Tuesday, December 31, 2013

76. The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth

This is going to be a short review, with not much worth talking about.

The Kill List is my second Frederick Forsyth read this year, third overall. Forsyth's work continue the common theme of a single individual with exceptional combat/strategic abilities, which is not bad, when executed well, like in the case of the cult-classic The Day of the Jackal. The execution suffered, despite a strong plot in the otherwise disappointing The Cobra, my first Forsyth read this year.

In this book, the character was strong, the execution, pretty sketchy. A weak plot and the lack of details didn't help either. These days, one expects to be educated, while being entertained, while reading Thrillers of this type. This book entertained a bit, but failed miserably in the other task. Add to that, the non-development of any character, including the lead character, a resume probably would have got one better acquainted with the character than the book. It was good to have a happy ending, but it seemed almost forced, with good things coming along for everyone, in an ideal world, free of any unfairness.

A below average read, I think I am done with Frederick Forsyth for now.


Monday, December 30, 2013

75. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Love gone wrong!

A delightful read. It is difficult to not like a book like this one, with all its twists and turns, even if not perfectly executed. It reads like a Spy novel, with the exception being, there are no government conspiracies, and well, there are no spies. This book is funny where it needs to be, tragic at time, and devious almost all the times. No complaints about the writing style either, very readable, and the author does quite a good job keeping the different versions of the story separate. This is a decently long read and just when one starts to get bored, Bam! comes a twist! The first of those twists, there is no way I could have seen it coming, and neither would I am sure the majority of readers, unless they are warned of it. And no, my last statement doesn't constitute that warning.

Now for the few negatives with the otherwise, did I say delightful? read. Remember when I said, *just when one starts to get bored*, well, make it *a little time after the reader has started to get bored* - point being, the aforementioned twists could have been timed better. There is also a bit of redundancy, some of the sub-plots, the book could have done very well without; a more compact book would have definitely got more pointers from me. 


Sunday, December 29, 2013

74. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Outrageous! Shocking! Powerful! Scary! 

I believe the true role of a Dystopian book is to show us, warn us, as to what could the end result of our actions be? A timely warning to amend our ways. As if the "Big Brother is watching you" hasn't already come true in many countries, with the exception being, you don't even know that you are being watched! This book tells us how the feminism and conservatism, two seemingly opposite extremes, wittingly or otherwise, working towards the same goal of creating a world of female oppression. Extremism in any cause, no matter how righteous from the perpetrator's point of view, would always result in casualties, not always of the opposing side, not always caused by the opposing side. This has always been my problem with a lot many of the feminist advocates - yes, there are problems, issues, that demand attention, circumstances, that demand rectification, and yes, sometimes, only by taking extreme stands can you invite attention and hopefully action to such causes. And yet this very extremism, alienates people; the agenda can hurt the cause. The world in itself is unfair, unjust, and has always been so, probably more in earlier times than now. The rights for the different wings of society have improved; that they can be and have to be equalised further is not even a question in consideration, but the modalities are.

I am an optimist when it comes to equal rights for men and women. Not too long ago, the only job a woman could do in a corporate world, was that of a secretary or typists / stenos. While we still don't have enough women CEOs or Board Members or executives, while the glass ceiling still remains a very real issue, a lot of progress has been made on this front. And I don't see any reason why would we not continue to move further ahead.

As much as I was spooked by this book, I really liked the way the book ended, on a note of optimism, in which it is shown that the world manages to get past that phase, and the future generations study it, as an errant, diseased state, which has since then been cured. And yes, all the rambling in the above paragraphs (and a couple of more paragraphs which I have since deleted) was caused as a direct effect to the powerful and thought provoking work, that is The Handmaid's Tale.


Friday, December 27, 2013

73. In Fed We Trust by David Wessel

Borrowed from a friend, this one was quite an unlikely read for me. My finance background generally makes me too vary of books written about an event, with the perfect gift of hindsight. Too many articles occupy my browser and mail space, inspecting, dissecting and criticising every decision made by the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, the Securities Regulator, other Financial or Regulatory bodies including the Stock Exchanges themselves. Some of such criticisms and doomsday scenario do occasionally come true, but on the virtue of a broken clock being right twice in a day, than anything else. It would perhaps be prudent to put a disclaimer here declaring myself to be part of this ecosystem.

Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I read this book, half expecting it to be a blind bashing of every decision the Fed did make in the period 2007-10, a bad period for us finance professionals, my entry into the corporate world itself being ill-timed following this great meltdown. Many of such fears were greatly misplaced though, if anything, David Wessel has celebrated Bernanke in his work; you see, criticising a financial decision maker is too easy and infinitely more tempting that giving credit for a job well done.

The book carefully takes us through the years, giving us a glimpse of the Greenspan era, the appointment of Bernanke himself, and then the roller-coaster ride of the sub-prime crises, the events leading upto Lehmann, the events post Lehmann, the curious cases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the reorganisation of the entire Investment Banking sectors, as we knew it. The book also took me through the world of multiple regulators in US and how financial institutions go cherry-picking for the most lenient one, a problem acutely faced in India, and a problem I fear will only worsen till fixed.

The book recognises and evaluates Bernanke, the Academician, using theories learnt from his lifelong study of the Great Depression, experimenting with all the tools available with the Fed, creatively creating a few new ones, when the old ones didn't seem to be up to the task.

Personally, I have and have had mixed feelings about the way the Panic was handled. While fully appreciating that the steps taken by Bernanke and his team were critical and absolutely necessary, I remain unconvinced if the Moral Hazard issue couldn't have been handled better. While I do believe that saving those banks from bankruptcy was critical, whether protecting shareholders' value and golden parachutes for the executives should have been part of the deal, well, I remain unconvinced.

The book touched upon many things I knew, many more that I thought I knew and exposed me to even more things I didn't.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

72. Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is Book 2 in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. A slow paced book, with period of action and excitement sprinkled in between. In this book, there are a host of new characters and only few of the ones from Book 1. We also follow a bunch of stories based on those characters, set presumably in the same time frame - some of those stories and chracters converge within the book, others I believe are left for another day. In this book, we don't get to meet the mighty Anomander Rake, but there is a new, mighty character to meet and follow, over extended periods. And finally we catch a glimpse, a hint, a shadow, of the legendary Empress. 

The plot is still devoid of simplicities like Good Vs. Evil, and at best we pick our champions on a fight per fight basis, regardless of his/her affiliations. There is drama, there is politics, but less bouts of awesomeness, as were evident in Book 1. There is some bloodbath, but a surprising less slaying of major characters, Erikson seems to protect his characters, fatten them up for the impending showdown (I think), very un-Martinish in that. Which style is superior, we will leave that question for another day.

A worthy sequel, a book that is still setting up the series, building up the world, creating and fleshing out the characters. I will take up the next book book, perhaps after a short break of couple of months, given my relatively busy reading schedule in quarter 1 next year, more on that latter.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

71. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

A Classic. One of the most pathbreaking books of all times. A book, which took me a little over a year to finish. "The" discourse on Evolution, the world of Darwin, which all of us are familiar with, we grew up in, with little understood or completely misunderstood and misused idioms like "Survival of the Fittest", which Darwin, interestingly attributes to Herbert Spencer.

I am sure everyone reading this review knows what the book would generally be about, and therefore, I would like to discuss some other features, which struck me. The book has a strong defensive undercurrent, through which Darwin at times is more concerned with defending his position than asserting his viewpoint. Darwin's tone, at places, where there is little proof to propagate his theory, is almost apologetic. Then he writes that many naturalists have come to terms with natural selection, while ridiculing others, who may still believe in independent creation of species.

Another most interesting observation was the glaring and most obvious absence of any definitive statement on the evolution of humans - a clear indication on Darwin's lack of willingness to rake up such a sensitive issue, his work being controversial enough as it already was. He touches upon this topic most superficially, carefully sandwiched in a para about Herbert Spencer and human psychology, "In the future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be securely based on the foundation already well laid by Mr. Herbert Spencer, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Darwin revisited this topic 12 years later, in his The Descent of Man, by which time, the populace probably had enough time to digest and accept the basic tenets of evolution.

A timeless book, even if now dated.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

70. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Based in South Africa, this is one of those rare books with no likeable characters, "not likeable" being a relatively mild term for the host of feelings most of these characters induce. The characters in this book are so disjointed from anything that I could empathise with, sympathise with, or even mildly relate to, that most of the time I spent reading this book was like watching one of those really weird cartoons and not being able to look away.

