A Book A Week Challenge – Week 50

Svetlana Alexievich who won Nobel Prize in Literature in the year 2015 referred to her work as “novels in voices”, a term that would translate in reference to the works of history that passed through the generations, not in written form but orally. During her Nobel speech, she dedicated the prize to her native Belarus calling it “a small country caught in a grinder throughout the history.”

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Book #: 50

Title: Second Hand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Pages: 584

It might seem ironic to talk about Russia or a nation part of earlier Soviet Union in the terms of “sleeping with tanks outside the walls”, wherein the present day the same country is being held responsible for making other country feel the same. It is definitely not a good thing to happen. No, it isn’t. It is not a good thing for what is happening in Aleppo as much as it occurred in a Soviet nation.

Svetlana Alexievich in her book that narrates the lives of individuals from various corners of life who believed in the promises of peace and survival and were utterly shattered. The stories move across the country both in terms of times and virtual reality, with references made into Red Interior and out of Red Interior.

As we come to end of another year, as we humans progress in terms of technology way beyond limits, it is something feels only superficial with an emotion that says there are people out there who are struggling for mere existence. That was supposed to be the phase of our evolution when our species started out. The applicability of this book set in the times more than a century apart tells us the little progress that we falsely believe we achieved.

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Overall, Svetlana Alexievich makes you experience various emotions that the war-ridden Soviet nation common lives had to survive with. More than a century apart asks the same set of questions as she puts it “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place. Our time comes to us second-hand”

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 49

Elena Ferrante, who remained anonymous from the time of her first publication back in 1992, was recognized by TIME as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2016. “Frantumaglia” is a collection of her essays, letters, interviews and opinions that were documented over a period of 25 years of her writing career

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Book #: 49

Title: “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante and translated by Ann Goldstein

Pages: 400

The temptation to be anonymous is more often fixated towards activities that traditionally warranted heavy backlash but in the case of Elena Ferrante (or whatever is her original name).  Frantumaglia, a word that was introduced by her mother that meant a jumble of fragments that was used as a reference to contradictory sensations that tore her apart. As she would repeat multiple times in this collection that the book talks for itself and the author doesn’t have any control of it once it is out in public. Isn’t it true as it sometimes even reaches a level of adaptation that readers value them as much as a life changer.

In the present-day success enjoyed by the listicles which point to anything and everything under the sun, Frantumaglia stands as a non-traditional writing that beautifully articulates the craft of novel writing. The novel writing techniques have crossed media streams – from TV adaptions, movies, theater and so on. Despite that, the fundamentals remain the same as you can absolutely relate from the book of letters from Elena Ferrante.

As much as you wish, there is something astute about the characters of Elena Ferrante. For a generation that was lost in the havoc of data flow, it is often difficult to take a specific stance and the most abusively used word in the present day is “Feminism”. Most of the individuals, not specific to gender, tend to fall into a trap of using it as a proxy for women being the better species. But, Elena’s reference to her characters is a learning that everyone needs to emulate- the female characters are often vigilant, troublesome, compelling, ambiguous, but despite all that they are engrossing and makes the world you live a better place.

Overall, “Frantulamgia” by Elena Ferrante is a deep dive into the thoughts of a writer who strongly believed in letting the words of paper do the talking for her unforgettable female characters. Not a traditional how-to guide for the craft of writing but a closer focused read which teaches enriching lessons.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 48

The first historical fiction novel by M J Carter among the three books in the series of “Blake and Avery” narrates a rich paced crime fiction set up in British Company occupied India from 1837-1839. The book boasts itself as crime detective fiction based on the Thug crimes that occurred in India during the same period.

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Book #: 48

Title: The Strangler Vine” by M J Cartner

Pages: 402

The crimes occurred during the mid-nineteenth century in India at the phase where British Company’s dominance in India started to take a hit. There were increasing shouts for Swarajya movement and the phase aligned with change in Kingsman in London – Queen Victoria took over the royal chair. The company in India started to take multiple measures to dominate its presence and the way out is to create a panic among the natives that would disrupt the civil harmony. The company would then step in posing to act as the best last hope in protecting the Law and Order in the country.

These crimes often targeted at travelers where the gang of dacoits who apparently were marked as the devotees of Goddess Kali would acquaint them and travel with the parties. When they would believe that they had the confidence of the party, they use rumals to kill the travelers, often stealing anything valuable. The documentation of these crimes is much more evident in the cultural folklore than in the realistic facts.

The book is set up with the premise to manhunt a renowned poet Xavier Mountstuart, who published a novel that involved the corruption and surreptitious nature of Company. Two men – Blake who had his own share of controversies, having been removed from the post of Captain once and lost in the culture of natives was to lead the search accompanied by a young aspiration Avery who wanted to make a mark in the Company. Apparently, both were closely tied to Xavier either by his acquaintance or through his writing.

