Books

Falling off the map

Pico Iyer

The timestamp for the first chapter is 1990. I imagine myself then, 26 years ago, cognizant of the places being referred to in the book only thanks to an atlas, and a penchant for remembering country-capital-currency courtesy school quizzes. Just text in the head, with no images to go along, in a world before the internet.
What then, are these lonely places? From Iceland up there to Australia down south and from North Korea to the right and Paraguay to the left (ideologically, just the opposite!) Pico writes about seven places (the others being Vietnam, Cuba and Bhutan) that have seemingly exiled themselves from the world. In Pico’s words, “Lonely Spaces are not just isolated places, for loneliness is a state of mind“.
Australia is probably the one place that can be deemed ‘alone’ (in terms of geography) too, but all of the other places are just that – lonely, despite being inhabited by populations vibrant in their own way, or being surrounded by nations that are seemingly not too different from them. “More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled, and it is their very remoteness from the present tense that gives them their air of haunted glamour.”

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Wanderers, All

Janhavi Acharekar

“Window Seat”, the author’s first work, ranks among my favourites, so I picked this up with much expectation. While it did not really bowl me over, it does have a few things working for it.
The story, or rather stories, is just as the title suggests – journeys. As Kinara’s dad tells her- “it’s about journeys. We’re all on the same one.” At one level, these journeys are physical – the one that Kinara undertakes, aided by a cryptic set of maps and notes from her Dad, who had traced the family’s journey from sixteenth century Goa to twenty first century Mumbai, or the ones that her ancestors Gajanan and Murli made from Khed to Bombay. It is also the journey of Murli, whose story , set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, runs as the parallel narrative to Kinara’s own Goan backpacking trip. And finally, it is also the journey of Bombay – from Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s fierce oratory to the plague to the Quit India movement and the Bombay Docks explosion – as seen through the eyes of Murli, and other characters around him.

The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins

It does have a lot going for it, and I now understand why it has been such a rage. Quite a fresh take on the amnesia thriller, the author makes it easy to connect with Rachel, with whom the story begins – she is the girl on the train. Through her eyes, we see the other characters. The build up in the initial pages – we know something is about to happen – is done really well, and while the multi -first person narrative is not new, the skill with which it has been wielded deserves a thumbs up. It is not just the shift in perspective and the fresh format, but the timing of it that makes the whole thing work. A lot of work seems to have gone into Rachel’s character and the gamut of emotions one feels for her is proof that it is a job well done! But..

In the end, I think it was the expectations that spoiled it for me a bit. That, and the length. The immediate comparison was with the other girl – Gone Girl. I’d totally loved its unpredictability. In this case, there just aren’t enough twists to warrant 300+ pages. Actually, the pace towards the end is fantastic – I read the last 100 pages in one go – but I felt that all of that could have been made more gripping.  More

Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert
The title is quite misleading – this is by no means a self help book! It will not tell you how to become happy. In fact, I’d say that Daniel Gilbert truly appreciates the uncertainty and ambiguity that is happiness, its subjective uniqueness in each human’s mind, and therefore, even when he gives us his perspective on how one can predict the chances of one’s happiness, he underplays it!
I found the book to be a systematic deconstruction of happiness which takes it into realms such as cognitive science, psychology, behavioural economics and even philosophy to a certain extent. Right from the explanation of the literal ‘blind spot’ in our optical mechanism, the ‘deal’ between the eye and the mind, and then using this blind spot as a metaphor for the lacunae in our perception and imagination, it is a fascinating step-by-step analysis of how we perceive happiness, with studies and examples to back it all up. He is also able to point out why our own predictions of happiness regularly go wrong, even on events which are repeats of our own earlier experience!
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Finite and Infinite Games

James P Carse

The last book that fundamentally affected my way of thinking was ‘Antifragile’. It altered my perspective on ownership, planning, and in general, the approach to various events and things. It remains a favourite. But this book took my thinking to a different plane altogether, and has probably altered it irrevocably. Credit goes to James P Carse for at least two things – one for the thinking that clarified everything around us to this level of ‘simplicity’, and two, for explaining it in a manner that makes it easy to absorb.

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.” From politics and wars to sports and business, finite games are all around us. They are played to be won, and are over when there is a victor. There is only one infinite game and its only purpose is continuing the play. In both, “whoever plays, plays freely.” More

Solo

Rana Dasgupta

I remember liking Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta’s earlier (and first) work of fiction. When I first came across Solo, its blurb content for some reason made me stay away. I remembered the leaps of imagination and thought I might not be able to keep pace. Recently, I read his non-fiction work ‘Capital’ and thoroughly loved it. And thus Solo arrived on my bookshelf.

