Books

Mightier than the Sword

Jeffrey Archer
I must admit to a bit of a grumbling before I started the book, the reason being that Archer was supposed to finish the series in five books, but has now stretched it to seven! And since I have read the others, I would have to finish this. Add to this that it’s been a while since I read Book 4, I had to do a bit of online reading to catch up on the various plot lines. But all of that, I realised, is similar to a friend who irritates you by being habitually late, but once you start talking, all is forgiven.
The story of the Clifton extended family and enemies continues predictably with the existing narratives – Emma’s board room battles, Harry’s literary success, Giles’ politics, and Sebastian’s career progression. Arch enemies Virginia Fenwick and Alex Fisher also continue to be a thorns on collective sides. The narratives are furthered by the introduction of a new set of adversaries for Emma, Sebastian’s challenges on personal and professional fronts, and complications in Harry’s life largely owing to his support of a Russian author.

The Monk and The Philosopher

Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard

A biologist turned Buddhist in conversation with a philosopher about the meaning of life. If that isn’t interesting by itself, they happen to be son and father. (respectively) World views separated by time and distance. What really works is that Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel have absolute clarity on the points of view they represent, and yet, are not in the discussion to force their perspectives on the other.

The scope of the discussion includes scientific research, metaphysics, politics, psychoanalysis, and obviously religion as both share their perspectives on these topics. In many cases, they seem to arrive at the same destination, but via different paths.  More

Sunset Club

Khushwant Singh

This was the first time I actually read a Khushwant Singh book. It was the blurb that got me. The idea of three octogenarians in Delhi discussing everything from the weather to sex to politics was intriguing. Not because of the topics themselves, but because I have wondered about the lives of old people, the daily rituals they hold dear, and their perspectives of a changing world. Khushwant Singh was 95 when he wrote this (!) and therefore this would be very close to the real thing. I wasn’t mistaken because I would be very surprised if the character of Boota Singh wasn’t at least semi autobiographical.

Pandit Preetam Sharma and Nawab Barkatullah Baig make up the remainder of the trio, called The Sunset Club, who meet at Lodhi gardens on the Boorha Binch. The book captures a year in the life of these gentlemen, with occasional rear view looks into their past. Through their discussions, the reader gets a sense of the pluralism and the contradictions that make up India. It finds a parallel in their own lives, which are themselves a showcase of many contradictions.  More

The Moral Animal

Robert Wright

The last book I read in 2016 was “This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works” where leading thinkers share their favourite deep and elegant theory. An overwhelming number of them cited Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and though I have not been asked, I’d say rightly so. As someone rightly pointed out, the beauty and elegance is when one theory explains a lot of diverse phenomena, and is almost a gift that keeps on giving.

Robert Wright uses Darwin’s theory to explain exactly what the book’s title says – why we are the way we are, using Darwin’s own life to illustrate several facets of classic human behaviour. I have thus far viewed the brain as a product of evolution, and feelings and emotions as a vague result of biochemistry triggered by the environment and the brain. My views have been shaped by some excellent and diverse books – Sapiens, Scarcity, Finite and Infinite Games – to name a significant few. This book, in many ways, is an amalgamation of the best insights that those have to offer. But the brilliance of the book is in how it goes beyond, and draws the connection between mental organs and behaviour in the modern world.
The book throws light on the various behaviours we exhibit in our day to day life, many of which have their origins in the hunter-gatherer stage of our species and before. In fact, we even share some traits with our nearest relatives- chimpanzees and bonobos. Almost all facets of our life are addressed – relationship with parents, siblings, spouse, and society in general, politics, sex, friendship, religion etc.

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Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

Arundhati Roy, John Cusack

Given that Ms.Roy is one of the authors, it is only fair to expect a fair amount of radical thought in the book. In just over a hundred pages, it does just that, helped by John Cusack, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, who is described as the Snowden of the 60s.

The content is in the form of observations and conversations with one another. Arundhati Roy is in great form as she articulates thoughts that are not only profound but also vastly out of line with the propaganda that we are so familiar with. After all, even the resistance, as she says, has been quite domesticated. I found some of her observations quite astute. e.g. how “non violence is radical political theatre” and effective only when there is an audience. Or how “human rights are fundamental rights” and should be our minimum expectation, but they have become the maximum, whereas the goal really should be justice! My favourite though was on patriotism – how a country is just really an administrative unit but we end up giving it an esoteric meaning and protecting it with nuclear bombs!  More

Homo Deus

Yuval Noah Harari

The follow up to Sapiens, and therefore it arrived with huge expectations. To begin with, while this is a progression from the earlier work, it is also a standalone work. The book has three parts which I would broadly classify as past, present and future. The author spends the first third of the book summarising what he wrote in Sapiens, and if you have read that book, especially recently, you might find yourself muttering “Why doesn’t he get on with it?” :)
To be fair, he outlines his broad premise right at the beginning – having (relatively) conquered hunger, disease and war, humanity’s next agenda would be to master happiness, immortality and divinity. The path to that is what Yuval Noah Harari slowly but surely proceeds to elaborate on.

