Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Golden House by Sir Salman Rushdie – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from Bombay takes up residence in a cloistered community in Ney York’s Greenwich Village. Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent and the unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya; Apu, the flamboyant artist; and D, who harbours an explosive secret even from himself.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in India, the unravelling of an insidious plot.’

Who are you? It might sound like a very easy question but over the years, the issue of identity has been made so complex that there is no longer a very direct answer to the question any more. Although whether the complications are required or not is an entirely different debate altogether, Sir Salman Rushdie in his thirteenth novel explores the various identity crises in the society.

It starts with an aspiring filmmaker, son of Belgian academics, René is writing a film featuring his new neighbours, moving in to New York on the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated. But who were they – a man and his three sons (or is it?) trying to dissociate themselves from their old names, with the patriarch naming himself Nero Golden, with his sons assuming Roman names themselves – Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apulius (Apu) and Dionysus (D). Predictably so, René’s film is called The Golden House and the question he asks is – who are they? Is it really possible to be completely shed all your past identities?

In his quest, René does get some of his answers, the Goldens are an extremely wealthy family with Indian origins where the patriarch seems to have made the decision to move out of his past life post the death of his wife following the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26th November, 2008. But is that the only reason? While René tries to find the answers and to learn about the Goldens for his own film, René gets too involved that he becomes a part of the story of the Goldens himself.

The other identity issues that the author raises through his various characters are intriguing – one is that of Petya and alcoholic and agoraphobic, Apu – an artist who longs to return to his homeland and original identity and that of D, their half-brother who is confused about whether he is man or a woman or the category of transgender he falls under. The women have a significant role too, Riya D, helping her boyfriend (or girlfriend) D through the identity crisis and at the other end, Nero marrying a significantly younger Russian woman, Vasilisa, whose entry eventually makes all the sons leave the Golden House as she assumes absolute control.

The author has made a good decision to return to realism rather than the usual genre of his being magic realism. This book lacks any element of magic and in the era of post-truth or truthiness (coined by comedian Stephen Colbert) the question is always as to whether everything we hear or see or told is actually the reality. The author doesn’t leave that stone unturned and frequently makes allusions to the current President of the United States as the story moves towards the end of Obama’s term. Without ever taking names, he refers to the winner of the 2016 Presidential Election as The Joker and his principal opponent as Batwoman. Considering René’s own background, he makes a lot of pop culture references, from Batman to The Great Gatsby, which considering my lack of knowledge in the area, started becoming difficult to follow and appreciate.

The author fills the book with various other allusions as well – such as Nero himself alluding to Trump, a rich man who considers himself all powerful and invulnerable, with a young wife from Eastern Europe, and a highly murky past from when investigated would open a can of worms. The author also brings out that even if you wish to shed your identities, they would eventually catch up to you and when it does, the Goldens start to fall apart.

René the narrator was very unlike Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children wherein, René is not the principal protagonist and as a writer of the Golden family’s mockumentary – what he describes as a story where he assumes the events whenever he wasn’t present, what we often do about people around us. Thus, René being the narrator rather than being one of the Goldens was indeed a very good choice.

The final third is where the author chooses to bring up the murky past which again, has a lot of allusions to reality and this is where, the extent of thrill would vary based on whom you are and the extent to which you know the history of the city of Bombay / Mumbai and how closely you followed the campaign of the current President of the United States. Since I am reasonably aware of both, it was very clear to me as to where he was alluding to Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim (Mumbai gansters) and also Donald Trump and based on the sequences, I could predict what was going to happen.

However, for those who aren’t familiar with those, along with the various issues of identity he has raised – touching upon blind nationalism, gender politics, other identity issues, this would also be a thriller plot unravelling along with an interesting political backdrop. But it could also be argued at the same time that for the plot, the political background was quite unnecessary.

The author has taken up a courageous task, of making political connections on an interesting plot, and that too, taking a position contrary to the trend in the two countries he hails from – being United Kingdom and India and also the country where he is currently residing, being the United States.

To conclude – it is an intriguing plot that keeps you gripped till the end and on that note, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Joseph Stalin by Hourly History – Book Review



Stalin is known for his moustache, his role in the Second World War, and his controversial deportations. policies leading to famines and labour camps resulting in deaths of millions of people. This is a short biography of the Soviet leader, whose name translates to ‘Man of Steel’.

