Silent Whispers

Chasing Illusionary Butterflies!

Year End Review & Joy of Reading

Posted by Mrityunjay on December 31, 2018

9024 pages.

32 books.

12 months.

One hell of a reading year.

 

readThat’s what my Goodreads Page says about me. And I agree to that assessment. Had planned for 18 books and ended up with 32 by mid-Nov. Stopped after that as mind needed its own sweet time to absorb all that I had devoured. Thinking of it, ‘Reading Challenge’ by Goodreads is kind of a funny competition where you don’t get much as a reward for completing your challenge. All you vie for is some sort of gratification. Occasionally I felt pressured to complete the challenge and I thought once I finish, it will be much more soothing experience afterwards. Interestingly, once the target was done, my mind started making new targets- going beyond year 2017 first, then trying to attain my own personal best in a year then covering as many genres as possible and so on. It was weird knowing fully well what I was doing. But my reading flow was good and I was enjoying it. This ‘goal’ of reading more number of books just doesn’t help you achieve anything apart from appearing smart in front of some people. It’s a zero-sum game in the long run. More like data-devouring. My notes taking ability is still poor. Writing book review this year helped a bit but this is not sufficient. I need to have better mental models to make the reading process more fruitful in the future. Let’s say to take away from a book that has the potential to shape my thoughts in a better way. Reflection is important. I mean, by finishing first or targeting certain number of books is no fun if it’s not moulding your thought process. Reading is not a sprint and things like speed reading techniques are bullshit. As they say, the difference between being good enough and being exceptional comes down to your approach to learning skills.

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” —Ursula K. Le Guin. Amazing quote, aint it? But then a civilization is only as good as the stories it tells. By reading those words, those stories, those untold tales, we learn from the accomplishments and the faults of societies dead and gone. These stories shape us in myriad ways and that’s what makes reading such a soul-enriching experience. There is something magical about reading. I mean, no matter how hard I try, it still remains an indescribable feeling. In a twisted sort of way, reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. And not to forget, reading makes me smarter. It broadens my horizon which of course, gives reasonable dosage of raw materials to my brain to munch upon. I have low concentration issues but reading works as a medication during those attention-deficit phases. I must also admit that I have also used reading as an escape route to go away from occasional grim reality. It is bliss considering you get to interact with someone else’s imagination. Another factor that makes reading worthwhile is that minuscule degree of improvement that you experience on a daily basis which compounds exponentially in the long run. It’s a right thing to do and whatever you do right gives you a bit of edge against everyone else who doesn’t. And that edge is all that matters in the grand scheme of life. That edge is all that is. So why shouldn’t I strive to nourish a habit which I don’t just love to do but also which acts a glorious productivity hack?

Print is beautiful to me. That feel of page delights my innermost being. As an adult, it’s challenging to read rewith utmost level of absorption. You need to get your breathing to slow down to the pace of imaginative prose. And when you are fully immersed in reading, nothing distracts you. No one needs you anymore. It’s too late in the day for me to make any more mistakes, disappoint anyone, complete any uncompleted tasks. Best part, that time factor which kept you pressed all day like a sauna belt is no longer there. It can very well be termed as ‘Flow’as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book with same title. He defines Flow as- a state of concentrated attention in which ordinary worries are forgotten and ordinary intrusions fail to register. Reading makes us connect with something bigger than ourselves, and feel both enlarged and refreshed.

As for my top lists, I am just not good enough in choosing favourite things, whether it’s a movie, song, person or book. Sheer waste of time this favourite business. Every book feels dear to me. I tried as many different genres as possible. If on one hand I Sipped from classic authors like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, at the same time I ventured deep into spiritualism with Siddhartha & Men’s search for Meaning. C.S.Lewis and Tolkien kindled my heart with Narnia and Lord of the Rings trilogy, whereas Hidden Life of Trees opened my eyes to a completely new fascinating world of tree-dom. Likes of Barking up the Wrong Tree, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, The 4-hour Workweek, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck etc gave me new insights into productivity hacks. Mastery was another great book with amazing stories. Seabiscuit is one of the finest animal stories depicting value of grit, determination and perseverance. Ted Talks is too good when it comes to learning the steps of public speaking. Grinding it Out, Open and Creativity Inc were gold standard in autobiography segment. So much to learn and imbibe from these achievers.  How I made $2000000 in the Stock Market & Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of Crowds depicts the ages old phenomenon of greed and fear. Loved the writing style of Into the Wild and The Stranger. Treasure trove of wisdom seeping through these pages. All given on a platter for us. If we care for what we absorb through these pages, we can see the universe through the eyes of such accomplished writers and their creations.

To sum up, I can’t exactly say why I read but my best guess is- we read because we are trying to figure life out. I still don’t have much idea about great questions of life. I realize that I know nothing, really, in spite of my willingness to talk about just about anything. That’s one paradox of the life of the mind. I’ve read a lot since I was a child but I seem to know nothing. There isn’t really a book or series of books that explain everything but somehow most of these books find ways to explore the core questions of life and offer you plethora of possibilities and moments of stunning insight. It’s all about getting into that zone, fully immersed and letting go of all your preconceptions and prejudices.

On that note, I wish you all a Happy New Year. May you all have great stories to share. And do read. A Lot. Cheers.

