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27. The Human Stain

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Philip Roth's The Human Stain is a book that I have attempted reading a couple of times before this latest attempt. Somehow, I never got beyond the first 20 odd pages in my previous attempts. This time however, I was more successful, as is evidenced by this review.

The difficulty with this book perhaps lies in being drawn into the story and the complex language. Roth takes his time familiarizing the reader with his highly complex protagonist - Coleman Silk. But once drawn in, i.e., you get past say 50 pages or so, you'll definitely read along. Not so much for the plot but because along with Coleman's personal journey through post World War America, Roth also takes us on a tour of issues such as Race, Morality, Sex, Education, War, Motherhood, Womanhood and Identity in the 1990s. Through its painstakingly detailed examination of Coleman's life in the Berkshires, it pulls these questions into the forefront and forces one to think about some if not all of them.
Today the student asserts his incapacity as privilege. I can't learn it, so there is something wrong with it. And there is something especially wrong with the bad teacher who wants to teach it. There are no more criteria, Mr. Zuckerman, only opinions. I often wrestle with this question of what everything used to be. What education used to be.

Also making one hold on to the book are two polarised female leads - Faunia Farley and Delphine Roux. Delphine is a highly educated French woman seeking to make a name for herself in America's academia. She is Coleman's nemesis at Athena University where he was once dean of faculty. Faunia on the other hand is a victim of child abuse, a runaway, an illiterate janitor at Athena university. Delphine, for all her beauty and achievements is lonely. Faunia, despite her shabbiness and illiteracy is a constant draw for men.

These antithetical women tugging at Coleman's fate in the backdrop of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky calls into question society's notions of right and wrong, of purity, of bias, prejudice and racism. Most importantly Roth demonstrates how assertion often constitutes proof and just how often we evade thinking and judgement.
… in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen - there's no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace, or salvation or redemption. It's in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark.
Simply to make an accusation is to prove it. To hear the allegation is to believe it. No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence. The label is the logic.

27. The English Patient

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This is definitely my year for books on War, especially the world wars. After Slaughterhouse 5, Guernsey, and Farewell to Arms, The English Patient was my fourth book set in the period of the great wars. Micheal Ondaatje's novel is set in the immediate aftermath of the second world war in Italy, it is the story of four people - a nurse, a burnt man, a man from the bomb squad and an Allied spy.

As the story unfolds, we learn the truth of the burnt man, first thought to be English. We see how the Canadian nurse and Indian bomb disposal squad soldier deal with the horrors of war, power and domination in their own ways. We see how Caravaggio, a thief turned spy comes to terms with betrayal in the time of war. Intertwined are two love stories - that of the English Patient and that of Hana and Kip.

Ondaatje's prose is slow. In the words of his protagonist:
She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.
The story left me with an uncertain heaviness, one that was not quite sadness, or sympathy or anger or admiration. It lacked Vonnegut's scathing with or Hemingway's Irony or Mary Ann Shaffer's lightness of touch and hopefulness. It didn't give me a character to admire or to hate. A one time read perhaps. Definitely not a comfort book.

26. Curiouser & Curiouser: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy

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Alice in Wonderland is a childhood favourite of mine. Not just that, I went on to do a paper on it when I was in grad school – on literary nonsense as employed by Lewis Carroll in the two Alice books. So when I chanced upon Curiouser and Curiouser – Alice in Wonderland and philosophy, I obviously had to read it. When writing my paper, I had not referred to any direct analysis or critiques of Carroll’s works and I was excited to see what others had to say about Carroll’s fantasy land from various standpoints – politics, logic, philosophy.

The Book starts of on a simple enough note with Megan S. Lloyd examining how Alice is different from other fairytale heroines – a strong, independent, curious, lively, sometimes unscrupulous protagonist. She is as any little girl would want to be. Carroll in fact, wrote this for a little girl he knew – Alice Liddle.

… Alice, has begun to reject the female reality her sister has chosen, a passive compliance, fulfilling a traditional female role. Her sister presents one vision of women, those well educated with little to do.
… society all too often ridicules strong women, interpreting assertive actions as aggressive and transgressive.

Alice… can be a wonderful example for many things – especially logic and the use of nonsense to create humor and satire. However, to look for strategy and meaning in everything seemed like a force fit. Needless to say, the essays I most enjoyed were the ones on Logic, Nonsense and Nuclear strategy.

Nuclear strategy was a particularly interesting one to read as the author compares how international negotiators often make absurd and impossible statements in order to convince the world of the need for nuclear arsenals especially at the height of the cold war and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

Remember, strategists are wannabe realists allergic to reality:
The United States didn’t drop atomic bombs on Japan; it used two devices – Fat Man and Little Boy – to end the war.
Never say “War Department”; the name was changed to Department of Defense with the advent of the Atomic Age. In fact, don’t talk of war at all – sounds like someone could get hurt.
Sounds like Orwellian double speak does it not?
In plain English, Churchill and the others are saying: To reduce the risk of nuclear war, the risk must be increased.
On politics:
This treatment of words as objects of mastery rather than tools for discovery governs a lot of what foes on in Wonderland – an, come to think of it, in the real world as well, where political discourse and social reality so often take the form of the famous trial of the Knave of Hearts for his alleged theft of the tarts.
On the relationship between Memory and existence:
Diderot: Could you tell me what the existence of a sentient being means to that being himself?
D’Alembert: Consciousness of having been himself from the first instant he reflected until the present moment.
Diderot: But what is this consciousness founded on?
D’Alembert: The memory of his own actions.
Diderot: And without that memory?
D’Alembert: Without that memory there would be no ‘he’, because, if he only felt his existence at the moment of receiving an impression, he would have no connected story of his life. His life would be a broken sequence of isolated sensations.
With this book, I would recommend a quick skim to decide which topics you want to read and read just those essays. Also, to me what was important to remember, as with my term paper, was that the intentionality of the meanings being ascribed to the text are suspect. Carroll may or may not have meant his book to be considering questions of democracy, justice, drugs, or feminism. Readers from their own particular contexts of reading derive many of these meanings because Carroll at the end of the day wrote the book for a little girl.

