Short Book Review: A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

SBR: Sue Grafton is famous for her “alphabet series” of detective novels. But I got introduced to her only with the news of her death last year (because of which the “Z” novel of the series will never be written now). A is for Alibi is, predictably, the first one of the series. The protagonist of the series is a female private detective, which is refreshing for the genre. The story is fairly interesting and has enough deaths and twists and turns to keep you interested. Some plot points are unbelievable (like the initial conviction for the murder being investigated), but I don’t bother much with them. This is a genre I read for entertainment. I would have liked to know a bit more about our good detective though. There was very little in this one. But I am hoping that more about the character will be revealed in the other books of the series.
To read or not to read: Yes, if you are looking for an entertaining read and detective fiction is your genre.

Book Recommendation: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

Whether it makes you feel rambunctious, resigned or resentful, the reality is that in the modern world the only perspective on history, political discourse as well as moral imperatives that commands legitimacy has been the western one. The reason for that is not profound or surprising. It is the old story of history being written by the victors. And despite the decolonization in the 20th century and waxing and waning fortunes of individual nations, the West, as a whole, has managed to remain powerful in the world order. So has their perspective. The resentful attempts at reverting this intellectual domination shoot themselves in the foot by failing to distinguish between the message, the messenger, and the method (of arriving at that message). They disparage the message, because it came from the western messenger, and as far as the method is concerned, who cares? At least in India, we have known everything since Vedic times. These attempts also tend to be very narrow in their outlook. Their wet dream would be to replace the western domination of ideas with their own. It isn’t aimed at exploring and accepting multiple different perspectives before trying to come up with a universal theory if one is at all possible. At their core, these attempts are defensive and expose deep-seated insecurity and inferiority complex.

In this context From the Ruins of Empire is an important book.

It is Important because it challenges the western perspective by using the methods that have legitimacy in the modern world (you can call them “western” if you will). The result is a book that isn’t marred by defensiveness or any kind of inferiority or superiority complex. It doesn’t feel the need to achieve an outright victory for an alternate perspective, but it goes out and states the perspective boldly.

As far as the content is concerned, the book follows the history of Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which first saw its subjugation by Europe and then independence in one form or the other. But more importantly, it traces the evolution of Asian thought through the period. Here we see the birth, evolution, struggles, contradictions, adaptations, appropriations and suppression of ideas like Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, value of Confucianism or ancient Indian thoughts, Islamic Revival and others which played an important role in resistance to the West. Many of these don’t get enough attention in the conventional narratives. Even in the Asian countries themselves. In India, for example, the desperate need of nation-building after independence has led to a flattening of the history – the creation of a simplified story starring bad foreigners and good freedom fighters. The inconvenient and nuanced thoughts, even when native, are suppressed or completely removed. We sing Tagore’s national anthem but do not know the apprehensions he had about nation states. The West has, of course, done its own whitewashing. By bringing all that out this books gives the various non-western perspective of history strong legs to stand on. Western intellect has not given us all the answers we need. At the same time, bravely, this book recognizes that the alternate perspective doesn’t really give all the answers the modern world needs either. The following quote is an important one:

The rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.

Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future.

It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

We need more books like these, covering more aspects of history, politics, economy, and morality of it all.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

Viewed in the West as a time of self-confident progress, the Victorian period was experienced by Asians as a catastrophe. As the British gunned down the last heirs to the Mughal Empire or burned down the Summer Palace in Beijing, it was clear that for Asia to recover a new way of thinking was needed. Pankaj Mishra re-tells the history of the past two centuries, showing how a remarkable, disparate group of thinkers, journalists, radicals and charismatics emerged from the ruins of empire to create an unstoppable Asian renaissance, one whose ideas lie behind everything from the Chinese Communist Party to the Muslim Brotherhood, and have made our world what it is today.

Purchase Links

Other Books by the Author

I haven’t read any other books by the author, but here is a list on his wikipedia page. Many of them have received great acclaim.

 

 

Short Book Review: Post Mortem by Peter Terrin

SBR: When a writer decides to write a novel about a writer who, in turn, writes a novel about a writer, it shouldn’t be surprising that you get a book with rich, imaginative language, but self-indulgent content. There is a father struggling with a sad tragedy in his beloved daughter’s life. But if the reader was supposed to feel connected, that just doesn’t happen. There are a novelist and a biographer with their own journeys, but in the end, I felt like I didn’t care for any of it. It’s not about not liking the characters, it’s about feeling rather indifferent towards them and bored with their story.
Peter Terrin is a Belgian writer. Post Mortem was originally written in Dutch. The English translation is pretty good.
To read or not to read: No. Unless you like navel-gazing novels.