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The 4-Hour Workweek – Book 32 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on December 26, 2018

Last book of the year 2018 for me. The author, Timothy Ferriss is a much discussed character in virtual world. Somehow, he manages to generate extreme loyalty or vitriol depending upon how you perceive his outlandish claims. For instance, in this book he makes a lot of bold claims, such as: “How do you create a hands-off business that generates $80,000 per month with no management? It’s all here.” You will keep finding such claims throughout the book. It is easier to confuse this book with some sort of “get rich quick” scheme though Ferriss tries to substantiate his claims with quite a few practical and productive steps.

To give you a brief intro about the author, Tim Ferriss started his career with a sales job at a tech firm. downloadDissatisfied, he left this job and started his own venture but then he had to work 80 hours a week for himself. The pay was good, but the business left him drained so he took the next best step- he focused on streamlining his business along with twin steps of eliminating distractions and making his system automated. The resulting effect was stunning. His business not just turned more profitable but also took less of his time. Much less, actually. That left him with plenty of free time to pursue other profitable things. He gives a great deal of credit to Pareto Principle also known as 80-20 principle.

In one sentence, The 4-Hour Workweek is all about automating our lives. He emphasizes a lot on outsourcing everything that can be outsourced. He does offer some radical thoughts like we should abandon the thought of retirement as the only thing that matters is relative income that you earn per hour of work and not absolute income. We should focus on compressing and simplifying our lives. We need to liberate our time as what truly matters is money earned per unit of effort. Full time job is passé. It’s primarily a productivity book that also offers you several handy tools to automate your life. Yes, most of these tools are accessible on author’s website which in turn boosts his traffic and income but then what the hell! He is pretty much unabashed about it and users are getting a hang of some useful tools so that’s even-steven. If you are interested in the concept of having more free time then an intelligent reader can easily extract a wealth of useful ideas from the book.

Tim Ferriss wants his readers to define their objectives first. Ask yourself, “what do you really want?” what makes you happy? Decide what’s important to you. Set goals. Once you are done with that part, eliminate all the distractions to free up time. Effective is more rewarding than being efficient. Choose the most important 20% part and focus whole-heartedly on that. Learn to say NO. Frequently. Firmly. Avoid interruptions and munch on low-information diet. The next part of freeing up time and adding to your bank balance is automating your cash flow to increase income. Better hire a virtual assistant to handle all your menial tasks. Outsource most of the chores. And oh, don’t care about expectations. Redefine things in your own preferences. Work from home or if you are bold enough, shift to other countries on a temporary basis that offer favourable exchange rates. Looks daunting but actually your expenses will be far lower.

Timothy Ferriss is a self declared job-quitter and hedonist. The 4-Hour Workweek  has several personal anecdotes (and those of others who’ve outsourced their lives). Parts highlighting his journey to Chinese kickboxing champion or Tango dance championship in Argentina is part weird, part amusing. If you find him a wanker, then you are not the only one with such conclusion. A word of advice from the author himself- that you take from his book what feels right for you and ignore what doesn’t. Take what suits you from The 4-Hour Workweek and leave the rest. It really is a highly personal thing. Personally, I found time management section of the book pretty good. Automation was not really my cup of tea. To sum up, this book is written by a person obsessed with his own image, it is a pretty reasonable read. It’s useful though I would recommend the readers not to get too fascinated with extrinsic motivation. There is also a joy in craftsmanship of our pastimes which the author here does not seem to appreciate. Life is not just about winning a trophy or bragging to all and sundry. It’s much more than that.

Happy Reading folks. Cheers.

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Norse Mythology – Book 31 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on December 16, 2018

When I first saw Norse Mythology on Goodreads, I knew I had to read it as I have always had a fascination for folklore, and secondly, Scandinavian region has always appealed to me. May be it’s the snow-covered houses, or quaint places or having best metrics in social indexes or whale hunting expeditions or lisbeth salander or perhaps all of these. Some of the characters like Odin, Thor, Loki I was well aware of (thanks in no small means to Marvels & Avengers), rest it was a total new world altogether for me. This book gives a thrilling account of the Norse gods, speaking in a voice that resonates to the young and young at heart. To the well-versed, the northern deities need no introduction but for the rest of us, Neil Gaiman does a great favour by introducing the players to the reader in a completely different light.

downloadActually, some of the stories told in the book were contrary to what I knew or thought to be true as witnessed in other literature or movies. But then, as the writer reasserts in the foreword that, “these stories are constantly evolving, constantly open to re-interpretation. This book of stories, he suggests, is merely one retelling round the eternal campfire”. Mr. Gaiman is immensely popular and his novels, screenplays and comic books have truly redefined the art of storytelling. He makes it appear like a universal pursuit and if you read ‘Norse Mythology’, you actually feel that you don’t need a degree in English literature to write a story. Perhaps, just a bit of imagination and complete immersion? Too much to ask? I don’t know but that’s the power of his simplicity. Not for nothing, this man has blurred the distinction between popular entertainment and literature. Complete merger of two distinct genres.

The book begins with laying out of the playing field. From the story of the giant ash tree, Yggdrasil, which spans and connects the nine worlds, to Ragnarok, the “end of days. Introduction of Odin, the All-Father and how he lost his one eye in his quest for knowledge, earning him names such as “Blindr” (the blind god), “Hoarr” (the one-eyed), and “Baleyg” (the flaming-eyed one). You also get to know about how ‘Mjollnir’ (Thor’s hammer) came into being. Forged by two ambitious dwarves, it was a result of Loki’s mischief. And I loved the way, Loki was introduced- as someone who “makes the world more interesting, but less safe.” And by the way, don’t expect to find any similarity between Gaiman’s retelling of Mjollnir and its translation into movies such as Thor and The Avengers. There is just no connection. The author is also considerate enough to write about the plight of the Norse gods’ greatest enemies. For instance, Fenrir the wolf who is prophesied to devour Odin and ultimately bring on Ragnarok, the Midgard serpent who is Thor’s arch nemesis, and Hel the queen of the dead who was thrown into the underworld by Odin.