Overall, A few forced essays drag down the joy of reading the book as a whole while others are full of vigour because they use Alice as a starting point and don’t necessarily try to tie every sentence in their essay back to Carroll’s work.

23, 24 & 25. The Declaration, The Resistance & The Legacy

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Technology hasn’t been my best friend lately and a cranky laptop landed me in crash land. Deprived of my fairly precious possession, I have fallen behind on my book reviews (thankfully not the books… +1 for paper books, -1 for ebooks :P).

I picked up a series of what I like to call Pulp fiction (fast reads) books recently – The Declaration, The Resistance and The Legacy – by Gemma Malley. Malley’s novels are set in a dystopian future where humanity has achieved immortality. People live forever, don’t age, and the man who makes the Longevity drug gets to play God!

The flip side? Those opting for Longevity must sign the declaration and give up the right to have children. Occasionally though, “illegal” children are born, and these “surpluses” must be sent off to surplus halls where they train to become servants for the legals. They must atone for burdening the earth with their presence.

The Declaration, the first novel of the trilogy (what’s it with threes anyway?), starts with the story of Surplus Anna and follows her discovery of life outside the Surplus halls. The novels raise the question of immortality and its morality – should mankind even seek such a world? Malley examines the phenomenon of a world without children, young people. A world where innovation has come to all but a grinding halt because there are no fresh minds, just people who have outlived their natural lifespan.

The novels look at what happens to the natural world when we get too greedy. In Malley’s dystopia, standards of living deteriorate despite the high technology as energy demands become too high to fulfill.

The Declaration was fast paced… Resistance slightly slower… Legacy even slower. It’s almost like the plot was slowed down to make three novels. While novels 2 & 3 had some development in Peter’s (the male lead) character, most of the others were pretty static and behaved as expected. The only good parts of the third novel were the two surprise revelations in the end. All in all, some decent, light reading to knock off a weekend. That’s about it!

22. Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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When I first heard of this book (on a reading challenge), my curiosity was piqued by the title. I was then more than overjoyed to spot the book at a dear friend's place and borrowed it once she was done with it.

A random letter received by an author leads to a correspondence about life in the channel island of Guernsey, off the coast of England under German occupation. The members of the Guernsey literary and potato peel pie society write to author Juliet Ashton about how books saved their lives during the war.

Shaffer & Barrows (Shaffer's niece completed the novel after her death) focus not on the soldiers but on the ordinary people and how their lives are affected by war. Rationing, curfews, bombardment, the claustrophobia and bereavement. Cut off from the rest of the world a small group of people in Guernsey discover the magic of stories and the cathartic power of reading; of it's ability to touch souls, inspire, provide solace.

Guernsey uses letters to tell the story, allowing for multiple narratives. The lost art itself brings on some whimsy, a sense of the story being set in a world quite different from ours. On the flipside, none of the voices are distinctive (except perhaps that of Mark Reynolds, Juliet's suitor)... something that one would expect in an epistolary novel.

There are poignant moments as the members relate how they discovered Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Christie's Miss Marple. The lands, worlds woven by these authors and their characters giving the residents of Guernsey to live through the hardships of occupation.
It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen. He was an officer in the First World War, and he knew what was what and called it by its right name. I was there, too, at Passcendaele, and I knew what he knew, but I could never put it into words myself... I have read the works of William Wordsworth - he would have stayed unknown to me. I learnt many of his poems by heart. 
Some of the sub-plots, though, are a tad (okay more than a tad) clichéd. Elizabeth's story though heroic, falls in this space as does the romantic angle of the novel. However, Guernsey is definitely worth a read for it's warmth and it's imagery of a quaint, long gone world.

21. Information diet: A case for conscious consumption

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I got interested in reading this book after reading this post. It is an area to think about for sure, given the abundance of information available, mostly for free all around us. When there is scarcity, or expense involved, people think, choose carefully. A similar notion occurred to me in the context of books when I was reading this piece on the notion of the library.

Author Clay Johnson starts of with an analogy that most of us will be able to relate to – that of obesity. He talks about what the abundance of food, and of processed food being available for cheaper and cheaper and what this has done to our diets. The free availability of information has done something similar for our information consumption habits he contends.

Right in the beginning, Johnson is clear where the responsibility lies. His introduction begins with this quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastard! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

Johnson spends sometime setting up the various facets of the problem, looking at it’s behavorial as well as technological roots. He points out something obvious yet something that needs to be brought upfront. The internet, when making itself relevant to you through personalized search, personalized news, personalized everything is one playing on your affirmation bias. Showing you only what you want in the most literal sense of the word. It simply picks up on what you are viewing, reading, surfing and throws more of the same at you. 

What sets the internet apart I think, is the fact that it is able to do this at the level of the individual. Most other communication technologies that came before it, including television, catered to groups and by that very logic, became more heterogenous is order to appeal to larger and larger groups. While they still have biases and cater only to the majority and leave little space for niche content, they still manage to serve you with at least some stuff that you may not have otherwise seen or wanted to see. After all, you and your dad read the same newspaper but hardly have the same interests right!

One of Johnson’s main arguments, then, is that we have to consciously keep our online information diets representative and access a wide variety of views. Else it will never get served to us by the algorithms that rule information flow on the web and what one would be stuck with is a lopsided picture.

The problem of plenty is the other major issue that Johnson deals with. In looking at how we attempt to streamline our information diets, he hits upon a good insight – we seem to think that our consumption will get more streamlined with the next new gadget or new upgrade that will make it “so much easier” to manage all this information. I’ve fallen prey to this myself so I know it exists.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.

Consumption needs to be conscious he argues. Know how much time you are spending on what. Don’t get lost in the myriad lanes on the internet. Ironically, he also recommends some softwares that you can use on you machine to help you identify “wasteful” time. 

The other interesting point that Johnson makes is that about “Contribution”. He sees contributing to the content on the internet as an important tool in helping one manage one’s information diet, as well as synthesise it. He quotes Hemingway (Hemingway is cropping up a lot in my life lately):

To invent out of knowledge means to produce inventions that are true. … If you’re going to write, you have to find out what’s bad for you. Part of that you learn fast, and then you learn what’s good for you.

