Short Book Review: Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Stand Out of Our Light by James WilliamsSBR: I picked up this book because it won the inaugural The Nine Dots Prize whose mailing list I was on. Stand Out of Our Light questions what Silicon Valley driven technology is doing to us, how it is affecting our attention and engagement, and whether it is really helping us pursue the goals we want to pursue. It pushes the discussion around technology beyond the realms of economics and techno-utopia Silicon Valley sometimes seems to fantasize about. Yet, it isn’t just a nostalgic whining.

The book is important, although not necessarily earth-shattering. It wasn’t really an eye-opener for me. Although it can be so to someone too enamored with and too sold on Silicon Valley dreams.

To read or not to read: If you are a Silicon Valley fanboy (or girl), or if you aren’t, but are struggling to articulate what’s wrong with it, you can try this book. The eBook is available for free [PDF]! Otherwise, no harm in skipping it.

Short Book Review: Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay

SBR: Those Days is the English translation of the Bengali historical fiction Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay. It is set in 19th century Bengal, and follows the lives of Bengal elites, acting as a faithful recorder of their customs and lifestyles, their often self-contradictory intellectual journeys, their patchy, fumbling attempts at reforms and also at reinventing or reimagining the past, and their fictionalized, but relatable lives rooted in historical understanding of the society. Many known historical characters like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Dwarkanath Tagore, Debendranath Tagore making an appearance in flesh and blood adds to the appeal. It is one of those rare historical fictions that get history as well as fiction right.

To read or not to read: Yes. It’s a fine specimen of good historical fiction.

Short Book Review: Kama’s Last Sutra by Trisha Das

SBR: Kama’s Last Sutra is an interesting experiment, where a 21st-century archeologist working in Khajuraho time travels to the 11th-century kingdom ruled by the king who had built what is supposedly the best-known temple today in Khajuraho. It is an interesting tale. Educating you on history, while entertaining you through its characters.

A few things didn’t work for me, however. One, its feminism was rather surfacy and showy.  Two, whatever our time-traveling character did in the story, it didn’t need a 21st-century character in the 11th century. A contemporary character could have done that. So, the time-travel is just a ploy to get to what the author really wanted to write about. I would have preferred it to be more integral to the story.

These and a few other things I noticed from time to time gave a very documentary-like feel to the book. That might be the result of the documentary film-making background of the writer. Documentary films are alright, but by the nature of the medium, they can’t be as nuanced and substantive as a book can be. I would have liked the story to make the best use of the medium it chose – that of a book.

To read or not to read: You can read for the history or for a hot modernish love story set in the 11th-century. But I am not asking you to leave anything else to grab this.

Short Book Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

SBR: Lethal White is the fourth one in the J. K. Rowling’s Coromoran Strike series that follows the exploits of its protagonist, a private investigator, and his assistant Robin Ellacott through some complex, high-profile cases. This is perhaps the best book in the series. It is long but didn’t feel so. Besides, on Kindle, you can’t “see” the length. A wide assortment of characters keeps the story lively. And the turns in the personal lives of Cormoran and Robin give a glimmer of romantic hope amidst the moral decrepitude, treachery, and murders that their professional lives necessarily wrangle with. People who don’t like books with too many characters to keep track of might find this overwhelming. But a large number of characters works for me when done right.

To read or not to read: Yes. If you are mystery reader or Rowling fan, then don’t give it a miss. Even otherwise Rowling’s writing is always charming.

Short Book Review: The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker

SBR: The Dark Vineyard is the second book in the Bruno, Chief of Police series. Like the first one, this is also set in the Dordogne region of South West France. The crime being investigated starts with a fire, likely to be a case of arson, and escalates only later in the book. The resolution of the mystery was, to be honest, underwhelming for me, but you can get drawn into the comfortable existence of a small town and its close-knit community. The stories of some of the recurring characters progress further and I found myself totally caring about those everyday stories. In what seems to be a pattern (if two books can define a pattern!) the crimes involved may shock the community, but their resolution do not seem to disturb it. And as the protagonist seems to care about the community’s well-being above the letter of the law, that is perhaps a desirable outcome. Will it make the crime and mystery part of the future books boring? I will know when I read the next one!

