home page

Srineet's Reviews

(Last updated: 27 Dec 2017)


Quick Introduction

It's the 12th of Jan 2004. Have decided to write reviews of all the books/technical papers/articles that I read and put it up here. Should have started to do that earlier - all the stuff read in the last so many years won't find a review here unless I re-read them. But here goes anyway (latest review first).

Update: Turns out I am not reviewing all the books. Am mainly reviewing the books that I "read" as opposed to the ones that I "study".

B.R. Ambedkar - Payal Kapadia

27 Dec 2017

This is a well-written and crisp book. It covers the life of Ambedkar in an interesting way, while also containing useful tidbits every now and then about concepts or interesting global events of the time. Reading this book gives an understanding of the life of Untouchables or Depressed classes at the time, and how that struggle is largely ignored from the standard historical narrative. It also covers the very interesting life of Ambedkar, his hard work, conviction and his amazing rise given his cicrumstances. It also covers his differences with Gandhi and the Congress party. All in all, it is a well written small sized book, and recommended reading.

Flatland - Edwin A. Abbot

19 Nov 2017

This is quite a remarkable work, a classic. It is small in size, but very interestingly touches upon two rather distinct aspects. One is the science fiction type thing of higher dimensionality. The setting is a two-dimensional world with its own laws and conventions, and how one individual gets exposed to the third dimension, and then the possibility of higher and lower dimensions too. Then there is the aspect of it being a cutting satire of human society and values, especially of the Victorian era - the rigid division of society by class, the low opinion of women and their intelligence, the assumption of higher intelligence and refinement in the higher classes, and many things stemming from such beliefs, whether laws, periods of turmoil or revolution, rising of art and then its suppression, and so on. How all these things are combined together in an underlying theme of a two-dimensional world with beings unaware of the third dimension, and even including a glimpse of a one-dimensional and a zero-dimensional world, is really quite an achievement.

The Repubic of Tea - Mel Zeigler

14 Oct 2017

This is the story of how this company was made. The story is given in terms of letters exchange between the co-founders. It is quirky and arty, with the founders coming up with the culture and thinking of the Republic of Tea wherein the tea was raised to a platform, not being just a beverage, but a way of life. The founders write to each other - one being the Minister of Progress and the other being the Minister of Leaves. The author's wife, the Minister of Enchantment gives design ideas and her sketches are throughout the book.

Tata Log - Harish Bhat

14 Oct 2017

This is a nice book about some of the notable things done by the Tata group in recent times. It includes things like EKA the supercomputer, Tata Steel winning the coveted and difficult Deming Prize, their innovative scheme of the Second Career Internship Programme for women, their approach to empower Gujarat folk artisans, Tata Tea's acquisition of Tetley etc. It gives a glimpes of the inner workings and thinking of the upper echelons at Tata, their adherence to principle, and their appetite for risk. It is quick and good read.

The Logic of Life - Tim Harford

25 Sep 2017

After Undercover Economist, this is another well written book by the author. Its aim is to show how a lot of things in life and society are in fact a consequence of rational decisions by individuals based on thei judgement of cost and incentives. It is not that they do so consciously, but it is what ends up happening. He covers a range of fields from why certain neighbourhoods fare better than others, cities versus rural areas, elections, why CEOs are so overpaid etc. most of it is quite thought-provoking. It draws from recent research and gives enough background and context - it also does a good job of questioning itself, thereby making us think and making the point that the analysis is quite unbiased. I wish there's a book of this type written in the Indian context, drawing from research and surveys into the Indian life. It is a good read.

Ring For Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

6 Sep 2017

As usual, I won't review a Wodehouse book, but just sketch the plot for my memory. This is one where Jeeves is temporarily in the employment of Lord Bill Rowcester, who is engaged to Jill Wyvern. There's his sister Monica (Moke) and her fumbling husband Roderick (Rory). He desparately wants to sell his ancient house to the somewhat dotty rich lady Mrs. Spottsworth from America. The white hunter of the Africas and the East Bwana Biggar adds a lot of colour to the plot. Another wonderful one.

Asterix - Goscinny and Uderzo

30 Aug 2017

I love Asterix, and I really like the illustration. Here, I am beginning to list the titles as I (re-)read them so that I remember which ones I have read and which ones I haven't.

Asterix the Gaul
Asterix and the Banquet
Asterix and Cleopatra
Asterix in Belgium
Asterix, The Class Act
Asterix and the Picts

Tintin etc. - Herge

16 Aug 2017

Not exactly reviewing these, I like all of them. Just listing for my records.