Johnson’s own context is decidedly American, and that of a political communicator. And therefore so are his examples – they center around political communication and news. Examples that may not resonate outside of the US. Also the analogy of food becomes a bit overdone at times. It is apt, yes. But it is overused.

Overall, if you are someone who spends a lot of time browsing through the internet, you should go through this book. It’s likely you will be aware of a lot of issues like those of credibility and those around personalization but it’s good to have them stated overtly and placed in context. Unlike most non-fiction, this one is a fast read (took me just about a day… and I don’t spend 24 hrs reading!)

20. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

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Writing the post on this book has been postponed multiple times. First because I didn’t really know where to begin and then due to Murphy developing a sudden liking for me and my gadgets (scowl scowl scowl!).

But the technical snag is also serendipitous in a way because this is exactly where Pirsig starts his enquiry into the nature of knowledge, its acquisition and how we relate to the world. Pirsig begins his self proclaimed Chautauqua by talking about his travel companions’ discomfort with the very technology that makes their bike trip across the US possible. The specific case of John and Sylvia not wanting to know just what makes a motorbike tick (a very important skill according to the author when one is on a cross country trip through deserted backroads… and I would tend to agree with that) soon becomes a more generic pondering on the nature of knowledge.

As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is – emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be for a long time to come… I see people like John and Sylvia living lost and alienated from the whole rational structure of civilized life, looking for solutions outside that structure, but finding none that are really satisfactory for long.

With each discovery, Pirsig steps back, trying to arrive at the root of the problem. From our every day relationship with the world around us and the alienation that technology has brought, he moves on to how the education system plays a role in dividing knowing into dualistic, mutually exclusive yins and yangs creating our discomfort with a holistic, non-dualistic view of knowledge and the world around us.

… is the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, which every engineer uses today. Newton invented a new form of reason. He expanded reason to handle infinitesimal changes and I think what is needed now is a similar expansion of reason to handle technological ugliness. The trouble is that the expansion has to be made at the roots, not at the branches, and that’s what makes it hard to see.

Of an experiment conducted with a course he was teaching:

… the brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.
Pirsig then relates the quest of his alter ego for a unifying concept that brings together the dualities of the subjective and the objective. He recounts vividly, the uphill climb of trying to escape the dualistic though process as well as mode of expression that one has been long conditioned to.

Mountains like these and travellers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make

As Pirsig and his son journey through the mountains and valleys together, the reader knows from the pace of their journey, the pace of the upcoming portion of the Chautauqua. Pirsig also gives encouragement to the reader to chug along with him, advices to go slow but steady to avoid burning out through the advice that he gives Chris on pacing himself through the climb to the top of the mountain. Advice that the reader would do well to take at this part of the book.

Pirsig's argument for the fundamental unity of knowledge (defined dualistically as subjective and objective or classical and romantic or art and science) draws extensively from the oriental – Zen, Hinduism, Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – and the Occidental – Plato, Socrates, the Sophists, Aristotle, Kant, Hume. There is a particular section that reminded me directly of the cornerstone of the Hindu notion of detachment and the Bhagvad Gita:

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too… Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest.
He argues that quality, or a sense of value, is the central unifying theme and that while this quality cannot be defined, each of us is equipped to recognize it. That it is because of this underlying quality that science and art essentiallyfeed off each other (In the first part of this video, visual artist Kelli Anderson talks about her two loves - Physics and music).  visual news

Pirsig’s Schizophrenia (Pirsig and Phaedrus) to me was also essential to understanding the difficulty, the near impossibility of stepping out of established ways of thinking (especially for a mind conditioned to think dualistically) and near insanity that it could drive one to. I love the fact that the story of the road trip is almost an analogue, an allegory to the philosophical Chautauqua that is the main purpose of the book.

This is a book that is worth a slow thoughtful read and then many multiple reads thereafter. My biggest take away from this first reading is to not be restrained in my thinking by the formal processes and ways in which we acquire knowledge and to know that there are deep relations even between things that my seem un-related.

My copy of the book also looks much thumbed after this single reading and I must add that I am glad I bought this book and did not borrow it. Reading this book, I've discovered the joy in marking and post-it-ing books!

19. A Farewell to arms

I chanced upon a piece on "A Farewell to Arms" in NYT a while ago. I was fascinated by the fact that Hemingway wrote 39 different endings before settling for the one he eventually put in the book. It was this that prompted me to pick up this tale of love amidst war.

To me, the beauty of Hemingway's story lies in its simplicity and its focus on the micro-picture. It is the story of one man and one woman who fall in love in the middle of a war and it never forgets that. It doesn't step back and take a look at the larger history or context that it is set in. We are forever bound to the narrator (who is somewhat autobiographical) - Henry. Henry is a volunteer in the Ambulances services in Italy during the war. In his singular voice, Hemingway manages to explore both the depth of love as well as the meaninglessness of war and the bewildering numbness that it leaves soldiers with. 
"There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war."    "Also they make money out of it."
This exchange between Henry and one of his mates in the Ambulance service clearly shows the meaninglessness that war has to not just the common man but also the common soldier. The insanity that continuous violence can drive one to comes alive when one of Henry's companions is shot dead during their ordered retreat from the frontline. As it turns out he is shot not by the Germans but by his own compatriots - the Italians.

Some of Hemingway's  musings on war come by what of short and sporadic conversations that Henry has with this regiment's Chaplain. Speaking of victory and defeat, Henry has to the Chaplain:
"I only think the Austrians will not stop when they have won a victory. It is in defeat that we become Christian. ... That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is."
The war track is juxtaposed against the romance that grows into passionate love between Henry and an English nurse - Catherine Barkley.

I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.
Catherine is simple, devoted. Hesitant to fall in love at first because she lost her fiance to the war, when she eventually does, she does so completely. Without reservations. She derives immense satisfaction and pleasure just from being with Henry and expresses it in a childish, exaggerated manner.


The simplicity of Henry and Catherine's love story is the ideal foil for the loudness of the war. It is also this love, complete and consuming in every way, that gives them the strength to abandon their duties in the war and try and make their lives together in neutral Switzerland.

