Sunday, April 20, 2008

From The Holy Mountain By William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is that sort of a writer you would love to read just because he has written it. For me, he will always be such a writer. Every book of his has been good than the other one. He surely writes a lot about Middle East and Indian Subcontinent. In "From The Holy Mountain: A Journey Among The Christians Of The Middle East", he travels the Silk Route of ancient Byzantium through the present day Middle East retracing the AD 578 journey of John Moschos, a well known Byzantine monk, traveller and historian. All along the way he only sees a dying heritage in form of neglected monasteries, declining number of Christians and great sort of confusion among different religions in the region.

He begins his journey on Mt. Athos after seeing the older manuscript of 'The Spiritual Meadow' (the book by John Moschos), travels to Istanbul, eastern Turkey, Tur Abdin, then on to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Wherever he went, he retraces Moshos' route, visits remains of his era and tries to stay in the same monasteries as Mochos has done centuries ago.

All the while he notices that early Christian presence in the area was very significant and it has been declining steadily ever since. It has been sometime due to political suppression or sometimes just due to better opportunities outside - but in nearly each instance it has taken its toll on the region's culture and heritage. Some of the monasteries mentioned by Mochos are now extinct or destroyed either by time or governments. On the one hand, he notices the differences between Islam and Christianity getting wider and wider down the ages. On the other hand, he still find these religions intermingled together at some holy places praying together for miracles or babies.

Certainly worth a read for its rich description of the place, early times and understanding of current scenarios.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"My Name Is Red" By Orhan Pamuk

Reading novels from Nobel Literature winners is not my cup of tea. So, when a friend suggested "My Name Is Red" to me, I was apprehensive to start. After all, it is written by Orhan Pamuk, Turkish writer and winner of Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 for his novel titled "Snow". My Name Is Red was written much earlier (in 2001) but still it would be an effort to read it - so as I thought. And, I was indeed correct. It is not effortless reading but it is surely worthwhile.

My Name Is Red Orhan Pamuk

In general, Orhan Pamuk has been vocal about freedom of expression issues. In year 2005, he was forced to flee from his country due to the hate campaigns against him after he made a statement regarding the mass killings of Armenians and Kurds in Antolia. There were criminal charges brought against him for these remarks but they were subsequently dropped. I have earlier read some part of his Nobel lecture and his thoughts touched me a lot. An excerpt from his Nobel lecture is as follows (translation by Maureen Freely) :-
What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity's basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kind ... Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world–and I can identify with them easily–succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West–a world with which I can identify with the same ease–nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.

My Name Is Red is a kind of murder mystery set in 1591, when the murder of Elegant Effendi, a painter in the Ottoman Empire, threatens to expose a blasphemy that has infected Ottoman court painters. It is rumored that a secret book commissioned by the sultan is dedicated to European artistic styles, which favours figurative arts (prohibited in Islam). Four miniaturists, under the guidance of a rival to the sultan, have been painting it secretly. Consumed by guilt, Elegant confesses one evening, inciting someone to murder him. The clue to which miniaturist murdered him hinges upon the nostrils of a horse: In a drawing found on the dead man's body, these nostrils displayed a distinct style. This story of the sultan's secret book and the murder is told in the first person from the point of view of various narrators, not all of them human. So we hear from the corpse, the lovers and the murderer, a gold coin, the color red, and many more. The characters talk with the reader directly, and nearly each chapter has its own narrator starting with the murdered painter himself in the first chapter.

Wonderfully written book.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Freedom At Midnight By Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Freedom At Midnight is supposedly a non-fiction book written in fiction style by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, first published in 1975. Although I would say that it is more fiction that actually a non-fiction book - some of the facts mentioned in it are controversial and biased. With all the fiction and fact thing being mixed, you will be left wondering if this book is a fiction book or factual one. The book covers the events around India's independence, starting from Lord Mountbatten's association with India to the death of Mahatma Gandhi. This book is surely one of the better accounts of the most important phase in the Indian subcontinent - especially India and Pakistan. The book covers different aspects to the Indian independence very effectively - who were the main people driving the whole process, who actually prepared the maps of India and Pakistan, what happened to the royal palaces/property/grandeur of pre-independence princely states, and many other such questions are handled.

One thing which I realized in this book is that it is somewhat biased towards Indian National Congress political leaders of that time and portrays Muslim League leaders in the negative shade. Well, I may not agree entirely with the authors - no one is just black or white - everyone has grey shades. And INC leader surely had their fair bit of share in grey shades.

Even though I would say that this is a better way to learn about those events. It is surely not a historical commentary of events - the writing style is simple and engrossing. Surely a one time read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Whats great about this book is that it will change the way you look at things. Economics, for me, has never been my cup of tea. It is a science much bigger than reaching to Mars, I think. But this book is made for people like me. It is fun reading, all the while using data mining, to prove why things happen as they happen in terms of economics.

Freakonomics Steven D. Levitt Stephen J. Dubner

"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" is a book by Steven Levitt (University Of Chicago) and Stephen J. Dubner (New York Times). It proves that economics is not dull all time and not all related to finances most of the times. The book's topics include:
Chapter 1: Discovering cheating as applied to teachers and sumo wrestlers (See below)
Chapter 2: Information control as applied to the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents
Chapter 3: The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers
Chapter 4: The controversial role legalized abortion has played in reducing crime
Chapter 5: The negligible effects of good parenting on education
Chapter 6: The socioeconomic patterns of naming children

Authors ask a lot of hilarious questions like: If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers? or Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? or Do real estate agents have their clients’ best interests at heart? or What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? or How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?

The book was first published in 2005 and was a best seller, selling more than 3 million copies till now in around 30 languages. For many people, this book is an absurd book. But for me, this has been a "aha" effect book - nice one time read. Wonderful way of looking at things - it surely turns conventional wisdom on its head.

For more, have a look the book's official site.