Book Reviews

A bunch of book reviews I had done for thetalespensieve are out.

 

Zen Garden by Subroto Bagchi – Collection of Bagchi’s interactions with some of the finest business and social leaders, entrepreneurs and pathmakers, invited to the Zen garden, where they share their life stories, inflexion and tipping points, principles, driving forces, passion, and success mantras.

“Comes in easy language and short chapters, well catalogued without being prescriptive, and is a great bed-time read.” (4/5)

Dream With Your Eyes Open by Ronnie Screwvala – Ronnie Screwvala traverses his entrepreneurial journey of over two decades in his debut book. More popularly known for having created UTV from scratch, many people may not know about his several other stints across toothbrushes, games, and many other categories (not all of them successful).

Great lessons, extremely conversational, slightly preachy, but a wide view of what entrepreneurship can be!

 

Letters From An Indian Summer by Siddharth Dasgupta – less a novel, more an elegy. It’s a celebration of Arjun Bedi and Genevieve Casta’s love story, through letters and meetings, destiny and serendipity spread over 5 years and many countries.

Reminded me of the first time I had sizzlers. Someone else had ordered in on some other table in the restaurant. It promised a lot of sizzle and excitement. And it delivered on that very well! But once the show was over, the taste was passable. (2 on 5)

The Death And Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi by Makarand Paranjape – ““He felt that non-violence during the struggle for independence was an expedient, i.e., resistance to the white man was undertaken in a non-violent manner simply because we had no military strength with which to offer battle.” – Kingslay Martin – Jan 27, 1948

Where the book succeeds in a big way is by asking us – Is Mahatma Gandhi relevant anymore? Or, was Gandhi ever relevant in a post-independence India? Paranajape believes, and so do I, that he was, is and will continue to be. (Rating: 3/5)

Seven Uncommoners by Ridhima Verma – collection of biographical sketches of seven entrepreneurs from across a variety of industries in India.The choice of entrepreneurs is interesting – across gaming and technology (Vishal Gondal of Indiagames and Goqii), hospitality (Patu Keswani of Lemon Tree Hotels), logistics and supply chain (Pawan Jain of Safexpress), construction & infrastructure development (Jagdish Gupta of J Kumar Infraprojects), financial advisory (Mahesh Singhi of Singhi Advisors), facilities management (Prasad Lad of Krystal Group) and legal services (Nishith Desai of NDA).

The feeling that there has to be more, and that something has been left out, is the pervasive sentiment at the end of the read. Nevertheless, the book is a good celebration of home grown successes in a world which is excessively enamored by the Steve Jobs brand of arrogant leadership and perfect solutions.(Rating: 3.25/5)

A Hundred Lives For You by Abhisar Sharma – takes montages from three decades of Abhimanyu’s life. A media man with a penchant for reporting, Abhisar seems to have gotten down to writing a deeply personal book, or so it seems

Simple story, great emotions, good use of the country’s timeline, weak first half, good narrative, few editorial misses, and a very strong father-daughter relationship in the second half of the book. (Rating: 3.5/5)

 

Ladies Please! by Jose Covaco – A no-holds barred take on dating in India from a man’s perspective. Jose, through his series of spectacularly failed (I am not sure if they are real or imaginary, but at the very least they are relatable and everyday sightings) and moderately failed and occasionally successful relationships (because in India, there is no dating; there is only a relationship), bares it all and leaves you with (especially women) tips and tricks for dealing with the other sex better.

I strongly urge all ladies to read the book. Especially, if you want to really train your man. And of course when we talk about training or changing the man, all you are trying to do really is make us better. Right? The book is hilarious in pint size measures, but slow otherwise.(Rating 3:25/5)

 

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Book Review: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

I picked up Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl On The Train” for just one reason – for the last several weeks, I have seen the book perched on top of the NY Times Bestsellers list (Fiction). Lately, my reading has gone down significantly. Some of it can be attributed to paucity of time, but the bigger reason, I hypothesize, is a distracted head-space. Sometimes, I believe, reading fast paced fiction helps you get back in the groove. And TGOTT seemed to fit the bill. Also, I had seen a rather interesting promo image sometime back – of several ladies sitting side by side on a subway train reading ‘the girl on the train’.