It is telling perhaps, that then tragedy that strikes them is not directly because of the war. It is not a bullet that kills Cat but child birth. But ultimately, it is the war that made them suffer, that broke their spirit and their lives.
Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
This reminds of what Christopher Logue wrote in war music on how ideas such as bravery and sacrifice become necessary in order to justify the senseless violence that war is. 

Hemingway's Henry says of the world
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of couse it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken pace. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
And so it was with Catherine and their child
That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count n that. Stay around and they would kill you. 
Hemingway's clear, sharp, precise writing brings out all the passion and anguish of Henry and Catherine. And in the end you do know that war is futile.

16, 17, & 18. Lord of Mathura, Rage of Jarasandha & Fortress of Dwarka
Books 4, 5 & 6 of the Krishna Coriolis

Ashok Banker's style has always been that of a racy thriller than meditative mythology (of the quasi religious kind). It's one of the reasons that I've enjoyed his rendition of the Ramayana and now of Krishna's story. Lord of Mathura, Rage of Jarasandha and Fortress of Dwarka are the last three books of the six part Krishna Coriolis. Though not out in print yet, I got hold of all three books from the author's website. 

It was a good decision to start my kindle reading with these three books as their fast pace ensured that I got comfortable with e-reading.

Book 4, Lord of Mathura, centers around Kamsa's fnal attempts to kill Krishna leading up to the confrontation between the two. Banker focusses on Krishna's Godliness through out, while at the same time making him enigmatic and mysterious to the people of Gokul, the Vrishnis, as well as the reader. He also begins to explore the relationship Krishna shared with Radha. While Radha's adoration is all to clear, what Krishna feels is left to what the reader can decipher from half-hints. Having read the entire series, this is one of the grouses. I was hoping Banker would explore this oft talked, less understood relationship between the two in a refreshing manner. But it's mostly left loose and untenable. 

What Banker does do in book 4, is to develop Jarasandha's character further and slowly we begin to realise that Krishna's task does not end with the slaying of Kamsa. That perhaps, Jarasandha will be his true nemesis.

Book 5, Rage of Jarasandha, takes this further as Krishna and Jarasandha confront each other in an epic  battle sequence. Krishna and Balarama's godly superpowers are pitted against Jarasandha's ill gotten set of superpowers and artificially enhanced army. But it is not just a battle of brute force that the two must fight. Krishna must use every ounce of wit to outplay Jarasandha as he manipulates the forces of time and space to his benefit.

One of the things I have consistently liked about Banker's writing is that his villains are not about JUST brute force. They are learned men with much knowledge and power but little wisdom and spirituality. Through them Banker demonstrates how knowledge in the wrong hands can create disaster.

Book 6, Fortress of Dwarka, is a temporary resolution of the conflict. Krishna decides to disappear rather than confront, depriving Jarasandha of his bloody battle. He moves his capital to the magical, unplottable island of Dwarka, a Garden of Eden of sorts. Here the Yadavas lead a perfect, idyllic life while Jarasandha hunts for them in vain.

Book 6 also brings Krishna together with his eternal mate, Rukmini. This track comes at you a little bit out of the blue, without any real buildup and the pace of the novel drops as Banker tries to give the reader some background to this story. Here again, Krishna and Balarama must confront a large army and win the hand of Rukmini, a track that gets a bit tedious since we've seen Krishna and Balarama in Battle for an entire book, just preceding this.  

What I loved, as always, was the contemporariness of the writing. What I felt lacking at the end of a three book marathon read, was a more nuanced understanding of one of the greyest figures of God - Krishna. He is all too white and the only revelations are his superpowers. Krishna was wily, tricky, outwitting his enemies mentally more than physically. That part of his character does not show through.

15. Fun Home: An exploration

I was prompted into reading Fun Home by Sinduja (Warning: plot spoilers in her review as well as mine). A tragicomic, in the same vein as Persepolis, Alison Bechdel uses the brevity of the format with great effect to explore her complex relationship with her father. I’ve come to believe that the Graphic novel is a powerful way to deal with difficult and emotionally overloaded subjects in an engaging, thought provoking way with the illustrations speaking a thousand words. I also enjoyed the thematic organization of the narrative instead of a strictly chronological one.

To me Fun Home, in many ways, illustrated how we often use childhood experiences to justify the way we turn out as adults (not an entirely unfounded argument) but the fact is causation is mostly retrospective. Bechdel for example, traces her obsession with keep her spaces spare to her father’s obsession with creating a Victorian home, a restoration project that lasted his lifetime.

I enjoyed how Alison describes the effect of growing up in a family that ran a funeral home and how this stunted her ability to express grief at her father’s demise.

Alison then muses about how we believe we will react to certain events in specific, stereotyped ways and how, when actually confronted by those situations we discover that our reactions are quite different – that we perhaps cannot shed those public tears and labour under a much more private coming to terms with.

Another part that struck me as particularly poignant was how she tried to claim some responsibility for her father’s death and holds on to guilt as a lasting bond. I was reminded of this particular portion again yesterday as I was watching No Reservations, one of my absolutely favourite movies, for the umpteenth time. There’s a scene in the movie where Zoe is found by Kate at her mother’s grave and Zoe tells Kate that she came there because she was afraid of forgetting her mother.

Through the journey of the graphic novel, Alison traces, one by one, the various things that bonded her with her father in both antagonistic and compassionate ways. From books to their aesthetic preferences to her sexual orientation, Alison finds the hand of her father in every aspect of her life and eventually realizes that she can understand that bond only to a certain extent through rational contemplation, and that perhaps, she depends on him far more than she knows or cares to admit.

13 & 14. Two books on religion - Small Gods & Foreskin's Lament

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Terry Pratchett's Small Gods and Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament are both irreverent takes on religion.

Pratchett parodies the origin, rise and decline of any organised religion in Small Gods through OM - the god head himself in the novel. Robbed of his powers, OM appears in Discworld in the form of a Tortoise and speaks to a Novice - Brutha. As Brutha quotes law after law that the citizens of the land have been following in the name of Om, the relatively minor god of the cosmos is stunned and eventually coaxes Brutha into questioning the Citadel.