As the search continues, the book takes you through the cultures and traditions that were prevalent during those times, often not shying away from expressing the reluctance to these practices from the point of view of both foreigners. I would have personally opined to heard more dialogue between Blake and Avery, each taking opposite stance about the traditions that they experience from the eye of someone who is not native. But, as it turns out Blake is less vocal only to create the suspense that something is going beyond their designated pursuit.

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As it turns out to the case as we pass through the Company’s most renowned Major Sleeman who was known to have single-handedly brought the Thug crimes under control. There is a sense of secrecy and hence mystery that drives the curiosity to know what made everyone in Jubbulpore not to even talk about a renowned scholar. Then come the meeting and the revelation of conspiracy that lead to include only Blake and Avery who were not their first choices in the investigation.

M J Carter ticks everything on the checklist that needs to be included in a crime fiction and a historical novel. For Crime Fiction – Young man eager to go through the racks, someone who had enough of corruptness and wants to stay away but was always pulled in, a section of top level leaders whose interests are not ideal but aimed at money and wealth, the roadside murders and an investigative trail. For Historical lovers- the king who doesn’t want to let his kingdom go, the sacrifices and blind beliefs existing in the society, the caste, religious and linguistic diversity in the country. I am a bit surprised that there was no mention of any freedom struggle movement in Calcutta, which was very prevalent during the phase, if not in public resistance but the literature already took a stance against the brutal English company.

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Overall, “The Strangler Vine” by M J Carter- the first of three-book series “Blake and Avery” had enough content in it to be a very effective historical crime fiction novel based on infamous Thug crimes in Northen India. But, the book doesn’t keep up to its reputation of being compared to the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu. It is an absolute winner for historical narration but falls short of being an excellent detective thriller.  

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 47

Hope Jahren’s autobiographical and memoir makes up for a very important read in the generation of rapid discoveries. It takes you through the stressful and yet reveling joy of being a scientist in a domain that is eye-washing funded as compared to defense and warfare. It takes you through the life a young girl who aspired to be a scientist and the hardships that she had to endeavor to fight for things that you love in life.

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Book #: 47

Title: Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

Pages: 306

The book is split into three sections which mark three key aspects of a plant life: Roots and Leaves; Wood and Knots; Flowers and Fruit. It is poetic and scientific at the same time.

It would be really hard to escape from the abstractness of it used by Geobiologist- Hope Jahren as she covers her multiple decades of life as a woman in science. The domain that she picked up is not the most common one – at least for what I have knowledge about- the plants.

“If you know how to listen, each ring (of tree) describes how the rain fell and wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn”

That is a whole lot of information that can be read from a single source- that is taken granted by our generation due to its universal appearance. She reminds of this right at the beginning of this book – where she asks the reader to look at the trees around, only to value their contribution to the greatness good of the place we live in.

“Trees stands tall as a witness to the history that evolved in front of them – from the dinosaurs to the bloody man wars to the technological advancements that our species had made”

She doesn’t shy away from making a hard statement about the lives of the women in science – who is often met with skepticism driven by the sexist attitude of the managements yet she makes sure that the joy of a scientist comes fighting the odds.

As she narrates her life as a lead scientist, it goes without saying the valuable contribution of Bill, who we were introduced as a homie with Armenian background but a very knowledgeable and admirable partner to have in the field, that demands extreme patience – sometimes for days, months or even years – to discover one simple derivation.

There is a whole lot of book that describes various plant species and how they evolve to be in the form that they are today. It is not a complementary read to the biography but the main theme of looking closely at things that we not usually pay attention to and the joy that comes through it.

It is described brilliantly in the opening note by Helen Keller:

“The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world”

My favorite section of the book is whole of Chapter 9 in Part Two where she writes about the emotion that runs through the minds of fully blown mania driven individual. This one chapter is worth reading multiple times (I read it three times since I first read this chapter yesterday).

“You need to run. You need to feel the air on your skin. You need to take off your shirt and run so you can feel the air and you explain this to the person holding you that it’s okay it’s okay to do this but he doesn’t get it and his face looks worried like someone died and you feel pity for him because he doesn’t realize how wonderful and okay and okay and okay everything is”

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Hope Jahren and Bill

 

Overall, “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren is a very important book in the present times – a) for a person in science as it describes the virtues of a successful scientist, b) for a woman who aims to pursue her interests in her life against all the odds and with the joys of being a mother and c) for every one of us who miss the experience of connecting multiple generations of evolution just looking at the bark of a tree in your surroundings.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 46

There is a famous quote in an Indian movie that says “We Indians, once decided to give love to anyone, it would be for lifetime”. Very few non-Indian origin experienced that level of love and respect as did Jim Corbett. India’s biggest national park is named after him. A species of the animal that even he quotes to be the greatest asset to the country’s culture- Tiger – was named after him.

