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.

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.