Small Gods is entertaining, witty and takes an insightful dig at religious organisations, particularly the Church and the Clergy. Sample this dialogue between Vorbis, head of the Quisition in the Church of Omnia and Brutha:

"I mean, that which appears to our senses is not the fundamental truth. Things that are seen and heard and done by the flesh are mere shadows of a deeper reality. This is what you must understand as you progress in the Church." ... "But in the trivial sense of the truth", said Brutha, pivking every word with the care an inquisitor might give to his patient in the depths of the Citadel, "in the trivial sense, Brother Murduck died, did he not, in Omnia, because he had not died in Ephebe, had been merely mocked, but it was feared that others in the Church might not understad the, the deeper truth, and thus it was put about that the Ephebians killed him in, in the trivial sense, thus giving you, and those who saw the truth of the evil of Ephebe, due cause to launch a -- a just retaliation."
A fitting description of propaganda at work, an expose of its hypocrisy. Pratchett's wit is not restricted to the institutions alone. He parodies god as well. Here is Om describing Krishna:

"Well. You know. I exaggerated a bit. But they're not that good. There's one of 'em that sits around playing a flute most of the time and chasing milkmaids. I don't call that very divine. Call that very divine? I don't."
India | International
While Pratchett's critique of religion is at a societal level, Auslander's is a personal conflict. Brought up in an ultra orthodox Jewish Community and home, Auslander finds it difficult to both accept and renounce his god. From succumbing to the temptation to eat non-kosher food to almost believing in God in the two years spent at a yeshiva in Israel to making deals with god over the breaking of Sabbath rules to watch the New York Rangers' hockey matches, Auslander describes his dread of punishment by death and his constant negotiation of conflict with humor, satire and a disarming honesty.

Adding to the charm and fun of the autobiographical account is the non linear structure of the narrative. While somewhat chronological, Auslander jumps from event to event strung together by the progression (or regression) of his belief in god and religion. I also loved how the book is written like a conversation between the author and the reader, as though Auslander was narrating his life long tussle with god to you in person. It not only makes it less preachy  or cribby but also involves the reader in the story.

While unintended I am, in retrospect, glad that I read the two books in succession as I got two perspectives on the same theme.

12. War Music - Logue's Homer

India | International
I stumbled upon a review of Christopher Logue's War Music here and fascinated as I am with Homer's account of the Trojan war, I couldn't resist picking this one up. Part of the temptation was because the book was described as an "adaptation" and not a translation... a modern retelling of Homer's classic. Why was this a temptation? Well, I figured an adaptation, in modern English would be easier to read - I had struggled through George Chapman's translation one because of language and two because of sheer volume.

Unfamiliar with Christopher Logue, it took me a couple of pages to get used to Logue's style and his blank verse style. But once I got into it, I just couldn't stop. I am not one for much poetry but I read this one like it was a Hercule Poirot mystery, finishing it over a flight from Chennai to Bangalore and back (Ok! I was reading at the airport too... and the book is short). The point where I really decided that this was my kind of book is a single sentence where Logue describing a sound of war says it would have been audible all the way in Australia (I wish I had the book in front of me as I write this so I could quote the phrase exactly)

War Music tackles sections from the Illiad - Books 1-4 and 16-19. So don't read it unless you are already familiar with the epic. Else it will just seem disjointed. Two sections that I particularly loved are Achilles' dialogue with this mother in the beginning and this little piece on the futility of war:

Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.Whatever caught and brought and kept them hereIs lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:And so insidious is this liberty That those surviving it will bear An even greater servitude to its root:Believing they were whole, while they were brave;That they were rich, because their loot was great;That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.
This one is definitely going on the re-read list!

11. The Reading Promise

"I am terribly afraid of falling, myself," said the Cowardly Lion, "but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it. So get on my back and we will make the attempt."
-- L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 

Also part of what I am now calling the Birthday gift series, this little gem was gifted to me by darling Rehab. The Reading Promise is a meta book - a book about books and reading. Alice Ozma's first book as an author recounts her 3218 nights of her father reading aloud to her without missing a single night in between.

Alice however, hardly recounts the books read (there is a reading list at the end of the novel) but instead talks about the way in which the nights of reading shaped her relationship with her father and her relationship with books. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book are the quotes at the beginning of each chapter from books that Alice and her father read

From L. Frank Baum to Dickens to J.K. Rowling to Shakespeare, Alice’s father read to her every night without fail until the day she entered college, a remarkable eight years later. In this deeply affecting memoir, Alice tells the story of her relationship with the extraordinary man who raised her – from his steadying hand on the back of her wobbly bike to his one-man crusade to keep reading in schools – the words they shared and the spaces in between.

I particularly loved two chapters: the first in which she talks about how she went from reading snuggled up on her father's arm to lying in a spot of her own on the bed. The quote at the beginning goes
Shutting my eyes tight, I try to erase that memory, but it plays over and over in my mind. And the strangest thing is I don't even remember what the argument was about.
-- Kimberly Willis Holt, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

The second one was the chapter where she talks about how she came to be known as Alice Ozma. Christened Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina, she came to be called Alice Ozma as she insisted that people drop the first name.
My parents made a deal that my mother could pick the first names of the girls and my father could pick the middle names, and vice versa, so Alice and Ozma are his doing. They are names appropriate for the daughter of The Streak, though I wasn't that girl yet when he picked them.
Alice from Lewis Carroll and Ozma from the Oz series - curioser and curioser combined with wisdom.

The end of the book raises an issue that is highly relevant across the world today - that the charm of reading is fast fading and more importantly it is not considered a great loss. In her description of her librarian father's struggle to convince his school authorities to not cut down the reading program at the school, Alice Ozma brings to fore the ironies of the digital world. Even though information and reading material is more accessible today than ever before, there is lesser and lesser value placed on the art of reading. In fact, and I've come across this often enough myself, people wonder why we read so much.

We read because we are curious, we read because we want to explore, we read because it makes us who we are, we read because it's a much more fun way to learn than being "taught". 

In the end
I promise to be there for books, because I know they will always be there for me.