Norse Mythology is written in several chapters and so you will find a multitude of stories. There is no happy ending here. Book offers lucid details of Balder’s death and Loki’s last days leading up to Ragnarok, where the worlds inevitably end “in ash and flood, in darkness and ice.” In a way, you feel kind of relieved that someone as skilled and popular as Neil Gaiman has written a book on Northern Gods and their ancient origins otherwise all that we would be left with was Marvel films and mumbo-jumbo of superhero marketing juggernaut. After reading this book, I still can’t digest Hulk calling Loki a ‘Puny God’while thrashing him to pieces in one of the Avengers movies! Apparently, the author has gone back to the original written sources from 13th-century Iceland – the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda – oral songs and stories collected by medieval Christian scholars.

On the flip side, remembering and pronouncing the names of the mythological characters is kind of arduous. The heroes and heroines of Norse mythology all had several names and alternate identities. Their weapons had names, their cities and animals had names … even their goddamn kitchen implements had names and most of them are tongue twisters. Nordic names are not as tough as Polish or Greek names but still…check these words; Suttung, Bolverkr, Bodn, Odrerir, Hnitbjor, Gunnlod and it goes on and on! You get the picture.

Norse Mythology is a much-needed (ironically) humane retelling of the great northern tales. Though the book lacks a little bit of depth as you unsuccessfully expect to find something profound and some mystical understanding of pre-Christian Scandinavian culture in mythology but perhaps that’s also the best part about the book. It’s a light read and doesn’t take itself too seriously akin to the Gods themselves as they seem well nigh comfortable with occasional duds. Oral traditions are important to mankind. These myths are not just stories to be read but as tales to be told, read aloud to rapt listeners just as they would’ve been done long ago. Now I want more of such tales but with a cup of mead, sitting amidst Vikings in snow-capped surroundings.

Happy Reading folks. Cheers.

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice – Book 30 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on November 27, 2018

A real life story that reads like a thriller and spy novel- that’s Red Notice for you. The book is about Bill Browder and his firm, Hermitage Capital that was one of the most sought-after western investment funds in Russia. In the chaos that ensued in the post-Soviet privatization of the early 1990s, Hermitage emerged as the front runner for making money in the deeply undervalued securities of the erstwhile USSR. But making money in the hugely flawed Russian capital market, which still had remnants of communist era bureaucratic corruption prevalent in almost every sphere was no easy task. On one hand, the world’s newest capitalist playground offered opportunities of a lifetime in oil & gas sector which was trading at a fraction of Exxons and BPs of the world, its serpentine labyrinth of red-tapism and oligarchy muscle power proved to be a tough nut to crack for even the most battle-hardened investors of Wall Street.

Bill Browder belonged to a pretty distinguished family. His grandfather ran for President as a Communist, his parents were real lefties and guess what, he became a capitalist in reaction to all that. Alumni of Stanford Business School, Browder started in Poland, as a consultant, on a bus deal. Gradually, he worked his way to Russia, after getting Edmond Safra to invest in his fund. What he managed to figure out before anyone else, that the Russian stock market was incredibly undervalued, and that shares distributed to the public were actually more valuable than preferred, voting shares.

The first half of the book feels like an adventure story, as in going to different places and having one.red Reading the first hand account of Browder’s incredible entrepreneurial journey as he keeps climbing the ladders of success with his ingenious methods and networking skills, gives you a heady rush. You will love the segment where Browder and his mate crash the World Economic Forum in Davos. Don’t they say, Success is all about chutzpah? Bill was a risk taker who against all common sense went to work in Eastern Europe just after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It actually says a lot about his smartness how he sensed the business opportunities in Russia when most of other big investment bankers preferred to err on the side of caution. He built up his business, kept chasing investors and established Hermitage capital. All was going well for Browder, whose firm managed to turn the relatively modest $25million portfolio into a $1billion fund virtually overnight. This was, of course, until they came up against a ruthless oligarchy, determined to hold onto all of the spoils from their nefarious state-capture schemes.

The tales of corruption prevalent in Russian society is shocking, Or perhaps not so much, if you are an Indian citizen. In Russia, corruption means that you might have the most law-abiding business out there, but if you do something that the local political elite does not like, then things start to happen. Let’s try to figure out the modus operandi as explained in a website – “It all starts with several corrupt policemen raiding your offices, your lawyers’ offices, your business partners’ offices and taking away everything they find with them. It will be followed by a battery of corrupt lawyers and state officials forging documents that, to your utter surprise, show that you sold the company half a year ago to some convicted criminal, but just before the “sale” you applied for $230m tax rebate from the government, were given this money and then stole it before leaving the country. Experiencing WTF moment? Hold on. It goes further. Then, at the court (in absentia), corrupt judges refuse all documented proof that this is not true and she sentences you to 9-year of prison. In the meantime, your local lawyer who presented all the authentic documenting proof about your company being stolen from you and the alleged theft of tax money being actually conducted by corrupt state officials, gets arrested too and sent to prison cell with 10 inmates and 4 beds. If by any chance he develops some serious medical ailments because of poor treatment and lack of food in the prison, he is denied any medical attention by corrupt prison doctors and corrupt prison guards. Lastly, he is beaten to death with batons by corrupt “investigators”. That’s not all. All the corrupt officials who orchestrated the whole drama including the judge get awarded by the state. This is what corruption and well, life, is in modern Russia”.

