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.

Reader Interview of Indira (The Newbie) @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018

Indira has been to book readings but this was her first time at a BYOB Party. We asked her a couple of questions about her relationship with books.

Tell us about your book journey.

I was an early reader. I have memories of reading the newspaper and not understanding a word of what I read. I think I owe a lot to my father as he introduced us to the world of books, starting with Enid Blyton. He also introduced us to the classics by reading just enough to pique our curiosity and then telling us to read the rest on our own. We lived in Jharkhand back then and we had a library in our colony, which I loved.

English or vernacular?

Not vernacular, mostly English and translations in English, probably an accident of our upbringing and education at English medium schools.

What do you think of children’s reading habits nowadays?

The trend looks very encouraging. There are a lot more books available than there used to be. In fact, I pick up such a variety of interesting books for my granddaughter. All my children read and we discuss books. Children are definitely reading more. There are some parents who are discerning and there are others who prefer overly moralizing books. Schools are encouraging children as well. The library movement is picking up in a big way; many NGOs work in rural areas to maintain active school libraries, not just libraries that collect dust.

Which is your favorite book?

Tough question.  Recently I read a non-fiction called  The Growth Delusion by David Pilling, illuminating in its message that GDP is not the only indicator that tells the story of the economy. I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov. And yes, a book I particularly love is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Print or eBooks?

Frankly, I prefer print books. I never took to Kindle although I must admit I managed to read Sir Terry Pratchett’s work on my phone. It’s advantageous to read books this way as there are no hassles of remembering to carry the book and you can read anywhere any time, even while waiting for a bus.  It’s harder to read on devices as you grow older.

I still buy books though and then feel guilty about it. I love libraries too.

Thank you, Indira, for sharing your thoughts!


Reader Interview of Aditya (The Regular) @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018

Aditya Sengupta has frequented a couple of the BYOB Parties that we have held. He had lots to say about his voyage with reading.

Tell us about your book journey.

I’ve always been a bookworm. My grandmother used to read me a  book every evening when I was just a few years old, not old enough to read. I didn’t even know which way the book would face, as it was with children. I could apparently narrate the same story and turn the pages at the right moment of the narrated event even if the book was facing upside down! My family is a very bibliophilic family; my grandfather was a literary critic. All the presents I received were books. I honestly believe that if I had been less of a bookworm, I would have done better in my studies.

Do you read Bengali literature?

Not when I was young but I taught myself Bengali much later. Bengali novels were read to me initially as I could not read them on my own. As an adult, I started reading and there was a vast amount of Bengali literature available. My exposure was primarily to books in English and translated works.

Being a scientist, what do you prefer to read- fiction or non-fiction?

Frankly, I don’t read much these days. I do order books, the latest one by the author of Big Shot, Michael Lewis and another book by a friend about the economic liberalization in India in 1991. I enjoy fiction much more.

Besides this BYOB Party, do you frequent other other book clubs?

There used to be a book club in Bangalore called We Read Therefore We Are. Abhaya had been to one of these but the club disbanded. Both these book clubs have different formats and differ from the traditional book club formats, something that I prefer.

Do you prefer reading eBooks or print books?

I prefer print books though I do read digitally as well if I must.

What books do you recommend for young people?

It depends really;  they must discover on their own. It’s really a question of inclination. If they are into the sci fi genre, then they should pick up Asimov. If they are into science, I would recommend Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman or James Watson’s The Double Helix. In case it’s humor, I would advise one to read P. G Wodehouse. I have often been asked to recommend good titles and it ultimately depends on the choice of genre that appeals to you.

Thanks Aditya. It was great talking to you!

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.

Roots, Ruins and Song @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 6)

Celina who co-hosted the BYOB Party with us spoke about a book that made an imprint on her. Roots by Alex Hailey starts with the story of Kunta Kinte, a man who was brought to the slave markets of the New World. It was interesting that she mentioned a story that stressed on the perspective of the oppressed as the book that Jaya talked about-From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia– also focused on new perspectives.

Image result for pankaj mishra empire amazonPankaj Mishra’s work is arresting and a must-read as it tells the story of how the non-Western world rose to the challenge of western oppression and rethought alternative ways of governance. Mishra navigates through the Asian intellectual perspective and is refreshing for readers who would like a perspective closer to home. Mishra represents important thinkers like Al-Afghani. 

“What strikes me is that democracy was perceived to be created by people who did not themselves believe int he ideals that they preached. This is where reactionary elements came from,” Jaya said.

The book has been written in a chronological manner and it’s a collection of Mishra’s commentaries: a story of thought or a history of ideas around certain broad themes. It was shortlisted for Orwell Prize, 2013.

You may want to read Edmund Wilson in Benares by Pankaj Mishra to get a taste of his effortless writing style.