10. The case of the Missing servant

This book and the next one in the series arrived as surprise birthday gift from my brother and sister-in-law.  And I did break up into giggles as I read the book blurb (not to mention the shocking pink book cover:

Meet Vish Puri, India's most private investigator. Portly, persistent and unmistakably Punjabi, he cuts a determined swathe through modern India's criminal classes.
Vish Puri is India's Hercule Poirot or at least that is Tarquin Hall's attempt. Having employed a number of people to do his investigation for him - they go by names such as Facecream and Tubelight - the detective himself believes in his "deductive powers". Puri is a typical Punjabi who loves his food and tries to keep his voluble mummyji from interfering in his work. Puri looks at Sherlock Holmes with disdain and pays homage to Chanakya, that master statesman and strategist of Ancient India.

I love Tarquin Hall for how he has captured the idiosyncrasies of lige in Delhi, particularly amongst it's punjabis. Loud, garish and very very fond of the good life. Hall captures all this without any condescension, as naturally as the British may call the French eccentric, as Hastings finds Poirot endlessly amusing.

The plot of The Case of the Missing Servant is not complex but then it is not dead give away either. It has enough clues to help the reader along with Vish Puri. It keeps you riveted enough to get through to the end but it isn't the most thrilling of stories. I loved it though for how Hall writes about Delhi, its people and places.

9. The Black Book

Set in Istanbul, like many of Orhan Pamuk's novels, The Black Book is on one level a love triangle. The story of Galip, Ruya and Celal. One day, Ruya simply walks out of her life with Galip and disappears. At the same time Celal, Galip's cousin and a celebrated journalist also disappears. Galip then sets off on a quest to find them.

But under the love story is the story of a nation and a city coming to terms with its past and traditions as it modernises. Pamuk captures the alienation of the people of Turkey in the 1980s through his cast of characters - each one complex, as they try to find their way in a rapidly westernising world. My favourite is the story of the mannequin maker as he wonders why stores prefer mannequins that look nothing like the turkish people. He continues to make and hoard "turkish mannequins" as he rejects a world that seeks to imitate the west and looks down upon itself and even it's own appearance.

Much as I love Pamuk and his stories, I've always found it difficult getting through his books. Maureen Freely's not on the translation in this book explained that to me. Reading her note, I realised how much was lost in translation. As Freely explains, Turkish is a complex language with the words often appearing in an order that is contrary to custom, long complex sentences that not only convey "the point" but also explore the origin of that thought in the mind. Reading this book was as much an exercise in understanding translation as it was in reading a novel.

PS: I definitely want to make that trip to Turkey and walk on the streets and take a ride on the Bosphorus.

8. The Secret Lives of People in Love

Writing about this book has taken a while. Simply because reading it was an intense experience, sometimes heart wrenching and sometimes uplifting that I wasn't sure I wanted to get back to thinking about it anytime soon. Simon Van Booy tackles the driving human emotion - Love - in all it's facets through a series of short stories. Each story is like knowing a person for a day. You jump right into the midst of their lives and you jump right out. These are the people you may have a chance conversation with at the airport or on the plane and get a small window into a life that is very unlike yours or you might yelp at the similarities and wish you had been able to articulate your feelings as well.

Love drives lovers, partners, spouses, parents. It also drives friends and children. Love can drive anger, loneliness, sacrifice, achievement, happiness, the ability to give and to cherish. I loved the story of a child try desperately to cope with the death of his mother, the reminiscences of a man who lost his friends at sea and himself escaped by sheer luck and the traces of guilt he feels, the way a parent buys cake to make his child's birthday special and how a love of the twenties comes to fruition in middle age, after both have lived lives with others, the father who stops speaking after the death of his son, the man who lives at the airport as passengers remind him of a family he once had.

What I loved about this book is that it is about the emotions of people in love and not necessarily the actions they take. It's a peek into their heads and hearts, of what they may be thinking when sitting with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon or winter morning.

I want to end with a quote with which the author begins the book, a quote that I have fallen in love with:

... we could all be rejects in a rejected world and never known or dream that simultaneously the chosen flourish elsewhere in a perfect world
Janet Frame
Many of the characters are like that - unfinished symphonies mourning their loss and waiting for fulfillment.

7. Slaughterhouse Five

Vonnegut’s critique of war is scathing and ironic. Especially so since the destruction and devastation caused in World War II does not seemed to have reduced our appetite for organized violence. 

In Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut not only brings to fore the destruction caused by war and its impact on the soldiers who becomes the state’s machinery for delivering violence and destruction, but also the notion of duty. The refrain of So it goes for me captures the fatalism, unthinking acceptance and sometimes even helplessness that afflicts those who are called on to perform dastardly acts in the name of violence. 

I found three sections particularly powerful - the notion of existence, death and time that Vonnegut voices through the Tralfamadorians, the speech of Harry S Truman announcing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and lastly the alternative version of the Gospels by the Tralfamadorians. 

In fact, while brief in their presence, the Tralfamadorians add significantly to the philosophical subtext of the book. Through them Vonnegut conveys his view of time, life and duty. Reviews I read before picking up the book likened the Tralfamadorian view of life to that of Krishna’s. And yes, there are similarities in how the two view actions because of their ability to see the entire spectrum of time. However, Krishna does not have the fatalism of the Tralfamadorians and does believe in causality. Whether Krishna like or not, Tralfamador and it’s inhabitants are effective in bringing out the ludicrousness of human behaviour, of our limited perspective and utter shortsightedness and the political and subjective nature of religion.

Truman’s speech, placed as it was at a point where Billy Pilgrim is in the hospital, laid out next to a Colonel writing a book on the Army Air Force in World War II draws out the arrogance in proclaiming the ability to bring absolute ruin. In a moment one is struck by how absurd it is to boast of the ability to destroy. The American rhetoric has clearly undergone change since 1945. America no longer talks of ruin and surrender but of bringing “change” and “democracy” however, still through its power to destroy and bring ruin to people.

War, ultimately, impacts soldiers more than anyone else. The machinery of delivering destruction, those who are simply “following orders”. As they are witness to inhuman sights, their psyche permanently scared, the trauma a lifelong companion. They are not only putting their lives on the line but also their sanity. And that is a great price indeed to extract for power - power wielded by a few individuals in the name of the state. States win a war, for soldiers then is there peace?
That’s the only question I would ask after Slaughterhouse Five.