The lawyer mentioned above, Sergei Magnitsky was the focal point of Hermitage’s resistance to the nexus of politicians, policemen, oligarchs loyal to Putin. That unfortunately, earned him the ire of Putin, finally culminating in his death. While the rest of the team was fighting the whole system headquartered in London, Magnitsky stayed put in Russia and remained proud throughout his ordeal. Bill Browder could never get rid of that guilt and relentlessly campaigned for the ‘Magnitsky Act’ — a targeted set of sanctions against those complicit in his death, backed by legislation. After years of struggle in the US congress and European Parliament he is successful by getting visa bans and asset freezes to all of 50 or so corrupt officials directly connected to the unjust arrest, judgement, torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky. The second half of the book is totally dedicated to Magnitsky Act based on Bill’s lobbying and ability to garner political support for the same. That whole narration also gives you a glimpse into Bill Browder’s transformation from a highly-regarded international investment banker to his re-incarnation as an international human rights campaigner. The passing of the act was a huge milestone in the history of human rights movement considering it was against the wishes of a powerful world leader- Vladimir Putin.

The Red Notice is a great read but the real triumph is the book’s middle act, which reads like a classic thriller, weaving a tale of corruption, intrigue and murder in the mould of famous mystery writers. The writing style does manage to draw an emotional response from the reader and it’s hard to put down the book once you start reading it. The book successfully manages to articulate the anger, frustration and triumph of Bill Browder’s life. If you are into Russian history and are familiar with capital market, you will enjoy it even more. Red Notice also opens the door to understanding of Russian culture as in kind of pessimism and nihilism that has personified Russian literature throughout the ages. The cynicism and ruthlessness of many of the characters he encounters would fit well into the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov et al. A great read. Go for it.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

 

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Creativity, Inc. – Book 29 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on November 13, 2018

What Apple is to mobiles, Pixar is perhaps the same or rather, more to art of film making. And guess, what is the common link between two? Steve Jobs. But “Creativity, Inc.,” by Ed Catmull is not a book about Apple or Jobs; rather it offers much more. Having been a huge fan of Pixar films like Toy Story, Up, Wall-E, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles among others, I wanted to read this book as a way to see in and understand how films I like get made. What I discovered instead was an awe-inspiring glimpse into a creative business culture where a top-down management is eschewed in favour of openness and sharing. The book offers an amazing history of passion, animation, creativity process, insight into human emotions and the numerous struggles in order to achieve perfection.

edThe story of Pixar is not just about movies produced by the studio but also the people in it as well as the business culture of making films. Reason why I mentioned Steve Jobs in the beginning was, without his fierce drive and foresight, Pixar would have found it tough to attain the heights it has found for itself. Though, it’s not as straight forward as you think. There are many more layers to his rescuing Pixar and subsequent selling to Disney.

Creativity, Inc., can be termed as a management book or a creative book or an autobiography or all of these. It covers a wide spectrum including the obvious concepts like communicate better, foster trust, build a Kumbaya culture that will give rise to game-changing ideas, pay attention etc. Though what actually resonated with me was how Ed Catmull with the help of some smart people built something that profoundly changed the animation business and, along the way, popular culture. Just think of “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Ratatouille” and “Finding Nemo.” There is so much more to these stories than just dollops of cuteness.

Mr. Ed Catmull had studied computer graphics in graduate school in an era when nobody had heard of it.George Lucas recruited him in 1979 to help work special-effects images into live action footage. Thus began, his first monumental struggle when human beings resisted change. In this case, film editors at Lucasfilms had serious reservation about working with computers. Earlier they were snipping filmstrips with razor blades and gluing them together (yeah, that’s how primitive things were!) and they felt any other method wouldn’t work. That gave Catmull his first management lesson- a transformative idea, no matter how good, was useless unless the people who had to implement it fully embraced the concept.

What actually got Ed Catmull going with his visions was hiring of a talented young Disney animator named John Lasseter who was skilled at emphasizing the importance of storytelling. Usual trend was displaying the “wow” factor of computer animation whereas Mr. Lasseter knew that visual polish didn’t matter much if you don’t get the story right. He just improvised a bit by adding a simple idea—introducing a second character to interact with the main one—thus enabling much needed emotional tension that all of us can relate to. Though the creativity ball was set into motion but the actual magic started taking shape only years later when Steve Jobs, between stints at Apple, agreed to finance the purchase of the Pixar unit from Lucasfilm. Infusion of fresh capital was great news for struggling Pixar but then there was dominant presence of intense, intimidating Steve Jobs to deal with. This association had its ups and downs but eventually it helped Pixar in getting launched into stratosphere. Their first full-fledged movie was “Toy Story” (1995), which was a phenomenal success. That led to $140 million initial public offering for Pixar which was lapped up by investors. This was the beginning of Pixar Era.