Image result for gaata rahe mera dil : 50 classic amazonAditya’s choice of book was the sole light book in the discussion. He got a book called Gaata Rahe Mera Dil  by Balaji Vittal (Author), Anirudha Bhattacharjee. For lovers of old Bollywood music, this book is a collector’s item. The composition of classics and the anecdotes of the making of these songs make this book a delightful read. Aditya particularly enjoyed the part where Sharmila Tagore forgets her lines when she meets Shashi Kapoor.

On that light note, we come to an end of the BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar.


Firefly and Nihilism @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 5)

A question lingered about whether fiction did a better job of illustrating history. Arvind spoke about a work of fiction that showed how important the individual human struggle acts effectively as a mirror of human society. The book called The Accusation by a North Korean writer with the pseudonym Bandi (which translates as firefly) gives a relatively clear account of North Korea in seven short stories. Arvind was initially skeptical about reading the book fearing propaganda but many positive reviews later, he started and was then enamored by the panorama of the North Korean society that sprang up before him. Bandi has been described by some as the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang, courtesy the dissident literature that Solzhenitsyn penned during the Stalinist era. Very little is known about Bandi except for the literary merit of his work and his Chekhovian eye. His translator Deborah Smith has added to the beauty of the work. An account of one short story that peeked into the unfortunate life of a party loyalist was shocking, to say the least. Perhaps the beauty of his prose could be attributed to Bandi being marooned by the politics of his country and uncertain of any target audience at all. His prose caters to nothing but the truth.

So storytelling is really an exercise in truth-telling.  Like Jaya said, “Regarding the fiction vs non-fiction question as ideal for representation, I think fiction wins hands down Learning anything factual requires that you understand the story behind it. The story of history matters when you understand what happened to the people who lived at that time on a day-to-day basis. So the author outlines their daily grievances, which may not necessarily amount to the critique of the regime.”

Image result for notes from undergroundSamarth spoke of another writer who was revolutionary in his approach. Fyodor Dostoyevsky chronicled the second half of the nineteenth century. Russia and all of Europe were going through an extraordinary transformation of culture and industrialization. It was a time of intense polarization. Dostoyevsky was a traditionalist and in his groundbreaking novel Notes from Underground, his unnamed defiant narrator broods all day and all night and pens a contradictory memoir that serves as a looking glass to society around and is a scathing attack on the hypocrisies of the society that he lived in. This is what his memoir sounds like:

“I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have,” But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well–let it get worse!…. I have been going on like that for a long time–twenty years. Now I am forty.”

Samarth was so impressed by the way the weakness of will of the narrator was depicted that he drew flowchart chronicling the movement of the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator is seized by a paralysis of will; perhaps a godless rationality that left him incapable of striving. Dostoyevsky’s ideology was an amalgam of Orthodoxy, rationality, Western ideals and romanticism and this seminal novel has influenced the breed of existential thinkers in Europe. The idea of free will that was discussed led to the discussion of a book called Against Nature  by Joris-Karl Huysmans that follows the life of a decadent, ailing aristocrat who retreats to an isolated villa and descends into depravity.

More books in Part 6.

The Story of a Billionaire and the Commentaries of a Hypnotist @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 4)

Image result for Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of Spacex and Tesla is Shaping Our FutureAyush spoke about Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance. This book tells the story of the South African American entrepreneur who sold PayPal for $1.5 billion and the innovator who creates SpaceX and Tesla. Vance pus Musk on the same footing as inventors and industrialists like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs.  Early on Musk knew that there were three things that would change the world – the internet, sustainability and space travel.  After he sold PayPal, he invested all his energy in the very niche area of space travel, his only competitors being individual governments. He is known for his far-reaching plans, risk-taking mentality and unfortunate twitter handle. Reading about him, Ayush was troubled by a thought: To be successful do you need to be mean to others as you want to get things done? Think Ph.D. advisors, Amazon workers in their warehouses and mothers-in-law!

Some answers included:  It is well-researched that many successful bosses have psychopathic characteristics; if you are a boss, people don’t have to like you; society has been constructed in such a way that it is aggressive characteristics that lead to success; empathy doesn’t translate into niceness if you are the boss  and could be purely utilitarian in motive.

The conclusion? People adopt this kind of behavior as a template of success; so they behaving arrogantly with their employees though they lack an innovator’s insight because they think that this guarantees success. However, being a badass success ultimately requires certain merits that not all bosses have.

Image result for my voice will go with you amazonKirthika spoke about a book called My Voice Will Go With You edited by Sidney Rosen. The book focuses on Milton H. Erickson,  the most influential hypnotherapist of our time. He used humor and storytelling to help people see situations differently. This book is a compilation of around a hundred tales and Dr. Rosen’s commentaries.

