Monday, January 28, 2008

Neither here nor there - Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

In this book, Bill Bryson attempts to recreate the travel itinerary of his youth some seventeen years earlier when he backpacked across Europe with one of his high school friend; He is alone this time with rucksack and notebook. This book a mixture of his lively anecdotes, sharp observations, and flashbacks to his earlier tour.

The book covers Norway (Hammerfest, Oslo), France (Paris), Belgium (Brussels, Bruges, Spa, Durbuy), Germany (Aachen, Cologne, Hamburg), Holland (Amsterdam), Denmark (Copenhagen), Sweden (Gothenburg, Stockholm), Italy (Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Milan, Como), Switzerland (Brig, Geneva, Bern), Liechtenstein, Austria (Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna), Yugoslavia (Split, Sarajevo, Belgrade), Bulgaria (Sofia), and Turkey (Istanbul).

Neither here nor there - Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

The book is pure entertainment (provided you must not fail to catch the humor there). He is quite honest about what he liked or what he did not liked. And he was prompt is downgrading his rating for a "well-known" place once he reached there and did not found it up to the mark. He also diligently lavishes praises on lesser known places. He surely avoids the usual travel writer obligation to adore every place (read famous places) they visit.

I know that some of you may find this book rather strangely funny - or, even absurd at times. But only if you're obsessed with political correctness, he may offend you, but he is democratic in his targets. He has some quite interesting observations to make. Although most of the observations are now out of the date (he wrote the book in 1990) but they are funny and a refreshing change from the breathless romanticism of so many guidebooks and travel brochures. He also shows that Europe and Britain aren't as perfect as they look from the windows of a tour bus.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In Xanadu A Quest by William Dalrymple

Most of us must have heard following opening lines of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The poem references Mongol and Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty and his summer capital Xanadu or Shangdu (as popularly known). Xanadu has a significant place in western history as well because it was the destination of the most famous Marco Polo's trip from Jerusalem to China (which he called Cathay) carrying oil from Holy Sepulcher & presents from Pope Gregory X for Kublai Khan between 1271 & 1274.

In Xanadu A Quest by William Dalrymple

In his book by name of 'In Xanadu - A Quest', William Dalrymple retraces the epic journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the ruins of the palace of Kubla Khan, north of Peking carrying oil from Holy Sepulcher, in the summer of 1986. He calls this book as a quest - not a vacation - just because it involves hardship and suffering not accompanied by a vacation. An intrepid traveler, and entertaining writer, Dalrymple offers an anecdotal history of the people and places he encounters en route through Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and the breadth of China. An overland passage through these closed countries is an incredible travel feat in itself.

Although I did not found this book to be as engrossing or interesting as some of the other ones by William Dalrymple. But still, this is not a great book; it is an interesting book. Much of the book is the usual stuff of travel: difficulties in getting official clearance; locals speaking funny (read faulty) English; stomach upsets due to eating strange food at various roadside eateries; staying at inns which are sometimes as dirty as roads outside; and so on. However, in some sections he writes about more interesting things like how dull Polo's own account really is, developments in Islamic architecture, the history of some of the places, recognizing Marco's Polo description of a place and mapping it into current state of affairs. In totality, an interesting enough book by a 22 year old (remember this was his first book).

Read this book if:
1. You love reading travel books which are not like essays.
2. You are on a vacation which has turned wrong - in this book you will find that it could have been worse :)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth

In this time and age, the events described in this thriller by Frederick Forsyth seem as from another age. And in fact, that was another age. In 1979, when this novel was published, the Soviet Union was the worldwide great power representing communism, with the Eastern half of Europe in its clutches. In addition to the client states such as East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc that were also communists, and some of whom had seen the might of the Soviet army when they had tried to move towards democracy, there were the states that were part of the Soviet Union besides Russia. In all, there were 15 former states that made up the Soviet Union, and it would only have been a visionary / fool who would have dared to claim that these countries will be separate countries within 12 years.
And this is one of the main stories of this thriller. The second largest constituent state of the Soviet Union was the Ukraine, and since it was the second largest, and had known independence before, it was ruthlessly sought to be made like Russia, and any elements of Ukrainian culture stubbed out; after all, if the people are as Russian as the Russians, then where will there be a need to start a separatist front. The Russians (the largest majority of the Soviet Union) used a combination of the Red Army and the feared KGB (formerly the NKVD) to sniff out and break any level of Ukrainian separatism, such that it never reached any dangerous point.