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation Studios essentially describes the making of the creative Pixar-Characters-21culture in Creativity, Inc., As he says, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” Developing a sustainable culture that allowed people to do their best work and removed impediments to creativity is no easy task. He kept asking himself questions like; where are we still deluded? How do we think about failures and fears? How to create stories that anyone can connect to? The last chapter titled “Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture,” offers a master class in creative leadership. It offers 33 gems ranging from managing fear and failure in an organization to protecting new ideas and imposing productive limits. Don’t confuse process with the goals. He keeps insisting on linking ideas about creative work to behaviors (even ones that ultimately fail). All his ideas here are told through tales of their implementation, which makes it pretty fascinating read.

Small details are far more important than they appear. For instance, Toy Story taught him the value of bringing together product managers with artists and technicians. To prevent the risk-averse repackaging of what has worked well before—a common temptation that Mr. Catmull calls “craft without art”—he insisted that his team do new things with the help of Braintrust, an open internal platform for discussing ideas. What has worked well before may not work again. So have no complacency. Catmull demonstrated it in totality while making “Ratatouille” (2007), the film about the Parisian rat who wants to be a chef, he dispatched a group to Paris—not only to eat well but also to visit the kitchens, talk to the chefs and, yes, muck through the Paris sewer system, home to many rats. That’s the level of authenticity and precision Pixar stands for. Similarly, For “Monsters University” (2013), a dozen Pixar people visited campuses like Princeton, Harvard and MIT to check out the dorms, lecture halls, student hangouts and classrooms. “You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar,” Mr. Catmull says.

The narrative of Creativity, Inc.  is seasoned with lessons Ed Catmull learned in the course of building an American icon. Catmull separates his book into four parts: “Getting Started,” “Protecting the New,” “Building and Sustaining,” and “Testing What We Know.” This is a well-told tale, full of detail about an interesting, intricate business. For fans of Pixar films, it’s a must-read. For fans of management books, it belongs on the “value added” shelf. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership. Ever. Go for it.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Book 28 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on October 20, 2018

Its fun getting back to childhood books, especially when you haven’t read too many of them and now trying to catch up with all that you missed. Also the fact that, childhood literature consisted of Hindi giants like Premchand, Shivani, Renu, Nirala et al, western literature feels more like acquired taste but somehow more connectable. I have been reading witty quotes of Mark Twain since as long as I can remember, but his book is something else. Mark Twain always struck me as an open-minded gentleman with a strong sense of humor and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a fine demonstration of that. Tom Sawyer is one of the classic childhood adventure books, telling the story of Tom (a naughty youngster from the South of the US in the 19th century) and his many mischiefs.

Reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as an adult is still lots of fun. Mark Twain has a wonderful tomwriting style which keeps this book very interesting and flowing. The book also contains a good deal of social commentary which the author manages to convey with “boyish” way of thinking. It’s a quick read which keeps throwing you back to your childhood, recalling similar thoughts, wishes and behaviour. According to Mr. Twain, the book is “a history of a boy.” He further claims that the characters and plot are based on real people and events in his own boyhood. The resulting tale is as lively as you could imagine.

The main protagonist Tom Sawyer is full of mischief and constantly in search of new adventures, new tricks to play, or new ways to break the rules without getting into trouble. Throughout the book, there is a strong undercurrent of moral, psychological and intellectual development of Tom. It combines the past with the present in a way that the reader will personally identify with. You will also get to witness life in the Mississippi River town where Twain himself spent his youth. For children reading the book, the adventures are quite exciting. Although this book is believed to be for young adults and adults, I remember reading the “whitewashing of the fence” in middle school in an English text book which also gives us a good clue about Tom’s nature. It’s about how Tom was ordered by Aunt Polly to whitewash the fence as a punishment resulting from one of his mischiefs. But being smart ass that he is, Tom manipulates other boys into completing the job for him and by the time fence is all whitewashed, Tom is also a wealthy boy with the treasures (marbles, bits of glass, firecrackers etc) of other kids. He actually played it so smart that other kids bought their turn at the fence. It’s a pretty famous scene with one underlying message- “that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Similarly, Tom is also used to enacting age-old scheme of playing sick in order to get out of school. As is with kids, Tom loves to use melodrama to get his way. Though, it backfires on him every now and then. Then there is first brush of romance and subsequent heartbreak. It was fun reading Tom’s lovesick musings. Furthermore, heartbreak leads to disenchantment and decision of becoming a pirate with two friends, Joe and Huck in tow. In addition to all the pranks and rascally ways, Tom has a sentimental side to him. Tom also demonstrates a heroic side. After witnessing a murder, Tom decides to testify in court. He later saves the widow Douglas from attack and finds Injun Joe’s buried treasure–thereby becoming wealthy and famous. He gets into trouble on numerous occasions but it’s also a fact that, Tom is pretty honest and commands a certain degree of goodness and courage.

First published in 1876, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer offers you dollops of humor, innocence of childhood, slavery, nostalgia, revenge, murder and several little reminders of what was and what should have been. Being an adult, you can also sense typical Twain satire that runs through the story criticizing the eccentricities and hypocrisies of human nature. Classics like these are hard to come by!

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

 

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The Stranger – Book 27 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on October 10, 2018

He expects nothing from life or people, and cultivates nothing. Neither hopeful nor cynical, just flowing with the feeling of sameness all through day and night. Morality is not subjected to control and order but autonomy and liberty. One act is the same as another in the long run. There is neither hope nor a dint of cynicism. One act is the same as another in the long run. There is no sign of aspiration or quest. No materialistic ambitions. An anti-hero in the mould of Kafka’s Jospeh. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to introduce you to Meursault- protagonist of existentialist drama called “The Stranger”. As indifferent as piercing rays of summer sun and motionless waves of sea, Meursault represents urban disintegration and a by-product of routinized work.