The Valley of the Cobras - Jo, Zette, and Jocko adventure
Flight 714 to Sydney
The Broken Ear

Lucky Luke - Various folks

30 Aug 2017

Not quite in the league of Asterix or Tintin, but am still listing the titles as I read them.

Marcel Dalton

Vikram Sarabhai, A Life - Amrita Shah

16 Aug 2017

This is the biography of a remarkable man. Vikram Sarabhai, known as the father of the Indian space programme, is a man who did many things. Founder of the prestigious IIM-Ahmedabad, of the Phyisical Research Laboratory, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, owner of his own chemicals and textile firms, and what not. His childhood and personal life, as well as his family and its background are out of the usual, and interesting. The list of well-known personalities that he was in touch with, and the future key figures he influenced, is a long one. This book captures all of this quite well. The anecdotes, and that period in country's history where it was defining itself in the context of the modern era, is also very interesting. All in all, recommended reading.

The All Bengali Crime Detectives - Suparna Chatterjee

13 May 2017

This is a charming book, a bit with Alexander McCall Smith and Agatha Christie influence, and yet very Indian and very Bengali. The primary plot is around how four elderly bengali people, one among them a just retired judge, uncover the person behind a theft. This is peppered with a lovely glimpse of Bengali life in a typical middle class locality, with the time of the Durga Pujo festival added in for more flavour. There's also a nice peek at the family life of the elderly gentlemen, their wives, daughters and sons.

A quick and nice read - good work for a first-time author. I hope this becomes something of a series with more stories with the same characters.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

09 May 2017

This is a well-known classic and a long one at that, but one that I quite liked. While the plot is interesting, for some reason, it is not the plot itself that usually captures my liking, but the words, the characters, the insights and the dialogues. And on that score, this work does an amazing job. Tolstoy demonstrates his remarkable understanding of different human psyches, what happens inside their minds, and how they speak and act in different situations. The dialogues are wonderful and the author's description of what goes on in the minds of the different characters - each unique and yet representative of a certain nuanced type, is really wonderful. The times in which the story is set are also very interesting as the old order of nobles and lay people, is slowly being overturned by progressive thought. The book does not stick to a linear plot, but takes its time discussing various ideas, philosophies as well as practical experiments of its characters. Even though it is long it is definitely worth reading or listening to as an audiobook.

Campfire Graphic Novels - Campfire

06 Mar 2017

I am enjoying Camopfire's graphic novels. It is good to see an Indian publication creating quality graphic novels on such interesting topics. Instead of reviewing each novel separately, am simply making a list of the one's I have read below.

The Wright Brothers Prizoner of Zenda World War I - The War to Win All Wars
World War II - Under the Shadow of the Swastika
World War II - Against the Rising Sun
Industrial Revolution
Leonardo Da Vinci
Conquering Everes - The Lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Sourdough Wars - Julie Smith

16 Jan 2017

This is a work of fiction I picked up somewhat at random. It is a detective crime story set in San Francisco and surrounding areas, and the theme, somewhat interesting is around the Sourdough bread that's famous there. It is fast moving with a sharp cast of characters, modern somewhat snappy conversations and situations, and all in all, not too bad a plot. Rebecca Schwartz, the main character apparently appears in more such stories. All in all, a quick read if one is looking for a change.

A Man Lay Dead - Ngiao Marsh

18 Dec 2016

This is the first Ngiao Marsh book I've read. She is counted among authors contemporary and similar in style to Agatha Christie. This book is a detective crime fiction in that same mould. There is a house party and a murder. All suspects are in the same house and as facts unravel, and the inspector works on figuring out who committed the murder using the ornate museum knife, we are simultaneously trying to figure out too. Other than interesting British characters of different types there is also the Russian element thrown in. All in all a good quick read.

The Great Hedge of India - Roy Moxham

20 Nov 2016

This is a charming book on a very interesting topic. I had no idea that, and I am sure many others didn't know either, that the British had built a high 1800+ Km long, continuous hedge in India made up of babul, Indian plum and such trees. It was practically impenetrable. The reason for this is to prevent smuggling of salt without paying the requisite tax to the goverment!

The author talks about how he chanced upon this information, but found it hard to get any further detail. And then he describes his quest to actually locate the hedge. His charming account of going to various rural places, meeting different people, sipping tea, riding buses and trains, is nice to read. Alternate chapters cover background information such as the history of the hedge, of salt and salt tax, of the Raj etc. Interesting book.

