Short Book Review: The Liberation of Sita by Volga

SBR: The Liberation of Sita, translated from Telugu, is a revision of Ramayana through the stories of marginal female characters of the original like Ahalya, Renuka, Shurpanakha, and Urmila. This is unlike the stories of the neglected characters written by writers like Maithili Sharan Gupt which don’t challenge the main narrative, just highlight the ignored one. This book is a subversive, feminist revision of the epic. It’s not the misery of these women that is the point here. It’s their breaking the bonds of patriarchy. The liberation here is not something bestowed on Sita by a man. Her liberation here is from the patriarchy itself.

To read or not to read: Yes, please do.

Short Book Review: Pyre by Perumal Murugan

Pyre by Perumal MuruganSBR: My feelings for Pyre by Perumal Murugan fall somewhere in between those for One Part Woman and Poonachi by the same author. One Part Woman was a revelation, Poonachi was a bit of disappointment. Pyre was a pleasure to read, but the story doesn’t tell you anything new. It reveals the characters and the society beautifully and conveys the pathos of the situation young lovers across the caste boundaries find themselves in very well. You can feel a small, but bustling, town and an isolated village with equal ease around you. And you can identify with the couple’s optimism and despair both.

The translation is well-done and even the translator’s note is worth reading.

To read or not to read: Yes, although no need to move it to the top of your To-be-read pile.

Short Book Review: Justice by Michael J. Sandel

SBR: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a book for our times. It isn’t a self-improvement text about what an individual should be doing, as people sometimes tend to infer from its subtitle. It is about what a just society should look like. In addressing that question, the author draws on ancient to current (western) philosophical thoughts, current and recent (mostly American) political discourses and many legal battles that bring some difficult questions about right and wrong to the fore. If you identify yourself as a liberal in political and social thoughts (like me),  it is easy to start believing that in espousing freedom, individual dignity and correction of systemic biases, you have covered all the issues of morality, justice, and social cohesion. But it isn’t so easy. And this book does a good job of making you realize that and to help you question more. If you find liberalism to be just gibberish and think that some good, old values you have learned from tradition are what makes a good society, then you definitely need some of these questions in your life. The limitation of the book for an Indian audience is that it focuses on Western philosophy and American society. But that affects relatability, not the relevance of the book. The book is also immensely readable.

To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: The Myth of the Holy Cow by D. N. Jha

SBR: The Myth of the Holy Cow is a book that should not surprise anyone who has made any sincere attempts to understand the history of our country a little bit. But if you encounter those who think that “cow has been sacrosanct since Vedas/forever” or if you are one of those, this book will come in handy. Tracing the literary sources starting from Rigveda, the author clearly and firmly establishes that our ancestors, for a long time, were clearly beef eaters (not just meat eaters) and there was no inherent sacredness to a cow over other animals. The book is particularly relevant in the current times when the efforts to ossify a Hindu, even Indian, identity in terms of narrow dietary and moral preferences are at an all-time high and which tend to stop at nothing in silencing any hints of a complicated and nuanced cultural past.

To read or not to read: Yes, please. In today’s times, you either need to read it for yourself or be armed with arguments presented here to ward off nonsensical claims of others.

Short Book Review: The Amazon Way by John Rossman

SBR: The Amazon Way is a book about fourteen leadership principles that the author learned from Jeff Bezos during his time at Amazon. Principles are fine, but at its core, it’s a fanboi book, perhaps one of many, which seeks to justify the abusive behavior of a successful man.

Leaving that aside, it is a simply written book, almost mediocre, but that mediocrity makes it accessible. It can be used to challenge something that is totally broken in your organization. For example, if it lacks focus on the customers, or if it’s callous about data and what it tells.

Funnily enough, I can’t find the book on Amazon India right now. Except for the audio version.

To read or not to read: Not for improving your IQ or general knowledge, but it can be a good tool to facilitate a discussion about leadership principles in an organization, which is the context in which it had landed in my lap too.

Short Book Review: The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty by Kavita Kane

The Fisher Queen's Dynasty by Kavita KaneSBR: Upfront confession. I somehow slogged through the first few chapters of The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty, but could not get myself to finish this book. So, you may think it unfair that I am harsh on this book. But I saw no indication that it would get better, which is a pity. Because Satyavati’s character from Mahabharata holds great potential for making of an interesting grey-shaded protagonist. That’s what the book seems to be about. But it is a bit too true to the popular version of the Mahabharata mythology. Why would I want to read the same again in a rather uninspiring language? The book just doesn’t seem to be able to do anything interesting with the story or the characters.

Some negative reviews on Amazon seem to hint that other books for the authors were better. So, perhaps one should try one of her other books first.

To read or not to read: No! What for?

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.