The Anti-Library

Unread books are where the action is.

The trader turned smart thinker Nassim Taleb approvingly calls such a collection an “ANTILIBRARY”; one’s shelves, he argues, should contain “as much of what you do not know” as finances allow. And he says don’t expect the proportion of unread books to fall, either.

The more you read, the more the perimeter of your knowledge increases, and the more you’ll realise what you don’t know.

Back in India when I was living in a capacious apartment all by myself I used to stock my shelves with books both read and unread, the former over time out numbering the latter.  I naively thought that was a good thing. Now in the limited confines of London where real estate (even post Brexit) is not exactly ‘cheap and abundant’, the numbers have switched. Limited space also honed my underdeveloped skill at ditching mediocre books right after reading them into the local charity shop bin. Now only a few books stay. So now the books lining my limited shelf space are either great books I retain and will re-read at some future date or mostly ‘pending to read’ books, all coming together into making the gestalt that is now my antilibrary. Morgan Housel, a great blogger, nailed my sentiment when he recently tweeted ‘90% of books should be half the length they are‘. My reviews of a books are here and here and here.

The Japanese have a cool word for all this : Tsundoku. It is the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. An avid american book collector once said something wise on the subject that resonated with me : “Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes Comfort, their ready access Reassurance.

Since I was 10 I have always been a dietary and reading omnivore. I will read anything on any subject as long as the book and the subject sound interesting. My wife will vouch that this is my exact approach to food too. Over the last year, using the fabulous algorithm of the  Keepa.com website I have purchased books covering wide and varied subjects and themes that I plan to delve into over 2017-18, in the hope of improving what Taleb aptly labels ‘the perimeter of one’s knowledge‘.

Recently I decided to summarize all the physical books I have on my shelf under conspicuous themes and motifs,  for two reasons, one selfish and one altruistic. Writing about it forces me to rationalize the actual purchases and also altruistically serves as a starter for ten for readers like you looking for some book suggestions  for the upcoming summer.

Welcome to my Tsundoku…

2017-06-11 21.26.58

Well written autobiographies of 5 worthy people. The book ‘TITAN’ I would rank as one of the best 5 books I have read in the last few years, the apotheosis of what a good book ought to be. The middle book (Snowball) I am reading midway and I think it is going to rank up there with the best of them. The bottom two are pending. I would put all 5 in the curriculum if I were the dean of a decent undergrad college.

2017-06-11 21.31.02

As someone who migrated from one country to another (India to UK) I am keen to fill the gap in my knowledge of my adopted country and these 8 books are an attempt at that. 3 of them I finished reading and ALL of the 3 I heartily endorse.

  1. Tudors – cracking good tale
  2. The Angry Island – The best caustic prose I have encountered in the last few years. His asperity towards the unemotive island people is penetratingly hilarious
  3. Longitude – a book so gripping I started at 9 PM and stayed up till 5 AM to finish it

The other 5 are pending a read.

2017-06-11 21.38.07

If someone was looking to move to India and asked me for books to understand the country, I can confidently say the Naipaul Trilogy would get the job done. It is about India as it IS, not as it is ineffectually and prosaically penned about in most books and articles about the country. It was after reading these three books that I understood Naipaul for the genius he is and the real history of my country that is never written about even today. The other 2 are pending a read.

 

2017-06-11 21.28.01

I am a complete sucker for sea faring survival takes and anything old navy related. And these 5 scratch that itch. Two of them (Endurance and In The Hear of the Sea) I read one after another and was blown away by both. Set about 100 years apart, they suck you in and don’t let you go until the end. Last thursday I recommended the book ENDURANCE to my team at work as not just a survival take but also one of the best books on Leadership and Teamwork out there. The other 3 are pending a read.

2017-06-11 21.36.41

These are assorted books on the subject of Metacognition, Heuristics, Forecasting, Thinking and Decision Making,  an effort to polish my own ingenuous executive functions & skills.

2017-06-11 21.33.34

These two books are my attempt to understand Investing from someone OTHER THAN Warren Buffet for a change. The left one I suspect is going to be refreshingly discursive and not stick tightly to dry finance.

2017-06-11 21.34.37

I would rank the decrepit looking The Best and The Brightest as one of my best books from the last decade. Halbertstam is a great writer and the book is just so good wading through the dense fastidious prose it feels akin to reading a John Grisham novel. A great primer on the pitfalls of Groupthink and Pink Flamingoes.

2017-06-11 21.34.57

This grandiloquent tome by Chomsky on the right was an eye opener in the real sense the word is meant. Depressing but oh-so-needed in these times. This too would go on the curriculum of my imaginary college reading list.  The left one is pending.

2017-06-11 21.37.34

Both books I have heard good press about. right one to understand Cancer, something that will kill the majority of us if heart related issues don’t do the morbid job first. And the left book (GENOME) is to understand the new upcoming CRISPR related developments.

2017-06-11 21.38.49

I am a sucker for crisp essays and I am promised by wise people that these two authors are worth the investment.

2017-06-13 04.59.24

These 4 books are an attempt to better understand the events that shaped the superpowers in the first half of the 20th century. Definitely sombre reads I suspect.

