Short Book Review: Viet Nam – A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan

Viet Nam - A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben KiernanSBR: The point of reading Viet Nam – A History from Earliest Times to the Present was to acquaint myself with the history of the country before our trip in last November. That purpose was served, but the book was not the best I could have picked up for a quick overview. When the sources are available, it becomes so detailed that sometimes I wondered if I was reading the original source itself! It doesn’t do much justice to the history of central and southern Vietnam before the northern Viets overran the areas. Unfortunately, books on complete Vietnamese history are difficult to search, because search results are overwhelmingly dominated by the plethora Vietnam-America war books. That’s how I ended up picking up this one because I wanted an overview of the entire history and it was one of the few that cropped up.
To read or not to read: Not for a quick overview. Search elsewhere.

Short Book Review: Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon

Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita MenonSBR: Seeing Like a Feminist is a perfect introduction to Feminism – especially in the Indian context. Clear, crisp, readable and thought-provoking, it does an excellent job of pointing out the complexities and nuances of the Feminist thought.
To read or not to read: Yes. Even if you are “not a feminist”, please read this and make sure that you are so for the right reasons, and not just because your very definition of feminism is wrong.

Short Book(s) Review: Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camileri

Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camileri
SBR: I am reviewing the series as a whole here. I was looking for something light, but not trashy to read and got recommended this series by a friend. Over a short period of time, I ended up reading eleven books in the series. Because it is set in Sicily where the dynamics of politics and crime are very different from a typical American or British setting,  and which the author uses to its full advantage, these books make for a refreshing read (gory crimes notwithstanding). Not every crime is neatly closed with the perpetrator put behind the bars. Sometimes there is nothing to be gained by taking the strictly legal route and the protagonist, Inspector Montalbano, chooses the course of action guided by his own conscience and morals, rather than the law. At least in one case, even for his personal gain.  The translation to English is good. The only part I don’t like is that the characters don’t seem to grow at all over the series. Montalbano is – to put it politely – nasty, self-centered and sexist. The relationship between Montalbano and Livia is erratic and even pathetic. Sometimes it feels like the author can’t make up his mind about whether they are soulmates or just two confused, but needy people holding on to each other. At any rate, they don’t seem to be going anywhere. But the cases can keep you going all right.
To read or not to read: Read it, especially if you are a mystery reader.

Short Book Review: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

The Prince by Niccolò  MachiavelliSBR: It isn’t without reason that Machiavellian means what it means. This guide for capturing and retaining power is cold-hearted to the boot and scarcely conscious of it! The precise, resonant and direct advice in The Prince would be the envy of the most successful self-help book writers of our times. I vaguely remember that some consider this book to be a parody or a satire. It doesn’t read like that at all. It is serious, cold, practical and scary.
To read or not to read: Read it. But try not to get too inspired or too depressed.

Short Book Review: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola RahulaSBRWhat the Buddha Taught is a book usually found at the top of the recommendation lists if you are interested in Buddhism. Perhaps with good reason. The book is supposed to focus on the basic and essential teachings of Buddha. It was, however, an unsatisfactory experience for me. Because it still can’t avoid the temptation of jumbled up explanation of things, which sound profound, but really don’t make sense when you come to think of it. What particularly piqued me was this insistence on there being no “self” (“no thinker beyond thought” and all that), but no attempt to address the issue that if there is no “self” in us, who is being preached to. Who is supposed to do all the nice things Buddha thinks we should be doing? The book isn’t converting me to Buddhism yet, although if I have to make a list of books on Buddhism, it will continue to feature in it, perhaps even at the top. Because it’s not like I have found anything else satisfactory yet.
To read or not to read: Read if you are interested in Buddhism, either because of faith or because of intellectual curiosity. I will not necessarily recommend it to an unsuspecting reader without a specific interest in Buddhism.

Short Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah HarariSBR: I once jokingly summarized Sapiens by saying that we fu**ed up wherever we went and we take ourselves too seriously. Or perhaps I wasn’t joking at all. That’s what it says. But the beauty of the book is that it is accessible and easy to read. The author has not tried to attempt writing in a way that will pass scholarly muster. And that may make you uncomfortable where he is talking about things you may have in-depth knowledge of (for example it wasn’t satisfying for patriarchy to be declared universal without even a mention of matriarchal societies we do know of and any attempt to understand why they were different). But one book can’t be everything to everybody. And what this book is, makes it worth a read. But beware. If you are devoted to the idea of a meaningful life, this book may annoy you, or in the worst case even depress you. Human life has no meaning, the book declares blithely (and I agree). The author still seems to find some solace in Buddhism (which I don’t!).
To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving StoneSBR: The Agony and the Ecstasy – a novel based on Michelangelo’s life-  was another novel that was picked up in the anticipation of our Italy trip, although I read it only after coming back. The timing wasn’t bad though. After having seen the sights, the streets and the cities it is based in, it was easier to appreciate what was going on. This long book didn’t work for me, however. The charm of historical fiction comes from the history as well as from the fiction. This is one of those that perhaps got the history right, but not the fiction. Although one can appreciate the thoughts the author put in Michelangelo’s head before he started on each of his historic creations, he didn’t make the character come alive to me. The dialogs had no distinction and events around our protagonist often unrealistic as well as dull. The book is also criticized for dismissing Michelangelo’s homosexuality, which is now apparently well-accepted. But I won’t judge the book if the author felt compelled to take that stance. The book is as much a creation of its own times (published in 1961) as Michelangelo was of his own.
To read or not to read: If you are specifically interested in Michelangelo, then yes. But I would not recommend it for the delight of reading.

Short Book Review: History Of The Italian People by Giuliano Procacci

History Of The Italian People by Giuliano ProcacciSBR: I picked up this book in anticipation of our Italy trip. Apparently, among all the book recommendations Abhaya could find for an introduction to Italy’s history, this was a rare one written by an Italian (and available in English translation). Hence I picked it up over the others. History of Italian People by Giuliano Procacci is pretty good, written without excessive national fervor or an extreme aversion to it. But unless you have some familiarity with European or Italian history, I would not recommend it as a first book. Because it seems to address a familiar audience with a good analysis. Unfamiliar ones will have to turn to Wikipedia too often. It also starts only from AD 1000. So ancient history including the Romans and their predecessors is missing.
To read or not to read: Not as a first read on the topic. But a good addition to your reading list for analysis and perspective.

Short Book Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus by Sarah DunantSBR: The prolog, along with the first sentence of the first chapter, seems to give away the story of this historical novel. But The Birth of Venus becomes interesting towards the middle before turning disappointing again in the last few pages. However, the recreation of the madness and ecstasy of Renaissance Florence, a city bubbling with art and masterful human creations, is admirable; and that kept me reading through the book.
To read or not to read: Yes, for the historical setting, even though the fiction falters.