. They have a short conversation during their walk together which only mystifies young Hartright further. Soon after she gets a cab and leaves for a destination she does not reveal to him, he overhears a couple of men looking for her, saying that she had escaped from an asylum!

You would think his encounter with the lady ended here, but the mysterious presence continues to haunt him a couple of days later when Walter travels to north of England in his professional capacity. How Walter unravels the truth about the woman in white and their collective experiences forms the rest of the novel.

What impressed me most about this book was its suspense. I later discovered that this was a natural thing to happen, since the novel originally appeared in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. If a book written over 150 years ago still manages to keep an entirely different generation’s reader hooked on to every chapter, I say ‘Job well done’.

The language used in this book is beautiful. The descriptions of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick’s beauty, the charming country houses and their estates and even of some vast expanses of land often transport you to England as it would have been over a century ago. Add to that Walter Hartright’s beautiful confession of being in love and you wish he would go on just that little bit longer.

And how can I forget what made this book’s latter half the most enjoyable to me. In Count Fosco lives one of the most cunning and powerful villains I have come across in literature. The climactic scene, set in one long night at the Italian Count’s London residence, is full of tension. One can almost hear menace dripping whenever he speaks. The Count is very high on my list of favourite villains.

If I can fault this book at all, then it would be it’s length, which does seem too long towards the end. But this is a minor irritant compared to the joys over the couple of hours I spent reading this book.

A fantastic book, which I highly recommend. Read it alone at home on a stormy night at your own peril!

*Although the book is available as a free download, I highly recommend buying a copy of the Penguin classic which has a beautiful cover and seems well worth the price tag.

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Read more about The Woman In White on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Playing It My Way” by Sachin Tendulkar

Book: Playing It My Way

Author: Sachin Tendulkar, Boria Majumdar (contributor)

Publisher: Hachette

Publication Year: 2014

Number of Pages: 486

Price: Rs. 602 (Flipkart) / Rs. 519 (Amazon) / Rs. 304 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

I must begin by criticising the writing for it was such a big disappointment for a book that I began reading with much excitement. For a legend of the game, and one who I’ve admired since childhood, I often felt that the writing in this book was amateurish and did very little justice to Sachin’s great achievements and his memorable career. I have read Boria Majumdar’s columns in newspapers and even they seem better written in comparison. I wondered why someone of the stature of either a Ramchandra Guha or a Sharda Ugra couldn’t have been brought to the table to write this book. I also wondered how a publishing house like Hachette would’ve allowed such a book to go ahead. Perhaps they were certain that merely Sachin’s name was good enough to sell enough copies and no one would notice the sub par writing. (At one point in my notes while reading the book, I actually wrote “School boy-ish writing. Aargh!!!”)

What does work for this book, however, is the wave of nostalgia that will sweep through you if you’ve followed Indian cricket for the years that Sachin played cricket. I could not only recall scenes that I’d seen unfolding on a television screen but also headlines from newspapers of the Indian team’s exploits as I read about them in this book. Who can forget Sachin’s batting heroics at Sharjah or him taking five wickets in a match against Australia at Kochi and then juggling the ball with glee? How can I ever forget the heartbreak as I saw Sachin getting out to Saqlain Mushtaq in Chennai? A hundred memories like these are what I would like to remember this book for.

Another thing that impressed me in this book is Sachin complimenting and thanking all the people who have helped him throughout his career. From his coaches, to the support staff, his parents, his wife, his manager. Everyone gets a mention.

Something that surprised me, and has been written/talked about a lot, is how Sachin doesn’t talk much about the troubles that the team faced when match-fixing allegations were flying thick and fast. He is basically done with it in three or four sentences where he merely mentions how angry and upset he was. I can understand why he cannot reveal names or more such, but as a man who was in the eye of the storm (so to speak) this tells the Sachin fan very little how much the champion was affected by the scandal.

This inability to express Sachin’s anger and frustrations is also evident when describing the various injuries and resultant breaks and therapy that he had to undergo. Not only does the persistent back injury seem as if it wasn’t a big deal but even the tennis elbow injury is not made to sound threatening enough.

The book does become engrossing as he nears his retirement day. He is able to express in vivid detail the emotions he felt as he saw the noise around him reached deafening levels. It feels as if he were at peace with his decision of retiring and that is one thing a Sachin fan can feel happy about.

Overall, this book remains a disappointment. Sub par writing, anecdotes which don’t give you an insight into the inner world of players, funny anecdotes that fall flat, conveniently sidestepping the troubling times that Indian cricket saw in the last decade and a half are a big thumbs down for me.