 

2017-06-11 21.39.38

These three to understand better the places I hope to visit someday and spend time without just being a tourist in the pejorative term. Africa, America and Europe. All covered here. The Bryson book, while dated, is hilarious and after a visit to a European destination mentioned in it, I always read the chapter on it to get at HIS funny and smart take on the place.

2017-06-11 21.40.30

4 books to better fit into and understand the workplace. Prince and Effective Executive are almost mandatory reading at this juncture. The Peter Principle is wry but sharp. Inside Drucker’s Brain I am still to tackle.

Hope this wets your reading appetite and gets you onto a few of them. I can vouch that most have made it to the shelf only after some solid research and good reviews so the odds are decent that most are worth your precious time. Find a decent perch to park and dive into a few. I recommend outdoors now that summer is here.

Happy Reading!

IMG-20170611-WA0014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders

Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga are the 3 indisputable tallest mountain ranges out there. It is likely on the bucket list of many new and aspiring climbers, working as a backdrop siren call as they hone their skills on lesser mounds.

Book lovers have their own list but this list can never be definitive since there can be no universal consensus on what should go into “the toughest reads out there!” book list. Each person’s list, like the idea of utopia or hell, is personal and unique.

But odds are a 100 book list made by a lot of bibliophiles would likely contain gems like:
    Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville
    Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
    The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

These books are reputed to be very tough slogs and there is no definitive guarantee you will turn the last page and feel glad you dived in. In fact, chances are most of these books will be flung across the room well before the last chapter. A lot of them are wilting in bookshelves around the world waiting for a day when the owner inevitably bundles it into the charity box for donation.

When I purchased ‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders‘ on 15 November 2013 (for the pricy sum of £2.07) I was not sure what I was in for. All I knew was that I liked Warren’s way of thinking, his approach to business and investing and I wanted to read more from the man directly, not via a biographer or hired hand. I surely would have done a double take if my future self had told me I would take 865 days to finish this thick fat almost 1000 page book.

 

L2S

‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders’ is not a book really but a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and 2nd richest man on Earth. Each year he writes a letter to his shareholders telling them how well (or poorly) Berkshire Hathaway, the company he runs, did. So technically this books, containing 50 letters, from 1965 to 2015, took 50 years to ‘write’. (Amazon automatically updated the kindle version with the letters of the last 2 years, after I purchased the book in 2013. Go Amazon!).

But then saying this book is a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffett is akin to saying “History is about some important dates”. ‘Letters to Shareholders’ is soooo much much more than just a collection of letters. Through these 50 letters, Buffet talks about the wider investing and business world and touches on a lot of very interesting subjects, giving the reader a solid grounding on many helpful topics that can stand in as 24 Carat practical life lessons.

The book is especially splendid at educating the reader on 3 topics:

1. Investing: Over 50 letters (sermons?) Buffet elaborates on what being a value investor is all about and how to think like a smart value investor. There are books explicitly dedicated to teaching you investing and they fail at it while this £2 book does in effortlessly. Warren talks at length on how to think about investing and then how to act on that thinking. This alone makes this book worth the time needed to read it. I envy the young reader who finishes it before his 25th birthday. He is guaranteed to have a literally richer life than he would otherwise have had, whatever his starting position was weath-wise. Warren’s 2005 letter has a write up on ‘How to minimize investment returns’. What a tour de force that particular one was. As was the 2013 section ‘Some thoughts on investing’.

2. Business: Berkshire Hathaway buys and oversees a boatload of companies and Buffet wades deep into what specific metrics matter when running and evaluating a firm and which are the dubious ones (it’s EBIDTA). There are many colleges around the world, esp. in third world countries , offering dubious 2 year+ MBA and Business Diplomas that fail to do what this one little book does by itself: Give the reader an unbeatable and thorough education in the basics of thinking like a CEO/Businessman.

3. Understanding the Insurance Industry : Berkshire Hathaway at its core is an Insurance firm and as a Consultant currently embedded at one such firm, I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive overview on how to look into and understand the industry and the myriad operators in it. Insurance plays a crucial part in economies globally and the book gives the reader lessons on how to evaluate the health of the industry and a firm in it. Nothing comes close.

So yes, while it took me the better part of 30 months to finish this book end to end, it was only because one should ingest this book slowly and gradually to let the lessons and Buffet’s wisdom sink in, like sand settling at the bottom of a lake. A beach read this book is most definitely not but you know what this book most definitely is : The best £2 I ever spent.

So go on, jump in and climb this Everest of a book . The view from the top is breathtaking.

2014 Books Review

I took the easy way out and went with an infograph to tell you 4 books you could try among the 33 books I read this year.