The reason why I didn’t say Russian leader was because Stalin was in fact not Russian and this book starts with his beginnings in Georgia as Ioseb Jugashvilli, going on to work in a factory in Tiflis, Georgia, rising up as a union leader, gets arrested and exiled to Siberia. The book then talks about his meeting with Lenin in Siberia and how he gets influenced by the Communist ideology. The book marginally touches upon the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution leading to the establishment of the new Communist Government with Stalin rising up as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. It moves on to Stalin’s role, his attempts to broker peace with Hitler in 1938, eventually leading to a war against Germany, and how his charisma urged the Soviets to fight the Germans unto death. Post his victory in Stalingrad and Second World War, it talks about Stalin’s rise in stature as he had a commanding position in the Tehran Conference with Churchill and FD Roosevelt. It then talks about the eventual decline, his administrative mishaps leading to criticism and denouncement from his successor, Nikita Khruschchev.

The book covered most highlights of Stalin’s life, if not all important aspects. How the Soviets were totally in awe of him and in a position to demand anything from public was brought out well in the book. His skills as an astute negotiator was also brought out, from his days as a union leader, then as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, his negotiations with Hitler and finally, the Tehran conference.

With that said, the book was quite short, and I think it took me barely half an hour to read the whole thing. While there is nothing wrong with it being short, it missed out on his schemes which lead to mass famines, his policy to deport ethnic Tatars to far off places such as Kyrgyzstan, among various other things leading to a death of a lot of people. Stalin, often considered as a villain in history, a biography on him is incomplete without coverage of both sides of the coin.

On that note, I would award this book a rating of five on ten, where the aspects of his rise to power, his ability to negotiate and his war tactics were brought out well but not so much, for his flawed policies.

Rating – 5/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Elizabeth I: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



Most are aware of the current monarch of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, but not so much about her 16th century namesake, Elizabeth I. This is a short biography of the English monarch by Hourly History.

It starts with how when Elizabeth took over, the country was in turmoil. She took over from her half-sister Mary, notoriously known as Bloody Mary for her aggressive push to reintroduce Catholicism in England. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII from his second marriage, to Anne Boleyn and many Catholics in the kingdom viewed her claim to the throne lacking legitimacy, as they didn’t recognise the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage. It goes on to talk about how Elizabeth had to initially consolidate her power and at the same time, also maintain religious harmony between Catholics and Protestants. However, she was faced with succession battles from both internal and external forces, with the French supporting Mary, the Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s cousin) to succeed the throne and many Catholics in England seeing her as the legitimate successor. It then elaborates on her decision to not marry and keeping her suitors guessing and also about her various military victories, most famously the Spanish Armada. It also focused on her relationship with her cousin, Mary the Queen of Scots and the eventual souring of the relationship, considering the latter’s constant push for claiming the throne herself.

This book revisited English history during the 16th Century, the constant question of succession looming over Britain. The fact that there was a looming threat of political instability throughout her reign was brought out well. Her ability to deal with the nobles within her own kingdom and negotiate with other kingdoms, such as Spain and Netherlands, was also well explained. Ultimately, this also fit the time frame of one hour, as that was all it took to complete it.

The aspect that was lacking in the book was that though it asserted that Mary and Elizabeth shared a close relationship, it was never convincing, as, throughout, Mary had been plotting to usurp the throne and mercy seemed to be only from Elizabeth’s side. Perhaps, if the authors had substantiated one of the letters that had been exchanged, it could have been brought to the fore better.

On the whole, this was a well compiled biography and I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golf Stories by PG Wodehouse – Book Review


Publisher’s write-up:


‘Who but P.G. Wodehouse could have extracted high comedy from the most noble and ancient game of golf? And who else could have combined this comedy with a real appreciation of the game, drawn from personal experience? Wodehouse's brilliant but human brand of humour is perfectly suited to these stories of love, rivalry, revenge, and fulfilment on the links.’

The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golf Stories is a collection of stories with golf as its background theme and the British author PG Wodehouse attempts to bring out some humour. To start with, I am neither a fan of golf nor a fan of Wodehouse but I would solemnly affirm that I did not read this book with pre-conceived notions.

Most of the stories involved humour (attempted) around golf, with a golfer being in love with a woman being the central theme in all of them. It starts off with the Oldest Member narrating a golf story off his memory. The stories are as follows:

1.       The Clicking of Cuthbert – The title story where Cuthbert Banks who is passionate about golf, falls in love with a woman who prefers intellectuals and fancies a writer.

2.       A Woman is only a Woman – Two friends, also amateur golfers, fancy the same woman and decide that the one who wins a golf match get to propose her.

3.       A Mixed Threesome – Mortimer, a rich man who is totally disinterested in golf; is engaged to a woman who loves golf. She fancies one of Mortimer’s friends – an explorer. Mortimer himself starts to learn golf for her sake.

4.       Sundered Hearts – Mortimer is the main character in this story as well, now so passionate about golf, gets married and his wife goes missing, getting Mortimer to exhaust all his wealth in search of her.

5.       The Salvation of George Mackintosh – This is about George Mackintosh, a golfer engaged to a woman. The only problem with George is that he can't stop talking. 

