Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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A Tale for the Time being

“Am I crazy?” she asked. “I feel like I am sometimes.”

“Maybe,” he said, rubbing her forehead. “But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.” – Excerpt from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

‘A Tale for the Time being’ has an innovative and non-linear structure. Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, has recently relocated from California to Tokyo after her software engineer father lost his job. Nao has decided to commit suicide and as a last meaningful activity, she decides to write a journal telling the story of her great grand mother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist Nun. However, this journal is as much about her and her family as about grandma Jiko. In fact, this journal seems to be an escape route for Nao, her way to deal with her problems – extreme bullying in school, family’s financial problems, and her father’s acute depression and resulting suicidal tendencies (the idea that suicide is a legitimate means of solving one’s problem is a recurring occurrence in this novel. This is probably due to the fact that Japanese Culture is much more tolerant towards suicide.)

Travelling across the pacific ocean, this journal reaches Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese accent who lives with her husband and a pet cat (named Schrodinger) in a remote island. Recovering from the recent death of her mother due to Alzheimer’s, Ruth is struggling with writers’ block. Alternating between a chapter written by Nao and Ruth’s reaction to it, the story moves back and forth between the past and the present, Canada and Japan, Ruth and Nao – until it all converges.

I would categorize Nao as one of the most nuanced teenage characters ever written. From being bubbly and humorous, she will suddenly shift gears to something visceral and brutal. Like being hit suddenly by a hammer when you are laughing out loud. Ruth’s character on the other hand could have been better itched out. Other characters like Oliver, Ruth’s husband, Nao’s father and mother, etc. are deliberately underdeveloped, probably to keep the focus on Ruth and Nao and present their world as seen by them.

A Tale for the Time Being is an offbeat novel. It will require patience, careful attention and some amount of thinking and introspection to fully understand and appreciate this beautiful book.

Ruth is a Canadian/American novelist/filmmaker and her earlier works include the critically acclaimed “All over the Creation”.  ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

Bonus Material: Ruth talking about the book

Bonus Material: Trailer of the book

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Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

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“Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,’ he said wistfully. ‘It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.” – Excerpt from River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.

River of Smoke is the second book of the Ibis trilogy. Like the first book, Sea of Poppies, it is set in early 19th century, against the backdrop of the opium trade between India and China, and explores the lives of various characters involved in the trade.

As against the Sea of Poppies, which was set mostly in India, a large portion of River of Smoke happens in Canton, the port thru which opium was imported to China. Balram Modi, a wealthy Parsi businessman from Bombay is carrying one of the largest consignments of opium ever on the Ship Anahita to Canton. Another ship, Redruth, carrying horticulturist Frederick Penrose and his assistant Paulette, who are in search of rare Chinese plants and flowers, is also heading towards Canton. Things take an unexpected turn when the Chinese emperor bans opium trade, resulting in some interesting social, political, and economic consequences.

There is no doubt that River of Smoke is a difficult book to read. It contains dialogues in multiple dialects – English, Hindi, Gujrati, Bhojpuri, Cantonse, pidgin etc., with little effort from the author to translate everything to English. Many a times, one has to judge the meaning of these dialogues by the context. There are words like pus pus, muchi, allo olo, gradmanzees, etc. One has to interpret the meaning of these words. Although making reading difficult and demanding, it give a unique flavor of authenticity to the narrative. And in spite of being laborious to read, it is by no means boring or dull.

The characters, some continued from ‘Sea of Poppies’ and some new, are engaging and there are interesting ways in which their  stories crisscross each other. The author has presented early 19th century Canton beautifully. The depth of research which has gone in writing this book is commendable.

The book (and the trilogy) covers one of the most interesting and historically significant part of British-Indo-chinese history (the events leading to the Opium War). It is most certainly a captivating read of those who are interested in this slice of history.

I have read the first two books of this trilogy and I have no qualms declaring it one of the most epic and grand literary exercise undertaken by any Indian author. Eagerly waiting for the third installment.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Book Review: Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford

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Note: This review was published in the July 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

Smart TribesWhat are the biggest challenges faced by rapidly growing companies? Ask the CEO of any such company and chances are that establishing a growth-oriented culture, where employees are self-motivated, loyal, can perform to their fullest potential, and are passionate about the company’s shared goals, would be at or near the top of the list.

Typically, such companies are characterized by rapidly shifting internal and external priorities, frequently changing business models, unclear directives and accountability structures, and/or the lack of alignment within the leadership team. As a natural response to such situations, employees fall into a “fight/flight/freeze mode.” In her book, Smart Tribes: How Teams become Brilliant Together, Christine Comaford refers to this as the “critter state.” People in the critter state are driven by fear, individual safety, and survival rather than collective success. Instead of focusing on real issues that impede growth, they’re emotionally disengaged, don’t collaborate, and spend time and resources on solving problems that either don’t exist or aren’t important. When management decision-making and behavior is driven by the critter state, it’s nearly impossible for companies to move up to the next level of growth.

In Smart Tribes, Comaford, an applied neuroscience expert and a New York Times best-selling author, presents a recipe to move employees out of the critter state. When in the critter state, decision-making is driven by the most primitive part of the brain, which is a stimulus response system focused on survival. Instead, employees need to be in the “smart state,” where decision-making is driven by the pre-frontal cortex, a more evolved part of the brain that enables us to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, and think abstract thoughts. Employees in the smart state are focused, accountable, collaborative, loyal, and imbued with a passion to solve problems. With their creativity, innovation, and passion unleashed, they not only outsmart the competition but do it consistently, again and again.