Death Penalty - William J. Coughlin

20 Nov 2016

This is a legal crime fiction. It is somewhat different in that it is not entirely about a particular crime or case, but goes over a period in the lawyer Charlie Sloan's life where he has multiple cases (one of the them is the main one for the story), multiple lawyer friends, his own life and its issues etc. Also, the narrative is in first person. So as such, it is different from the typical crime fiction. There are many characters that come and go, and yet the characters are nicely developed. It is a quick read with some snappy dialogues typical to the genre.

The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan

28 Oct 2016

This is the author's attempt to write a new history of the world. The idea is that one is familiar with the standard narrative of history as taught in the western world - Greeks, Romans, Dark Ages, Henry VIII, Lousi XIV etc. However, the real center of the world have been countries like Persia, Baghdad and in general the various territories around the Silk Roads. So this is a retelling of global history from that perspective.

To me this was a very interesting read because I learnt many new things that I was not aware of. Secondly, I had only recently familiarised myself with the standard Western narrative of history (Complete Idiot's Guide to European History - great book), and so the difference was readily apparent. The book starts, fittingly, from Persia and Darius I. Then it goes on to see the intricate interplay with other worlds like the Roman Civilization, leading further and further to momentous events like the advent of Islam, the nomads of Central Asia as well as very new things (to me) from the tribes of the northern countries like Scandinavia, and eventually to the Age of Exploration and the Colonization etc. India is very prominent obviously from a Silk Roads perspective, but the details and events within the history of India doesn't seem to make too much of a difference on the theater of interest.

The book goes on further to the modern period of Industrial Revolution, World War I, World War II, Cold War and even to the recent Gulf Wars. Here the harmony seems to suffer somewhat, since broad historic narrative turns into somewhat more detailed history. The author's purpose however, is to show how, even today the Silk Roads are the key to events unfolding in the world, and how the countries around that are once again rising to prominence.

All in all, recommended reading. Would recommend reading the other standard narrative first if possible.

Life of Ramakrishna - Romain Rolland

16 Aug 2016

This is a book that came to me as someone was giving away their book collection. It is about the life of Ramakrishna Paramahansa the great Indian mystic and philosopher by a well-known European scholar. The intended audience seems to be primarily the Western reader but also the somewhat-Europeanized Eastern reader of the time.

The life itself is a very remarkable one. Starting from a poor background, and given to seemingly strange things like suddenly getting absorbed into Mother Kali and losing consciousness etc. Ramakrishna became a priest at the temple. Over time, his love and devotion to Kali grew and there were frequent overwhelming divine experiences from within including several great Samadhis. The thought ranged from very theistic devotion to extreme visions of the absolute principle of the advaitic kind. There was also the service of humanity, overwhelming love for all, and onset of disciples.

Substantial time is devoted to the movements of Brahmo Samaaj and Arya Samaaj, which were very significant socio-religious movement at the time of a re-awakening of India, and the interactions of Ramakrishna with the leading lights of those movements, and often how his simple, profound and all-inclusive take on things, trumped the often relatively narrow thought of the movements or the leaders.

The best parts of the books are the many little tales, parables, anecdotes and footnotes primarily covering Ramakrishna's thoughts, sayings and interactions. An interesting aspect for many readers would be his early time with Naren, who later became Swami Vivekananda.

The writer had to strike a fine balance given that his audience could range for the complete believers who might say that Ramakrishna was a divine incarnation to the other extreme of entirely rational sceptics who'd say they cannot tolerate such mumbo jumbo, and he has done a good job of that. It is an absorbing read.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to European History - Nathan Barber

25 Jun 2016

This is a book on European History that covers the period starting with the Hundred Years War in the 1300s to very recent history upto the Sep 11 attacks on the US. I found it a wonderful read. It covers several things, is brief, but not too brief. It is not just political history or just a chronological listing of kings, wars and events. It covers things like the Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution, and even things like the Agricultural revolution. It is not too centered around Western Europe and gives adequate coverage to Russia and Eastern Europe. I really was looking to get a feel and understanding for European History and I feel this book gave me that.

The other interesting feeling you get after reading through is the continuity of events from the 1300s right upto the modern day. Thinking changes, political alliances come and go, wars keep happening, and you can see how the war in Kosovo that happened so recently is linked in history going back. You also see how Europe has been a hotbed of political experiments, science and industry turmoils, social turmoils, religious turmoils, and yet progressive and modernising. Basically, the book does a good job of building a certain long-ranging perspective.