6.       Ordeal by Golf – The post of treasurer goes vacant in a company and the Oldest Member suggests the proprietor to decide the candidate through a game of golf. 

7.       The Long Hole - Two friends fancy the same woman and they decide to settle it through golf. They get into a lot of arguments over ‘rules of golf’ and leading to funny humorous incidents.

8.       The Heel of Achilles – An American millionaire is engaged to a woman who lays a condition that she’d marry him subject to him winning the American Amateur Golf Championship.

9.       The Rough Stuff – Ramsden Waters fancies a woman, teaches her golf and they pair up for a golf match.

10.   The Coming of Gowf – A group submits a story of King Merolchazzar modelled along the lines of a Babylonian kingdom but seems to be in the vicinity of the British Isles. The king embraces Golf as his new religion.

The book maintained the consistency – each of them was around twenty pages. The book had a really good start to the stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert was excellent, humorous, short and well written. I would say the same for the A Woman is only a Woman, mostly because when I first read a story with that theme, it was funny. Apart from that, Sundered Hearts was an enjoyable read and so was The Long Hole, especially the golf lawyer aspect in The Long Hole, notwithstanding the repetitive nature of two men fancying the same woman.

Barring those, the other stories were repetitive or silly or mostly, it was both. I mean, what sort of a woman accepts proposals solely based on golf skills? While the whole thing is meant to be light hearted, there is no point generating humour through means of absurdity which is what PG Wodehouse always seems to do. There could have been a variety of aspects from which he could have generated humour surrounding golf but then, the author chose the same – mostly two men fancying the same woman. I felt the story; The Coming of Gowf was not funny and totally absurd. I also don’t understand why the author chose be a narcissist through his own stories – wherein, in Clicking of Cuthbert, a Russian author in the story claims, ‘No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad.’

On the whole, as seen above, four stories were good and six were bad, and the last was quite awful. The stories were highly repetitive and after reading this, I continue to maintain my stand that PG Wodehouse is highly overrated (refer my review of his book Pigs have Wings). Going by a wholly mathematical approach, four out of ten stories were good, so the rating of this book is four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ancient Greece by Hourly History – Book Review



Greece is fascinating – it is nearly impossible to completely avoid Greek influence in various things you read, watch or do – if you are a sports enthusiast, there is the Olympic Games influenced by Greek tradition, mathematics is full of Greek symbols owing to the early discoveries by Greeks in the subject, literature has a lot of ancient Greek influences, among various other things as the list goes on. This is a short compilation of some of the important aspects of Ancient Greece by Hourly history.
The first thing that the book started with was describing the various characters of the Greek mythology and their importance to the locals. The next the book tried and established was that Greece back then was no a homogenous unit as it is today, and the city states (Athens, Sparta, etc.) were often hostile to each other and united only in case of facing a common enemy – Darius and Xerxes of Persia. Followed by that, there were elaborate descriptions of the two most famous cities, being Athens and Sparta, followed by Literature, philosophy, art and architecture and science, in Ancient Greece.
I liked how the book was structured, that it had a short five page focus on all the major aspects. It also established how ancient Greece was run and the various types of Governments that were present throughout – some with tyrants and some being democracies (a word whose etymology has Greek origins). I am also glad that the focus was not entirely on mythology, for that has been highly popularised by Hollywood and in my case, by games (Age of Mythology was my first encounter with Ancient Greece). The book touches upon most of the famous aspects of ancient Greece, being the Colossus of Rhodes, Archimedes, the war against Persia, etc and thus, they chose the right topics.
I don’t have any major flaws to pick, with this book, maybe they could have made a passing mention of Alexander of Macedonia, perhaps the most famous emperor of Ancient Greece but then, that would probably be a biography of its own from Hourly History.
I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.
Rating – 8/10
Have a nice day,
Andy

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘Indira Gandhi is fondly remembered as the Durga who won India its first decisive military victory in centuries and the strong stateswoman who had the courage to look American bullying in the eye and not blink. Equally, she is remembered as the terrible dictator who imposed the Emergency and tried to destroy institutions ranging from her own party to the judiciary; she is seen as the source of many of the problems that afflict Indian democracy today. Even so, for politicians Indira is the very definition of a strong leader, and a role model on both sides of the aisle.’

Various thoughts come across minds of people across India when it comes to the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, among those who lived during the era of her premiership and even among those who were born much after their death, including myself and everyone knows the famous line back then – ‘India is Indira, Indira is India, the two are inseparable’. This is a biography of the former Prime Minister written by the veteran journalist Sagarika Ghose, thirty three years after the death of Indira Gandhi.

