Sunday, September 30, 2007

A master of science: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, is not an auto-biographical book of this great scientist. It is a book of anecdotes about this great physicist and scientist, containing many stories transcribed from recordings made by his friend Ralph Leighton, in a period of 7 years of drumming with Richard Feynman. The person they describe, Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an extra-ordinary person. He had jointly won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He was also very famous for being part of the panel that investigated the disaster over the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an incident that cast a gloom over the US space program for many years. Feynman actually had a public demonstration of the weakness of the material of the valve that caused the disaster.
To hear about such a physicist, you wold tend to think that this would be a normal persona for a scientist and professor of science, namely a dry person, totally immersed in science and far removed from other sort of emotions. In fact, the real Feynman was more of a teacher as well, who found great inspiration in trying to explain things, and explain them well. The book does a lot to present the true nature of Richard Feynman, who was a very colorful personality, and whose death in 1988 was a true loss.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Feynman was of Jewish origins, but not particularly observant. The earliest we hear from his is his tinkering in the house with wires, electricity, radios, speakers, and other such contraptions; trying to experiment more and more and invent new things. From reading about the early Feynman in the book, it would seem quite apparent that he had a natural urge towards practical engineering, and it was also quite clear that his family was not rich.
The book highlights the prankster that Richard Feynman starts to become, explaining the pranks that he starts to develop as he grows up, with a good enumeration of the many capers and mischiefs that he starts to deploy in college. You see his sense of humour, and you start to warm upto the person that he was. You also see how his career starts to develop, and how he was a personality not driven by the need to do better and better in a career sort of sense, but more in terms of developing better learning. At the end of the day, Feynman's most important teachings might come as: 'Never take yourself too seriously' (as other reviewers have already commented), 'Always keep an open mind' and 'Focus your efforts on what really matters'.
You also read about his attempts to get involved with the opposite sex, and that makes for some interesting reading. You also read about his humanness, when you see how he really did not enjoy his humanity courses while in college. I don't want to talk too much more about the anecdotes, since those are the best reading on your own. However, the impression that I got after reading this book was about a genius walking this earth.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

I must confess, when I started reading the book, I almost put down the book after the first 50 or so pages, but I had heard so much about the book that I continued, and boy, was I rewarded. This is a complex murder / detective mystery, but it is more than just that. For one, the book was set in the 14th century in a Benedictine monastery in Italy where murder has been committed. This was the time of the 'Dark Age' when the open thinking of the Renaissance had not yet commenced; logic, science, and reason were all dictated in the name of the Lord. It was not unheard of to blame murders on 'demonic possession'. Further, where humankind is present, there will be scheming and politics, and so it was so in that time. The novel presents the murder in the midst of medieval politics and religious intrigues (where a theory can be used to gain prominence over others if it can be presented as being based on religion), and derives the complex cast of characters by basing many of their attributes on real-life characters.
The book was written by an Italian Professor of semiotics and was translated into English and released in 1980 in Italian with the name 'Il nome della rosa' and in English in 1983. A complex book, with numerous Latin phrases, not a racy storyline and set in the middle ages, even the author would not have expected the book to be a bestseller. However, the book caught public fascination and has by now sold in the millions of copies, something that only increased when a movie 'The Name of the Rose' starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater was released in 1986. Many new readers caught onto trying to read the novel that was the basis of the movie, and found the novel to be even more multi-layered and richer than the movie suggested.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco named the lead detective in this novel, a Franciscan friar called 'William of Baskerville'. Ring a bell ? The author took inspiration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose famed detective Sherlock Holmes had one of his best mysteries in the book 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. The other famous person from whom the name and the character is derived from William of Ockham / Occam (famous for the saying Ocaam's Razor - 'The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.'). In the novel, William of Baskerville, displays brilliant deductive reasoning, unswayed by the simple and easily acceptable reason of 'simple demonic possession'. He keeps an open mind, follows his intuition, decides what is important to investigate or not, and grabs all the chances that he gets. He is assisted by the narrator of the story, 'Adso of Melk', a Benedictine novice.
In the middle ages, there were many disputes ongoing, with an important one being the dispute over where owning of property was sinful or not (in fact, in a slightly earlier time, the Knights Templar were based on the concept of warrior priests who had donate all their property and who form an integral part of another of Eco's book, but that is another story!) and with a section of the Franciscan Order demanding that the Church give up all its property (the Church was exceedingly influential and very wealthy); another was whether this time was the time just before the second coming of the Christ, and of course there was an incredible turmoil between the power of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
The time period involves competing influences between these 2 authorities, with a lot of suspicion over what goes on at the monastery, and there is a need to investigate possible heresy at the abbey. Hence the arrival of a former inquisitor William and his disciple, Adso to investigate. However, they, on arrival, find that a series of brutal murders start to happen, and they get sucked into that. In addition, they find that a lot of the mysteries revolve around the library, and it seems to contain a lot of secrets that they are not able to penetrate. How they manage to resolve the mysteries is what the book is about.
In my opinion, this is one of the best books that I have read, and I would recommend it to all.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tom Clancy: Executive Orders