6. Flute of Vrindavan

Straight on the heels of Dance of Govinda, I picked up Flute of Vrindavan, the third book of the Krishna Coriolis by Ashok K Banker. While delightful in describing the child Krishna's antics and Kamsa's evolution in strength and in mind, I felt Flute of Vrindavan could have perhaps covered more ground. From the toddler Krishna, it brings us to the little boy hearding calves with his brother Balarama in the vale of Vrindavan where the Vrishni's (Krishna's clan) move from Gokul after repeated attacks on the life of the little babe.

Flute of Vrindavan belongs again to Kamsa in his quest to prove himself to his father in law and kill his slayer. In this he is helped by his ancestor Yadu who instructs him. Banker's ability to use mythological characters unexpectedly surfaces here as he continues to add layers to what would otherwise be a predictable plot for those of us who have heard infinite variations of these stories over the years and even seen them on television.

In a wonderful twist, the game of Kabbaddi gets center-stage as father-in-law and son-in-law face off through sport. It is not only a show of strength but becomes the medium through which Kamsa comes to recognise his true potential as Banker weaves in a little philosophy about goals and recognition and the role of sport in team building (and army building).

Kamsa's father-in-law, Jarasandh, as is typical of Banker's villians is not just a big muscled goon, but a highly knowledgeable man and astute strategist; a man who can see the larger drama of the eternal conflict between Devas and Asuras and attempts repeatedly to use that to his advantage

Banker also does not shy from introducing another rather grey character from Hindu mythology - Narada Muni, the messenger of the Gods - and uses Kamsa and Jarasandh to draw out the apparent contradictions and manipulativeness of Narada's actions. He however, leaves Narada's motives unexplained for now and I look forward to seeing the development of this rather questionable character from the myths.

Once again, it is these characters who delight, because their complexity is unexpected. And they were a complete godsend in a book that does not cover much ground in terms of plot. They are also probably more instructive than any amount of commentary or preaching can be in conveying the philosophies and morals that underlie these mythological epics. As the next book of the series is not out here, I'll leave the story of Krishna here and move to other tales.

5. Dance of Govinda

I first started reading Ashok K Banker in College, which right now seems a really long time ago! (I am getting old... Sigh!). Prince of Ayodhya, the first book of the Ramayana series was recommended to me by a family friend and after reading that book, I absolutely had to read the entire series. So I would wait eagerly for each part of the series to release and by the way, I still have to get my hands on the last one - Sons of Sita. What drew me to Banker's writing was that he made Indian mythology contemporary. He took the moralising and preaching out of the Ramayana (that is a very big deal in a country where the Ramayana is almost like a moral guide on how to conduct oneself) and told it like a thriller, a story of power and conspiracy and of war. 

Dance of Govinda is the second book of the Krishna Coriolis - The story of Krishna, perhaps the most mischievous, endearing, cunning, practical and instructive God in the Hindu Pantheon. 

If Slayer of Kamsa, the first book in the series, was about Krishna's birth and the prophesy proclaiming him the nemesis of his uncle, the demon king Kamsa, Dance of Govinda is about the coming of age of Kamsa. In it Kamsa, the King of Mathura, matures from relying on brute force to the strategic use of his strength. Kamsa's complex relationship with his father-in-law Jarasandh provides the backdrop for this change in him.

Alternating with Kamsa's rediscovery of himself are the charming antics of the new born babe, his developing bond with his foster mother Yashoda and her realisation that she is bringing up no ordinary child. A third side plot is the plotting of rebellion against the tyranny of Jarasandh by the kindgoms he has conquered.

What I have always liked about Banker's retellings, and Dance of Govinda is no exception, is how he combines the super-power elements and mythical creatures of Hindu mythology with contemporary story telling (Can see some clear Tolkien influences there). I love how something so Indian does not sound absurd in English, the use of Hindi and Sanskrit words to add richness to the tale. Dance of Govinda is fast paced, switching continuously between Kamsa, Krishna and Vasudev, weaving in side plots from the Mahabharata as the Yadavas plot to rebel against Kamsa and Jarasandh with the help of Hastinapur

I also enjoyed how Kamsa's character was so well developed. Most tellings of these stories have Krishna as their focus, so much so that there is never any exploration of characters like Kamsa, their backgrounds and their motives. They are just simply Evil and must be destroyed by God Incarnate. Banker's Kamsa is also evil, no doubt about that. But there is an evolution in that evil too - springing from a childhood hatred of his mortal father. The evolution of Kamsa's character makes for interesting, engrossing reading and adds a twist to a story other wise so well known that it could hardly have an element of suspense for an Indian reader.

Dance of Govinda, to me sets the foundation for Krishna to take center stage as Kamsa begins to make attempts to kill the child God in Flute of Vrindavan,  which I am now eager to begin. Bless my mommy for buying both!

3&4. Two books on Love - Jane Eyre and Love, Again

Last night was a good night. I couldn't get myself to sleep (I have no clue why) and as a result ended up finishing two books I've been reading rather slowly. The first one I finished was Jane Eyre. I saw the 2011 movie when I was in the middle of the novel and that, I am sure hastened my progress.

Charlotte Bronte's heroine definitely has more spunk than Jane Austen's. For all the independence of mind that Elizabeth Bennett showed, she made her way in the world by marrying well. Jane Eyre on the other hand, mostly quiet, always frank and sometimes teasing shows a desire to stand on her own two feet. Bronte makes this amply evident in how her heroine reacts to being taken shopping for fine dresses by Mr.Rochester. Jane doesn't want to be a "kept" woman in any sense of that word by her own admission.

(Plot spoiler alert)
I particularly enjoyed the confrontation between Jane and Edward before she leaves Thornfield. It has all the agony and heartbreak of two people who love each other but must part and yet there is an uprightness to it and Jane refuses to compromise on her principles.

I found Bronte's writing more vivid and engaging than Austen's. There seems to be so much more happening. Also more contemporary, if I can use that word for something so Victorian in every aspect. I didn't feel so far away from the action and could identify much better with the situations in the novel. The suspense element is also built well to the point of its unraveling in the middle of the story. I found in it some of the dark spookiness that accosted me when reading Rebecca here also. It goes rather well with English weather and  I wish the movie had not let go of it so completely. I've also found that I enjoy first person narratives much more. While it may limit perspectives, it makes me much more involved in the story as happened with Jane Eyre. Definitely one of my pleasanter experiences with Victorian classics.