All Jim Corbett did was not preserve the animal but rather hunted them down, not for sport but for the danger that these tigers spread across various parts of the country. This book focuses on his hunt in the Kumaon region for a period approximately forty years after which he announced his retirement.

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Book #: 46

Title: Man-Eaters of Kumaon” by Jim Corbett

Pages: 476

There was one national awareness campaign run a few years ago by WWF in association with NTCA, with Indian cricket skipper, Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the brand ambassador. The campaign ran extensively across the media streams with the quote “Only 1,411 tigers were left in India”. It received a tremendous response across the country, with slogans spread across the media channels.

Why?

Why was there a need for us to protect a wild animal that hunts human lives?

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Jim Corbett with the iconic “Bachelor of Powalgarh” after the kill

 

If you ever seek the answer to that question, Mr. Jim Corbett provides the answer right at the beginning of the book, in the “NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR” section where he writes:

Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take a diet of human flesh.”

The next 475 pages in this book take a roller-coaster ride of exciting, fearful, edge of the seat stories of how he killed Seven very dangerous man-eaters that lived in the Kumaon region from approx. 1900 till 1940.

Seven Man-Eaters were killed and there are a few of them which accounted for more than 400 human lives. Each story passes you through the impact that it had on the local community and very detailed narration on the process of deciding the place of the hunt, followed by prolonged patient waiting hours until the point where you come face-to-face with the most dangerous animal that is now used to human flesh.

At the end of each kill, Mr. Corbett makes sure that he enquires the reasoning behind why such a naturally non-human-flesh-eating species ventured into being a Man-Eater. Every tiger had its’ own story just like the many hundreds that it killed.

“Of the many incomprehensible things one meets with in life, the hardest to assign any reason for is the way in which misfortune dogs an individual, or a family.”

As the pages’ flip through, you get to learn various habits and behavioral patterns of a tiger and how is different to that of a Leopard or Bear, so to speak. The pug marks reveal a lot of information about the tiger – it’s gender, it’s age and the pace at which it walked to name a few. There is a dedicated section that explains the difference between why a tiger “drags” its’ kill vs. “lifts” it. It is like a wonderland that charms with its’ own mysticism, except for the fact this is dangerous.

 Here are the man-eaters that were referenced in the book:

The Champawat Man-Eater: 436 deaths reported: Killed-1907

The Chowgarh Tigers: (Old Tigress and a cub): 64 deaths: Killed-1929 and 1930

Bachelor of Powalgarh: Killed -1930

The Mohan Man-Eater: Killed- 1931

The Kanda Man-Eater: Killed- 1933

The Pipal Pani Tiger

The Thak Man-Eater: Killed- 1938

To kill animals that accounted for so many human lives, would need a lot of precision and even more understand the forest and the means that needs to be employed for their execution. All it takes is a snap of twig you land your foot on or an occasional cough (for which he explains the steps to take to avoid it) or even the click of the safety lock of the rifle, one paw landing and you are done with.

“I cannot expect you who read this at your fireside to appreciate my feelings at the time. The sound of the growling and the expectation of an attack terrified me at the same time as it gave me hope.”

After many days of waiting with anticipation with danger lurking just a bush away from the position you believed is the perfect spot for the kill, you get one shot at it and a second one if you are very lucky.

“When I saw the hind-quarters, I could have shouted with delight, for they showed that the tiger was not crouching and ready to spring, but was lying down.” is not the most common reaction that you get when you hunt the animal that is waiting for its food.

It would be a mistake if there is lot of brutalities involved in the act of killing – either the tiger killing humans or the other way around – it is the nature that embodies the system and it requires a balancing act at some point, which we the most intelligent of the species happily ignored for our own convenience. Hunting a dangerous animal and the means employed might not be morally justifiable but the comfort of saving one life would fulfill that guilt.

“If the greatest happiness one can experience is the sudden cessation of great pain, then the second greatest happiness is undoubtedly the sudden cessation of great fear”

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Jim Corbett refers to the Shooting with Camera skills of Fred Champion

 

The book by Jim Corbett is not just about hunting a wild animal who now feeds on human flesh for survival, it is more about the way we approach our fears, our goals, and the circumstances, which need tremendous levels of attention, focus, skill and more importantly the greater good that your job demands.