If you have read some of my earlier reviews, you would not be faulted for assuming that I am a fan of Tom Clancy's writings. I have read most of his books, and found fault with few of them; in each of them I have gained a bit of knowledge about matters about which I did not know previously, whether it be the working of the US Government and its intelligence agencies (although this knowledge would be outdated with the sweeping changes introduced after the September 11 attacks in the entire intelligence hierarchy and the demotion of the CIA), the interaction between the various arms of the US Government (executive, legislature and judiciary), knowledge of financial institutions and the stock market, and the precise attention to detail that is paid to military matters. Some are controversial, including the one that starts this book.
The power of Tom Clancy as an author is in terms of how his various plots drag you into the novel (feel free to disagree if it does not have the same effect on you), and typically there are a number of sub-plots that seem to merge as you move on, and culminate towards a gripping conclusion. Of course, the conclusion is unlike a detective novel (where you might find out whodunit on the last page), you would know where all this is going to land up when reading the last 50 pages (except for the prequel to this novel, the 'Debt of Honor').

Tom Clancy: Executive Orders

Surprisingly for Clancy, this novel has a couple of weaknesses in the sense that one of the sub-plots involving the anarchists never made much of an impact, and the ending of that plot was also a bit weak, and he could have removed it without any impact on the book (unless he made it stronger). Additionally, the concept of a sleeper agent exists, but for one to rise undetected through the ranks and reach so close to the President was a bit hard to believe, you would believe after all that such a person would sooner or later get swayed by the influence of the culture he lives in. Also, some of his characters are painted in a fairly negative way, for example the Iranian leader, even while explaining his motives, does not have anything positive for you to understand him as a complex character.
From this point on, there will be some detailing of the story, so if you want to avoid spoilers, you can jump away at any point and go ahead and read the novel.
Executive Orders was released in 1996 and starts where Debt of Honor concludes as a renegade Japanese pilot takes his jumbo jet and pilots it into the Capitol (The US Congress). (Imagine the shock when the September 11 attacks took place involving large jets colliding with buildings, including the fourth jet, brought down by passengers that was supposed to be attacking the US Congress). When you read the book including the details, you can begin to understand as why the World Trade Towers actually went down, and feel for the people who were affected.
Jack Ryan was supposed to be brought into the building for confirmation as the Vice-President, and since the President is now dead, he is defaulted as the new President, at a time when most of the Washington based central administration is dead (Cabinet Secretaries, Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, all). As the book says, the US Government was gutted.
Tom Clancy has the concept of honor woven into his books, and Jack Ryan is a honorable man (different from most politicians) and will do what it takes to build the administration of the country up again, assisted by some able advisors such as the experienced Chief of Staff, a straight FBI agent made as the Acting Director, and his friends in the CIA as the CIA head (and he is accused of building up the Government in his image, maybe rightfully so, since putting your friends in prominent positions is a form of nepotism). He also has an unusual challenge where the resigned Vice-President, Ed Kealty claims a honor also by claiming that he did not officially resign and hence he should be the President by simple law. Unfortunately, Jack Ryan controls the Government and hence has a major lead.
Given that the heads of most Governments have not read the previous books :-) and do not know the inner strength of Jack Ryan, they under-estimate his capabilities. For example, when he does not display a seemingly political speech at the memorial of the victims, he is seen as not presidential and his overseas enemies feel that the time is right to defeat the United States.
The major incidents of the book get started when a person seemingly Saddam Hussein (although not by name), is assassinated by a deep undercover ready-to-die Iranian agent under the control of the Iranian cleric (Ayatollah Mahmoud Haji Daryaei), Iraq is ripe for the picking (especially since Saddam never let a second line of command build up). Soon, in a carefully choreographed yet quick turn of events, all resistance inside Iraq melts and it joins Iraq (a bit difficult to believe since the rulers were all Sunni, very resistant to Shia Iran and would not have so easily joined up, but anyhow, let us continue). Now, if only they can get Saudi Arabia, then the United Islamic Republic would be in control of the holy places and the largest oil exporter in the world.
What stops them from doing do? Primarily the US, since it would not like the Saudi regime to be replaced by an clerical Iranian controller. So how to stop the the US from doing so; get some countries such as India and China to act as distractors, and then incapacitate the US by crippling with with a biological attack (an Ebola based warfare, lethal and described in great detail) as well as an assassination attack on the President directly.
The novel has some great parts on how Ryan acts as per his instincts, which are decidedly not leaning towards the Democratic Party (his spiel for strict constructionists for the Supreme Court sounds very much like Samuel Aito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia - people whom I consider can set the rights of individuals back by a large degree), and his debate on whether to limit cross-state travel (though sounding correct) can be very ominous indeed, given that the current debates are all about using the need for fighting terrorism to set more control.
In the end, his struggle to beat Ebola is successful, and he is also able to set forth a principle about making leaders responsible by getting the Iranian leader killed; at the same time that a small section of his army, using its high-tech wizardry is able to beat the UIR army in a very believable way.
Why is the novel called Executive Orders ? Because the President governs within the ambit of laws made by Congress, and in the absence of Congress, he can govern with the issue of Executive Orders.