The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth
Frederich Forsyth also takes the opportunity to explain several aspects that form the basis of the thriller, namely:
1. The workings of the Soviet Politburo and the politics between the different members, especially about how the various members come to reach the peak of political life in the Soviet Union (politburo)
2. Some details about the concept of a super-tanker and the colossal damage that a super-tanker can do
3. The use of spies and their information in deciding what Governments that are in conflict with each other do, and how policies are made based on this information
4. And a very advanced topic for that age, involving the use of spy satellites to gather information about what is happening in the territory of another country
5. A lot of details about the spy-craft, about how to spy and control agents in hostile territory
6. And for me, something that was very interesting for me, namely details about what the SR-71 (the Blackbird) can do

The novel starts with the escape of a Ukrainian separatist (under attack from the KGB) from the Soviet Union. He meets a Ukrainian sympathizer who is fanatically in favor of Ukrainian independence and against the Soviet Union and the KGB. He takes this opportunity to go to the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the US and British discover that vast tracts of the Russian grain harvest is spoiled, and then you go to the Russian side and discover that a series of freak incidents cause the spoilage of vast chunks of the Soviet wheat harvest, causing a famine of immense proportions. And once the Americans and Western powers get to know about this, they would demand concessions on a large scale before providing the grain. The Soviet Union cannot afford to undergo a famine of this level since that may cause the one thing that any Soviet politburo dreads, the rise of the long suffering population at a level that the use of force cannot control. One option is to use the vast Red Army to attack Western Europe to get over this scarcity, and this becomes a issue about control of the Politburo.
At such a time, the new British SIS (MI6) head in Moscow meets and old flame; she is also in a position to be able to supply information about the workings of the Politburo, something that the Americans and British find very valuable. As things escalate, this information is of vital information in helping fine-tune the policies of the West.
As things move ahead, things threaten to spiral out of control. If the politburo source is used too much, she could get exposed; if it gets out that Ukrainian separatists have assassinated the head of the KGB, things could spiral out of control and risk giving the faction in the politburo the majority to go to war; and if the Ukrainian separatists use the vast super-tanker Freya that they now control and let the oil go into the ocean, it would be an environmental tragedy of the highest order.
At such times, what can happen. And this is the Devil's alternative, anything you do has a consequence, and will lead to a loss of life. And for politicians and leaders, taking the easiest path is the way to go. Coldness is an essential attribute of state-craft.
The concluding lines of the book are what would shake you when you read them - 'Ukraine will be free again'; and this is precisely what happened in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin took Russia away from the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union vanished into history.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shakespeare - The world as a stage: By Bill Bryson

I am not a great reader of biographies (or that too from Jacobean or Elizabethan literature) but I just finished a new book by Bill Bryson (and you say - but Bill Bryson is not about bioraphies). Yes, you are true - but this book is about a prominent figure from that era. The book surprisingly is not a travel book (oh thank god, I would not have to laugh-holding-my-stomach-till-I-cry a lot like I do while reading this travel books) but a biography of Shakespeare.

It is a very clean book - it actually does not gives its own theories about many mysterious facts of Shakespeare's life; but just tries to be itself. It is author's attempt to decode more of what Shakespeare was as a human being not as a writer. He traces William Shakespeare journey from Startford-upon-Avon to London (in Lord Chamberlain's Men) and then back to Startford-upon-Avon, where he died in 1616.

Shakespeare - The world as a stage By Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson highlights the major feature of Shakespeare's life (or whatever we know of him) - scant facts as we know. For example, it is rather strange to know that for nearly eight years of his life - nobody knows where Shakespeare was - before he actually surfaced as one of the most prominent play writer in London. Or, that there are hardly a dozen writings of Shakespeare in his own hand writing - and half of them are his signatures - each one different from another. And there is not a single painting of William Shakespeare in which we can say for sure how did he looked like - or even if the guy in the painting is indeed Shakespeare. Few records of Shakespeare's life survive, and there has been considerable speculation about matters such as his sexuality (just because he wrote a rather risque poem dedicated to an Earl & some sonnets of intense friendship), religious beliefs (just because it was so confusion out there at that time in general) and whether the works attributed to him were written by someone else (this is height of... !!). Bryson documents the efforts of different scholars (some bizarre and others more bizarre) - where each one tried to prove a point about Shakespeare's life. Consider this, an eccentric Delia Bacon, who developed a firm but 'unconvincing' (read "no proof") conviction that, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays.

Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunker like room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed. Bryson celebrates the great era of English literature & London play circuits with facts rather then defining them on speculations. Bryson also points out that we know so little about Shakespeare because till hundred years after his death there was no serious attempt to write about his life - was it because he was not so popular at that time?

Overall, a nice read if
1. You love to read about history.
2. You love to read Bill Bryson, which I do.
3. You can imagine Jacobean or Elizabethan era and its descriptions.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Kite Runner

After a long time, probably after I read 'The Life of Pi', here's another book which keeps you engaged till the end. Its a sad and tragic story of a boy from Afghanistan. Its a work of fiction by Khaled Hosseini and his first one, did this in 2003. He is from Afghanistan.

The book starts with a story of a boy in Afghanistan in a well-to-do family with access to English DVDs, good food, Mustang, a influential father and most importantly a divine friend. The book is named 'The Kite Runner'as this divine friend is a great kite runner. A kite runner is someone who runs and loots the cut kites. Amir, the rich kid and the Hasan the poor kid. The story moves easy and well in the beginning with details on Afghan life and mostly about Kabul before Russian war era.

The Kite Runner

It all funny and good-read till Khaled makes the first blow where Hasan gets badly treated by a group of rowdy boys. Wont tell you the actual thing but I was very shocked and I actually stopped reading this for a while. It seemed like a big effort to again pick the book and resume. From then on the story turns and more tragic thing start to happen. Amir gets into that guilt mode since he could not save Hasan. Then the war happens and they have to flee to Pakistan and then later to US. Amir has lost his mother very early and his Dad was never too excited about Amir for he was more of a creative kind with little or no interest in sports or more manly occupations.

The story then moves leaps n bounds with Amir finally moving to US, finishing his school there, finding a girl, comes back to Pakistan to meet an old friend of his Abba. Its a not a thick tome but Khaled has been able to add so much that you keep engaged and connected. Infact in last 100 pages, there are many new twists and discoveries. Its not only a story of a boy by now and rather takes you to society and a country. In last few episodes so much happen that you start to get nauseating at times.

The finish line has not been decorated too much, it sorts of end on a subtle note. Nothing great happens in the end, probably a realistic end to a heroic story. If you dont like reading tragedies then avoid but if you are interested in reading human relations, those secret aspects of ourselves, the innates then do read.

There is a movie on the book and is getting released shortly so read the book first before watching the movie.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil wears Prada is the classic story of a girl who has to choose between the shortest path to her goal and the right path. After trying the shortest path for a while, the girl finally gives it all up only a short while before she is about to succeed and starts again on the right path.

If you compare the novel and the book, both seem to convey a different message. While the book seem to preach following your heart to your goal, the movie has been twisted to advocate "Good wins over Evil" where Andrea is good and Miranda is Evil. Needless to say, I like the book better.

The Devil Wears Prada

Andrea Sachs is a graduate in English and is about to start her career. She gets a lucky break in the Runway magazine as the junior assitant of the legendary Editor-in-Chief, Miranda Priestly. Though she joins a fashion magazine, Andrea's ultimate goal is to work for the New Yorker and she sees Runway as the shortest route to it. But after working with the "boss from hell" Miranda for about an year, she realizes that her priorities rest with her family and friends. She gives it all up and starts out on the longer route by writing short fiction.

All through this, Andrea comes out as a girl who is in a dilemna about what path to take even though her goal is always clear to her. When she is ignoring her family and friends, her conscious always keeps chiding her for this. At the end she has the guts to throw away a good chance of reaching her goal, when she needs to be with her friend. The novel ends with she and Alex, her boyfriend with whom she has a fallout because of her job, staying as friends but taking time away from each other. The movie shows them getting back together as if nothing went wrong.