TGOTT

Image Source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2015/01/28/american-sniper-the-girl-on-the-train-usa-today-best-selling-books-list/22464365/

 

Rachel, the girl on the train, loves looking out of the window and weaving stories about what she sees. She gives names to people, imagines stories about stranded items like clothes or shoes, and obsesses over them. She is a divorced alcoholic with severe depression and confidence issues, who cannot seem to get over her broken marriage, and just cannot get her life back together. She is the central protagonist. Most of the chapters have been written from her perspective. The male characters in the book don’t get chapters of their own. The other two girls of the story are Anna – the new wife of Tom, and Jess/ Megan – a girl Rachel has seen many times from the train’s window. Tom is Rachel’s ex-husband. And Scott is Megan’s husband. Kamal Abdic is Megan’s therapist. With this much, here is a poll for you to consider – Column A is the murdered. And Column B is the murderer. Take a guess.

Victim Perpetrator
Rachel Rachel
Megan Megan
Anna Anna
Tom Tom
Scott Scott
Kamal Kamal
Some other person briefly mentioned Some other person briefly mentioned

TGOTT excels at its broader plot contours. It delivers a taut murder mystery. The book works well as a single session race to the finish. It uses the standard narrative of a shifting timeline and multiple vantage points to create a sense of darkness, foreboding, and suspense. More often than not, it succeeds. Paula has created a book which is ready to be adapted into a movie (and Emily Blunt will be starring as Rachel). All the right elements. But it is no “Gone Girl”. It neither has characters so grey or flawed, nor a suspense so riveting. Moreover, the central characters are not “that” smart. Megan is a bored seductress, Rachel is a broken alcoholic, Anna is an insecure home-maker and a new mother, Scott an overbearing masochistic husband, Kamal a flawed therapist, and Tom is the ex-husband who doesn’t like anyone touching his phone or laptop. The darkness that permeates that entire narrative of Gone Girl is missing here, save for the end where you see the untapped potential of some of these characters.

Let’s revisit the poll with the additional information I just threw at you. Has your opinion changed?

TGOTT’s problem for me was its predictability. The victim’s too obvious, and so is the perpetrator. The haste in introducing the suspects, and the choice of crime scene makes it a little too obvious. The decoys and breadcrumbs are not the most engaging. Yet, the storytelling is gripping. I envy (and respect) people who can write such engaging stuff.

TGOTT’s other problem is the long drawn moping of Rachel. The continuously repeating montage of her getting drunk, reprimanding herself, and the wine and the gin and the tonic stops serving its purpose beyond a point, unless you are too absorbed to notice the conflict that is established in each such cycle. In the end you might just say – oh yea! remember that?

All in all – It’s a middle of the road – 6 on 10 – kinda thriller. I enjoyed it. I would not, though, go out of my way to recommend it. I won’t diss it either.

In a world where “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins is a long standing NY Times Bestseller #1 (Fiction), I worry about the quality and quantity of what is being read at large. Am I being extremely critical of the book? No. I definitely do not want to. Do I think the book is an undeserving bestseller? Not at all. It probably is the best thing visible on the shelf right now. My problem – the #1 for weeks should have been a little less obvious.

The novel has quite a few loose ends, which I hope get resolved some day. Someone once told me that to be a good writer, the need to be a good storyteller is way higher than the need to have a good story. So there! More power to Paula, because I do believe that the survivors of this novel can come together for another twist in the tale.

Book Review: Teresa’s Man and Other Stories by Damodar Mauzo

Book Review of Teresa’s Man and Other Stories, written by Damodar Mauzo and translated by Xavier Cota now live on The Tales Pensieve 

A vibrant, yet subtle cover that matches the flavors in the book

Book Review: Shattered Dreams – Book 2 | Ramayana – The Game of Life by Shubha Vilas

Title:  Shattered Dreams, Book 2

Series: Ramayana: The Game of Life

Author: Shubha Vilas

Publisher: Jaico Publishing House

Publication Year: 2014

ISBN 13: 9788184955316

Binding: Paperback

Number of pages: 387

Price: Rs 350

 

Shattered Dreams is the second book in Shubha Vilas’ Ramayana Series.  In this book, the story begins just before Dasharatha’s decision to pass on the reins of Ayodhya to Rama, and ends after the famous Rama-Bharata Dharma-Dharma dialogue at Panchvati. Deftly peppered along the way are the author’s footnotes and philosophical discourses to make the book relevant to modern life.