Monday, September 17, 2007

William Dalrymple: City of Djinns

What does this title mean ? Well, the Djinns as referred to in this book are the spirits who cannot be seen, but who are the original inhabitants of the city and have been with the city as it prospered and withered (or was brutally sacked) many times over a period of thousands of years.
Delhi (or New Delhi as we now globally know it as) is the capital of a resurgent India, the epicenter of political and bureaucracy strength in the country. To outsiders, it is a city full of Punjabis, full of people with egos and show-off tendencies, but otherwise very severely restricted in terms of culture. In other respects, it is also a city with many decaying sections (especially its heritage and historical monuments); while at the same time, it is also a city that is like a magnet for outsiders, so rapidly is it growing that its amenities and infrastructure is falling apart.
This book was published in 1993, so it somewhat dated, and cannot be really seen as something like a 'Lonely Planet' kind of guide to the city, but if you want to know about the history of the city, there are very few books that can match this one. And this is not a dry book full of historical facts, it is a book full of humour, with many personal touches given by the author describing his struggles with the bureaucracy as well as the constant struggle that he makes in order to obtain the information that he seeks. It is quite true, it is only a committed seeker of information (or material for a book) who would do all the searching that the author has done.
The book initially itself divides Delhi into 2 parts, where one is the new part, capturing the essence of Punjabi culture brought in by the settling of Punjabi refugees from Pakistan into the city on a mass scale (in fact, large sections of the city are former refugee colonies); and the old part of the city (Old Delhi), representing the history and heritage of the city (although in massive decline with decay and no ability to manage the upkeep of many of these structures or prevent them from being trampled under). These are 2 almost independent sections with little inter-action. A vocal section that represents the old Mughal cultural tradition of the city is actually outside India, with many of them moving over to Pakistan at the time of partition; yet carrying the memories of Delhi with them. And of course, the current two sections of the city do not exactly love each other, with the Punjabi culture being seen as brash and arrogant (primarily being seen as uncultured) while the Old Delhi culture is seen as old, degenerate, living in the past and crying over things long gone.
The history of Delhi is replete with many "Delhi's" being built and destroyed; classical lore has it that the Delhi of today is the 8th in line, with 7 earlier Delhi's having come into existence and then replaced by a newer Delhi (each time bearing a vision of their creator).
What the author has done has has to start with the present (represented by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 - one of the most recent shameful episodes of modern India), and then almost peel off the layers of the city one by one. In the course of these, you get to hear from people who you would not known have existed, the remaining Anglo-Indian community, the community of Eunuchs who once commanded great power in the harems of the emperor and are now living the life of outcasts (you even get to know the history of how does a person land up with the eunuchs). You get to get a second-hand visual of the ancient sport of cock-fighting. And what is Delhi without its various religious festivals, so you get a glimpse of all of them through the eyes and words of the author. I could go on and on describing what the author has written about, but you really should read the book by yourself.
Of course, you might find out about the things that you never knew about, the bloody part about Delhi; the mass killings during and after the First War of Independence, as well as the mass slaughters prescribed by victorious rulers. You might also get to know some facts about some of the city's prominent figures of the past (rulers, architects, etc) that you never knew.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Isaac Asimov: Foundation