Employing well-researched neuroscience and behavioral science techniques, Comaford proposes a very structured approach to move from the critter state to the smart state. She recommends the following five accelerators that can help the transition:

  • Focus: Be aware of what is important and delegate, defer, or ditch everything else.
  • Clarity: Be aware of why you do what you do.
  • Accountability: Make accountability a part of the company’s DNA by having clear expectations, owner’s agreement, and well-defined rewards and consequences.
  • Influence: Be able to understand, empower, and motivate people.
  • Sustained results: Have energy to enjoy your work and avoid burnout.

Interspersed with numerous real life cases and examples, Smart Tribes is a very well-written book. Comaford follows a “do it yourself approach,” using assessment questions, resources, and actions plans at the end of each section, making it a very engaging and interactive read. Another highlight is that it’s backed by rigorous scientific research, making it very credible and trustworthy.

The issues Comaford raises in the book are extremely critical for success in the contemporary business environment. Smart Tribes is a great read for anyone managing a team in a fast-paced and dynamic environment.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., www.imanet.org, used with permission.

Book Review – The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

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“History is the third parent.” – Opening line of The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

I read this line. I re-read this line. I took a pause and inhaled. I read it again. This is one of the most powerful opening lines in recent times. And then I realized, this isn’t going to be an ordinary book. It is a piece of art, the kind of book which remains with you forever. It cannot be treated like an ordinary book. It has to be given the respect and reverence a masterpiece deserves. You have to read it slowly and attentively, savoring each and every sentence, some times re-reading portions to admire the elegant, poetic and beautiful writing.

The Blind Man’s Garden is story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – the aftermath of 9/11, USA’s attack on Afghanistan, the resultant rise of taliban and religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. Rohan is a religious Pakistani from Heer, a small town in Pakistan. He used to run a school, which has now been taken over by the fundamentalists. His doctor son Jeo, along with his close friend Mikal, sets off to Afghanistan to help the wounded civilians. However, they get entangled in the war there, Jeo get killed and Mikal captured by the tribal lords and handed over to the US military. Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s wife, were in love before Naheed’s marriage to Jeo. There are multiple sub-plots, each character has its own story, however, Mikal’s journey back to his love Naheed forms the main plot.

It is a beautifully written book with very well itched out, realistic characters. The way the inner conflicts and turmoil of the characters is brought out by Nadeem is commendable.

The dialogues are deep and meaningful, sometimes you have to pause your reading to fully absorb them.

Highly recommended!!

Bonus Material: Nadeem Aslam taking about the book

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Book Review: Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel

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Trail  of Chupacabra by Stephen Randel

Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel is the story of Avery, an eccentric and quirky geek/explorer, who enters Mexico in search of the mythical animal – Chupacabra. His companions in this adventure are Zippy, a burnt out hippy and a crazy private militia (called as “Southwest Texas Revolutionary Armed Confederate Border Operations Militia STRAC-BOM”; headed by General x-Ray). It is about how they get entangled in the rivalry between the feared drug lord Padre, his enemy Barquero and the Mexican army, and how they eventually come out of it.

The premise of the story is interesting and has a potential to be a highly entertaining book. There are two parallel tracks – Avery’s search of the chupacabra and Barquero’s revenge on the Padre. The two tracks merge towards the end of the book resulting in a superb climax. However, the undoing of the book is its uni-dimensional characters. While funny and hilarious to start with, almost all the key characters (Avery, Ziggy, General X ray etc.) become repetitive after some time. Even the humor (Avery’s complaint letters to the authorities, Ziggy histrionics, and STRAC-BOM’s stupidity) feels stale.

To summarize, Trail of the Chupacabra is the kind of book which can be harmlessly browsed through if you have spare time and nothing better to do. However, you may not like to take out time specifically to read it.

PS: I received a complementary copy of this book in order to review it.

How to Write a Book Review?

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The best way to write a review is as if you are telling a dear friend about the book. You are not “reviewing” the book and passing a judgement about it being good or bad or trying to give it a rating score (4/5, 8/10, etc.). It should be a much more intimate experience. Like you are discussing the book with a buddy, talking about what you liked, what you did not like, how you felt while reading it, would you want your friend to read it, what do you think about the author, her style, etc.

Conversations are not about the number of words in it, do you start a discussion thinking – I will cover this topic is 500 words? Similarly, reviews should not be about its word count. Tell what you want to tell – no matter how many or few words it take.

The structure you should follow depends on the book and on you – for some books, you may want to start with  the author, for some with the narrative, you may want to talk about the characters first for some, or may be an absolutely brilliant dialogue can become your starting point. What ever you think can start an interesting conversation.

Also, the most important thing to remember is that you are not selling the book, you are helping someone make a choice whether to commit his time and money to read it. As with a friend, be very frank, highlight both the good and the bad points and leave the decision to the reader. This frankness is something you owe to your readers – and you have no obligations (to give a positive review) to author, publishers, PR guys – even if they have provided you a review copy. 

Books and buddies

Books and buddies

Writing reviews should make you as happy as discussing books with friends. Enjoy your next review, the way you enjoy chatting about a book with you buddies over a cup of coffee.

Kindle Single Review: Fox 8 – A Story

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This is a very unconventionally written book, where the narrator is a fox who has recently learned human language and his story telling is characterized by improper grammar and abundant typos. Fox 8 is a story about a fox who gets exposed to humans and learns their language by listening to stories told by human mothers to their kids. When the jungle in which the fox lives is destroyed by the construction of a mall, the fox reaches out to humans to seek help, establish a fox-human connection. However, as he tries to come closer to them, the ugly side of humans is revealed, turning his life upside down.

As the fox says – “Why did the curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” So true.

Good and enjoyable, as well as thought-provoking.

Fox 8: A Story is a Kindle single written by George Saunders, the New York times best seller author of the short story collection – Tenth of December