I am sure there are many more scholarly books given that this is titled " The Complete Idiot's Guide ", and yet I feel this is a really good book especially as a first introduction to European History in its broad entirety.

The Joy of Insight - Victor Weisskopf

09 May 2016

This is the autobiography of the famous physicist Victor Weisskopf. He comes across as a man of many interests and many interesting friends. Very much steeped in European high culture and yet spending a lot of his life in America and appreciative of the American approach to things. His life straddles different eras of the twentieth century with WW I during his childhood and the need to flee to America during WW II. You can think of him as a batch after Heisenberg. He spent a lot of time with Bohr and his wonderful band, got married within two years of being in the Copenhagen Institute (per tradition, as the joke goes) to a Danish wife, and was very much part of the Manhattan Project holding key roles. He was also played many administrative-type roles including being the director of CERN, Head of Department at MIT etc. He presents his life, his views on things, and his observations regarding the illustrious personages he came across. His descripton of his time with Bohr and his time with Pauli are specially nice. He also has a chapter on his other big interest - music, describing his opinion of the various famous classical composers. Recommended reading.

The Czar's Spy - William Le Queux

02 May 2016

This is a story narrated in the first person by an officer in the English Consulate in Italy. It starts with a yacht getting grounded near the shore. The mystery surrounding the yacht increases further with the smooth but suspicious persons on board, the safe of the counsulate being broken, and the yacht itself suddenly departing. The mystery takes us on from Italy to England to Scotland to Finland and Russia. There is a lot of build up to the mystery of a young woman whose captivating photograph is seen at two places, and whose identity and person is finally found, as the story leads on.

It is a story from the time that there was a czar, there were trains, and people travelled by horse carriages. It is a charming tale that keeps you absorbed with a lot of build up to mystery, though with an end that somehow leaves you feeling it did not match all the build up. And yet it is fun to read (or rather to listen, like I did, on librivox).

Bird Sense - Tim Birkhead

10 Apr 2016

This book is a summary of the current state of knowledge about the senses in birds.As you'd expect, it is a facinating work. It goes over each sense one by one, with one chapter each - seeing, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and magnetic sense. This is not just a compilation of facts, but is studded with anecdotes, accounts, history, and gives you a good idea of how this knowledge was accumulated over time, with several wrong turns as well. You get to know about a varietty of birds the world over, and the various ways in which ornothologists learnt about them - field work, anatomical studies, creative behaviorial studies etc. The key take away though is that there is yet much to learn about birds, and the current state of knowledge seems surprisingly incomplete.

Well written and an easy read. The only problem with these kinds of books is that there is so much information, that you enjoy every bit of it, but invariably end up forgetting most of it by the time you've finished the book.

Anecdotes from a Diplomat's Life - P. J. Rao

20 Mar 2016

This autobiographical work gives us a charming window into the life of an Indian diplomat. It covers the career progression of someone who started in ournalism and went on into a diplomatic career. There are anecdotes on protocol related things, the intiricacies and little intrigues among the bereaucrats, on celebrity visits (artists, politicians etc.) to foreign nations hosted by diplomants etc. There are also events of greater moment like an insider view into the liberation of Pondicheery, South African nations in the time of apartheid, the military coup in Burma etc. The best part is how we get to see and hear about the various nations, peoples and cultures, and their interaction with Indian diplomats who serve as representatives of the Indian nation and culture. The author's personal experiences, little anecdotes, observations about foreign countries etc. i sa pleasure to read, and it covers quite a few places where he was posted - Pondicherry, nations of South Africa, Kenya, Burma, Canada, Japan, New York, and his time in Paris, Indonesia, Thailand, Bali etc. in his role as a member of UNESCO. A good read.

Sankhya and Science - Ashish Dalela

05 Mar 2016

As the names says, this book is about the Vedic sankhya philosophy and about science. It postulates a different approach to science based on an understanding of nature as laid out in sankhya. It is quite evident that the author has a solid understanding of both the vedic viewpoint as well as of science and mathematics. He does not aim to draw parallels between the two, and in fact recognizes the radical differences between the two. He postulates a meeting point between the two in terms of describing nature and its reality, and advocates changes to the scientific viewpoint to incorporate vedic ideas. The problem however is that this last part - the changes he advocates to the scientific viewpoint seem to me to be a bit vague, and they try to cover the what and the why, but not quite the how. It seems to lack in rigor.