In the 1940's, a writer starting writing science fiction stories about a empire far in the future (and when we mean far, we mean so far in the future that no one remembers Earth). This is a mega-empire, controlling vast sections of the galaxy in a peaceful existence, enforced by the power of massive spaceships and the power of atomics (weapons as well as other equipment controlled by the power of atomic energy). And then imagine this entire galaxy wide power to be in a slow decline such that no one realizes that it is decaying but no one knows that, except for one man who has invented a new science/maths that is so complicated that very few people can figure it out. (This maths works at predicting the behaviour of people in a crowd, with the bigger the crowd, the more easy the prediction is to make. Conversely, it is impossible to predict what one person can do.) Using this maths, the person has calculated that this mega-empire that has held the peace for thousands of years will die out, and there will come a horrible period of anarchy, war and horror that will last for tens of thousands of years unless some steps are taken to reduce this time period. Asimov took a series of short stories he had written using this theory as a base, and made an epic novel out of this, itself the precursor to a series that won the Hugo Award in 1965. Asimov may have died in 1987, but his name lives on in this mighty series that he wrote.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation

I have always been a fan of Asimov, so I might be a bit biased, but I have always considered this book to be an incredible book. Part of the beauty of this book is that it does not go into details of what the future will look like in terms of development of machines or other such science, but concentrates on what the society of that time will be like. In many ways, it seems like a continuation of things you can see even now (or could see if you studied the rise and falls of the great empires); using the decay caused by flattery, by too much bureaucracy, and by the presence of weak people in the position of power. You can read about how politics plays a part in everything, and how the power of mass appeal can be used to seduce the masses. In fact, if you look further, you can even relate the use of organized religion (and the terms takes on a new meaning in the book) to be used to control an entire planet (seems similar to what you can see in terms of the influence of religion in large sections of the world ?)
The book starts from the perspective of Hari Seldon, a newly arrived mathematician to the city of Trantor, the heavily settled capital of the Galactic Empire that has been in operation now for 12,000 years. Trantor is a world that has been totally built over now (although modern climatologists will argue that such a doing would totally destroy the climate of the world) and is dependent on a large amount of resources from all over for its survival. He is already getting famous as the inventor of psychohistory, which can be used to predict the future (or more accurately, as he keeps on describing, is a tool that be used to calculate the future of large masses of people). The Emperor calls him, and is not satisfied, and ultimately he is hauled up in front of the court for predicting sedition.
He manages to turn the battle by defining some of the timeframes, and proposes that he can save the future by getting an Encyclopedia Galactica built using his team, and they are moved to a small mineral-less planet called Terminus on the edge of the galaxy. Their true mission is to eventually establish a Foundation that is the core of Seldon's plan to bring order within a 1000 years. And so starts the story of the Foundation, growing out of this small set.
The story continues 50 years later with the planet being governed by the body writing the encyclopedia, not caring about what else happens. They get a visit from the neighboring provinces, one of the 4 neighboring provinces that have rebelled against the empire and become independent, but are low in technology, with no knowledge of atomics. Terminus is asked to pay tribute for protection (extortion on a planetary scale), and in lieu of minerals, to accept parceling out sections of the planet to the province and accept it as a feudal lord. A visitor from the empire is of no help. It is at the this time that Salvor Hardin, the largely powerless Mayor of Terminus shows his true skills, convincing the other provinces that the move by Anacreon is against them and winning this round. And to cement his triumph, Hari Seldon emerges in a 50 year hologram from the Time Vault and describes that the events were exactly as he expected, and that the concept of an Encyclopedia Galactica was a sham, with the true purpose being to setup the Foundation as the nucleus of a new power center.
3 decades later, the Foundation, using its vastly superior technology and knowledge of atomics, has taken over pseudo-control over the neighboring provinces through a system of science and technology transfer under the guise of a religion called Scienticism. People all over have accepted it as a valid religion, controlled by priests who are educated on Terminus and are capable of controlling the mobs on the various planets. But Terminus by itself does not have any military power of its own, instead depending on the religion to keep things under control. One person, Wiennis, the regent of Anacreon has seen through this and wants to defeat the Foundation militarily and get overall control. Towards this end, he even captures a derelict old massive Empire battleship and gets the Foundation to repair it, something that Salvator Hardin agrees to do. Hardin is under tremendous pressure from a section of his political opposition that does not like this appeasement, and they are enraged at this generosity of the Foundation. However, when Wiennis orders the attack, he finds out the true power of the religion that he endorsed. His ship, and every temple of the land is put under interdict, with the priests telling the population that Wiennis is committing blasphemy and his rebellion is defeated. However, at the end, in another emergence of Hari Seldon in the time vault, he comments about how the religion is enough for defense, but not for expansion.
These were the 2 most interesting chapters of the book, and the remaining chapters of the book talk about how the Foundation now spreads through the power of its technology and through the Merchant Princers, traders who spread the influence of the Foundation through the neighborhood, beating attempts to control this influence from spreading through means of hook or crook. The last section has an interesting story about how, when a society is hooked onto convenient and useful machines in every section of life, a war can be controlled by just denial of such machines to households in the planet.
For true science fiction adherents, this is such a book worth keeping that even buying a hardbound edition will be useful.