Click on the URL below or on this sentence to jump to the site.

https://infogr.am/books-of-2014-102

Full list of books read in 2014 below :

Book 1 The Strategist’s Toolkit
Book 2 The Dispossessed
Book 3 Life Itself
Book 4 The Martian
Book 5 Old Man’s War
Book 6 A Fire Upon the Deep
Book 7 Badass
Book 8 A Deepness in the Sky
Book 9 The Lowland
Book 10 Brideshead Revisited
Book 11 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Book 12 All You Need Is Kill
Book 13 How the Light Gets In
Book 14 Slaughterhouse
Book 15 Physics of the Impossible
Book 16 The Whisperers
Book 17 Read This Before Our Next Meeting
Book 18 The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty
Book 19 What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Book 20 Skeleton Crew
Book 21 Fuzzy Nation
Book 22 Dreadnaught (The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, #1)
Book 23 The Making of Modern Britain
Book 24 The Age of Wonder
Book 25 Thinking Statistically
Book 26 The Memory Chalet
Book 27 Fooled by Randomness
Book 28 Look To Windward
Book 29 Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places
Book 30 The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
Book 31 From Dictatorship to Democracy
Book 32 Embroideries
Book 33 HBR Guide to Project Management

Book Review : “The Whisperers” – brilliant and supremely depressing

This 666 page tome has been a companion over the last few weeks.

 

IMG_20140810_235113

Back in 2012  I voted `Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea` by Barbara Demick as my favourite book of that year. It gave the readers a searing look into the life of ordinary people in the present day hell that is North Korea. Think of THE WHISPERERS, as `Nothing to Envy` on a much larger canvas and far more disturbing in its well researched details.

Some background : Growing up in the CBSE educational system in India meant you were invariably fed the bland sanitized Congress party approved version of global history and this invariably meant you were fed laughable lies that the `Planned Economy` , borrowed from the great USSR, was the ideal and only way for India to follow into its own destined utopia and that the USSR was already a well planned paradise. Nothing could be further from this appalling lie and it is exposed in excruciating detail in this book. The cost of following the corrupting ideology of Communism is scrupulously documented by Figes and reading the book helps you grasp the horrors that millions of Soviet citizens went through. It is frequently claimed that Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Reading the book helps you understand what he was on about and how right he really was. The book goes a long way in explaining why Russians, even today, have only this barely tenuous link to a sense of civic duty, a moral compass and urban manners and why they are keenly reticent and mostly keep to themselves. And drink. Who can blame them after the horrors their parents and grandparents went through for almost 7 decades. And ow they are stuck with Putin.

There are so many sad tales well told here of families broken up, imprisoned, killed, tortured and dispersed. Roberto Benigni could make about another thousand ’Life is Beautiful’ movies from real life scripts. The one that most affected me was this gut wrenching story of a father, Nikolai, imprisoned for no reason really, because that is how real communism operates, who in the book, is writing to his young daughter, Alyonushka, from the Gulag, and trying to reassure her everything is going to be OK. He starts penning a tale, sent in parts, titled “THE UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF SHAMMI” and the heart breaking details in the letters he writes to her are so depressing that I was forced to frequently stop reading and catch myself from giving up and just walking into oncoming traffic. That chapter, ironically titled “THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS”, ends with “…THIS WAS THE LAST LETTER. SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, ON 17 SEPTEMBER, NIKOLA WAS EXECUTED BY A FIRING SQUAD”.

 IMG_20140823_145307

The October 1917 revolution consumed its children in the end. USSR became the biggest Standford Prison Experiment in history. The chapter THE GREAT FEAR brings to mind this stanza I once read :

The dogs of hell, my friend,

Will find you too.

Maybe after they tire a while,

Of the taste of Me

Joseph Stalin was a thug and what he did to USSR makes what Hitler did to Germany, Europe and the Jews look like amateur hour. It is shocking to realize even today Hitler has more publicity as THE EVIL MAN when Stalin was far far far more brutal on a far longer time scale. While Hitler was forced to commit suicide, Stalin lived out his day in regal comfort right till the end.

In summary why read `The Whisperers’?

  1. Understand the USSR in far better detail that you were allowed in the classroom
  2. Truly familiarize yourself with Orwell was attacking in `1984` and `Animal Farm`. Totalitarianism is just a word. The reality is much much more scary and painful.
  3. See how the best intentions of founding visionaries get corrupted by the subsequent thugs who follow inevitably in their footsteps. Farmers and Workers (histories inevitable useful idiots) are always taken for a ride by these villains.

All in all, this is a really good book that I highly recommend.

IMG_20140727_142235

My best 3 Books and 3 Documentaries of 2012

A smart idea that the bibliophiles online mecca ‘Goodreads.com‘ came up with was the ‘Reading Challenge’ where you pledge at the start of a year to finish a certain number of books and then try to make sure you do. Last year I pledged to read 26 books and did. At the start of this year I optimistically jacked up that number to 30 and at the beginning of September I had managed to finish only 13 books. A reading rate of around 3 books every 2 months. So in September I really really floored it. Today I counted up and realized I have managed to start and finish with 11 books in September. So it looks like those homilies on perseverance and persistence were not bong smoke. It was a mixed bag too. Some books were wonderful, some had limited pleasures to be extracted from drilling in and 3 were gushers in the pleasure they managed to evoke thumbing those their pages. Here is a 1 line review of each of the 11, preceded by this beautiful quote from Sagan on books:

CS on BOOKS

Night‘ – The suffering on one man in the Nazi camps and the story of how he survived. Think ‘The Pianist’ in book form. 3 stars.