Though published in 1942 by famous French author Albert Camus, Meursault could very well be representing modern day apathy prevalent in our generation. The character feels so indifferent, unable to tune himself to how society expects him to behave and express certain emotions during the moments of tragedy. It feels so relatable when you find him moving on from humdrum of day to day dreadful existence. Call it existential crisis or merely a product of his circumstances, that’s how he is. Can’t float on the surface of ecstasy and can’t wail in the depths of despair with any iota of supposedly natural expressions. Throughout the story you get the distinct impression that he does not conform.  He does not follow the norms set out by society about how we should be. He is merely a soul without any moral compass. He is not a bad person; he is just unable to subscribe to moral code set out by society. I mean, how do you judge a person who does not weep at his mother’s funeral? An anti-social criminal who does not play the worldly games and hence eternally condemned? Or he is just plain ‘different’? That’s the crux of the book.

camusI had fallen in love with Albert Camus when I had read his “The Fall”. His short, crisp writing style with dollops of penetrating sentences was an instant connect. Born in Algeria, this writer who was also a philosopher, author, and journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. “The Stranger” is one of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century. Originally written in French, it has been translated in many languages. The Stranger is an apt title as Meursault is a perfect stranger in every sense, whether he being a foreigner in Algeria, an outsider to society, and of course a bit of a stranger to those around him. If I dare a bit more, I will say, he is also a stranger to himself. Consider the opening of the book– “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”   You getting the drift?

The Stranger unfolds through Mersault’s perspective, and is divided into two main parts—before he committed the most senseless crime, and how society perceives him after his arrest. Throughout the book, he has a matter-of-fact tone. Whether you find him apathetic or sympathetic depends on your nature and inclination. His description about his mother’s death is in some way weird and at the same time revealing of how Mersault’s brain was wired. Check his emotions- “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.” First part of the book is about his day to day affairs and not for a moment you will find traces of passion or any strong emotions. When he commits the senseless murder, he had no motive except for intolerable heat.

Mersault’s trial feels like a circus; a complete farce uncovering the methods of society layer by layer. Everyone expects him to feel remorse for his crime but there is none. His atheist mindset does not help his cause as well. Merasault is not happy about the fact that his guilt is being established without his participation. Readers get a feeling that he is not exactly being punished for murder but for his behaviour after his mother’s death. Pronounced guilty in a hasty verdict, Mersault‘s trial was against the protagonist’s character more than it was about his crime. The novel concludes with a scintillating monologue when Merasault launches an impassioned tirade after a chaplain attempts to salvage his soul. To him, nothing mattered and he believed everyone was privileged to live and be carried by the tides of fate, and all of us are equally condemned to face an end—whatever that end may be. With that outburst he actually takes command of his fate, relegating death to merely a result of the choices he’s made. And these choices did not matter to him. It was simply the way his life unfolded.

To wind up, “The Stranger” shakes you and your existing notions about life, death, freedom and choices. Even though he is condemned to death, he still feels that he is free. And if you think you are more free than others because you don’t give a two hoot about societal norms and notions of convention, then do we have any right to consider you limited or condemned? Living on your own terms is worth more than what the world views as rational behaviour. Mersault also made me think about concept of remorse. Not having any interest in introspection or religion or worship or regrets is actually fascinating. Do these really matter in the end when death is certain? May be these notions are too bleak but I find them worth considering. After all it’s all about desire to be free. To be free is humane. Cold and detached it may sound but then you have got every right to live your life the way you deem fit. Go for it if you are interested in philosophy, existentialism and absurdist literature.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

 

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The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia)- Book 26 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on October 1, 2018

Those even slightly interested in fantasy genre, must have heard of “Chronicles of Narnia” series. As most of us believe Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan were the first children of our world who traveled to Narnia and met Aslan. But the truth is, two kids named, Digory and Polly were the first to be actually there when Narnia was created. The Narnia series is better known for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but The Magician’s Nephew is recognised as first book in the Chronicles of Narnia because it’s about the earliest events in Narnia’s history. However in certain records, it is sometimes listed as Book 6 because it was the sixth book in the series to be published. Six more books followed this one and together they became known as The Chronicles of Narnia. Written by C.S. Lewis, this prequel is a child’s delight.

My adult version would like to be critical but the inner child thoroughly relished this fantasy. Having watched the movie version when it was first released here, it was never as engrossing as The Lord of the Rings series but it was always decent fun along with likes of Harry Potters and Golden Compass of the world. As for the plot, the magician’s nephew in question is a boy named Digory who along with his friend, Polly, found his uncle performing secret experiments — and they soon become his guinea pigs. They get transported to a strange in-between place that houses portals to many mysterious worlds. In their relentless journey, they find themselves housed in enigmatic land called Narnia.narnia

But no make mistake. Story is not as simple and smooth as it sounds. Which good story have you ever found simple? In their rollercoaster journey, Polly and Digory had the misfortune to meet megalomaniac and murderous Queen Jadis who wishes to conquer all the dimensions through sheer brute force. The Magician’s Nephew is all about how two young fellows discover their courage and stop Jadis from conquering our own planet? Also, it’s an exhilarating tale of how the duo makes their way to Narnia and their encounter with Aslan.