This book challenges all the moral boundaries, and then some more. There is hardly a thought, a line of argument I could agree with. Be it, "How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask." comment in one of the opening pages where the protagonist questions the right of a prostitute to hold an opinion against public beaches, or one of the many he comes up with in the course of the book. A morally bankrupt character, shrouded in a veil of artistic pageantry, faux sophistication; a conjurer of expressions - I am now reasonably sure, we weren't meant to like him. But I couldn't like any of the other characters either - Lucy, Melanie, Bev Shaw, Petrus or any of the other minor characters, with the possible exception of Rosalind and Mr. Isaacs. In more ways than one, this book is more depraved in thoughts, if not deeds, to the very infamous, and brilliant, Lolita. There is no repentance, even as there is some understanding of his deeds, after his stay with his daughter and all the events that transpire.

For a major part of the book, and the belief hasn't disappeared even as I write this review after a good couple of weeks since reading the book, I have thought if the author is screwing with us, trapped in his perverse fantasy world. I believe I would know better once I read some of his other books, which I fully intend to do.

Coetzee's writing is poetical, lyrical, with the odd quality of not making you feel for any character, no matter how tragic their life story, revisit the weird cartoon reference. I can hardly remember being so detached from a book and yet unable to put it down. There is a not so subtle, undercurrent of the social and legal system in the then existing South Africa.

Hate the characters as much as I did, I couldn't hate the book.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

69. The Tainted Throne: Empire of the Moghul - Alex Rutherford

This book, if my calculations are not wrong, marks my 500th read since I started logging my reads in the year 2005.

Book 4 in the Empire of the Moghul series -  a lot of Jahangir (son of Akbar), his wife Mehrunissa ( quite a fascinating character in itself) and the young and an energetic prince turned king, Khurram (aka Shahjahan). As fascinating as the author seemed to have found the shadow rule of the Empress Mehrunissa, I found the details trivial, petty and lack of any novelty. Indian mythology and literature is full of examples of instance of such shadow queen rulers, who have made or influence historic decisions on behalf of or through the king. For me, the book still was a source of much information and enjoyment, as the lives of the last two Mughal rulers, who are looked upon benignly in India, is outlined, even if the focus is mostly on the battles, rebellions, family bickering and less on governance and other associated issues.

This book, also follows, among other sources, the writings of Sir Thomas Roe, who spent some time in the court of Jahangir, and we can trace the origin of the East India Company's advent into India, though this point has not been covered in much detail in the book.

One can see the mellowing down of the rulers, the settling down in the country they conquered. There is a lot less bloodshed (apart from the family feuds) and a lot more construction. The situation reminded me of a quote a from one of my favourite reads this year, Day Watch, "The third generation, that was what the analysts said. You had to wait until the third generation. The grandson of this bandit who had got rich and somehow managed to stay alive would be a thoroughly decent man." Now, the Moghuls weren't exactly bandits, but they did originate as a consortium of barbarous tribal armies - where the fighting was done with the sole intention of booty and the tribes had a habit of slinking away back to their native land when the land grew too peaceful or if they backed the weaker guy as the ruler.

The moghuls, also have been portrayed as largely liberal and tolerant when it came to religion, curious as to the other religions and customs of the world, if only to revel in their own superiority and devoted to architecture and astronomy (part astrology, part astronomy actually), the latter science being enjoyed in the company of wine, marijuana and other potent drugs.

So far we haven't witnessed any instances of cruelty towards the populace in general, no exorbitant taxations, no cracking down on rival religions, it will all change in the next book, perhaps, as Shahjahan makes way for Aurangzeb.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

68. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Dare I say it, dare I rate it, with a month still left in the year, as my read of the year? There have been few contenders this year, and I have generally refrained from making absolute statements like these, I have tried to take the easier way out these last two years, by rating my Top 5 reads of the year rather than an absolute 1 or 3. I will take my chances, I will bear the consequences, the shame of editions in my thread, my blog, my review, and declare this one to be the winner, an absolute read, a work of perfection.

I exaggerate perhaps, and yet sometimes hyperbole is the best figure of speech to come near the true magnitude of the event, its worth to the singer of an ode, not always an absolute measure, and yet more relevant to the cause.

This was a book about nothing really, an old man with a stump sitting all day in a wheelchair, reading letters and correspondences of and belonging to his grandmother, tracking, plotting, jotting, piecing together her life events, adding a missing piece or two out of his own imagination, creating a biography no one would perhaps read, not even his own son. One cannot probably come up with a duller story, a theme so bankrupt in drama, that it would be a chore to read a 50 pages worth of short story, let alone a full work of 569 pages. Well, apart from the fact that it wasn't...