“When you go out looking for a lion, be quite sure that you want to see him” writes Mr. Corbett. But, here you go out seeking seven man-eaters with the dimension of 10’3”-10’7” curves and have killed approximately 1,000 human lives between them. 10 brilliantly narrated takes you through the most exciting journey of hunting these seven man-eaters. A thrilling hunt and yet extremely knowledge filled.  Wild-Life Reading 101.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 45

No woman leader in the modern day Indian political system stamped their authority as powerful as Tamil Nadu previous chief minister Selvi Jayalalitha did.

“Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen” by Vaasanthi takes you through the life of a young girl who lost her father at the age of two and ventured into glamor filled cinema world that exaggerated the likes of success and failures.

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Book #: 45

Title: Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen” by Vaasanthi

Pages: 200

Even for someone who watched a few of her movies, I would still categorize myself as an outsider and there are many like me who knew the impact the lady had on the Tamil Nadu political system only from the major media reports. But, the common citizens that visited Rajaji Park after she passed away and prayers held by them for 75 days of her hospitalization tells a lot about the admiration that the Tamilians had for her.

This 200 pages quick read is a delight for an outsider like myself to trace the path and to endeavor the hardships that she had to encounter in her lifetime. However the argument goes, a woman in a society and system that was dominated by sheer masculinity, to make everyone stiffen their backs only by her commands is no small feat.

The book takes you through the phases of her life which are important for everyone to know, not just as a guiding light to understand the journey, but the overall political history that the state of Tamil Nadu had to surpass.

The biggest success for Vaasanthi from this book is the excerpts of it being used by each and every major news media channel, both print, digital and visual, as a single point of reference.

There was no denying the fact about the corruption that she or her close aid, led by Sasikala  and her family, were involved with but as they usually put it -“When you pass away from the face of this earth, all it matters is the number of lives that you positively touched” and if that was a metric to define her good, she was an angel for many. But, the negatives were not to be overlooked as Vaasanthi made sure in her book as she didn’t shy away from dedicating enough pages for it.

Overall, earning the name “Amma” which is referred as “other form of God” in Indian cultural references, Jayalalitha had lived a life that is an inspiration to many. The book by Vaasanthi captures what you need to know about that life. 

As Jayalalithaa passed away on 5th December 2016, 11:30 PM according to official reports, may her soul rest in peace and the ideologies that she believed would be held by her devotional followers.

 

A Book A Week Challenge- Week 44

“This is an Argumentative Book” writes Archie Brown right at the beginning of the book in which he makes an argument on why “Strong” leader is not the most desirable form of leadership but a more consultative, collaborative version of leadership is the ideal option, in the democratic political set up and business leadership.

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Book #: 44

Title: The Myth of The Strong Leader” by Archie Brown

Pages: 363

No one says “we want a weak leader” and it might seem obvious to believe that we do not even want someone who is traditionally considered ‘strong’ – who is merely authoritative and keeps the single point of decision making as his strongest suit. But, the most recent US election results in what promises to be an election for “most powerful man on earth”, the results don’t seem to align with our intuition.

It is not the first time that we as common citizens we made a decision that is counter intuitive and Archie Brown does provide a comprehensive history of studying political leadership in the past fifty years to point to the instances where such decisions were made.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive office of the presidency was often mocked as “too many people trying to bite me with the president’s teeth” when he decided to extend the size of his office.

Ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao-Tzu says “a leader is best when men barely know he is there, not so good when men obey and acclaim him”. This might not be a very relevant criterion in the modern day where the election campaigns were run, irrespective of the level, from the president to a mayor, centered around ‘the man’ rather than ‘the policy or manifesto’. As long the mechanism of ‘man’ taking center stage, it is impossible to separate the ‘power’ from him.

India had traditionally run its politics from ages within this criterion and the most recent election of Narendra Modi as its leader is no different. It is also one of the prime reasons why party chiefs hold their positions as long they are active in politics unless they commit a crime that is impossible to eyewash.

With the difficulty involved in ‘transforming’ the leadership, Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson stand out to be those leaders who redefined the modern-day political leadership.

We do not have to think much to point a leader who believed and operated with collaborative style –Abraham Lincoln stands as an epitome example for this style. Clement Attlee of 1945-1951’s British politics can be quoted too but not as defining as Lincoln.

 It is not difficult to identify leaders that are ‘powerful’- Napoleon or Lenin could be quoted as examples from the authoritarian era but in the modern day political system, Margaret Thatcher stands as a very powerful example. But, the arguments were made ‘for’ her in the sense that she redefined political leadership than any of modern day British leaders such as Tony Blair or David Cameroon did. Tony Blair tried to emulate what Thatcher did but comes nowhere in terms of command or strong as she was.

Overall, Archie Brown’s argumentative “The Myth of the Strong Leader” provides a list of comprehensive examples on how one type of leadership is way better than the other even though on the face of it does look obvious. But, in the modern day political set up where leader dominates the policies, it is more a wish list than historical evidence.