Short Book Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace ThackeraySBR: 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

An Infamous Army by Georgette HeyerSBR: 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

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika UnigweSBR: 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

A History of Cambodia by David P. ChandlerSBR: 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

A Brief History of France by Cecil JenkinsSBR: Unlike in the 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

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi MunaweeraSBR: 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

Disgrace by J. M. CoetzeeSBR: 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.

Short Book Review: A History of Sri Lanka by K. M. De Silva

A History of Sri Lanka by K. M. De SilvaSBR: The idea behind picking up a book on Sri Lankan history was to get a broad overview in preparation for our trip (since concluded), and not really research it to hell and beyond. Although I slogged through it, this wasn’t a book suitable for that purpose. Too much back and forth in chronology, too many details about land, taxes, bureaucracy and economic policy which was difficult to understand, and overall a difficult-to-follow narrative. Perhaps the book was meant for professional historians, and not for an unsuspecting layperson. That said, I did finish the book and got an idea of the nuances of Sri Lankan history.
To read or not to read: Not unless you are a professional historian. Find some other concise and readable book for a lay audience.

Short Book Review: India: A History by John Keay

India: A History by John KeaySBR: John Keay’s India Discovered was an eye-opening read for me. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I picked up India: A History when I wanted a refresher on Indian history for myself. This book is as charmingly written and accessible as India Discovered. No complaints on that front. There were some annoyances for me. Sometimes the fact that it was a book written by a British for a largely western audience was too much in my face and I wanted to read those things from an Indian perspective instead. Also, there are many instances where certain people, incidents, ideas just pop-up without adequate background. Sometimes I find them to be important ideas whose background was essential. But overall, no history book can satisfy all kinds of audiences. There are trade-offs to be made between being detailed, but huge and unreadable and being concise at the cost of losing some information or nuance. There are also trade-offs between viewpoints to be adopted. Finally, there is a trade-off between being opinionated and readable vs. being dry with a pretense of total objectivity. If some trade-offs rattled me, others worked very well.
To read or not to read: Yes, not as “the” book on Indian history, but definitely as an accessible starting point or refresher.

Short Book Review: Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin WalkerSBR: Bruno, Chief of Police is the first novel in a mystery series based in Dordogne region of France. I came across this book while researching for traveling in France. One of the travelers who visited that region had mentioned this series as one of her favorites! Since I am planning a trip there as well (fingers crossed for VISA), I decided to pick it up. A good mystery is always welcome as an entertaining read and the book didn’t disappoint.  It was rich in describing the local settings, people and landscape without getting boring with them. The best part of the story was that it draws you into the complicated past of the nation which can’t leave even the far countryside unscarred. However, it did get didactic about the history. At times the conversations in the books seemed to be have been penned solely for showing off the author’s historical research! In a mystery book, it is a put-off. But I was happy to know a little bit of history because I was anyway planning to follow it up with a book on History of France!
To read or not to read: Yes, if you like mystery or if you are planning to visit Dordogne and reading fiction set there is your idea of preparing for it!