Short Book Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

SBR: In the second decade of the twenty-first century, sitting in the thoroughly modern Indian city of Bangalore, the cares and concerns and games of British elites and social climbers of the early nineteenth century, even in their earnest, read like satire. Vanity Fair happens to be a satirical look at that society written in the middle of that century itself. Hence, reading it is not particularly an eye-opener. But it is a reminder of how we also live in our own Vanity Fair. The fashions and languages and vogues may change, but Vanity Fair remains. It is a well-known and acclaimed classic and justifiably so. Be warned, though, it is fairly long (and was originally published as a serial).
To read or not to read: Yes, if you are a reader of classics. Otherwise, don’t bother pushing it on the top of your to-read list. You can peruse it at your leisure if you so fancy!

Short Book Review: An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

SBR: I landed on An Infamous Army while searching for more books based in Belgium. Since it is described as a Historical Romance set in the days leading up to and during the battle of Waterloo, it seemed like the perfect light read to get a hang of the history of the time. In reality, though, there is little romance in the book. It does have a lot of history, well-researched and very detailed. The account of military strategies, war actions, battle formations, and real people and events are so detailed that I couldn’t make any head or tail of any of it! Although I could make very little use of it, those details are the real beauty of the book.
To read or not to read: Not for romance. And history is not for the light-hearted dabblers in the subject either. If you are deep into military strategies, tactics, and history, however, you should lap it up.

Short Book Review: On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

SBR: I found On Black Sisters’ Street while looking for books based in Belgium. The book is based more in Africa though. We see Belgium as the book’s African women do. These women are trying to negotiate their lives as illegal immigrants involved in sex work. What is interesting is that the book isn’t trying to arouse your pity for them. They are very often helpless and penniless. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency. They do, and they exercise it even in choosing the sex work. The writing itself is not particularly memorable, however. The chronological back and forth seems random, and the mystery being built up through the book turns out to be the most predictable thing ever.
To read or not to read: If you want to explore the subjects of human trafficking or prostitution then go ahead and read. Otherwise, the answer is not a resounding yes. It can be skipped.

Short Book Review: A History of Cambodia by David P. Chandler

SBR: My luck with reading histories continued as I started reading A History of Cambodia by David P. Chandler. Like A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins that I read earlier, this book about Cambodia was just suitable for my purpose. The purpose was to get an overall introduction to the history of the country in a readable language and within a reasonable length of the text. I should have read it before our Cambodia trip a year and a half ago. But we acquired this book only in Cambodia and after returning back, it kept getting pushed down the to-read pile. But it resurfaced finally, and I am glad it did. Like other books of this type, this also devotes a large amount of space to modern history. But in Cambodia’s case, I am not complaining, because it is a history that is still playing out and it helped put a lot of what we saw there in context.
To read or not to read: Yes – as a good starting point for or as a quick overview of Cambodian history.

Short Book Review: A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins

SBR: Unlike in case of Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the book I picked up to get an overview of French history turned out to be suitable for this purpose. A Brief History of France is readable with clear chronology and just the right amount of information. If you are not familiar with European history in general, you would have to do an Internet search once in a while for related events or people. But that is bound to happen while reading any book on history. There is no way an author can account for what all their readers do or do not know already. Don’t expect thoroughness, but everything major seems to have been covered. It does lean a bit too heavily towards modern history and compresses the ancient one too much. But that is a minor complain when the aim to get a quick and brief overview.
To read or not to read: Yes – as a good starting point for or as a quick overview of French history.

Short Book Review: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

SBR: Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of its characters through Sri Lankan civil war. It is the kind of novel that you read to understand the war, not for its politics, but for the people it comes from and affects. The prose is beautiful, and a lot of research has been done before writing the book. Still it was painfully obvious to me that it has been written by someone who has watched things from afar.  The autobiographical protagonist is also, therefore, not in the middle of things and dealing more with her experience of immigration than with the war. The other protagonist who is in the war doesn’t feel as real. She is well researched. But that results in a beautiful portrait rather than a real young woman. She is also introduced a little too late. Overall, though, the book conveys its point. The reality and the futility of war and how there are no heroes and villains, no real winners.
To read or not to read: You can read at leisure. No need to move it to the top of your reading pile unless you are specifically reading books from/about Sri Lanka.

Short Book Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

SBR: An acclaimed book by an acclaimed author that I can’t make up my mind about. Disgrace is about an aging professor who sexually exploits a young student, and is written from his point of view. It is no Lolita, but his point of view is also easy to succumb to. This theme of violence against women is repeated in the story, but I don’t know to what purpose. Women’s voices are eerily missing, even when in the second case it seems like the woman is exercising some kind of agency. Is it a way to draw attention to the issue? Or is it the insensitivity of the privileged, male narration? I have no clue. There is politics in the book, racial dynamics, animal rights and perhaps some philosophy – even if not neat – to bind it all together. I don’t see it though. If the central character is supposed to find his redemption in his utter and final disgrace, that’s utterly distasteful to me. It would be fine if I felt that the book is open to interpretation. But somehow I get a feeling that the author is making a very specific point. But God knows what that is though.
To read or not to read: Not based on how I felt about the book. But the reviews are raving, so perhaps you want to read and decide for yourself.