Book Review: Barbarians at the Gate

This is not a new book. I remember reading it more than a decade back, and then suddenly I caught sight of the book in my office library, and it brought back memories. The book is an incredible piece of writing, and one can expect a great deal of detail, since the authors, Bryan Burrough and John Helyar are investigative reporters and had covered the takeover deal for RJR Nabisco in great detail. The book may seem a bit dated, since it was written in 1990 covering the Leveraged Buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco in 2 frantic months of 1988. However, I would argue that anybody who reads this book and is even moderately interested in the working of businesses, takeovers, and most importantly, the CEO's and boards of companies should read this book.

Barbarians at the Gate

The book is gripping reading, especially because it desists from going into details into arcane financial details and boring readers (except the ones who get their kicks from too many financial details). Let me re-phrase; the book does not desist from providing financial details and certainly does not try to dumb down how things work, but the way in which the story line is crafted would make this seem like a thriller based on company mergers (and if you did not know this actually happened, you could believe this to be a work of fiction).
For a lot of readers, the stock-market boom of the internet era and the crash-and-doom of 2001 was a major thing, and they would have expected a period in history to be similar. But the fact remains that the 1980's was also an extra-ordinary period of financial turmoil with 2 great (and very controversial) terms coming to life; the junk-bonds most popularized by the junk-bond king Michael Miliken of the Drexel Burnham Lambert, and the Leveraged Buyout kind of takeover made most popular by a small firm called KKR (Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts).
These came together in a burst of what seemed like a great financial innovation - the Leveraged Buyout. What does LBO mean ? Loosely put, a LBO is used when the executives of a company believe that the company is being under-valued, or they want to make a pitch for the company when it is under hostile attack; and they go in for buying the company outright. They need to raise a bid high enough that shareholders (including the institutions - typically pension funds and others) sell of their shares. However, this requires a massive amount of money, and the net result of this is high debt levels (indeed, in many cases, crippling debt levels where interest payments demand massive cost-cutting). Some companies manage, becoming lean and mean, and in other cases, the whole stack of cards crumble.
Barbarians At The Gate is the story of the LBO launched by the CEO of RJR Nabisco, Ross Johnson, and his battle with the takeover firm, KKR (Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts - the important partners being Henry Kravis and George Roberts). Now KKR was a firm with extremely efficient partners, and the battle between Ross JOhnson and KKR was an epic battle with many rounds of discussion, debate and escalating payoff's, all being weighed by the board of RJR Nabisco, former friends and partners of Ross JOhnson, and now being the principle representatives of shareholders.
The interesting part of the book is a telling of the history of the companies, main people involved, their ambitions, their motivations and how they plan and scheme to get ahead. The book has what is called the 'people' perspective, and you will get a fair idea of what the personal ambitions of a person as ambitious (and ruthless) as Ross Johnson will cost many of the other people involved. However, it also details the variability involved in decision-making, particularly when Ross Johnson did not anticipate anybody else getting involved.
Also, you get to see something evolving in this book that continues to this day, namely the notion of how executive perks have kept on increasing. It is a fair understanding that many shareholders do not know the full level of executive perks, otherwise you would see far more resentment especially when the company is barely plodding along with not much dividend or increase in stock value.
This book is a great read, and I was absolutely hooked after reading it.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Tom Clancy: Without Remorse