Therefore, the aspect where changes to the scientific viewpoint are advocated may appear to be nonsense or deeply insightful depending and thought-provoking depending on the reader's take on the matter and willingness to accept vagueness.

A key idea of the author are the primacy of the subject versus the object in vedic thought. The other is that the material universe is a consequence of consciousness, and the subjective application of meaning to create name and form. Matter is the symbol of mind. It says that objective universe has a semantic underpinning and encodes information emanating from mind and consciouness, in a fundamental universal language as it were.

Regardless, the book is worth reading just to get an understanding of both sankhya and science. The language however is rather academic and hard to understand, so one has to struggle through it. Also, sufficient background of vedic thought and scientific thought is required to appreciate the content of the book.

The Calculus of Friendship - Steven Strogatz

26 Jan 2016

This is a book I really enjoyed, and read end-to-end with very little breaks. It is about the correspondence between the author - a professional mathematician, and his maths teacher from high school. In their letters, they mainly discuss maths problems. The problems and solutions are fascinating, and their enjoyment in working through those is wonderful to see. It also gives us a bit of insight on how mathematicians think about and work through problems, and how they create little new problems to solve out of the various life situations.

The other side of the book is the personal side. The high school teacher is a lovely personality. He takes great pleasure in his high school mathematics teachings, in his students, and in his other hobbies - whitewater kayaking, canoeing, and such physical pursuits. It is wonderful to see how he soon switches to becoming more of a friend and student of his ex-students as they progress in their education and skill.

Then there are the author's musings about the personal. He wonders why their letters, especially the ones from the author hardly touched upon personal life even though there were events like the death of near and dear, that should've found a mention. Slowly little mentions of personal events do begin, and it is nice to see how the teacher goes through teaching to retirement, and how he deals with a retired life - still active in his hobbies, and creating little puzzles and trying to solve them.

Very much recommended. Lots of fascinating maths, and a rare insight into the life of mathematicians.

Othello - William Shakespeare

17 Jan 2016

I am quite liking this idea of reading Shakespeare with a modern translation given alongside. Am getting these and reading them on the Kindle. Just finished reading Othello. It is classified as one of his tragedies. One thing about even his tragedies is that even though the plot is rightly classified as a tragedy, the reading itself is not very onerous or melodramatic. Series of events just unfold in quick succession, and the language and dialogues capture interest. This one is how jealousy, the green-eyed monster can enter even noble hearts and lead to overall destruction, and how even a lowly person can plan the seeds of jealousy and watch its results unfold.

Vedanta Desikachar - Anantha Rangachar

15 Nov 2015

This is a book I bought on the Kindle about Vedanta Desikachar - one of the greatest scholars and acharyas in the Vishishtadvaita tradition after Ramanuja. He is known for his wonderful Sanskrit compositions and depth of writing. It is a nice and quick read, but has a bit of a feel of a book for children. It is mainly a series of incidents of his life based on history and legend (including things like a Sultan attack on their area), primarily intended to extoll his greatness.

Ramanuja on the Gita - S. S. Raghavachar

13 Nov 2015

This is a very to-the-point, well-written, precise book on Ramanuja's interpretation of the Gita as done in his Gitabhashya. This brings forth the Vishishtadvaitic interpretation of the Gita. The book is somewhat short but very well written, though rather academic in style, and may appear dry to some. I really liked the degree of clarity and the precise language of the book. Some areas where this interpretation is unique is also specifically pointed out.

Erwin Schr?dinger and the Quantum Revolution - John Gribbin

10 Oct 2015

This book is about Erwin Schr?dinger, famous for the Schr?dinger's Cat thingy, and for his strong leaning towards classical physics and wave interpretation of the quantum world. The book is well-written, and the author is quite well-versed at explaining quantum concepts, particularly the wave interpretation, to the layman (having written multiple books around it). The book is also interesting in the sense of being able to listen to the arguments against the Copenhagen Interpretation, as Bohr's (and most people's) approach to theory came to be known. Schr?dinger didn't like the probabilistic treatment, or rather the considering of the probabilities as inherent and fundamental, and particularly was against the whole wave-function collapse thing.

Having said all this, the book delves quite a bit on Schr?dinger's personal life. There is one part of it about his interesting dealings with other physicists and the interesting times during the world wars, and then there is the other part of it, having to do with his various ladies, involvement with other scientists' wives, and the rather emphasized arrival in strait-laced Oxford with both his wife and mistress. This latter aspect occupies quite a few pages, and while probably important to a biography, can get a bit tiresome.

As such, not particularly recommended.