The story tracks the life of a cultured lady, a lady of art, of creation, travelling across the barren acres of the wild wild west, a life away from what she was accustomed to, away from whoever she held near and dear, away from the accomplishments and accolades she could have gained, the pleasures and experiences she forsook, in her free will, an action which would cause her lifelong misery and bitterness. In the background is the equally shattered life of her grandson, her biographer, in some ways set in his ideas as much as his grandmother, in others, even more so. A moralist of sorts, instinctive to judge, headstrong, unforgiving, disappointed father, heartbroken husband, proud son, prouder grandson.

There are probably a dozen other characters, some short, others shorter and amazingly, they are all fleshed out. The screen time, the page length, not withstanding. We know those characters more intimately than protagonists of tomes. The power of the written word, good writing, excellent writing!

This one was a strong recommendation from my Classics buddy, Mac, and I am so glad, so very glad, that I took up his suggestion, late by over a year, better than never.


Monday, December 9, 2013

67. Accidental Apprentice by Vikas Swarup

And quite accidentally did I read a book from the Slumdog Millionaire famed Vikas Swarup. I am always skeptic picking up a book by any Indian author or about India in general; the former for the fear of being badly written (I know that sounds kind of racist, but in my experience that often turns out to be the case) and the latter for generally playing to the stereotypes (regardless of the author being Indian or not).

Hence I was pleasantly surprised when I came across this book, which suffered from neither of the two flaws mentioned here-in-above, it was fast-paced, action filled (not the violent kind, generally), quite the page turner. 

"Why only a 3* then?", the curious may ask. Well, for one, it was too dramatic! It would require a complete denial of the laws of probability to accept this book, even in the loose world of fiction. Everything that is possible in this world, is experienced by the protagonist, and all within the space of a year. Even Rand in Wheel of Time series saw less excitement, his Ta'veren status not withstanding! (The seemingly random reference to the Wheel of Time series will become clear, come the next paragraph.)

Over a casual discussion about this book in a cafe, a business and now personal acquaintance of mine, on hearing my objections with regard to the realism of the book, raised a very pertinent question, "But you read Sci-Fi, don't you?" I told her that a well written Sci-Fi or Fantasy book is almost always logically consistent, the amount of details that go into the world building is beyond what a book like this one can hope to achieve. To her credit, she grasped this point immediately, instinctively even, despite her not being a reader of either of these two genres.

The second shortcoming, if I may be allowed to call it that, was the shallow development of characters of all, but the protagonist. Swarup barely scratched the surface of all his characters, showcasing only the superficial of traits in each of them.

It is obvious that Swarup is one of those rare Indian authors who can write some really good stuff, but given the massive fame he has already accumulated, I am not too optimistic about him changing / moderating his writing style.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

66. Daisy Miller, and other Stories by Henry James

Image: Librarything

This was my first dalliance with Henry James; a short story collection, in my experience not the best way to sample an author, I have been known to not be blown away by short stories written even by my favourite authors. Happily (for me), such was not the case this time around. Henry James made me feel for the characters, even in the space of his short stories, no mean feat that one! This particular edition listed the following four short stories:-

1. Daisy Miller
2. Four Meetings
3. Longstaff's Marriage
4. Benvolio

I had considered and dismissed the notion of writing a few lines for each of the four short stories, but it didn't seem possible to do justice to any of them without dropping spoilers or outlining the storyline, and I hate to do either of them by myself, or for it to be done to me by someone else.

And so I ended up writing two very short paragraphs (sentences?) scratching the surface to let the reader decide if this would be something s/he would be interested in. If they wanted to read a summary, they would go to Cliff Notes, right?

So anyways, there is one common thread  that runs across the stories; that being that all the characters are caricatures of sorts, surreal, exaggerated to make a point; and yet they don't seem out of place in those stories; Be it the freshness of Daisy Miller, the naivety of Caroline Spencer, the absurdness of the Longstaff or the ridiculousness of Benvalio; they all gel together in the end.

All the stories were so wonderfully poetic, romantic, tragic, and it makes me more than a little curious, how his lengthier works (generally my bread, butter and dessert) span out. I have also picked up my next Henry James work, The Portrait of a Lady.