The book has got a different feel in terms of literature. More like old-fashioned in a fable like structure with decent language proficiency. This is an introduction to the world of Narnia and it can’t get more detailed than that. In fact, many Narnia fans will be delighted to come across details that they’ll recognize from the later stories. For example, did you ever wonder why there’s a lamp-post in Narnia? Or where the hell the Witch came from? You’ll find the explanation in The Magician’s Nephew! C.S.Lewis has an engaging writing style that is more about beautiful descriptions rather than nonstop action. There is so much attention to detail to the way a different world was built from the scratch. Book feels of decent length and size for a young child.

The strength of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ lies in all–adventure, lovable protagonists, a remarkably strong villain, an interesting plot, and even the occasional well-placed comedic relief. London of 1900s is depicted with vivid details. The writing style is such that you can visualize the novel’s individual scenes perfectly. From the isolated and downright eerie mood at Charn (the world Jadis massacred), to the warm, pure simplicity of the earthy scent of sun-baked grass in Narnia. All feeding your imagination while keeping the rest of the story at a suitably speedy pace. My favourite bit is story of Jadis and destruction of Charn and the actual creation of Narnia. It makes for an extremely powerful moment, along with the unique reactions each character has to what they are seeing before them. I have got the entire series in one volume and I will be devouring them in slow fashion. Go, feed your inner dormant child.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

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Siddhartha – Book 25 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on September 23, 2018

The book “Siddhartha” has got quite a cult status among the literature aficionados.  And rightfully so. This book makes sense on so many levels. Though not all answers are given and perhaps you are meant to find your own direction but it does give you a sneak view of what Hindu dharma philosophizes. For an Indian and a Hindu, there might be nothing new in stages leading up to Siddhartha’s quest for self-actualization but for a western reader, it is a great introduction to the concept of Hinduism. I remember reading “Autobiography of a Yogi” for the first time back in college and I was most taken in by the early chapters – the parts where the title character is running away from home and seeking Truth with a bunch of crazy half-starved monks. College kid inside me was obsessed with esoteric. There was this unquenchable thirst for meaning of life, who am I, what am I, what am I destined to etc etc though the answers of these still evade me. But unlike the teen years, I have made my peace with not knowing answers of great many questions. They just reveal themselves when they have to.

Herman Hesse’s mysterious novelette about Eastern religion rings true to the unsolved mystery of desire and calling. When you read a spiritual book in your mid-thirties, your broken ideals and consolidated cynicism either gets a boost or you try to see things in a totally new perspective. So many of us can somewhere identify with middle aged Siddhartha making his way in the outside world, finding a woman and attaining a measure of material success and the same time, a hidden part of us remains tethered to the spiritual musings. Don’t we all get an occasional urge of throwing away all our worldly goods and become a hermit meditating in some caves in Himalayas or turn into a ferryman on some remote river like Siddhartha did? But then a cliché of family, kids, world, responsibility and what not prevents us from going to the same extremes or ever approach a state of Nirvana, but the basic arch of a human life is there for each of us to follow. Somewhere Herman Hesse’s treatise will resonate with you. The pattern of our childhood when every word uttered by our parents is a holy hymn, in our youth we break away looking for independence and self-understanding then process of settling down in adulthood, trying to make a living while fulfilling our responsibilities and finally if we are lucky, our last couple of decades on earth will give us enough spare time to once again reflect on life’s eternal questions.

Siddhartha-Hermann-HesseHermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. Siddhartha is his masterpiece, a “continually rising trajectory of an idea, the fundamentally religious idea of how to ‘live more abundantly’. His basic question pertains to ‘what should we do with our lives?’ As Siddhartha says- I have always thirsted for knowledge, I have always been full of questions. As you dig deeper into the book you will get acquainted with philosophical understanding and spiritual insight dripping effortlessly from each of its pages. It makes you desire a more natural and direct engagement with life. The book possess no adorned style and though there is linguistic and conceptual density but with an almost fable like air. Simpler a thing, greater the sense it imparts. As the author says, ““Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”

Have you ever heard of a saying that “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” now don’t take it literally. It simply exhorts you to value your own experiential understanding prioritizing it above formerly conceived philosophies or institutions of organised religion when it comes to the search for spiritual liberation and enlightenment. This is the central tenet of Buddhism and was exemplified by the Buddha himself from initial renunciation of his princely life and his subsequent experimentation with, and ultimate rejection of, all the doctrines popular in India at the time. He developed his own understanding and subsequently knew himself to have attained Nirvana. However, Siddhartha is not about the Buddha himself though everything inside it will suggest you otherwise. It is primarily a fictional representation of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical founder of Buddhism. There are many parallels between the Buddha and Siddhartha our protagonist in the book and at best, it can be termed as a metaphor of what all you need to think and realize in order to attain self-fulfilment.

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” Path of true enlightenment is paved with quiet determination and rigorous personal honesty. There is no shortcut. The path is always lonesome but such is the method that enlightenment can only be achieved by an individual’s own understanding and that this personal road is littered with the bodies of the many Buddhas it is necessary to “kill”. Written in the third person perspective, Siddhartha has a meditative and poetic style. Compressed in 120 odd pages, the book packs a heavy punch. It sings to you provided you are willing to listen to it. Like Siddhartha, we can search wherever we want but ultimately we need to remain our own pupil.  While the questions will keep coming to me, I will continue listening with an open mind to the rants of any Shaman. Do read it.