Three For The Chair - Rex Stout

23 Aug 2015

This is a set of Nero Wolfe mysteries. Nero Wolfe stories are quintessentially American detective stories set in the time of classic movies as is shown in Classic Movies channels. The stories are narrated by Archie, his assistant (though Archie would take strong objection to such a description). The narration is crisp and full of attitude, and the stories and setting are full of stylish dialogue. It is quick and fun to read. I like it.

Picture Imperfect - Saradindu Bandopadhyay

21 Aug 2015

Byomkesh Bakshi stories are familiar too all who watched the lovely series on Doordarshan. Yet it is also a great read. The author really develops the character of Ajit, Byomkesh and others quite well. It is also nice to see how Byomkesh finds his future wife, and some of the mysteries he solves after his is married. This book is a real good set of stories. I also like the fact that it is not inordinately trying to bring out the ethos of India or Calcutta or any such thing. He is just telling a story set in Calcutta and Bengal, and the special things about the place just come through. Recommended.

Panchatantra (Translated) - Arthur Ryder

25 July 2015

I sort of always wanted to read the full Panchatantra, and even have bought the original Sanskrit version (which only came with Hindi translation). But I knew it'd take way too long to read through that. So I decided to find and read an English translation. I really like this one because it is a very faithful translation, and even translates the original verses into rythmic rhyming English ones.

You need to pay some attention as you read Panchatantra, because it is mostly a nested series of stories within stories, and you need to keep a mental stack pointer to remember where you are. As such, while the stories are all nice and interesting, I am not so particularly of a fan of the stories themselves, but more of the concept. Panchatantra was not really conceived as a series of stories for children, but really a work to develop Rajneeti (politics and statecraft). The verses in the work are the thing I really enjoyed, with many being witty and may being wise.

The one problem in the translation, and not an insignificant one at that, is that the names and proper nouns (all originally in Sanskrit) have also been translated! So it'll have things like "a Southern city called Maiden's Delight".

Little Britain - Harry Bingham

15 Jul 2015

This is a wonderful light-hearted book that aims to talk about what makes Great Britain (or the UK, or England, or whatever) special. It tries to show the little odd country as one that "built the world". It wants to celebrate the distinctiveness and not be apologetic and even-minded about its past and history like most books and historians do. Even then, it can't resist bringing in the flipside, saying "on balance" and ending up being a little apologetic even.

The book covers various aspects of that odd little country. Ranging from chapters on language and literature, to things like its law, lawmakers, economy, science, the empire, the industrial revolution, and even its life-style aspects from the dress to the stiff upper lip. It is a pleasure to read with many little anecdotes (going far back to Alfred the Great sometimes) and the enjoyable characteristically British writing.

Go for it.

The Passenger From Calais - Arthur Griffiths

19 Jun 2015

THis is a fun story - an adventure set in the Victorian era. An upright colonel, encounters a pretty lady with maid and child on trian. While initially circumspect, he goes on to get involved in all the subsequent intrigue and adventures. Is the lady good, or a villainess? Lord Blackadder, the lady's ex-husband wants the child for himself, and hires detectives. Then the story pretty much is a chase with quite a few twists and turns. The beauty is how it goes across Europe - Vienna, Marseille, Italy, and even eventually Tangier (North Africa). The travels are all by train, and information sources are the Bradshaw and telegrams. Rather enjoyable, I'd say.

Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevski

27 May 2015

This is of course a very well known and a highly acclaimed classic. It is heavy going. Don't get me wrong, it is an engaging read and you don't ever feel like you've had enough and need a break, but you constant have the feeling that the currents run deep and you are not able to appreciate the real deep import. It is the story of father Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons (from two wives). The father is a sensualist, and the story explores how that trait is present in the three sons who yet are very different from each other. The elder Dmitry is a military officer, very impulsive, almost always in and causing trouble though yet with a simple enough heart. The second Ivan is a rationalist, a bit cold, more head than heart, and not easy to pin down. The third Alyosha, and in some sense the hero of the tale, is a sweet deeply religious person living in a monastery and a favourite of the elder, Father Zosima. Then there are the ladies - the high-minded proud beauty Katarina Ivanovna, ever read for proud sacrifice, and not quite clear whether in love with Dmitry or Ivan. Then there is the Agrafena Alexandrovna a.k.a Grushenka, a low-bred charmer, who has captured the hearts both of the eldest son Dmitry as well as the father Fyodor; and giving rise to intense jealousies between the two. Events unfold, and there is a murder, and further investigations. There are more characters really, and those quite well-developed as well, that I am not covering here.