Without Remorse is an attempt by the author to explain the emergence of his other main character (the main character is Jack Ryan, but there is also a CIA operational executive called John Clark), the man who carried out a number of field operations including execution and even spying (with mention in many books such Clear and Present Danger, Sum of all Fears, Debt of Honor, Executive Orders, Rainbow Six, Bear and the Dragon). The movie is set in 1971, in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Most people know of the Vietnam War as a major disaster where the US lost 54,000 soldiers and where it had to beat a humiliating retreat, but the Vietnam War was also the one where the US military developed its special operations forces to a major extent, including the SEAL teams, trained in extraction, working behind enemy lines, underwater jobs, and enemy executions. The novel tells the story of one extraction, as well as the story of a former SEAL whose girl-fried was killed by drug dealers in a macabre way, and his revenge using all his abilities. Without Remorse refers to this fightback and the cold blooded way in which this former special operations man targets drug dealers without any pity.
In the Vietnam War, many Americans Prisoners of War were kept in bad Prisoner of War camps, ill-treated and many times not reported to the Red Cross. They were interrogated and treated very badly. It was a mission for the Special Operations team to try and extract them, but this was also a political mission, needing permissions from the political leadership, with the risk of such operations being revealed. In fact, a previous such operation had been a failure, and given that there were also peace talks ongoing, the State department did not want to agree to such operations due to the fear of the peace talks collapsing.
The hero of this book, John Kelly was a former SEAL and a hero who had taken part in many operations in Vietnam, being a part of the SOG (Special Operations Group). He is now retired, and is in pain, having lost his wife in a road accident. At this point, he meets up with Pam, who has escaped from the torture of a brutal drug dealers network where she was one of the couriers as well as the comfort women for the drug dealers. However, as she is getting cured, in an exaggerated sense of bravado, Kelly exposes her to danger and she is taken from him (while he is shot to a near death state). She is soon killed by them in a particularly brutal way.
As Kelly recovers, he learns, and and that is when he vows to use his specialities to hunt down her killers (in a pretty well written part, the nurse and his future wife, Sandy, sees death in his face, a controlled and determined death). He starts his mission of recovery while the police case does not go anywhere. He is also approached by the military for another rescue mission in Vietnam because of his knowledge of the location. For this mission training, he is given a CIA moniker, John Clark, and starts training with the military.
He also starts dealing with the drug dealers, first finding the dealer who started Pam onto the life of prostitution, killing him, and then starting to kill more of them after interrogating them to find out about the main drug dealers, no mercy involved. In fact, were it not for the fact that Clancy was writing about death and murder, those are very well-written and detailed sections. He also rescues a girl and hands her to Sandy Toole (the nurse who helped him), thus making it clear to Sandy that in fact John is doing the drug dealer killing that is making the newspapers. When this girl is also killed after being rescued, he suspects that the police is also infiltrated and is more convinced that the drug dealers need to be killed. There is a very detailed section on the interrogation of one of the capture drug dealers using a standard compression and decompression chamber.
He rescues more girls, and in a stand off, kills the drug dealers behind the killings of Pam. By now the police have identified who could be behind this, although they have no evidence against him. In his rescue mission, he fails somewhat because the rescue mission has been leaked, but he kills the brutal Camp Commander and captures a Soviet air officer who was interrogating the prisoners. This is used to transfer the prisoners to a safe location so that they would not be killed.
In the end, Kelly gives up his identify and becomes a full fledged CIA person by faking a boating accident as he is being pursued by the police and the Coast Guard.

Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth

I had read numerous thrillers from Ken Follett, and then came across the book, 'The Pillars of the Earth'. This seemed a bit boring, after all this was a novel about the goings-on in the 12the century, and seemed to do with the fights between the claimants to the throne, as well as the trials and tribulations of some other people involved. But then I decided to start reading the book, and was left spell-bound. Once I finished reading the book, it seemed like an epic, integrating the lives of various claimants to power, a common but intelligent prior, penniless children of a dispossessed former earl, the current earl who is a cruel and ruthless person, and some members of the church who are as political as anybody else. Throw in the closing fight between the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you have a novel set over a period of 60 years, and very gripping. The novel also covers the change in architectural styles, with the tall, sweeping, big-windowed Gothic style churches coming into prominence.
It has a number of characters, many of them with many strong characteristics, and yet none of them are perfect. All of them have their own weaknesses, and even the historical character of Thomas Becket has his own political game to play in his fight for political supremacy over the King. This is a fight that goes onto this day, where the clergy fights for political supremacy over the people's representatives, with the most profound example being Iran where a theocratic council (representing God) have supremacy over the elected people.
The novel is about a period called The Anarchy in England's history where there was a contest for the throne between Empress Maud and King Stephen, being supported by their own sets of Earls and other noblemen (all due to the sinking of the White Ship which carried the Crown Prince and other noblemen in an attempt to kill the crown prince). The sinking left a survivor, who is one of the subtle points of this movie, since a plot to get him executed for theft suborned a high Church official, a prior and an earl, a story revealed much later in a trial.
The novel starts with the story of a stonemason and builder, Tom Builder who is now without a job due to the breakup of the engagement between the Lady Aliena and the cruel and cold William Hamleigh (whom Lady Aliena turned down). Tom wanders around the forest with his son Alfred and daughter Martha. and his pregnant wife. His wife dies after giving birth, but since he cannot bring up the child, he leaves the child on his wife's grave (where the child is found by the main hero of the book, the prior Philip and brought up as Jonathan). He later meets and accepts Ellen along with her son, the red-haired Jack and settles down in Kingsbridge where Philips wants to build a cathedral. Now building a cathedral takes a large sum of money, and has a side effect of attracting a market which in turn generates revenue for the whole area, but the building of a cathedral also needs permission.
And now comes bad times for Lady Aliena and her brother Richard. They have supported Empress Maud and are considered disloyal to King Stephen, and William Hamleigh attacks the castle, arrests the earl, and rapes Aliena by threatening Richard. They are penniless, but Aliena over a period of time shows business instincts by starting to buy and sell wool, and teams up with Prior Philip to set up a market, and also falls in love with the odd Jack.
When things were starting to look up, William again turns criminal, burning the wool market, and the poor-again Aliena agrees to marry Alfred. The marriage however could not succeed, since Ellen turns up and curses the marriage. Philip's plans for the cathedral collapse when Alfred puts a stone roof instead of a wooden roof and the building collapses. Also, Aliena gives birth to a red-haired son, obviously Jack's son; and obviously Alfred turns her out. When Ellen gets to hear of this, she seeks Aliena out and tells her to go look for Jack in Europe.
Jack is in the continent, and learns how to build the wide, sweeping churches of the new style, and this is where Aliena meets him with her son. Unfortunately, Philip cannot marry them since she is still married to Alfred. After a period of time, things again change when the Philip-hater and extremely ambitious Bishop Waleran Bigod teams up with the Hamleighs to cause the downfall of the Kingsbridge market so that they can build the dream cathedral of the Hamleighs at Shiring that they had to stop because of lack of money. Aliena had taken the help of William's wife to take the castle for Richard from within. Alfred tries to rape Aliena, but is killed by Richard; however, since legally Alfred was married to Aliena, this is treated as a murder, and Richard is only safe with Philip (Richard is being chased by Willian Hamleigh who had been appointed as the sheriff). In a compromise, Richard agrees to go for the crusade, and going for a holy war will absolve him of the murder.
Things go on, while Jack has built an extremely fabulous cathedral in the new style, new to England that seems light and airy. And then one of the most important historical sequences happens, where King Henry, tired of his never-ending struggle for ultimate supremacy England instigates his knights to get rid of Becket. William joins them, and in a pretty accurate portrayal, Thomas is killed. Philips seizes the moment, and converts the confused crowd into a crowd obsessed with the 'martyring' of Becket, and into a mass movement that the king cannot even think of controlling. In one of the most important moments (closing moments), Henry atones for his crime of having contributed to the death of Thomas Becket by getting a ritual caning from the monks - an ultimate supremacy of the spiritual over the royalty.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tom Clancy: Debt of Honor