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

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A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India – Book 24 Review

Posted by Mrityunjay on September 17, 2018

A mud hut. Melancholic inside and Backdrop of Mumbai’s skyscrapers merging into smog. That’s how A Feast of Vultures pulls you in with its cover photo. In a way, it perfectly sets the tone and your expectations from the book. Written by Josy Joseph, it’s a hard hitting book revealing layers of corruption in most basic units of Indian society to the drawing rooms of high and mighty. Drawing upon his two decades of investigating journalism career, the author ruffles several feathers here. If you are interested about the shadowy men who run the nation’s politics, business rivalries that threaten the economic well being of country, of corporate honchos practically owning the country etc then this is the book for you.

How often have you heard or read, “India is the fastest growing economy”? If that was the case, what feastwould explain the dreadful poverty that plagues the nation? I mean, the entire purpose of economic growth leads to better standards of living for citizens, doesn’t it? At the same time, wherever I have resided, whichever business I have tried; I have always ended up realizing something is deeply wrong with this country. Corruption is a part of our DNA. In fact, coming across an honest officer feels like 9th wonder of the world. This book is everything that won’t give you one reason to feel proud of your country, its leaders and bureaucrats. In a way, Josy Joseph portrays a bleak and sinister picture of the Indian system. It’s a miracle that despite the prevalent chaos, we are still standing as a nation. Not because of them but despite them.

Josy Joseph is an award-winning investigative journalist based in New Delhi. He has worked with The Hindu, The Times of India, DNA, Rediff.com, the Asian Age, Delhi Mid Day, and the Blitz among others. He has also been awarded several times including ‘Journalist of the Year’ in print media by the Ramnath Goenka Foundation run by the Indian Express group. This book is a culmination of his breakthrough reportage covering all the hierarchies of Indian society. A Feast of Vultures opens in an ordinary village and winds up outside the palatial residence of one of the richest Indians. In the pages in between, he introduces us to flourishing phenomenon of middlemen in modern India who facilitate access to decision makers, and manipulate government decisions. These middlemen are the ones that sustain the stunning level of corruption in everyday life in India. They are ubiquitous, all pervasive from the grams panchayats to 7, Racecourse road and Raisina Hill, these middlemen are instrumental in deciding the destiny of our great(!) nation.

A Feast of Vultures is an old and sordid tale written crisply, maintaining a taut narration as the author reveals stories of infamous politician-businessman nexus. The early chapters touch on RK Dhawan, who started as Indira Gandhi’s typist and miraculously became one of the most powerful men in the land. Same with Vincent George. These men, who possessed no other virtue except loyalty, decided our fates. A trustworthy aid can soon turn into a confidant and then into a co-conspirator, as trust is the most important thing when there is something to hide. As the author writes,

“The youth-turned aviation entrepreneur, the old man who lives in a mansion and the typist with many properties are all mere glimpses of the influence wielded by the fortunate aides in the Indian system. If you want the Indian system to work for you, it is critical that you understand the power of the personal assistant. Even in this touch-screen era.”

They were instrumental in methodical deconstruction of Indian Institutions and systems. The most entertaining chapter of the book covers the story of ‘Taki’ – East West’s late Thakiyuddin Wahid. I wonder how many of us know this name? He comes across a visionary who started India’s first private airline in many decades, but who was finally gunned down in the 90’s because he grew too big too fast. Mr. Joseph hints about politician-underworld nexus in this case. After reading the text, you will also have a fair idea about the role played by Naresh Goyal (founder of Jet Airways) in this gruesome saga.

Joseph details the effects of these entrenched systems of influence and corruption on the corporate sector. The story of Jet Airways is a textbook example of how literally anyone with enough political connections can start from nothing and become a billionaire. There are open revelations of nexus between politicians-businessmen with terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan which only emphasizes how deep the rot is. The narrative is unflinching and unfolds sometimes with the pace of a whodunit, but always retains a faithful journalistic eye. It names names and touches the highest echelons of power.

Then there is this disturbing story that paints the former Governor of Punjab (2005-10), Gen. S F Rodrigueoes in less-than-favourable light. That certainly is a bit of a shock. Army persons were always considered sacrosanct but then don’t be misguided with such lofty ideals and hopes.  Mr. Jospeh also hits hard at the likes of Jindal, Mallya and Ambanis who have bent rules as per their will. Naveen Jindal destroyed the environment of Chattisgarh using all the foul means. Ambani raged an orphanage to build his matchbox residence. Mallya did whatever he wanted to and now leads a luxurious life in London. To hell with warrants, notices and extradition treaties. Then the likes of BJP’s Arun Jaitley and the Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi who play both ways. Happy to appear in court for corporate interests in the day and castigate the governments of the day for selling out to corporate interests that same night as spokesmen of their parties. Even the likes of CBI and Judiciary are full of moles. Top leaders get bail and hearing as per their convenience. Law only applies to common citizens. CBI, the agency created to nab the corrupts is toothless. A former director, Ranjit Sinha had compromised the telecom investigation using all the means available to him and what happened to him? Oh nothing! He must be residing somewhere luxuriously sipping Chivas with the crooked he was supposed to prosecute.

Weaving together the daily struggles of its poorest with the shenanigans of its rich, A Feast of Vultures clinically examines and irrefutably documents the crisis gripping the world’s largest democracy. For anyone interested in understanding modern India, this is a must read. I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in understanding how our nation functions [or doesn’t].

Happy Reading folk. Cheers.

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