Child 44‘ – Thriller about a killer on the loose in Communist Russia. The description of life in that horrible system chilled me more. 3 stars.

The Old Man And The Sea‘ – Numbing tale of a senile man’s ramblings from too much sun that had an important lesson: Hemmingway is boring. 1 star.

Escape from Camp 14‘ – True story of how one man-child escaped the horrible North Korean labor camp. 3 stars.

Forever War‘ – Fantastic Sci-fi about one man’s tale as a soldier in a pointless war spanning centuries. 4 stars.

The Little Prince‘ – famous French tale of the little prince who travels to Earth. 2 stars.

The Gods Themselves‘ – Asimov. How can one say no? Not as powerful as the foundation series but some bits were absorbing. 2 stars.

A Clockwork Orange‘ – Nadsat is daunting but ..this is important…you pick it up fast and then, O my brothers, it’s mayhem. 2 stars.

The Lazy Project Manager’ – breaks down project management into the minimum needs to launch. 2 stars.

The Sirens of Titan‘ – My first Kurt Vonnegut book. And the closest I think I have come to seeing a book rivaling the famed Hitchhikers Guide in satire.  4 stars.

The Curse of Chalion‘ – Epic fantasy set in a medieval Spain setting. With magic and saints. Deserved all the rave reviews it got. 4 stars.

So if you are looking to add 3 books to your reading list that both enjoyable and really worth finishing before 2013 year end, I’d recommend you go with:

1. Forever War

2. The Sirens of Titan

3. The Curse of Chalion

Can I also please add 3 documentaries to this mix that will totally rope you in from start to finish? – For those who say ‘Si’:

1. Collapse – A very good ‘intellectual horror movie’ that examines the dark side of our oil dependency.

2. Indie Game : The Movie – How 3 developers gave it their all and made the awesome indie games they did.

3. TPB AFK – A documentary film based on the lives of the three founders of The Pirate Bay Bit Torrent tracker.

These 6 real gems should keep you busy in Quarter 4.

Enjoy…

Book Review : ‘Longitude’

I bought this book at 5 PM on a lazy Saturday afternoon at a charity bookstore in Kilburn Park. At 1 AM I was checking with my wife  if she minded the bedroom light I was reading this by. If she did I said I’ll go to the kitchen. Because there was no way I was going to bed without finishing the book. I finished the book at 2 AM.

Yes. It is THAT good and gripping. Dava Sobel has done a very good job on the story. The book I nominated as the best I read in 2012 was read furtively over many late nights but Longitude is on a league of its own. I have read best selling fictional spy thrillers where I was yawning at the climax scene. This book actually fits the cliched description ‘Unputdownable’. Best 2 pounds I ever spent at a charity shop too. To those disinclined to read….ewwww…”books!” : Please. This book is a short, almost breezy, 175 pages. 3 days of easy trundle and you are done. To the hardcore bibliophiles : 12 hours on the outside of a lazy rainy day if you take long meal breaks.

“Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time”  by Dava Sobel

What in this book is so compelling ? What is it about ? Here is the short Amazon summary:

Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day–and had been for centuries.  Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land.  Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution.  One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution–a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.  Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison’s forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer.  Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.

Here is the total kicker that I did not know until last night but thank to the curiosity provoked by this book I now do: A prime meridian is a meridian, i.e. a line of longitude, at which longitude is defined to be 0°. This great circle divides the sphere, e.g. the Earth, into two hemispheres. I live a 90 second walk from the prime meridian!!!. I feel akin to a devout christian who finds out by serendipity that he lives 90 seconds away from the barn where Jesus was born. #MINDBLOWN

This is the kind of book that once again does well what our dry boring schooling failed to do but had an obligation to : Make history, geography and science alive and interesting, Because as Longitude proves… they all were! I am so fascinated by all the little facts and details in the book that I am today taking advantage of the fact that I live about an hour from the famed Royal Observatory here in London (which played a major role in the book and is best known as THE location of the prime meridian) and so I am going to the hill in Greenwich Park to  see some of the instruments mentioned in the book. Also John Harrison. What a man. We all need to know about this genius. His story needs to be spread. A carpenter who changed the world. That is pretty much this book in a nutshell.

Go to Flipkart/Amazon, buy it and it just may be the best thing you read in a long while.

Image

2012 Books Review

In late 2011 I ended up at THE digital HQ of book lovers online : Goodreads.com | Earlier, I used to mostly read book reviews on amazon.com before I bought a book. After Goodreads.com, Amazon was history. GR’s iPad app works well too and I like their tagline when the app loads (“Meet your next favorite book“)

GR

GoodReads has a nifty idea I enrolled in: 2012 Reading Challenge. At the start of the year you set yourself a goal and then try hard to hit it. While holding down a job (and in my case, getting married in the same year). Like most stunts on TV and youtube, this is more difficult than it appears, especially if the target is not too low. But unlike those stunts, this one ought to be tried at home. In my case, I aimed at 26 books for 2012 thinking less along the lines of the Nike’s famous old motto and more along the lines of Leo’s encouraging line ”If you reach for the stars, you might not quite get one, but you won’t end up with a handful of mud, either.’ 26 was stars for me. Mud was anything less than 10 books read in 2012.