There is a deep understanding of human nature, as in most classics. And there is also a lot of rich dialogues tackling questions of religion and rationality. It is a large book (I listened to it in audiobook form from librivox). For many people, it is also one of those books that you just must have read at some point in life.

Quantum Siege - Brijesh Singh

24 May 2015

This is a book I picked up in a local store for general reading. Without giving too much away, it is a thriller about a possible bomb attack by the Lashkar group in Mumbai. It is interesting to see books by Indian authors about such stories set in India, for people like us who have grown up with cold war era and WW II thriller stories. It is a fast paced and interesting read. The author has added in some character and style, but it looks a bit rough and unnatural in some places, but still does not take away from the overall book, so don't bother too much about it. The plot is interesting with the vairous intelligence agencies, scientists, the Mumbai police, the navy etc. all involved. There is some interesting aspects in the plot that involves newer technology pieces that are also well used. Won't go into too much of the plot here. The people and characters are well sketched, with some individuality in each. At the same time, there isn't too much time spent in deepening the characters - some attempt is made with the lead one (Rudra Pratap Singh from Mumbai police anti-terrorism cell) but the effect is a bit of a American-style maverick nature thrust upon an Indian (and it does not seem all that a good fit). Anyway, worth a read just to see such stories written with India as the setting.

The information about the author at the start is interesting. He is an IPS officer, trained as an engineer, with additional degrees in Public Administration and something else (I forget). His interests include things like philosophy, photography and classical music.

Hamlet - William Shakespeare

19 May 2015

I read this in an edition where modern English translation was placed side by side the Shakespearean text. I have decided that this is the best way for me to read through Shakespeare. The modern English helps me read fast, but the original English helps in picking out subtle humour, turn of phrase etc. This is a Shakespearean tragedy in the sense that it does not have a typical happy ending with everyone living happily ever after, but at the same time is not very heavy or poignant or difficult to read.

King Hamlet of Denmark has been killed by his brother Claudius who has ascended the thrown and married his widow. Prince Hamlet, the King's son is the main guy of the tale who wants to avenge his father's death. There's Ophelia who everyone thinks Prince Hamlet is in love with. And the key scene where the Prince employs the services of an actor to enact a play that actually recreates the scene of the King's death as found out by the prince from the King's ghost.

Well, the plot is quite intricate and gripping, and no point going into it here. Suffice it to say that it is a good read (and actually a legendary tale), and it's been about a month or more since I read it, but somehow the plot didn't stick in my head.

Thank You Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

17 Feb 2015

As usual, I won't review a Wodehouse book, but just sketch the plot for my memory. This is one of the best. Bertie takes up the Banjolele causing Jeeves to resign from his duties and part ways. Bertie appeals but Jeeves says he won't recede from his position, and er, therefore he does. Then there is the wonderful events at Chuffnell Regis featuring Lord Chuffy (Bertie's friend who temporarily turns enemy for a bit) in whose employment Jeeves lands, Bertie's own new man Brinkley - a bit on the looney side, Sir Roderick Spode, and from across the pond, J. Washburn Stoker, and his lovely daughter Pauline Stoker, with whom Bertie had fallen in love in the past, but who is in love with Chuffy and vice versa. Then there is master Seabury, a young scoundrel, and episodes with Bertie and spode having to blacken their faces and be in disguise etc. A gem.

Inimitable Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

17 Feb 2015

This one, is a bit below par. It primarily features Bingo Little who falls in love at the drop of a hat, and his various affairs. Then there is the terrible Aunt Agatha, and Bertie's cousins Claude and Eustace - rather high-spirited young gentlemen. The book is a series of episodes tad incoherently collected together to make one story. Plotlines are a bit repetitive. So if you are used to the sublime genious that's Wodehouse this one doesn't quite make it.

Blott on the Landscape - Tom Sharpe

17 Nov 2014

When I read on the back cover that this author was inheriting the mantle of P G Wodehouse, I was at once a bit excited but also highly sceptical. This book is somewhat in a similar genre, set in Britain, full of odd characters, twists and turns in plot, clever turn of phrase and nice use of language, but, I must say it, nowhere near the genius of ol' Plum G Wodehouse. There is a formidable lady, mistress of a house that's more of a castle, who wants to mother a child. Her husband is a devious politician who wants to win the next election and escape from his wife's clutches. He also has a mistress in the town who caters to his eccentricities. Blott is the gardener who plays an interesting role in the whole story, and secretly admires her ladyship. Then there is our fellow drafted by the ministry to solve the tough problem of how to bring it about to demolish the castle and build a road, and overcome all the protests and opposition from the formidable owner and her rural compatriots. So this happens and that happens, and then the story goes through to the conclusion. Not a bad book.