Perhaps Saurav Ganguly’s (auto)biography, if and when that is written, will give us a better insight into arguably the greatest era in Indian cricket. Hopefully, that book will be like Saurav’s commentary: never holding back a punch.

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Read more about ‘Playing It My Way’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Arjun: Without a Doubt” by Dr. Sweety Shinde

Book: Arjun: Without a Doubt

Author: Dr. Sweety Shinde

Publisher: Leadstart Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

Publication year: 2015

Number of pages: 306

Price: Rs. 156 (Flipkart) / Rs. 195 (Amazon) / Rs. 171.95 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

“Arjun: Without A Doubt” picks up the Mahabharat tale with Draupadi wondering who exactly this Arjun is. Of course, she has heard of Pandu’s illustrious son, the man who defeated her father, Drupad, in battle as gurudakshina for his guru, Dronacharya. But she has never set her sights on him. And her father tells her Arjun is the most deserving husband for her. Even Krishn is all praise for him. She wonders if Arjun, and his family, have survived the burning palace and whether he will be able to win her hand at the swayamvar her father is organising.

Thus, once more, begins this grand old tale. The reason I love reading the Mahabharat is because, like a true literary classic, it seems to change every time I read it. My perception of most characters in this epic have undergone a sea change from how I perceived them initially. Almost every intelligent author brings a new perspective to this epic and challenges me to think of questions about various events that take place in the Mahabharat.

“Arjun: Without A Doubt” is one such book. Simply put, I loved it. On more than one occasion, I found myself pausing to think “Hey, this is a fresh way of looking at these events.”

The book is written from the points of view of Arjun and Draupadi, each of them taking up the narration in alternate chapters. Arjun is pretty much what we expect him to be: a champion warrior. His dedication to his craft is commendable. We get a glimpse of the hardships he had to undertake to achieve what he did. We realise that it wasn’t always a walk in the park for him.

And yet, he is more than just a soldier who is very good at lifting up a bow and shooting arrows. He dearly loves Draupadi and is heartbroken every time he has to leave her behind. He also has his moments of doubts about the nature of his duty towards his family, especially towards his eldest brother Yudhisthir. As war approaches, we can see these doubts surfacing, which eventually leads Krishna to answer his queries about why the war must be fought. Arjun’s shockingly rude and direct dialogue with Kunti when she mourns Karna’s death shows how much he has changed from when we met him at the beginning: indeed, Arjun is without any doubts now.

But it is for Draupadi’s voice for which you should read this book. From the moment when Kunti says that Draupadi must be shared by the five Pandava brothers is when we start seeing injustice served to her. And what makes this even more insulting is that Draupadi comes across right away as a strong, independent woman. What stopped her, I asked myself, from walking away from the Pandavas right then and there?

Then we have the famous dice game where Yudhisthir “loses” everything, including his brothers and his wife. Were they his to “lose” in the first place? And why didn’t any of the brothers step up and fight for Draupadi when Dushasana was attempting to forcibly undress her, Kshatriya rules be damned?! It is a testimonial to the author that she makes us feel this ashamed and enraged.

And yet, there are a couple of glitches. The construction of paragraphs is at times confusing: I lost track at a couple of places and had to retrace my steps in order to clarify whose speech it is that I was reading.

Yet, this is a minor flaw in a book which is effective in it’s larger purpose of drawing our attention to various aspects of the Mahabharat. I would love to write further and point out more such instances, but then, this review would be filled with spoilers and longer than what it already is. 🙂

In conclusion, if you’re a Mahabharat fan, I would highly recommend you read this book.

(Disclaimer: The author sent me a copy of “Arjun: Without A Doubt” to review.)

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Read more about ‘Arjun: Without A Doubt’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

Book: One Part Woman

Author: Perumal Murugan (translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication year: 2015 (first published 2010)

Number of pages: 256

Price: Rs. 239 (Amazon/Flipkart)

My rating: 3.5/5

Little over a month ago, I heard on the news that the Tamil author Perumal Murugan was being harassed because of “objectionable content” in his book ‘One Part Woman’. Hitherto, I hadn’t even heard of the author, let alone the book. I decided to read it for myself. Luckily, the book was still available on Amazon as a Kindle download and I purchased it right away. So much for silencing the voice of the author.

The book is set in a village in pre-Independence southern India. The story traces the lives of Kali and Ponna, a childless couple who’re regularly taunted by their relatives and village-folk for not having any children. They are constantly at the receiving end of jibes which often leave the wife, Ponna, hurting, although she doesn’t shy away from retorting to these glib remarks herself.