But to my happy surprise, I achieved my goal today. 26 books read in 12 months!

(click on the image to see in full size!)
(click on the image to see in full size!)

DIDIT

This, while juggling 4 on-going transition projects and getting married in the year (and all the logistics THAT happy project involved). The Key: Try and read wherever and whenever you can. In the loo, in the subway, in the office cafeteria, in bed before sleeping, in bed on a lazy Sunday, when you are eating alone, in the airport lounge and in the flight later, on the bus and even when your niece is climbing you to grab your short hair (true story). A few of the books mentioned here I had on my kindle, on my ipad and a hard copy simultaneously. Because complete access is the key to wining this game. Not having kids to look after helps too.

Last year I managed to read 18 books so 26 read this year feels like a good step up over that non-inconsequential number. The best movies of 2012 were reviewed a few days ago. Below is my hopefully crisp and short summary of the books I was a ‘customer of’ in 2012 and my top 3 recommendation to you from these 26. I have arranged a few by authors and a few by subjects.

Hitchens:

My mini-review of – Arguably: Selected Prose by Hitchens, Christopher is this : A collection of superb essays written over the years by the polemic with a prodigious output and a point of view on a range of subjects. All conveniently collected in one place. Some topics will not be familiar to you so you can either choose to educate yourself on it or skip the essay. I found myself doing both over the course of reading these essays. Dense? No doubt. Raises IQ by a notch ? No doubt either. Buy this for when you really really can read with patience. Not an easy book to conquer in one sitting. Or A Holiday.  A really dazzling read.

My mini-review of – The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favorite Fetish by Hitchens, Christopher is this : Hitchens. When his claws are sharp, his appetite for blood is peaking and when he has found a convenient target that riles him, his prose acquires that deft sickle chop that is pleasure to behold from a distance. Old book but still feels fresh and relevant after the recent media swoon over the coming Kate baby. Good read.

My mini-review of – Mortality by Hitchens, Christopher is this : The last days of a legend chronicled. And to the end he was still so lucid. Here he shows the world how to face the grim reaper and not surrender to pathos. An exemplary achievement and read.

Bryson:

My mini-review of – A Walk in the Woods by Bryson, Bill is this : Funny. Educative. Details his walk across some bits of the American Appalachian trail. Book detours, like the author, on some excellent history of the trail and America in general. Absolutely loved this book. Buy it the first chance you get.

My mini-review of – At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bryson, Bill is this : Also funny. Also very educative. While the previous book was on America, At Home is like a mini class on UK and how our modern way of living came to be. As usual and as expected, Bryson is at his curious best here too. This book can be slowly read over a stretch of time as the chapters are self-contained. An excellent read.

Lewis:

My mini-review of – The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Lewis, Michael is this : The 2008 financial collapse is so deftly covered here, you can read this book and not bother with reading anything else. The highest praise I can shower on Lewis, after reading Big Short is that he is David Halberstam’s true heir on the post event analysis. An excellent book written like a taut thriller. Was it not ?.

My mini-review of – Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour by Lewis, Michael is this : Lewis is a genius at the long essay format and here he shows you why. He reviews various places hit by the crisis ( Iceland, Ireland, Greece etc) and how and why it happened there . Some countries are profiled so very deftly. Greece esp was well done. Buy for a long flight out to any of the countries Lewis mentions to better understand it. A very very good book to read almost anywhere.

Military History :

My mini-review of – Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 by Crowley, Roger is this : History is fun to read when it is written this lucidly. The book covers the way the city was conquered and the background to all the players involved. A mini  education on the middle ages is inevitable and appreciated. It never gets too dense or boring but does gets repetitive in some parts. Still, I recommend you buy this to start your ‘Well written history‘ section of the bookshelf.

My mini-review of – Empires Of The Sea: The Final Battle For The Mediterranean, 1521-1580 by Crowley, Roger is this : The Middle ages were brutal. Read gripping account on why it was so. Buy this to start your ‘Well written history’ section of the bookshelf

Modern History:

My mini-review of – Postwar: A History Of Europe Since 1945 by Judt, Tony is this : The densest, best modern history book I have read in my life. Some of the prose is sheer genius phrasing (“In Western Europe the same fault-line found many intellectuals on both sides; but enthusiasm for Communism in theory was characteristically present in inverse proportion to direct experience of it in practice”)

Sci-Fi:

My mini-review of – Foundation and Earth (Foundation, #5) by Asimov, Isaac is this : Asimov. Foundation Series. The BEST Sci-Fi In the world. Buy the ENTIRE Foundation series for a long holiday read

My mini-review of – Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1) by Simmons, Dan is this : That story of the priest. Jesus. I had nightmares. Buy this and stop. This is the best of the lot