Miranda Priestly's treatment of her juniors cannot be called pleasant at any time during the novel. In fact, she makes life perfectly miserable for them. But on the other hand, she is a successful professional woman who adores her daughter and spends considerable time on phone with her husband. This streak of her character has been completely turned around in the movie where she is shown to be divorcing her husband at the end.

Out of Andrea and Miranda, I would say that Miranda's character sketch is far more interesting.

In case you are in a dilemna over your career and would like to cross over to a field that seems to be closer to your heart, reading this book may give you the strength to take that final step.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson (2003)

What happens when a writer, known so far for travel books and about history, and who tickles the funny bones in your body, decides to write about science. Writing books about science and making them interesting have broken many authors, so when I first picked up this book, I was a bit worried. Well, when I finished the book, I let out a sigh of relief. While imparting a fair amount of education about science (although not about explaining the complicated algebra and geometry), the book does convey a great deal and did so in a very entertaining way.
Of course, if you are a scientist, you would take away almost nothing from this book, since it hardly claims to propound a new version of the string theory; one thing anyone can learn from such a book is how to write books like this that will explain a large number of concepts while keeping the overall subject light; and at the same time, making things more life-like by explaining details about the scientists that hardly ever makes it out.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Typically when you read about a scientist, you will learn about the great inventions that the scientist did, and how great it was and how beneficial it was. Typically such inventors are treated in a very god-like manner, and way above reality. Bill Bryson explains a lot more about such scientists, including their failing and weaknesses, and make them seem more life-like.
You will get to feel about what the situation and surrounding environment was like for such great scientists such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and many others. And this is exactly the reason why this massive 500 page plus book was written. Like all of us, Bill Bryson learnt all the facts about science, but again like us, in a very dull manner. He wanted to understand the reasons as to why something was discovered, the motivation of the scientists, the environment around them, and so on; all these help in understanding the development of science in a much more understandable way. This works great - you learn as to how Newton was also an egoist and also responsible for sending many counterfeiters to the gallows in an official role; or how the great Cavendish was such a recluse that he would even communicate with his housekeeper through letters.
In addition to the part about scientists, you also learn about sizes in this universe, from the size of our planet to the size of galaxies, about the development of Homo Sapiens (us) and what separates us from our biological cousins (the chimpanzees) to whom we are more than 98% genetically similar. You learn a lot about such varied subjects such as fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on.
For writing this book, Bryson spent over 3 years, talking to various scientists and understanding things from them; as a result of his not being a scientist himself, there have been errors that have been pointed out in the book; but overall, I stick to my thought that this was a wonderful book that tried to explain how scientists and science learn about everything (and something that you never read about).

Made in America - Bill Bryson (1996)

For those of you who have not read books by Bill Bryson before, be prepared for a blast. These books are non-fiction, but are incredibly funny. There has been many a time when I have had to go back and read a section that I just read since it made me laugh (and I wanted to laugh again). Some of the other great books of Bill Bryson that you should read are a 'A Lost continent', 'A walk in the woods', 'A short history of nearly everything', 'Down Under', and so on (you get the picture - I have yet to read a Bill Bryson book that did not appeal).
This book is about the development of English language down the ages, so you will find a lot of detail about how words came to be added to the English used in the United States, such as derived from the American Indians who were living there when the settlers first went in, from various languages (or rather from the immigrants of various countries such Germany, French, Irish, British, and so on,) and from whom many words of the language came to be derived, though many times these were twisted and turned in a way that the original speaker would not have realized.

Made in America - Bill Bryson (1996)
But is this just a scholarly exposition of the development of the English language used in the United States ? That would be downright boring. To everyone's relief, such is not the case. The book delves into the history of the United States and presents a great many facts while reliving the story, at the same time, debunking many myths that we have. The book is a great read for anyone who wants to read about the history of the United states through its culture, not through politics or war. From the starting, the book is a wonder of facts and learning:
- Giving a lot more detail about the original settlers and whether there were people before them
- About the way that the original settlers almost got wiped out, but survived due to the help of the native Indians nearby
- About the nature of the apparently frigid puritans and the easy prevalence of sex before marriage as a way to measure compatibility and how many marriage were formalized after a baby had been conceived
- A great many myths around the American revolution including heroic words and actions ascribed to people who apparently did no such thing
- The womanizing nature of Benjamin Franklin
- The great debates and concerns around having the different time zones and even more so, the concept of daylight savings time
- A lot of description of the many inventions and the different nature of the investors (their human traits as compared to the noble myths around them)
and so on
Too many to tell, it is better read from the book which is a very enthralling reading.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Day of the Jackal (1971)

