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!

Short Book Review: Understanding the Founding Fathers by Rajmohan Gandhi

SBR: Understanding the Founding Fathers promised to be interesting, by its title as well as by the credentials of its author. However, the book is written not really to “understand the founding fathers” (Gandhi, Nehru, Patel), but to defend them against some rather comical criticism. That was a disappointment to me. The criticisms the author refutes are from Swami Sachidanand, a spiritual Guru with as much ahistoricism in his blood as such people usually come with, and Perry Anderson -a Marxist historian who wrote “The Indian Ideology”. I have not read either of these people nor do their views (at least as quoted in Understanding the Founding Fathers) inspire any credulity in me. So, reading this book did not bring me any intellectual satisfaction.
To read or not to read: Read only if either you are rattled by the criticisms of people like Swami Sachidanand and Perry Anderson, or there are people around you who hold those beliefs and you need some help in countering them, or if you are a person holding those views!

Short Book Review: Castes in India and Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

 Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. AmbedkarSBR: I don’t intend to analyze the theories put forward by Dr. Ambedkar in these two pieces and leave such analysis to more scholarly people. I have my own layperson’s response (some agreements and some disagreements) to the things he says, but that is not the point of reading them either. The importance of works like these lies in their having a viewpoint which a large number of us have never been exposed to. We (and that includes not just savarnas, but a large number of Dalits too who have been through the same educational and official systems) don’t even imagine while growing up that the stand of someone like Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps not good enough on caste and untouchability issues. That there had been a case for prioritizing social reforms in Hindu society over political independence from the British. And that even now we think that certain social, political or economic choices we make as a nation are obviously correct when they aren’t so as soon as we look at the point of view of people “not like us”. It is to get rid of such institutionally-propagated blindness that reading Ambedkar is important.
To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: Malice by Keigo Higashino

Malice by Keigo HigashinoSBR: I have read and reviewed two books by this author earlier. Malice is not in the same series, but it is also a good mystery book with the all the surprising twists and turns in the narrative and warped motives in the characters that you would want to read in the genre. The translation also works fine. And Japanese setting continues to be refreshing for me.
To read or not to read: Yes, if you like mysteries.

Short Book Review: Sirigannada Contemporary Kannada Writing by Vivek Shanbhag

irigannada Contemporary Kannada Writing by Vivek ShanbhagSBR: Sirigannda is a compilation of contemporary Kannada writings in different genres translated into English. Reviewing the compilation as a whole is difficult. On their own, you would like some pieces and not care for others. But the point of a compilation like this is to introduce you the literature in the language and it does a very good job of that.
To read or not to read: Yes, if you aren’t already deep into Kannada literature and are looking for a way in.