We are told how difficult it becomes for this couple to not worry about being childless as they are constantly humiliated by almost everyone around them. They are kept reminded of this also as people try and come up with various theories as to why they haven’t been blessed with a child; theories ranging from having displeased the Gods to ancestral wrongdoings.

As the story progresses, we are told about a local village festival in which all rules of matrimony and loyalty are relaxed for one night; a night when any two consenting adults can decide to be with each other. Some of Kali and Ponna’s relatives are of the view that Ponna should go to the festival and try to conceive a child. It is this event which tests this couple’s wish to have a child to the limit: should Kali make the difficult decision of allowing his wife to be with another man for one night to probably get the child that both he and his wife desire so eagerly?

The narrative picks up various threads from the past to help us give insights into the decisions that the couple makes. As the night of the festival approaches, there is rising tension as suspense grows over how the various individuals in the book will react.

Although this was the English translation that I was reading (wherein I did stumble a couple of times in the narrative), I could easily imagine the fondness that the author has for the countryside. His descriptions of the farmer’s daily lives, their homes and their fields provides a beautiful glimpse into village life. The book also shows how religion has been woven into the very fabric of these people’s lives as Kali and Ponna try to appease almost every God and pray at every temple they come across.

I loved the dynamics of Kali and Ponna’s relationship. This is a young, loving couple who are going through what is clearly a very testing time for both of them. And yet, both seem to have a different approach. Ponna dearly wishes to be a mother, not only because it will mean an end to the constant barbs from others but because she is genuinely fond of children. She is slowly becoming bitter at her condition and isn’t the one to not speak her mind out loud, even to her husband. Kali, though equally disgruntled about not being a father, seems to have made his peace with the current reality. By the end of the book, you’re left sympathizing both of them.

Update on 6th Aug 2015: My good friend Sudha G. has written an excellent review (much better than my own humble effort above) of the book here.

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Read more about ‘One Part Woman’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Open by Andre Agassi

Title: Open – An Autobiography

Author: Andre Agassi

Number of Pages: 400

Price: Rs. 235 (Amazon.in/Flipkart)

I hadn’t read an autobiography in a while, let alone a sports one. What tipped me towards reading this particular book was that it was highly recommended by a couple of friends who are avid sports fans themselves. In fact, one of them had insisted that she listed this book as brilliant.

I expected the book to be a simple narration of an athlete’s journey: his trials and tribulations, snippets from his personal life, the various battles that he had been part of on the tennis court. What I got, however, was an untarnished glimpse into the life and the roller-coaster mind of a flawed genius.

There is no doubt about the fact that Agassi is one of the greatest tennis players of his age. He will forever be remembered as one of the titans. He will also be remembered as somebody who was flamboyant and perhaps not mentally strong enough to capitalise on his skills in the initial years of his career.

The book smashes all such ideas. And then some more.

Agassi shocks us by telling us how his father trained him since the age when he could barely hold a racket. Agassi hated the sport. As he grew up, he was, like any other kid, a rebel. What made things different for him was the focus on his life and his career. And that the rebellious kid’s every antic was being noticed and commented upon.

No doubt he worked extremely hard was made to work extremely hard on his game. But he was also clearly gifted. Yet, he continuously saw ups and downs in his career graph, most of which can be attributed to the demons in his head.

Agassi speaks honestly about his married life with Brooke Shields and how, even though it looked picture perfect, there were ominous signs right from the start. His subsequent wooing of Steffi Graf, however, makes for a delightful read and you cannot be any more pleased for a man to have finally found happiness after all that he has been through in his personal life.

There are also some great stories of friends, trainers and coaches who have had a significant impact on Agassi’s life. Each one of these injected a dose of positive thinking in his life when he needed them the most. Those chapters are very good motivational reads.

And then of course, there is Pete. “As always, Pete.” The one awkward rivalry-friendship that endures through the length of the book is that of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Agassi admits as much. Sampras was definitely the more crowned champion, and perhaps with good reason. Agassi mentions how not bothered Sampras could be with the sport when he was off the court: how he could “switch off”. You cannot but admire the way Agassi speaks of his friend and arch-rival.

I have always loved tennis as a sport and will forever remain a Federer fan (GO FED!). But this book has made me look with new respect at Agassi and at what is perhaps the loneliest sport out there, as he mentions in the book.

Bring on the Sampras autobiography, I say!

My rating: 4 out of 5.

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Read more about Open on Goodreads. Get it on Amazon.in, Flipkart & on your Kindle.