The book is focuses on the following aspects; Indira Gandhi growing up during a revolution for freedom in India, with her own house being a hub of political activity and the role her mother and father played in shaping some of her ideas and personality. It is then followed by Indira’s student days followed by her troubled marriage to Feroze Gandhi and her days in waiting to succeed her father as the Prime Minister of India. It then moves on to describing how she managed to consolidate her powers and challenging the Congress establishment comprising Morarji Desai and K Kamaraj, leading to a split in the party with Indira emerging as the leader of the dominant faction. It is then followed by Indira’s premiership, focusing on all her major decisions, such as devaluation of the Rupee, bank nationalisation, the victory in the war against Pakistan leading to liberation of Bangladesh, the emergency, the influence of her younger son Sanjay in all these decisions, her downfall in 1977 and re-emergence in 1980, the Operation Blue Star on Harmandir Sahib leading to her assassination.

I appreciate the author for having not attempted a hagiography, for she doesn’t go about defending every act of Indira. In fact, there were instances where she was bold enough to criticise some of her flagship policies such as bank nationalisation as being merely a populist measure and not driven by sound economics. Like most typical biographies, she has also provided for citations for most claims that she has made in the book, and thus, she has put in a lot of effort to compile a reasonably accurate biography. I don’t know whether the author intended it but she brought out how Indira didn’t have any sound political views (unlike her father) and merely did acts to retain her power – she criticised right wing Hindu politics but she pandered to them herself, claimed to be a staunch defender of democracy and institutions but she destroyed all of it herself, began the culture of ‘dynasty politics’, among various other things.

With that said, I would say that this is a very poorly structured biography – the book was temporally inconsistent, for instance, to display the arrogance of Indira, the author mentions the derogatory remarks Indira made during activist Jayaprakash Narayan’s death in 1979, but then goes on to describe how JP Narayan opposed her government during the emergency going back in time to 1975. This is not an isolated instance and there were several repetitions of the same. The next was the fact that she wrote the book with her similar journalist mentality, wherein, you mention a name and you are inclined to give every detail you know about the person. For instance, when she mentioned the name of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed as a loyalist in her cabinet (back in 1967) and she made it a point to include how he would go on to become the president in 1974 and continue with his loyalty signing the emergency declaration. There was no need to give so many details as and when you mention a name, instead, you could have mentioned how Indira nominated her loyalist cabinet minister while discussing her premiership in 1974 and his eventual signing of the emergency declaration in 1975.

It is always a disadvantage to write a biography of a person thirty three years after the death of the person, especially when a lot of updates have taken in the political scene that one keeps making references to the current environment to explain a point, which in most cases turned out as pointless deviations. I also felt that her prime focus was how she was a national phenomenon despite a lot her flaws and none of her opponents were of the calibre to face her than bring out why she became such a phenomenon – was it just the Bangladesh liberation or other populist schemes? There was a lack of focus on why she was a phenomenon than on what she was.

However, to the extent of my limited understanding of independent Indian political history, she has covered almost all major aspects of Indira Gandhi’s premiership. Additionally, it is also commendable that the author despite having very strong views on political subjects, she did not try to express her views through this book.

This is a good refresher for those who have lived through Indira Gandhi’s time, and can provide a good understanding of the political scenario in India back in 1960s and 1970s but at the end of the day, this was meant to be the biography of a person and on that count, I don’t rate this book very highly and as a result, I rate the book a four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

George Patton: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History – Book Review



George Patton, the American general from the Second World War has always been a curious figure, known for bravery and tact, but at the same time, riddled with controversies. This is a short biography of General Patton by Hourly History.

The starting point of the book is the extensive military background of the Patton family who have served both in the army of the United States and also the Confederates. The book then goes on to describe his time at the United States Military Academy in West Point followed by his first experience with conflict during the Pancho Villa expedition against Mexico followed by the First World War. Post that, the focus was on the Second World War with him leading the American campaign in the Mediterranean, the scandals he was involved in, and his eventual post war career as the military governor of Bavaria during the interim United States administration of Germany.

The book did a good job in bringing out Patton’s very aggressive personality – callous and would do anything to get his job done. It also touched upon most of his wars and also his relationship with the other Generals in the military, including that of Eisenhower.  I also appreciate that they didn’t try to justify all his actions, the controversial ones and stated them as they were and the judgement was left to the individual reader.

However, I think the book had contents for less than an hour and the author could have focused on more description on the conflicts he was involved in, similar to what was done in Hourly History’s book on Erwin Rommel (who was incidentally Patton’s opponent in Africa).  That was a serious let down as this is a biography of a military general and the description of his military tactics and actions were inadequate.

I would say this is a good read for those who want to know about some of the less known figures of the Second World War and on that count, I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10
Have a nice day,

Andy
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