My mini-review of – The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2) by Simmons, Dan is this : Sorta OK. Some parts were too stretched and boring. Borrow if you are a total Sci-Fi nerd only

My mini-review of – Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) by Banks, Iain M. is this : Sci-Fi. Was good. Got dreary at some bits but held together. Borrow this one when someone else is done with it

My mini-review of – The Player of Games by Banks, Iain M. is this : The world he spun here sucked me right in. Brilliant Sci-Fi. LOVED IT. Buy it to read a great Sci-Fi book

Management:

My mini-review of – Why Your Boss Is Programmed to Be a Dictator by Dhruve, Chetan is this : While his solutions are naïve I think, Dhruve’s collected anecdotes in support of his theory is pretty interesting. Buy it in your quest to be a good boss to your directs  or to understand why some bosses are dictators.

My mini-review of – Do the Work by Pressfield, Steven is this : Self Help book. Was Ok. Borrow this one when someone else is done with it

Cinema:

My mini-review of – Your Movie Sucks by Ebert, Roger is this : Ebert is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and some of his reviews here show you why he won it. Buy it on a long flight to a international film festival maybe.

Travel:

My mini-review of – Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and There by Gill, A.A. is this : I read his Vanity Fair grenade at Dubai. Right after I went and bought this book. Did not disappoint. Acerbic wit and prose. Places covered were just an excuse to demonstrate it I suspect. Still, a good book.

Autobiography:

My mini-review of –  The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul by Patrick French  is this : The most refreshingly honest biography of a flawed genius. Brutally honest and very well researched and written by French. The for  me is the gold standard of how someone’s life should be chronicled.  Naipaul is without any doubt a great writer and fearless and honest observer of cultures and a pucca absolute ungrateful douchebag in real life. Maybe one flowed from the other. Who knows. Maybe there is a price extracted from the world for Genius. His first wife paid most of THAT bill I suspect. But so did many many of his betrayed friends. But the book is such a brilliant read and I was totally sucked in.

Illustrated Books:

My mini-review of – Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan, Brian K. is this : Brilliantly illustrated book about the fate of a pride of lions in the eponymous city when the US troops move in and bomb Baghdad to the stone age. War is ugly not just for the humans. The ending was so so depressing (Thanks Vivek!). Masochist ? Read it right after you see Lion King for extra punch!

My mini-review of – The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow by Patel, Sanjay is this : I admit I initially ought this one for my 5 year old niece. For the excellent illustrations of Hindu dieties. But adjacent to the said pictures, which she loved by the way, were essays on the said diety. And i am ashamed to admit, although born to Hindu parents, I know little about the mythology of the religion. And it is one batshit crazy mythology. The mini-essays were so very educational and Hindu religion does have some rich characters and mythos. Read it to know the quality weed our ancestors (must have) smoked and the output thereof.

Non Fiction:

My mini-review of – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Demick, Barbara is this : Unbelievably riveting account of 6 escapees from that hell that is North Korea. This book slowly builds to a climax when all of them flee the modern penal colony that is North Koren. I dreamt about the characters in this book. I obsessively googled about North Korea after reading this book. For a while I started appreciating all the things I enjoyed of and in the civilized world with renewed rigor. This book had that kind of effect on me. The prose is accessible and doesn’t get preachy or high fartulent. I have read countless thrillers which was not even a tenth as gripping as the tale of these surviors and how they logistically managed to escape the gulag. North Korea. A true shop of horrors. The most memorable line ? “dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea”

My mini-review of – Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead by Brockway, Robert is this : The author covers the various real genuine things in the modern world that can kill us. Does a good job too. Helps that his tone is funny but als the math and science behind it is not. Helps you realize how fragile it all is.

My mini-review of – Maybe Baby: 28 Essays by Leibovich, Lori is this : Essay by mostly women writers on the decision to have a baby. or not. Some advise yes, some no and some are ambivalent. A few essays in this compendium were good. Some were Meh and not a few felt like the authors were just posers trying to sound deep and smart(but failing). One essay by Kathryn Harrison about her grandmother was truly well written.  Recommended to any couple trying to make an informed decision about having babies.

Fiction:

My mini-review of – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) by Larsson, Stieg is this : Probably my only mistake in trusting good-reads reviews.  I was mislead and this is by a long margin one of the shittiest book I have read in a while. What a boring prodding lame book. The language is wooden, dead as a dodo and I could not give a shit about the various listless characters and was half hoping the killer got them. If I wasn’t on the 2012 RC, I would have thrown this one away way way before I finished it. Read it to only know what a shit fiction book reads like. On second thoughts, just avoid.

—————————————————————————————————————-

Last year, I voted this book as my best book of 2011 :

hitch-22-a-memoir

THE Best Book I read in 2012 was (drum roll)

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

nothing-to-envy-cover

So if you are going on a holiday and decide to buy and read only 3 books from these 26 books above, I would heartily recommend these three :

  1.             Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
  2.             Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour by Michael Lewis
  3.             A Walk in the Woods by  Bill Bryson
(click on the image to see in full size!)
(click on the image to see in full size!)

