Short Book Review: The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The History of Western PhilosophySBR: Reading this book is a great way to get introduced to the gamut of philosophical thoughts and tradition in the west starting from ancient Greeks to the beginning of twentieth century. What really works is that the author doesn’t feel the need to treat philosophy or philosophers with reverence just for being ancient or famous. He takes us on a journey of understanding and is ruthless in the pursuit. If that means that even the powerful people and ideas of past do not make sense to a modern mind, then they just do not. There is no need to be defensive about it.
Russell is also generous with his opinions, analysis and critique of the philosophers. Because it is clear at most places from the text when he is just narrating the philosophical thought in question and when he is offering his own opinions, it works well. For a novice, modern reader of philosophy, it is important to see those opinions in order to make sense of the ancient and obscure stuff.
Although condensing centuries of philosophical though in one book, even at over eight hundred pages, means that the treatment cannot be exhaustive or most scholarly, this isn’t necessarily a “for dummies” book. Most of the material of the book comes from a series of lecture the author gave, and it seems to talk to the fellow philosophers more than the lay readers.
The chapters of Bergson and Dewey didn’t work for me. They were the contemporaries of the author, and he seemed to have set the detachment of the historical chronicler aside in those chapters. The contemporary rivalries or exchanges dominate there. I needed to go elsewhere to understand what these philosophers really said.
To read or not to read: If you want to start delving into western philosophy, you should pick up this book sometime sooner than later. It might help to have read something beforehand. Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a very accessible and readable work, worked as a good starting point for me. I picked up Russell after reading that. If you are also just starting on the subject like me, this is the sequence you can follow too. Even then keep Wikipedia, Google search and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy handy for the unfamiliar references that would invariably pop up. (It’s kind of funny that Russell is covered in Durant’s book. Historian becoming a subject of another history!)

Short Book Review: Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

PayItForwardSBR: I picked up this book because I watched the movie and then wondered if the book was less sappy and contrived. The book is definitely more gritty with its characters and situations, but I am afraid it turned out to be even more sappy and contrived than the movie. Despite some inconsistencies in the movie, this is one of those cases where movie is better for the changes it has made.
To read or not to read: Watch the feel-good movie, if you are into those. Skip the book.

Short Book Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa

Cutting Through Spiritial MaterialismSBR: I am happy to see this phrase “spiritual materialism” coined and acknowledged, that too by an insider. Spiritual journey isn’t about accumulating “spiritual achievements” or about basking in the glory of your efforts and sacrifices.  If you are feeling smug and proud of your spiritual journey, it is time to step back. You might be feeding your ego, instead of transcending it.
The author does a very good job of ruthlessly telling us what spiritualism is not – that is most of what we see around us! When it comes to describing what it is though, things become vague. His descriptions are rich. But that doesn’t necessarily makes it graspable. This is not something I have a quarrel with. From what he says, and from what I intuitively feel, you cannot actually describe spiritual experiences in words. Why even try it is my question.
It is also disconcerting that after saying all that he did in this book, he was still a part of a big spiritual establishment and a “spiritual entrepreneur”, if I can coin a phrase too.
To read or not to read: If you are on or embarking on a formal spiritual journey, especially by joining an organization or following a guru, you should read it to keep your smugness and expectations in check.

Short Book Review: Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy by Pt. Rajmani Tigunait

Seven Systems Of Indian PhilosophySBR: Why can’t we Indians write about ourselves dispassionately and objectively? Why can’t it be about studying our history or philosophy for the sake of understanding and not for glorification? Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy was good enough in explaining the seven systems it covers in simple words. But wherever the author ventured into his opinions, justifications and (shallow, offhand, but confident and patronizing) comparisons with western philosophy, I felt like tearing my hair out. Okay – I will try to forget those parts. At least I got to know that treating rituals as ultimate duty, the way of life I have grown up with, is the outcome of one specific system of Indian philosophy – Mimansa.
 To read or not to read: This book is much shorter (and simpler and less comprehensive) than the much recommended two-volumes from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. I am yet to read that one, since I wanted something quicker before delving deeper. If you either like justifying and glorifying everything Indian, or can ignore it, then read this book for a quick and simple introduction to the seven (selected) systems of Indian philosophy.  But If the glorification and justification bothers you too much, or you are prone to getting influenced by whatever is written, unable to ignore unfounded opinions, wait till I find something better on the subject.

Short Book Review: The Extras by Kiran Nagarkar

The ExtrasSBR: Although I am a die-hard fan of the author, this book just doesn’t work. It is the sequel of brilliant and hilarious Ravan And Eddie. The former was absurd, funny and hard-hitting, as it traced the childhood of two boys residing in the same chawl in Mumbai but separated by their floors, religion and ‘family feud’! The Extras takes us into their adulthood, but fails to keep up the absurdity quotient and jarringly alternates between being bawdy plus funny and being overly reflective plus serious, the latter becoming more common as the book progresses. I like what the author has to say about the life, the movies, (the) God and everything else well enough. But he thrusts his thoughts in the mouths of characters and in the situations where they don’t fit. The tone of the book has become a confused mish-mash of the two earlier brilliant books by him – the first being the already mentioned prequel Ravan and Eddie and the second the expansive saga called God’s Little Soldier.