The second book that I managed to finish while burning the midnight oil last night (by the way, if this happens with any regularity, I will not only finish the number of books I've set as a target this year, but also run through a fair amount of make up so that I don't look like a hag in the morning. Funnily enough, I am still not sleepy. Maybe it's early morning perkiness talking.) was Love, Again by Doris Lessing.

Lessing's love story is set in fairly modern Britain (1960s I would guess) and centers around the lives of a members of a theatre troupe as they write, rehearse and practice a play centered around the Enigmatic Julie Vairon and the music she wrote. Lessing explores Love in many forms - the infatuation of a young man for a much older woman, the clinging love that the weak have for those they think strong, the ardour that the older woman feels for the younger man and the obsession that it threatens to become, the fantasy love nay obsession nourished by one of the script writers for Julie.

Lessing explores these in a leisurely fashion at first digressing, as real people would as they strive to find an anchor as they are buffeted by a woman who was as intelligent as she was beautiful, as acute in her observations and as engrossing in her art as Julie Vairon. Julie captures her short and tragic life through music, self portraits and her journals and as each member of the cast and crew of the play go through these materials they make a journey through their desires and loves. Some come out on top, others sink lower and lower into the mire.

I found Love Again a little difficult to get through. Especially in the beginning. It got a little better in terms of pace later on but by then the characters had become far too eccentric and depressing for my liking. I can handle an eccentric character or two but 10 of them is a bit much for me. On the whole, I finished it because I didn't want to leave a book half read not because I couldn't wait to know the end. Maybe it would have been more engrossing if it had focused on a few main characters instead of all of them. As a result for many of them there is not enough background to understand their reaction to Julie - Henry for instance or even Sarah, one of the pivotal characters in the story. What is it about Julie that captivates her? Julie's many loves or Julie's abilty to be utterly self critical in private or her wealth of autobiographical talent or her tragic and mysterious death?

For me to be able to empathise, it's important to be able to get into the head of the character, imagine him or her as a friend, put myself in their shoes. These people were too distant for that.

2. River of Smoke

The second book of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, The River of Smoke centers around events in Canton in China that lead up to the start of the Opium wars in the region. As a former student of history, the richness of historical detail and painstaking research in this novel definitely excited me especially since it did not come packaged as a textbook.

Amitav Ghosh uses a combination of third person narrative and first person letters exchanged between two principal characters to tell the story of Opium trading by the British, Americans and Indians in China. The Munshi of a Parsi Merchant, the Parsi Merchant, A botanist's assistant in search of a rare flower, the illegitimate son of a painter, British and American traders and Chinese merchants form the main cast of characters of this 500 odd page novel - each with their own perspectives and layers on the events that unfold as the Chinese emperor attempts to shut down the trading of Opium in Canton.

Without preaching or getting into lecture like passages, Ghosh examines the hypocrisy of British imperialism, of the doctrine of free trade and of the rule of law through his cast of characters. Free trade of opium, as desired by many of the merchants, is posited against the fact that it is a contraband in Britain and morals and religious beliefs come into conflict with economic demands. One of the characters I liked best is that of the Parsi merchant - Bahram Moddie, who while recognising, as events unfold, the ill effects of opium, is bound by the demands of business and the money that investors have put in his shipment of opium.

Given that River of Smoke is written in flashback, I am waiting for the last novel of the trilogy to fill in the remaining gaps between the end of the Sea of Poppies and the beginning of the River of Smoke. And Amitav Ghosh is definitely only of my favourite Indian authors in English!

PS: I also loved the infinite variations on Paulette's nickname 'Puggly' that Robin uses in his letters. Pugglanova, Pugglesmore, Pugglabad and all of these had me in splits even in the middle of grim scenes.

1. The Beauty Myth

This book by Naomi Woolf looks at how notions of beauty can and do undermine the freedom that women have won; the freedom to participate in public life - at the workplace and in the corridors of power. Her main hypothesis is that the idea of the "perfect beauty" serves to reduce the self esteem of women even as they acquire economic freedom and power.

Her argument is powerful especially as it examines how women harm themselves in order to attain that "perfect body and face". Plotting the evolution of the beauty my alongside the evolution of the beauty and cosmetics industry makes for a powerful case, accounting for the role played by films, magazines and other popular media in perpetuating the notion of the ideal woman - an ideal that women can achieve at great economic and biological cost.

I personally thought that the later chapters on sex and violence were far more insightful as they examined how men are also affected by the beauty myth and the impact that this has on the relations between men and women. These chapters make up somewhat for the conspiracy theory like initial chapters. Conspiracy theories are something that I cannot get myself to believe - All Men do not hold a SECRET meeting to decide how to keep women subservient. I wish she had examined in greater detail the subtle and usually subconscious processes by which societies seek to maintain the status quo in power relationships instead of heaping all the blame, in conspiracy theory fashion, on rich and powerful men and the beauty industry.

Yes, the beauty industry has played a not small role in the creation and sustenance of the beauty myth but it is not alone in this. I would have liked to read about this from the point of view of how notions of beauty have evolved and imprisoned women from time immemorial (Chinese women for example, kept their feet bound up as small feet were considered beautiful) and have that lead up to how the industrial revolution gave a market logic to this myth. The market logic comes not just from scientific progress and the development of chemical products for beauty but also from the fact that women in the 20th century have had more disposable income to spend on themselves thereby expanding the number of categories - from clothes, accessories and cosmetics to Gadgets, cars and now even financial products - that have begun targeting them.

This larger perspective being missing, I did get peeved off by the Conspiracy theory tone of the book. For "how not to sound conspiracy theorist while talking about feminist issues", one should definitely read The Means of Reproduction by Michelle Goldberg.

Why this page?

I've decided to create a separate page on the blog for the Books of 2012 primarily so that I end up writing other stuff on the blog and limit the book reviews to this page. Otherwise, every time I feel like I've neglected my blog for too long, I show up and write about what I am reading or have read recently.

To those who are are going to follow this page, the most recent book will be write on top and so on and so forth!

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