 

How many Ramayana does it take to tell it all?

The last few years has seen a surge in Indian literary works that revolve around the twin epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are, then, tales that revolve around the diversion and mini-stories that both these epics have embedded. And somehow, there is always something more. Something that you might not have known already.

What’s more important is to remember the relevance of the book to the believers. Ramayana, or the tale of Rama, the finest among men (Maryada Purushottam), in the Indian mythos-ethos, is often the book of reference. It’s the book that tells you right and wrong. I have known too many people who in times of deep distress or difficulty, close their eyes and open a random page of Ramayana or Ramacharitmas, read a few verses, and find peace. For it is their pathway into righteousness. I am not one of them.

That, however, also makes you wonder whether or why you’d pick one more such book without knowing if there is any new and interesting titbit in this version.

 

In that space, does this version of Ramayana, which is just a translation and a philosophical discourse, fit?

 

Shubha Vilas’ Ramayana – The Game of Life – Shattered Dreams (Book 2) is one that did not excite me at the outset. The context and the title don’t give me enough push to pick the book. The blurb also suggests that it’s as much a retelling as it is a philosophical discourse around Ramayana’s relevance to everyday life. That part? Neither. So, in reality, I picked it up because of Blogadda.

 

So, let’s first talk about what works and what’s good.

There are newer touches. For example, the tale of Kaikeyi’s mother, or of Dasharatha’s promise to King Ashwapati, Kaikeyi’s father. Or, the story about Guha and Lakshmana trusting but never fully trusting each other.

The narration stays close to being a literal translation, a well researched literal translation. The frequent reference to the actual Sanskrit words/ verses and their contextual interpretation is a nice addition to aid one’s understanding of the epic.

For those who are interested in debates around a whole set of events that place in Ramayana, even though Ramayana is often considered to be the blander of the two mega-epics because of its morally upright viewpoint all the time, the frequent footnotes often provide explanations that will fuel some thoughts and introspection.

 

What doesn’t work?

The book is sluggish in pace, and has few new elements to offer.  There are very few incidents and stories that are new or unheard of in the translated Ramayana world.

The simplicity of Kaikeyi has always unnerved me. For someone who has the wits to manoeuvre a battlefield, Kaikeyi continues to be a simpleton in most versions of Ramayana, who so easily gives up his love of Rama and is manipulated by Manthara. I would love someone to research this aspect and tell a more interesting tale.

I noticed some linguistic inconsistencies too. Rama, for instance, never addresses Kaikeyi as just Kaikeyi. There should always be the “Mother” prefix/suffix associated with it. To address her otherwise would be a blemish on his personality, for he never lets down his guards and has never really blamed Kaikeyi for anything. For instance – “The boons he had given Kaikeyi” can not be a Rama statement. Also, his tone and explanation at quite a few points suggests a level of resentment towards Kaikeyi. Example – “His greatest worry was mother Kaushalya’s safety from the tortures of Kaikeyi”. In the truest form of Ramayana, that does not seem right.

The language is too dramatic and hence, in a different time and space than the audience that is reading it. For instance, the continuously fainting and rolling on the floor in agony kind of Rama and Bharata somehow seem out of place.

While the philosophical notes are good, the interruptions happen a little too often. The debates happening at the end of a complete sub-section would be my preference. And unfortunately, the interruptions are less reflective, more pedantic. Like the one on Rama’s management sutra. On a positive note, probably, they are meant to make you pause more often and reflect on what the text means to the reader.

Lastly, the Kaikeyi episode/ Ayodhya kaand is one of the ripest sections of Ramayana for a moral conflict and ideological debate. There are multiple conflicts here – Dasa-Kaikeyi, Kaikeyi-Rama, Rama-Sita, Rama-Kaushalya, Rama-Sita, Rama-Lakshman, Lakshman-Urmila, Lakshman-Sumitra, Rama-Ayodhya, Rama-Bharata, and so on. And each of these conversations is an opportunity in itself. Unfortunately, it does not come across as enough justice has been done to most of these conversations.