The second part of the book is where Harari sets the premise and context for the future by analysing the present. As is his wont, he goes about dissecting the origins of our current belief systems and the occurrences that have led us to what he calls humanism, and our collective belief in man’s central role in the scheme of things. More

Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore

Manu S Pillai

Absolutely fantastic, and the strange thing is, if you had asked me when I was even at about page 400 (out of 555) I probably would have used milder adjectives. I also wouldn’t have thought (at that point) that I was likely to change my opinion later because knowing the direction, I didn’t think the last 100 or so pages would even be interesting to me. But while they’re not really the focus of the book, and more an inevitable ending, it (to me) is what delivered the texture that mattered most.

But let’s begin at the beginning. The focus of the book is definitely Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was the Regent of Travancore from 1924-31, but the author spends the first section of the book in setting the context. The canvas is vaster than Travancore itself and everything from the fall of the Zamorin and the entry of Europeans to the evolution of the intricacies that decide the ruler of the land and the prevalent socio cultural setting sets the stage for the reign of the Senior Maharani.  More

Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly

History is not usually kind on its readers, and changing that is probably the biggest advantage this book has to offer. The author makes history accessible through a largely simple narrative and writing style. While he has taught history, I don’t think he is a historian. Thus it isn’t based on what one might call ‘original research’ but more an aggregation of sources. Indeed, the book cites a large number of sources for the information it gives.

The ‘seeding’ begins long before humans arrived on the scene, when plate tectonics created the land mass that is now called the Indian subcontinent. The geological results – the Himalayas that act as a barrier, the fertility of the land etc – have had huge implications on how the civilisation in this part of the world has evolved.

The book moves on to the Indus Valley civilisation, the influx of the Aryans and the Rig Vedic times, the later Vedic times, and in the process, touching upon quite a few popular misconceptions. This entire shift is obviously significant from a civilisational and cultural point of view, but it is also interesting to see the theatre of action shift from the Indus to the Ganga. The societal and cultural milieu is also explained well, using the texts of the time – the Vedas and Upanishads. More

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

At the beginning of the third chapter, the author asks us to imagine a world where there is only one operating system. In such a world, it would be difficult to imagine another OS, or even think of the OS as something that need not be the way it is. That, in a nutshell, is what money has become. “Central currency is the transactional tool that has overwhelmed business itself; money is the tail wagging the economy’s dog” because “money makes money faster than people or companies can create value”. The proof of it is in the abstractions that have come up in history – the stock exchange was an abstraction of commerce, and the derivatives market its further abstraction. The author notes how fitting it was when in 2013, a derivatives exchange had enough ‘value’ to buy the NYSE, its own creator of sorts!

My introductory paragraph, and the title itself might give you the idea that this is some kind of a call for a bloody revolution against capitalism and technology. But it isn’t. The title is based on an incident in 2013 and in fact, the author notes how Google, using its buses, is actually doing its bit to protect the environment. He proceeds to ask “since when has doing the right thing become the wrong thing?” The buses, he argues, are soft targets, and the real culprit is a program that promotes growth above all else. So if the book is a call for revolution, it is against the concept of growth for growth’s sake, because such growth is the enemy of prosperity.  More

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

“You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question : what else have I done wrong?” That is the disturbing thought I was left with on the penultimate page of the book. But it wasn’t always that way, you know.
Tony Webster is the narrator of his own life’s story. In the first part, which is about one third of the book, he sets up the context and the characters. There is a deceiving flippancy and brevity about this section of the book, and Tony does seem very capable of being true and objective about his own life. It’s only towards the end of it that one got even a whiff of a suspicion that something different lay ahead.

In the second section, the ‘peacable’ life that Tony desired (or did he?) is his. Even as he celebrates the ordinariness, we do get the other side by his own admission – “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was” and “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.” But it is when he gets the bequest from someone he met 40 yeas ago, and exactly once, that the story really unravels into a “what is really happening here?” mode. More