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.

Short Book Review: Dusklands by J. M. Coetzee

Dusklands by J. M. CoetzeeSBR: Dusklands‘ language is beautiful to the extent that it can be hard to read sometimes. But the darkness explored through the themes of imperialism, war, and adventurous exploration in the two stories of the book has the ability to send a chill down your spine. I suppose I don’t need to make more of a case for a Nobel-prize winning writer.
To read or not to read: Yes, unless you spurn darkness in your reading material.

Short Book Review: Three Daughters by Consuelo Saah Baehr

Three Daughters by Consuelo Saah BaehrSBR: Three Daughters is interesting in the beginning. Set at the turn of 20th century in a Christian village near Jerusalem, it takes you to a time and culture you may not know much about (remember, this is pre-Israel). But as a long multi-generational saga (The three daughters of the title are from three generations) it later becomes repetitive, boring and pointless. I would have been happy to read the story of the just the first daughter and then a half, with more information on how historical changes of unprecedented magnitude were affecting people in the region. As for the daughters themselves, the author’s approach to their love life, which initially seemed like a way to assert a woman’s desires and sexuality, later turned into sordid, gratuitous sex scenes. Despite initial promise, the length and multi-generational story is the undoing of the book.
To read or not to read: Skip, unless you really have lots of time to kill.

Short Book Review: A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne BerneSBR: A Crime in the Neighborhood has a story that promises revelations, but ends up being the tale of a young girl strangely unapologetic about destroying an innocent man’s life. There is some charm in the description of a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, everything ordinary, petty and pointless about the life there on display. But it becomes too much pretty quickly. Beyond a point, I wasn’t sure why I was reading the book.
To read or not to read: I don’t see the point of it unless you are nostalgic about life in a Washington DC suburb in the 1970s.

Short Book Review: The Second Girl by David Swinson

The Second Girl by David SwinsonSBR: The Second Girl is an interesting piece of crime fiction featuring a closeted drug-addict ex-cop as the private investigator. Not much can be said without revealing the plot, but it makes an entertaining read. You may not like the protagonist. That is not a bad thing in my world, but some readers seem put off by that.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are looking for a light, entertaining read.