And here is my fave picture of me browsing books! Taken by the talented wife, in Madrid, in summer this year. When the snap was taken she was my girlfriend (and in less than 100 hours of this picture being taken, she was my fiancée! I am NOT implying a connection….but…)

(click on the image to see in full size!)
@Madrid, Spain

2011 Books Review

And so 2011 is ending.  And what a ‘interesting’ year it has been! A roller-coaster I was scared to get onto, continued to be scared when it initially accelerated but something I started to reallyyyy enjoy and get the hang of as it picked up momentum.

This post is not about 2011 as a year. That is for a later post when I am more sober.

This post is all about the books I read this year and my reviews of them. Yes. Books. I’ll try to keep it straight and short  in the vain hope it helps the few (who didn’t instantly jump away to the youtube url on reading the subject of this post) just maybe choose something to add to their  own 2012 reading list.

Edward Morgan said ‘….A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face.  It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.’

Here is where I managed to find my provocation and privacy in 2011 :

Click on this image to see it in bloody decent size!
Click on this image to see it in bloody decent size!

And below is my ‘Be bloody quick about it Shiva‘ review  of the above books:

The Places in Between : 8/10
Rory, the proverbial ballsy Scottish mensch, walked across Afghanistan right after the US attacks there had started and survived to pen abt the adventure. This is his story. And what a brilliant story it is. Simple, accessible prose that describes the landscape and people he meets in a way that makes you go ‘wow!’ again and again.
My Recco : Buy and read as soon as possible!

Rework : 6/10
Good book for anyone either starting their own venture or wondering how they could add more boost to their team and dept. I like 37Signal’s blog and this seems like an offshoot of it.
My Recco : Buy it if you want to raise your game at work a little/lot.

AA Gill is away : 8/10
Part hilarious, caustic,funny,jaded and curious, this book will have you laughing and nodding your head while you thumb through it. Gill reviews a lot like his buddy Jeremy Clarkson and his brand of brit humor is just as lethal and laugh out funny.
My Recco : Read it on the next long haul flight.

Homage to Catalonia : 7/10
My poor education in European history got in the way of my enjoying this book as much as I hoped I would. That said, civil war has never been described in such accessible prose and one cannot finish this book and not like Orwell even more. War is boring, pointless and hellish and Orwell shows you why.
My Recco : Skip CNN and BBC for a month and just read this instead. You’ll understand international conflict better. Really.

Unaccustomed Earth : 7/10
A series of 8 absorbing tales about life, relationships and the ties that bind. mostly in Boston/USA. While this is not quite as good as her earlier book ‘Namesake’, Jhumpa still is a great storyteller. The first story in the book was the best for me.
My Recco : Buy it and read it on a rainy day when you are feeling a bit melancholic.

Among the believers : 8/10
Naipaul. How can you go wrong. While his heavy prose sometimes got a bit too much, his analysis of the religion and its hold on the people and the culture he contacts is unparalleled. My Feb 2011 review right after finishing it was ” Sharp writing. Naipal is caustic and devastatingly observant as ever. Among the four countries he profiled around 3 decades ago, only Malaysia escaped a depressing bleak fate. Penned in 1980, this book I suspect is more relevant NOW. An adult look into the Muslim faith and it’s fanatical believers.”
My Recco : Not for the light-hearted, this adventure is best be undertaken when you want to do some really HEAVY mental lifting.

India : An area of darkness
India : A wounded civilization
India : A million mutinies now
9/10
These 3 books can be counted as a unified meditation by Naipaul on India spanning 4 decades. If I has skipped all my Indian history class in school and just read these 3 books, I would have had a far far richer nuanced understanding of this country. A better, sharper and yes,scathing, critique of India will be tough to come by for a long time. While this was my review on ‘Wounded civilization’ earlier in the year, it can just as easily apply to all 3 in this punchy trilogy:

” …….Right off the bat I’ll say it : this is a brilliant book and I can see why this guy got the Literature Nobel Prize. The prose….is divine. And his commentary is equal parts scathing and genius. equal parts scalpel and sledgehammer. Consider how chapter #8, Renaissance or Continuity, begins: “Ghandhi lived too long“. Talk about blunt. This is part of his India trilogy and I cannot wait to get the other two. As an Indian I can say I am equal parts depressed and angry after reading this book. This man, passing through a country, made more astute observations about us that rivals the entire output made ‘inhouse’. You’d think I am spewing hyperbole. Read the book.”
My Recco : These are the definitive ‘India Books’ you should visit sometime in your life. Be ready for witheringly cruel personal observations about India. Read them but maybe not in one sitting (you’ll shoot yourself from the depression that will overcome you). So do it over time. Like maybe a decade or two.

The Bed of Procrustes : 8/10
Taleb’s aphorisms are mixed. Some made me go ‘What?!?!”, some “WTF?!!?” & “Bullshit!” and a lot along the lines of “wow!”; Some bits grate you, other just blow you away with their penetrating insight.
My Recco : Buy it and read in small doses over a month to truly appreciate it.