Somehow, I have always liked reading books by Tom Clancy. His books always contain a good deal of learning about things that you read superficially about in news articles, but when you read about them as he explains them, they make much more sense. So, for example, in this book by Tom Clancy that was published in 1995, you learn about trade, about the politics that drive bills in Congress, a lot about the stock market and the working of major financial institutions, and about the military (a pet subject of Tom Clancy), as well as about the effects of a fully laden plane flying into a building.
Now, in a book about a major trade war between the US and Japan, you would expect to see a lot of Japan bashing, but it is not so obvious actually. There are many people in Japan who are depicted as weak or with ill-will towards the US, but then you have major American politicians who are also shown as weak, or philandering. So, there is some Japan bashing, but very minimal, and I am pretty sure that from what I read earlier, the depiction of the influence of businessmen in Japanese political life is accurate to a large degree.
What appeals most about Tom Clancy is how he keeps several stories running at the same time, switching between the stories from time to time and still making sense. One problem of course is doing this, giving character to the novel makes it cumbersome and a bit big to read in terms of pages (this book itself being 900 pages), but I don't mind it too much. He also plays a lot on honor, considering that too be a core attitude in a person, and he has a set of core characters who are honorable, such as the lead man, Jack Ryan, the CIA operatives, the Russian head of the spy agency, his FBI friend, and so on.
The book starts 2 years from where the previous book (The Sum of All Fears) left off, with Jack Ryan getting called back into public life and getting appointed as the National Security Advisor. He has a couple of initial successes, and then the story takes a twist on its own. A car accident and a botched gas tank leads to politics that leads to a trade war as a politician leverages on the public outrage; this action leads a disaster in terms of the Japanese trade and economy getting badly affected. The Prime Minister has to resign and a hardliner takes over, being guided by a businessman who has visions of Japan regaining old glory. The businessman has also influenced an attempt by the Japanese to develop nuclear weapons, with old Russian missile bodies being used for the delivery mechanism (ostensibly for space launchers).
The trade war escalates, with the Japanese businessman coordinating a melt-down of the storage of American stocks records, leading to a disaster as with no records, there are no established trades. In the midst of this, a planned naval exercise with Japan turns ugly for the Americans when the Japanese sink 2 submarines with all the personnel on board, and America is now at war, with a nation that also has nuclear capability.
In addition, the Americans do not have current nuclear missile capability, they do not have naval assets to take back some islands that the Japanese have taken over. In the midst of all, there is a sexual criminal scandal against the Vice-President. Jack Ryan has to deploy all his skills to win back the initiative for the Americans, and he eventually does that. The description of the military battles as well as the stock mechanisms are very detailed. The only weak point was the sudden termination of the scandal involving the Vice-President.
At the end of the book, with the Vice-President having resigned, Jack Ryan is called to be the Vice-President, at which a time a disgruntled Japanese pilot puts his fully fuel loaded plane into the Capitol Hill, killing most of Congress, the President and the Supreme Court. Jack Ryan will have to be President now.

Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-6)

I have always thought that because these books are so popular, there would be a large number of reviews, and I am sure that there; but these first 6 books have been out for quite some time and I have enjoyed reading them, so thought about writing this review for the first 6, available in a boxed set for all the 6 books available in paperback (the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is only available in hard cover).
Most people know the story of the author, JK Rowling, when she was a single mother in hard times and wrote these books when she would be sitting in a coffee house. It makes these books all the more special because of these circumstances. Most kids I know, and a lot of adults (including me), really like these books and the way that the story pans out. It gets progressively darker with each book, but I would still recommend this for children to read.
Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-6)
The collection contains the following books with their release dates:
1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (26 June 1997) (titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States)
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2 July 1998)
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (8 July 1999)
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (8 July 2000)
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (21 June 2003)
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (16 July 2005)
The books have been evenly spaced in their release, keeping most fans waiting with nervous excitement, only to be replaced by a buying frenzy when the book (after the first one) was finally released. I was initially skeptical, but then I read the first book around the year 2000, and then bought the others as they were released, being a firm fan after that.
For me, even when you describe the events as happening in a magical world, with dragons, wizards, witches, etc., overall the concept of emotions in the life of Harry Potter and his close friends Hermione Ganger and Ron Weasley seem to ring true and lifelike. You find yourself engrossed in the book, and actually involved in their life in terms of wishing for good things to happen to them.
The concept of camadrie and friendship described in the book are worthy to be emulated, also the parts of how the close-knit Weasley family (with the exception of Percy) stick together supporting each other. Even the attitude of Harry in terms of dealing with various types of animals in terms of caring for them is a positive attitude for growing up children. And his feelings for the opposite sex and how he lives with these feelings as he slowly matures was pretty tender reading.