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are into this genre for entertainment.

Short Book Review: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu

SBR: The Birth of the Maitreya is the English translation of a book by Bani Basu which is considered a modern Bengali classic. But I didn’t really like the book. I went through it because I want to learn more about the different period of India history, and I like historical fiction as a vehicle. Set in the time of Buddha and tracing the politics and intrigues of the different Indian kingdoms of the time, especially Bimbisara’s Magadha and Prasenjit’s Kosala with a dash of Takshashila and Avanti, the book’s canvas and the complexities it attempts of tackle are admirable. But the characters are confused mix of traits, motivations, and stages of mental development; and the descriptions of the courts, bazaars, people’s wealth and social settings appear to be an appeal to our fantasies more than an attempt to recreate realistic history. Modern concerns of nationalism, feminism, tribal issues, science have been unabashedly spouted by characters situated in a very different era. Discussion of timeless or contemporary issues through historical fiction is an admirable goal, but its execution is not easy and the attempt doesn’t succeed in the book.

To read or not to read: No. Unless, like me, you are also on a mission to read everything related to Indian history or historical fiction.

Short Book Review: Europe – A History by Norman Davies

SBR: As the name suggests Europe – A History is a book on European history from the earliest time right up to the 1990s. It is one of the most recommended popular history books on the subject and it assumes that mantle very responsibly. Readable and comprehensive, it avoids one of the most common pitfalls of the popular history books, which devote too much space to modern history – reflecting the abundance of the source material rather than the relative importance of a period. The space devoted to different periods is much more balanced here. The histories of many modern nations of Europe are so intricately connected with each other that reading national histories may not make much sense if you don’t have an idea of the overall history of the continent. A book like this comes in very handy when you hit that wall.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are interested in the subject, i. e. European History.

Short Book Review: The Walled City by Esther David

SBR: The Walled City by Esther David is a coming of age story set around (and mostly after) India’s independence. It is based in the city of Ahmedabad. It is a rare window into the lives of Indian Jews, especially women. That itself should be enough of a reason to give it a try. Its evocative writing is a huge cherry on the top. For those like me, who are unfamiliar with the community, it is also very educative.

To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: Lord John’s Dilemma by G.G. Vandagriff

SBR: My mood was particularly bleak and I didn’t think I could handle anything with even a whiff of the real world in it. Lord John’s Dilemma by G.G. Vandagriff is a romance novel that came in handy. Inspired by and compared to Georgette Heyer’s books, this is a Regency romance and paying due respect to the period, the protagonists do not jump into the bed from the very first page, which is such a relief. It has the feel-good, happy ending you want to read in the genre, where good people get all they deserve, namely money and their chosen life-partner. It tamed my bleak mood sufficiently.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are a romance reader.

Book Recommendation: Aapka Bunty by Mannu Bhandari (आपका बंटी, मन्नू भंडारी)

Once again, I am recommending a Hindi book for which I can’t locate an English translation (See earlier recommendation – Ghumakkad Shashtra by Rahul Sankrityayan). According to Wikipedia, Aapka Bunty by Mannu Bhandari has been translated into many languages, including English. However, I don’t know inside which moth-eaten cupboard those translations are gathering dust. But this is the kind of book that makes being a multilingual reader worth it.

It is the story of Bunty, a young boy in 1970s, dealing with the separation, eventual divorce, and the remarriages of his parents. That such a relevant and contemporary, but controversial and difficult subject was picked up by the writer in Hindi is an achievement by itself. But it is only the first of the many merits of this book.

It is considered a classic study of child psychology. The author, perhaps, had no such academic goals in mind but has succeeded none the less.