To read or not to read: Read Ravan and Eddie. This book can be skipped. Or for completely different works of genius from the same author, read Cuckold or God’s Little Soldier.

Short Book Review: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling)

Career of EvilSBR: When you have a detective with turbulent enough a past that he can think of four different people who would be up to sending him a severed leg, there can be no lack of adventure and thrill in the story. Career of Evil, third book in Cormoran Strike series by J. K. Rowling’s alternate avatar Robert Galbraith, keeps you engrossed as the genre is supposed to do. Her writing is charming as usual. What doesn’t work for me are the chapters narrated from the criminal’s point of view. They contribute to the story well, making you do your own detective work as you the book, but they don’t read like you are in the psychopath’s mind, but like the profiles they create in Criminal Minds. On the other hand, I like the romantic tension between Strike and Robin better than almost any romance novel I have read.
To read or not to read: If you are a mystery/crime genre reader, or a Rowling fan, do read it. If you are neither, this may not be the one book of the genre you need to read.

Short Book Review: Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama

Geek HeresySBR: I was hoping to make Geek Heresy one of my monthly recommendation, but decided against it because the second part annoyed me to the hilt. It was the typical padding material that non-fiction publishers seem compelled to put in a book to reach a certain word-count goal. The first half of the book is a must-read though. It denounces technology, and more generically what it calls packaged intervention, as the ultimate solution to widespread social, political or economic problems. Despite the hoopla around Arab spring, facebook or forced elections can’t establish democracies, not stable, functional ones anyway; computers in schools cannot educate children better; and microfinance cannot magically eliminate poverty. Democracy needs strong institutions and aware citizens; better education needs good teachers and adult supervision; and microfinance needs handholding and training the beneficiaries to enable them to make the best use of credit. It doesn’t mean technology and packaged interventions are not useful though. When exactly are they useful and how is convincingly argued about in the book. Technocrats and bureaucrats will do well to stop looking for silver bullets and easy scale in solutions to hard problems. Creating positive change will continue to require hard work. Technology can help, but it cannot be an alternative to human factors.
To read or not to read: You must read it if you work in the social sector – for-profit or otherwise. The first part is also a must-read for others, especially if you are a blind devotee of technology as the ultimate solution to everything.  If you aren’t a hopeless case, it might open your eyes. You should also read if you are a complete technology skeptic. Because you need to know where exactly technology can be of real help. Then start reading the second part. If you find the first few pages pointless, you can safely skip the rest. Else read on and finish the book.

Short Book Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

Lonesome DoveSBR: Lonesome Dove was recommended to me by a voracious western (genre) reader. “If you read only one western book, read this one,” he (and some major newspaper reviewer) said. I have not read any other western, but I am inclined to believe that they are right in their recommendation. Bar shootings, cattle herding and cowboy hats aside, the (often raw and crude) emotional journey of the characters makes you ache. McMurtry predates and rivals Geroge R R Martin in killing off characters. There is much hardship, death, pain, unfulfilled longings and adversities. But life goes on, bitter and sweet at the same time. As the wittiest and most talkative character aptly puts it “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.”
To read or not to read: If you read only one western book, read this one 🙂

Short Book Review: The Folded Earth by Anuradha Rao

The Folded EarthSBR: The descriptions are charming in The Folded Earth and the emotions draw you in. But the secrets revealed towards the end are predictable and the climax doesn’t work for me. The creation of the villain in the story is forced. It’s narrative one-sided, but conclusive. The attempt at non-linear narrative once in a while is jarring and doesn’t make sense.
To read or not to read: The author’s first book An Atlas of Impossible Longing was praise more equivocally. I think I should have read that book first. That’s what I’d recommend doing. Then, if you really like the writer, you can read this one as well.

Short Book Review: Solo by Rana Dasgupta

SoloSBR: One one hand there are the books like Doctor Zhivago or Half of a Yellow Sun. While reading them, I almost lived the lives of the protagonists through some historical moments. For me those moments will never again be what history books or wikipedia articles dryly tell me they are. They are now defined by the individual, human experiences the books me experience.

On the other hand there is a book like The Orphan Master’s Son. While reading it I was constantly frustrated by the feeling that it is an outsider imagining the story and I am not hearing the genuine voice of the characters, much less live their lives.
The experience of reading the first part of Solo falls somewhere in between. It feels real enough, not artificial. But it gives only a bird’s eye view of the protagonist’s erratic life as well as Bulgaria’s chequered history. You don’t really feel the moments. It is not a shortcoming of the book though. Because the story is in the form of reminiscences of an almost centenarian man (who has lived in Bulgaria through the upheavals of 20th century). When you are recalling people and events from long back, you do tend to remember things as blocks of time, not individual moments. It happens to our own memory too. We often have an overall feeling about our stay at a certain place, or the years spent in a particular school, and an overall story to go with it, which started with situation A and ended with situation B with xyz feeling in between. That’s what those reminiscences read like. I think it is captured very well in the book.
The second part of the book is what makes it strange, as even Salman Rushdie’s blurb call it. It starts off like a different story, and then inexplicable parallels with the first story start surfacing. Ultimately the parallels are explained well enough. But the story of the second part doesn’t feel right after that explanation.
To read or not to read:  It might not leave you awed, but it is a good experimental read.