 

The book at an overall did not quite work for me. But it may work for many others with a deeper faith in the epic and who are looking for a debate on the epic. If I had to read another retelling of Ramayana, I would probably go back to Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series.

 

I would go with a 2 on 5 stars for this book.

 

 

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Book Review: The Legend of Amrapali – Birth of the Bastard Prince by Anurag Anand

My latest review is up on The Tales Pensieve

Anurag Anand’s retelling of this important story from Buddhism’s evolution around 5th Centure BC is gripping, fluid and has the right elements of intrigue, politics, romance and history. Though it does not necessarily stay parallel to the historical version all the time, it’s a fictional retelling that makes the original way more interesting.

What really works for the book is the narrative pace and the strong grounding in history. Where the book falters a bit is the lack of characterization. While that of Amrapali is done over almost a book and a half, Bimbisar, Bindusen, Yudhveer, Chetak, etc. are not detailed.

Overall, the book makes for a good weekend read.

Book Review: Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys is a thriller and thankfully, not a doomsday prophecy

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, picks its name form “Flash Orders” placed by “High Frequency Traders (HFTs) on stock marking using “proprietary algorithms” and using “speed of transaction” (measured in nanoseconds) as a differentiator, Michael Lewis’ nth attempt at explaining the dark side of wall street. This time, he touches the dark pools as well and the victory of the technologists on the street as well. Phew! So much stock market jargon!

Brad Katsuyuma, a reluctant but extremely competent trader with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), an Asian- Candaian (who doesn’t identity with his Asian identity at all), takes the battle to the Wall Street biggies when his years of understanding the basics of trading are brought to nought by e-trading or HFT. From having a sub-zero understanding of the technology that has changed the rules of the game to the formation of IEX and with a bunch of  unlikely heroes by his side, Michael Lewis travels through the evolution of high frequency trading (and to some extent, the Street itself) and the subversion of investor interest by traders. (The word subversion comes a few times when Michael goes through the story of ace Russian programmer, Serge, of Goldman Sachs).

One can only speculate where the world goes after IEX. My guess is as good as yours. And my guess is that we are just waiting for new inefficiencies to creep in. In a way, it is like Jana Lokpal. Will you expect the police to be the one to setup a policing regime on their own life. Some of the righteous ones may agree. Some may do it to create the aura of being righteous while figure out a way of subverting it. Most, however, would just refuse. In the end, it all boils down to game theory.

Michael puts Brad Katsuyuma and his band of warriors at the center of a right and wrong, good and evil, prey and predator story. The book leaves you with a lot of answered and unanswered questions, especially if you are, like me, an outsider. If you’re one of those who has often wondered about the excessive lifestyles and monies of the investment bankers and traders, and the overall razzmatazz of trading, stock market price fluctuations, options and futures, and what nots, Flash Boys, at the very least, gives you a good ring side view and an access to an exciting commentator of the game. The book also, unlike what you’d expect, is not very judgemental. Brad manages to keep his sanity through till the end, and is able to understand and rationalize the motives, even though he doesn’t always agree with them.

I have had similar predicaments. Not just once. A scenario where an extremely profitable engagement depends on one’s ability to downplay the morality of what is being asked for. There is a certain point in Flash Boys, where an analyst explains how his bosses ‘told’ him to prove that the “dark pools” were benefiting the banks’ customers. As an analyst, he knew it wasn’t true. As an analyst, he managed the numbers in a way that it could be proved true. As an IB analyst, or a consulting analyst, tell me if you haven’t been in a similar situation! Yes. One of those.

Flash Boys runs like a thriller, jumping timelines & story-lines, weaving a tale of greed, deceit and genius, and is well marinated for being converted into a movie right away. The book is absolutely riveting. The concepts and most technicalities/ stock market actions have been explained in layman terms for people like me who haven’t really cared for them all these years. And I am sure, once could have foreseen why this book would be a bestseller.