The opinion of the author or the stand of the story on the issue of divorce itself is ambiguous. Because although once in a while we are served the mother’s point of view, the story otherwise is seen solely from Bunty’s eyes. And hence the focus is on the child and the world as it takes shape in his head. The result is a story that goes far beyond the description generally used for it: effect of a divorce on a child.  It is a story of the child’s mind itself. And it is a story of how the adults around him absolutely fail to understand that mind. It is the story of the adults who expect mechanical behavior out of children. If you give them a gift, they are supposed to become happy. If you put them in a room with other children, they are supposed to make friends. They are also supposed to immune to everything that is going on in the life of the adults around them, even when it affects them deeply. They are supposed to behave well without ever being given the tools to deal with the changes. The adults will not talk to them because they are children. But their reactions are treated as adult reactions. If they are showering love at you, it is because they understand everything great about you, even though you haven’t thought it necessary to communicate with them. If they are acting out, it is because they want to hurt you, even though they are the helpless, dependent ones in the relationship who would achieve nothing and lose everything if the adults turned their backs of them.

The author shows us what the adults in the story are refusing to look into. No wonder I almost rebelled on Bunty’s behalf as him being a problem child turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I kept screaming: “Talk to him!” By the end of it, it wasn’t a story about the effect of a divorce on a child. It was a story about the adult world refusing to communicate with the children’s world and destroying it in the process. It was the story of any family crisis that can turn a precocious, healthy, intelligent child into a “problem child”.

A must-read story.

Book Description

Below is the description from the book’s cover.

आपका बंटी आपका बंटी मन्नू भंडारी के उन बेजोड़ उपन्यासों में है जिनके बिना न बीसवीं शताब्दी के हिन्दी उपन्यास की बात की जा सकती है न स्त्री-विमर्श को सही धरातल पर समझा जा सकता है। तीस वर्ष पहले (1970 में) लिखा गया यह उपन्यास हिन्दी की लोकप्रिय पुस्तकों की पहली पंक्ति में है। दर्जनों संस्करण और अनुवादों का यह सिलसिला आज भी वैसा ही है जैसा धर्मयुग में पहली बार धारावाहिक के रूप से प्रकाशन के दौरान था।

बच्चे की निगाहों और घायल होती संवेदना की निगाहों से देखी गई परिवार की यह दुनिया एक भयावह दुःस्वप्न बन जाती है। कहना मुश्किल है कि यह कहानी बालक बंटी की है या माँ शकुन की। सभी तो एक-दूसरे में ऐसे उलझे हैं कि एक की त्रासदी सभी की यातना बन जाती है।

शकुन के जीवन का सत्य है कि स्त्री की जायज महत्त्वाकांक्षा और आत्मनिर्भरता पुरुष के लिए चुनौती है – नतीजे में दाम्पत्य तनाव उसे अलगाव तक ला छोड़ता है। यह शकुन का नहीं, समाज में निरन्तर अपनी जगह बनाती, फैलाती और अपना क़द बढ़ाती  ‘नई स्त्री’का सत्य है। पति-पत्नी के इस द्वन्द्व में यहाँ भी वही सबसे अधिक पीसा जाता है, जो नितान्त निर्दोष, निरीह और असुरक्षित है – बंटी।

बच्चे की चेतना में बड़ों के इस संसार को कथाकार मन्नू भंडारी ने पहली बार पहचाना था। बाल मनोविज्ञान की गहरी समझ-बूझ के लिए चर्चित, प्रशंसित इस उपन्यास का हर पृष्ठ ही मर्मस्पर्शी और विचारोत्तेजक है।

हिन्दी उपन्यास की एक मूल्यवान उपलब्धि के रूप में आपका बंटी एक कालजयी उपन्यास है।

Purchase Links

Other Books by the Author

Mannu Bhandari is a prolific writer. Check out her Amazon page for her other book.