Thrillers make even more riveting reading when they are based on historical happenings. This novel is based on a combination of 2 important events. Charles De Gaulle was probably the most important leader of France in the past century, seen as the helsman who would make France strong. On the other story, the Algerian question was an important one. Algeria wanted freedom from France, with an insurgency happening in Algeria, and an important section of the French wanting to stamp out this insurgency and ensure that Algeria remains with the French. And then De Gaulle shocked the nation by announcing that Algeria would get independence. Such a news was so shocking for the right-wing hardliners that an organization called the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrète or Secret Armed Organization) attempted to assassinate De Gaulle in order to stop the granting of independence to Algeria.
The novel takes as the starting point, an actual attempt on De Gaulle's life, spear-headed by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry on the 22nd of August, 1962 in a suburb of Paris called Petit-Clamart. The attempt failed, even though a massive number of bullets were fired. The novel starts from this point, and moves onto the realm of fiction, with the OAS hiring a skilled assassin who comes close to actually shooting De Gaulle, thwarted only by a extremely skilled police detective who is chasing him.

Day of the Jackal (1971)
The interesting part is, all of this would have been in secret, so if any such attempt had actually been carried out, it would probably have remained in top secret. The French would have refused to make information public about an attempt that almost succeeded, it would have also made the target seem attainable. The novel, when it came out in 1971, was widely praised for its detail, for the level of research that seems to have been carried out, and is still known as a great piece of fiction.
It is also somewhat infamous, since some of the more infamous people have been seemingly inspired by it. For example,
* A copy of the Hebrew translation of The Day of the Jackal was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the extreme-right militant who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995.
* Real-life terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was nicknamed "Carlos the Jackal" by the press in reference to the novel, which was found in what was assumed to be his bag (but wasn't). Nevertheless, the nickname stuck.
* Recent assassin Vladimir Arutinian, who attempted to kill US President George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to the country of Georgia, was an obsessive reader of the novel and kept an annotated version of it during his planning for the assassination.
Day of the Jackal is a fast paced thriller, taut, keeps one wanting to continue reading. You also get a great insight of how such a police chase works, where the police has to find such a plot, and then to identify the person who is the plot ring-leader, all in time so as to prevent the plot from getting executed.
The novel is about the hunt for such an assassin, a skilled person who was capable of shooting his target when the target was traveling at high speed, through a very small window of opportunity. The assassin meets with the ring-leaders in Vienna, and then starts his planning, including manufacturing his multiple identities and disguises. French intelligence soon become aware of this plan, and Inspector Claude Lebel is assigned the task of defeating the Jackal. And Lebel starts his effort, calling in his old boys network, and getting a lot of help from the British; enough to close in on the Jackal, but he evades capture as he keeps on getting inside information.
And then the police realize an important event is coming up: Liberation Day, on the 25th of August, commemorating the liberation of Paris in World War II. This is not something that De Gaulle will avoid, and makes an ideal hunting spot for the Jackal. The Jackal manages to avoid the dragnet, using first a woman, and then another man for help, killing them as he leaves them. In a remarkable disguise as a war veteran, the Jackal manages to get past the police barricades and into position where he can put General De Gaulle in his cross-hairs. Lebel is following close behind, but not close enough to prevent the Jackal from taking a shot. What saves De Gaulle is the French custom of kissing both cheeks, and the time gives enough time to Lebel to arrive at the scene. The Jackal kills the policeman along with Lebel, but in the short time-off between Lebel and the Jackal where they recognize each other, Lebel manages to kill the Jackal using a machine-pistol; the only thing that the public know is that a vehicle back-fired producing the noise similar to the machine gun.
However, in the end, there is an element of surprise. The British gentleman who was suspected of being the Jackal, Charles Calthrop, re-appears after a fishing trip, so no one really knows who the Jackal was. And so it ends, with a lonely funeral for the Jackal, attended only by Lebel. A great novel by Frederick Forsyth.