More books in Part 5.


Poison, Embryos and Polyphony @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 3)

If you found all the conversation about philosophy interesting but you are hesitant to read the great minds, maybe pop philosophy would be a good place to turn to. Abhaya suggested that we read Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel who engages the reader with contemporary issues including same-sex marriages, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, PTSD-related perception, etc.  His arguments help the reader understand more about the dynamics involved in decisionmaking when it comes to politics, ethics, morality and day to day living.

Image result for The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint EditionMugdha brought along an interesting book called The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint Edition by Deborah Blum. She’s also the author of another equally fascinating book called Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death which is the story of William James and his fascination for the occult. The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating story of chemistry, poison and the bedrock of forensics. Back in the early 1900s and prior to that, murdering someone using poison could hardly be proved. The coroner’s office was chaotic and it was Charles Norris, a wealthy medical examiner, and a toxicologist called Alexander Gettler who created the field of forensic chemistry and changed the way crime was investigated by providing a proper framework to build investigation upon. “So many things can kill us,” Mugdha said, “So there needed to be some kind of yardstick. These were some questions that needed answering. How much arsenic led to poisoning? What alcohol level in the blood could be surmised as legal?” Many ideas sprang up about the way gas lamps killed people by causing carbon monoxide poisoning, how the Russians were experts when it came to all matters toxic, the death of Napolean by arsenic, the suspicious deaths of well-known celebrities and exogamy in the Indus Valley.

Image result for sing you home jodi amazonPrerna spoke about a book that carried forward the theme of ethical dilemmas that ran throughout the BYOB Party. Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult tells the story of three characters who have trouble conceiving. Zoe, the principle character, is a music therapist. She moves on to a same-sex relationship while her husband moves in with his picture-perfect brother and wife. A legal battle over the existing embryos leads to fundamental questions being raised. Who exactly constitutes a family? Is one kind of family superior to another?

Homosexuality, the concept of deviants, the rights of embryos, egg-freezing employee benefits and surrogacy were discussed. Also since the book is told in multiple voices, there was a long aside on the merits of this kind of storytelling as compared to the less democratic first person point of view.

Literature assists in seeing the other side or all sides by using multiple points of view. Indira mentioned a book by Barbara Kingsolver called The Poisonwood Bible. We’ve talked about this book in a previous BYOB Party too. You also have books by George R. R Martin and Dostoevsky. A famous example of one of the first polyphonous novels is Dangerous Liaisons or Les Liaisons dangereuse by French writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel tells the story of the moral decadence of aristocrats and ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont who embark on a game of seduction and manipulation for which they face unintended consequences.

More books in Part 4.

Caring @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral EducationImagine a world where Care is the guiding principle and Compassion the moral compass?

This is what Indira spoke about and this set the tone of the entire BYOB Party. She chose a non-fiction that she considers to be her Bible- a book called Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education by Nel Noddings. It’s a difficult book if you don’t understand philosophy. The book talks about the basis of moral action, how altruism can be acquired and how when it comes to caring, the act of caring and the memory of being cared for is crucial. This book is important as it emphasizes the importance of moral sensitivity- an ethics based only on rationale is not the need of the hour.

Indira laid out the basic tenant of Western philosophy that Kant had arrived at, a reasonable stand at the time, that Reason was Supreme and Emotion only clouded one’s Logic. Women were hardly ever given the benefit of the doubt and were seen as creatures who could hardly behave dispassionately. The question is how one can respond to a child without basing her response on the immediacy of the environment. Noddings doesn’t advocate moral relativism; she builds her theory entirely based on care.

“This commitment to care and to define oneself in terms of the capacity to care represent a feminine alternative to Kohlberg’s “stage six” morality. At stage six, the moral thinker transcends particular moral principles by appealing to the highest principle – one that allows a rearrangement of the hierarchy in order to give proper place-value to human love, relief and suffering. But women, as ones-caring, are not so much concerned with the rearrangement of priorities among principles; they are concerned, rather, with maintaining and enhancing caring.”

To explain the idea, Indira mentioned the biblical sacrifice of Abraham, a moral and ethical dilemma. There are many such examples across religions, but could a woman ever hold her child hostage to some supra-ethical maxim? Even if she did, it would be the exception more than the rule.

However, Nodding is by no means denouncing Kant as his theory of ethics stands on solid ground. The conversation moved in various directions. Take the case of mothers who confronted the demons of their terrorist children, the Eichman trial, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism and the killing fields of Cambodia. Phew!

Watch this to understand more about Kant and his categorical imperative. If you want a more humane response to ethics, you may like to read a bit about Martha Nussbaum, also known as the philosopher of feelings.

This quote by Kurt Vonnegut is a great way of summarizing this session:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

More books in Part 3.