The way Michael has built each of the key characters is the secret sauce. At the beginning, there were many instances where I could identify with Brad’s inertia or lack of ambition in life a lot. There are also a lot of moments where people would find themselves nodding to certain actions that people like Ronan take. Right down to the defiance and condescence against the apparent ruler and rules of the street. You can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy for Serge, even as you try to wave the corporate ethics and IP protection manual in front of people. I must also confess that I am a little late to the party, and a lot has been written about the book already. However, I do encourage all of you to read the book if you haven’t already. It’s a fascinating read, even though many may consider it a bit one sided, with nothing but Brad’s desire to do right holding him through a lot of those difficult phases. I have no business calling it out as absolutely the unadulterated truth or a blatant lie. Though, I have no qualms in adding that HFTs are supposed to work exactly like they are explained to be in the book. Whether or how it creates a competitive advantage for the one with the best resources, the best access, and the highest level of corporate corruption is something that is and will remain a hypotheses.

So go on then. Enjoy it. A definite 4.5 on a scale of 5 for me. Good story, good story telling, great memorable characters. And off I go to the next one!

 

Books Roundup: Autobiographies

Do you read autobiographies?

तुमको देखा तुमको जाना, आइना अच्छा लगा
आज पहली बार मुझको भी खुदा अच्छा लगा

Tumko dekha, tumko jaana, aaina acha laga…
aaj pehli baar mujhko bhi khuda acha laga

(Meeting you, knowing you, I now appreciate the me some more
Today, for the first time, I, too, appreciate Him some more)

These days my love for autobiographies or self referential literature has grown. I am not exactly sure what exactly I look for in these books, whether I am moved by these stories, whether this fondness is reflective of my current life phase or if my quest for understanding myself has begun a little too late.

I have stared enjoying the tales that are not necessarily heroic, and describe flawed geniuses. They definitely help me understand my flaws better.. And maybe, someday, the cycle will eventually lead to my discovery of the genius within me. That’s optimistic though. The genius part.

My love for sports (watching/ following), on the other hand, has gone down. I still enjoy watching a game or two, cheering for something/ someone, posting status messages, getting into occasional debates. But the interest sustains only for a short while. After the previous world cup, and the wankhede moment, my interest in Cricket also has come down faster than the water slides at Water Kingdom.

Coming back to the books, in the last few months, I read four sports-autobiographical works. Playing It My Way by Sachin Tendulkar, Open by Andre Agassi, Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal and The Test of My Life by Yuvraj Singh. Unfortunately for everyone, Tendulkar’s book projects him as a genius, but an unflawed one. He is a well-cut diamond all through. The book is so polite that at the end of it, all you can eat is Parle-G.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best by a margin is Open. Not for its literary quality, but for the openness with which Agassi bares his soul and his life. It tells you of the funny nature of his success and how his failures to come to terms with his personal life and aspirations occupy the top drawer. And also, his growth. I have been in the Pete Sampras camp all my life, and here I was, rooting for Andre well after his retirement. I relived many of those games, the rivalries, their importance or insignificance. And I learnt that the whiz kid of tennis wasn’t really in love with the game. Or, so it seemed. The book is also a very effective reminder of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Rafa and Yuvi’s books have a few similarities. In pure literary terms, they both suck. And both of them pick a grand event as an anchor (the Wimbledon final vs the world cup) and run the book around that grand event. Those anchor events serve as benchmark of excellence that the world has come to know these two by. And yet, the preparation, the agony of successes and failures on that path, the physical beatdowns, the personal and the professional – they are fairly insightful. Yet, just to highlight the differences, Rafa’s book is a few miles ahead of Yuvi’s book in overall quality and impact terms. And a lot more honest also, I guess.

I have just about finished reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, and for a change, I did not feel like I was being preached to. What a brilliant book to come from a CEO (and not the investor). The book managed to put the mistakes of a decade long career in perspective, without, for a moment, reprimanding me. I strongly recommend the book to everyone out there. Even though most people will consider it a business book, I consider it fairly autobiographical. Especially those who aspire to become a good leader, a good CEO, or to have their own startup someday.

किताबों से कभी गुज़रो तो यूँ किरदार मिलते हैं
गए वक़्तों की ड्योढ़ी पे खड़े कुछ यार मिलते हैं

Kitabon se kabhie guzro to yoon kirdaar milte hain.
Gaye waqton ki dyodhi par khade kuch yaar milte hain

Travelling through books, these characters come and meet you so
In the bylanes of a time gone by, a few friends come and meet you so.

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