Ender’s Game : 6/10
An acclaimed Sci-fi novel about a 11 year old kid trained to lead a fleet to war. and his genius siblings. Some bits were absorbing. Some just bloody pretentious and boring. I was glad when it was over.
My Recco : Skip this.

RingWorld : 6/10
This Sci-fi story kicks of with a lot of kinetic potential but somewhere in the middle it is squandered. I expected something like Clarke’s Rama series. Still, the idea of Ringworld stays with you as an awe inspiring concept long after the crummy story is forgotten.
My Recco : Unless you are a die-hard sci-fi fan, skip this one.

Watchmen: 8/10
Dark.Depressing.And oh-so beautifully illustrated. Alan Moor’s depressing prognosis of humanity’s chances in an alternative world with superheroes and communism in it is equal parts epic and  This is not the commando comics we used to inhale during school. this ain’t your Tintin adventure. This is only for the gutsy adult in you.
My Recco : buy it and read it to appreciate what the medium can be elevated to in the right hands and head.

Art of Travel : 7/10
Botton’s essays on travel are equal parts lessons in the mindset to take along on a trip and the history and evolution on the art. Those of you born with the wanderlust genes would do well to keep this close to you when you visit your next destination.
My Recco : Take this to your next trip and read it before you return.

Letters to a young contrarian : 8/10
The Yoda of contrarians teaching the next generation on the art. In his characteristic prose that you almost levitate to while reading. And as ever, you’ll pick up some new words to add to your vocabulary, come across some phrases that bends your mind with it’s sheer evocative genius and also learn about history and art and philosophy. Yup. Every Hitchens book pretty much raises your IQ a notch when you are done with it.
My Recco : Buy it and read it again and again and again over the years.

And the BOOK OF THE YEAR:

Hitch 22 : 10/10
‘A good book has no ending’ said R.D Cumming. I wish this was true for Hitch-22. This is the BEST autobiography bar none I have read in my life and I am say with absolute certainty I have not seen prose this good in one before. What a man! and what a life! Yes, I am biased towards Hitchens as I, like a lot of others, look up to him as one of the very very few ‘heroes’ still alive so this review may be a bit tainted. Here is my full detailed review of this book.
My Recco : If you read only 1 book in 2012, make it Hitch 22.

And to those who will continue to skip reading in 2012, just know Twain once commented: ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.’

For 2012, here is a taste of some new books and some old books I want to visit and re-visit before the year is out :

Click oon this to see it in decent size!
Click on this to see it in damn decent size!

And oh yeah, the title of this post is borrowed for Stephen King. His original quote went “Books are a uniquely portable magic!”

Here is a toast to you finding your magic in 2012.

India through Naipaul’s eyes

Growing up like most Indians with a Congress Party sanctioned version of history (proving the old adage about how ‘history’ is a version decided by the winners) I realized, quite late in life, I really didn’t have the foggiest clue about what my India was all about. When you read  Michel de Montaigne lament, “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know” , you begin to question your true right to partake in any serious debate if your only exposure to your country’s history is to a distorted,  intellectually bankrupt version of the events (aka your C.B.S.E issued, officially sanctioned history text books).

And it is in some ways a fascinating history and the more media I consumed the more I realized how little attention 1/6th of humanity gets as a part of general global dialogue. So I decided I was going to find out more about India in a broader, nuanced, and cultural sense.

While it is difficult to get an unbiased outsider view of anything in the real sense, for this ambitious project I decided to go with Nobel laureate V.S Naipaul and by God, he didn’t disappoint!

I juxtaposed all this literature with what I was reading on the Anna Hazare agitation with Naipaul’s observations in his books and it all becomes spooky and prescient. Here is one that kicks you right in the gut. Read the last line and know Naipaul wrote that in 1977.

“All creation in India hints at the imminence of interruption and
destruction. Building is like an elemental urge, like the act of
sex among the starved. It is building for the sake of building,
creation for the sake of creation; and each creation is separate, a
beginning and an end in itself…. but at Mahabalipuram near
Madras, on the waste sand of the sea shore, stands the abandoned
Shore Temple, its carvings worn smooth after twelve centuries of
rain and salt and wind…. In India these endless mosques and
rhetorical mausolea, these great palaces speak only of a personal
plunder and a country with an infinite capacity for being
plundered.”

(Area of Darkness, page 219, Chapter ‘Fantasy and Ruins’)

Or here is another gem :

“Out of its squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many”

His trilogy deserve more publicity than it will ever get as it is one part utterly scathing social commentary and two parts wholly pessimistic about the Indian narrative. It is a terribly gloomy and dark fatalistic vision of things and I urge people who believe in rainbows, unicorns and innocence of kittens and puppies to never ever attempt this Everest.

For those who are fans of Orwell and could stomach 1984, you cannot and should not miss this set.

As for ‘A bend in the River’ and ‘Among the believers’, the former is just utter brilliant prose ( “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”, “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”) and the latter will help you understand Islamic fundamentalism better than all the blather you hear on NDTV, CNN and BBC.

All 5 books deserve prominent place in the shelves of any serious literature aficionado. Read them once before you join the next Hazare protest movement.