A blind old man in Bulgaria, cared for by his neighbours, and dependent on them for many of his basic needs, reminiscing about the days gone by, might seem like a rather dry premise to base a novel on, but it magnificently surprised me. Ulrich is nearing the end of his life’s tenth decade and has lived through years of Bulgarian political experiments as the country’s elite switched their ideologies through the great wars and after. His early well-provided-for life contrasts sharply with the poverty of his later years, and the steadily declining quality of his life is poignant in itself. Through Ulrich’s perspective and experiences we see the socio-economic changes that take place in the country, and the author is able to do justice to both the suddenness of some of them as well as the gradual nature of the others. The sensitivity with which the author narrates a life that’s fallen on hard times that’s truly wonderful. More

This Divided Island : Stories from the Sri Lankan War

Samanth Subramanian

We visited Lanka in 2010, just after the war had ended. Reading this book, and on hindsight, I think we underestimated the seriousness of what the country had gone through. I remember the undercurrent of bitterness in a conversation I overheard while sitting in a Colombo cafe. Directed at Rajapaksa, whose smiles beamed down on you every time you looked around, it was about how he was presiding over a reign of terror. I was surprised, because I thought everyone would be happy that the war had ended. Another instance I remember clearly – driving through Trincomalee and seeing some lovely beaches, I asked the driver to stop so we could walk a bit. He laughed ruefully and said that entry was restricted. The soldiers were clearing the area of land mines and a walk there might relieve me of limbs or even life!
When I wrote the travel log, I had the luxury of making these footnotes, but this book is a visceral breakdown of what Lanka went (and still goes) through. The war might have ended, but the scars remain fresh. I haven’t read any war or post war accounts, and therefore lack the perspective to compare, but I do know that this book really brings out the futility of such human conflict. The battle has very less to do with good and evil, because both sides have very little territory to occupy on moral high grounds. A line from Star Wars comes to mind “you have become the very thing you swore to destroy”. Prabhakaran’s treatment of fellow Tamils is about as bad as what the Lankan army inflicted on them. As a Lankan Tamil says in the book, the Tigers first lost the war “for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils” before it lost the other war.

The Road to Character

David Brooks

The concept of the book is something I could easily relate to. In fact, it reminded me of a favourite concept from the Mahabharata – Jaya and Vijaya. Vijaya is victory over others, and Jaya is victory over self. In this book, the author writes about two sides of our nature – one that is ambitious and career oriented, and another that is more concerned with the moral battles within.

He calls the former the ‘Big Me’ culture, where the focus is on the individual – be it consumption, or self actualisation. The alternate is where the individual has the humility to understand that he is part of a much bigger picture and through what the author calls ‘eulogy virtues’ builds relationships and moral standards. Using examples across history, walks of life, gender and race, he illustrates how some people have built themselves a moral fibre slowly but surely. He then uses the lessons from these as a contrast to the excesses of our age – from contexts that range from parenthood to social media.

The journeys of the individuals are in themselves fantastic reads. The chapter titles are a clue to the thrust of the arguments within – self conquest, struggle, self mastery etc – and the author does a great job of tracing the tribulations, and the moral ascent of the people involved. My favourite would be George Eliot. Across the vast stretches of time that separates us, her words spoke to me. More

The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton
“Helping us live our lives” is the purpose of philosophy, says the blurb on the book cover, attributed to Independent. I vaguely remember Plato saying that the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die, but let’s assume that Independent is talking about the purpose of philosophy in the context of this book. The intent of the book, therefore, cannot be faulted.
The author, both in terms of content and style of writing aims to make the works of the masters accessible to us. Content both from what he chooses to share from the works as well as the packaging. The human conditions that are addressed are universal and what keeps us up at night – unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy (that’s probably not that universal), a broken heart, and difficulties. In each of these contexts, the author draws from not just the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche but their lives as well. He also uses snippets from his own life to give it a contemporary flavour and wit to make it relatable. So far so good.

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro

I was a little biased before I started this book. It is impossible to escape the hype – it is a Booker prize winner! But two points – the ‘slimness’ of the book, (!) and the overall premise – a butler’s reminisces – made me wonder about how good it would be. Silly me, I realised long before the book was finished.

The premise is indeed that – Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall sets out on a ‘motoring’ tour at the suggestion of his new employer Mr.Farraday. In addition to some leisure time before he implements a new (and much reduced) staff plan, Stevens also looks forward to meeting and recruiting the mansion’s former housekeeper Miss Kenton, who had left the service to get married. He is hopeful of achieving this end thanks to a letter he has received from her which hints at some dissatisfaction in her life and a desire to be back at Darlington Hall.

The year is 1956, and this is as close to a roadtrip I have read of in that era. :) The narrative, in the first person, is as revealing of the perfect butler qualities of Stevens as the actual stories he shares. This is actually the triumph of the author – the masterly control over every said and unsaid word of the protagonist. The book takes us through the events of the trip itself as well as anecdotes from the past – when Stevens was still serving Lord Darlington. These tales bring to light the political intrigues at Darlington Hall as well as Stevens’ relationships with those around him – primarily his employer, and Miss Kenton. Hindsight gives Stevens (and the reader) a much different perspective of events from the time they actually occurred. We are able to see things much more clearly, something Stevens failed to do then. More