A Glimpse of Empire - Jessica Douglas-Home

08 Nov 2014

This book is reconstructed from the diary of one Lilah Wingfield, a young Irish beauty, who freed herself from the clutches of her mother and booked herself an adventure trip to India in time to attend the darbar of King Emperor George V, the first reigning British sovereign to visit their most exotic colony. The book is remarkable in that it captures her impressions at a very interesting time in history. The impact of 1857 had slowly beginning to wane, and the Crown wanted to establish its primacy, and what better than having the king Emperor personally come to be coronated here. The Church in England however opposed, and hence it was to be a darbar for all the the Rajas and Maharajas of the princely states, in their glory of gold and precious stones, to pay their tributes. We get to see Lilah's impressions of the visit starting from the sea voyage in the company of other peers of the realm, and Indian big shots including the 13 year old King of Jaipur. There also are accounts of young men and a colonel quite besotten by Lilah and trying to woo her, and get to read her reactions - a curious mixture of Victorian upbringing and Irish free spirit. The account of the darbar is great with details of the huge tented city erected outside Delhi to host all the visitors, the state entry of the King, the darbar itself, the people's fete etc. There is an account of what Lilah did during all this like visiting tents of certain Rajas and Maharajas, her impressions of the people's fete as India began to make lasting impressions on her. Then there is Lilah's visits after the darbar including a visit to the Khyber pass, the Taj and to the veiled Maharani of Bhopal whose visage was finally opened to Lilah. It ends with Lilah's voyage back with full awareness that she'll probably never return, and the epilogue with sketches of future lives and careers of all the principal characters.

The book also includes many remarkable photographs of India at the time, the darbar, the Rajas, and also the principal characters of the tale. I am happy I found the book and was able to read it.

Tree Tops - Jim Corbett

02 Oct 2014

This is the charming story of Princess Elizabeth visiting the Kenyan game reserves, when Jim Corbett was there during his last days. This is the last work by the author. It also signifies a change of guard in that, Princess Elizabeth learn of the death of her father King George VI while she was there in Kenya. The narration is characteristic of the author's style, wildlife to the fore of course, but what is also evident is his admiration of Princess Elizabeth, and her ability to keep her nerve and her majesty, when faced with dangers from wildlife (and there indeed were such) and misfortunes that are part of destiny. Recommended reading of course, and particularly if you already enjoy Jim Corbett's writing.

The Concept of Man - S. Radhakrishnan and P.T. Raju

28 Sep 2014

This is a work of comparative philosophy edited by S. Radhakrishnan and P.T. Raju. It discusses the four big traditions of thought - the Greek, the Jewish, the Chinese, and the Indian. The work chooses the concept of man, as the common point around which to consider these major traditions of thought. However different the various philosophies may be, the invariably tend to consider man from various angles, and hence this choice of topic as the center around which to consider the philosophies makes eminent sense. The chapter on each of these philosophies are written by respective experts. The consider the concept of man in that philosophy, and in addition cover various angles like the relation between man (as the individual) and society, man and God, man and evolution, man and nature etc. Then there is a section at the end that takes stock of all these individual chapters and provides the authors views around this.

I found the work very interesting. It is always remarkable to learn about how different glorious traditions have approached the deepest questions, and finding all of that in a single book well considered and well edited. There is no pro-Indian, or pro-anything bias in this work that I could discern.

Very much recommend this work to anyone interested in this kind of thing.

Anandamath - Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

24 Sep 2014

Anandamath is one of those very famous pieces of Indian literature, by Bankim no less. However, for some reason, I was not really aware of it other than being familiar with the name. Just tells you how important things about the country are not covered in our schools as they'd be in some other countries - like France or England.

The story is about revolutionary monks and their war cry against the British. The setting is quite interesting with the strict and austere lifestyle of monks, with their hearts (in their little corners) still wanting the pleasures of life. And then it is a tale of adventure involving fighting the British, and the internal struggles of the leading monks who also have left threads of attachment with wives and sisters at home. There is some amount of glamour lent by the ladies, one of whom also becomes a monk (though entering disguised as a man to begin with).

Worth reading, especially given its impact and effectiveness in rousing the Bengali spirit to rise against the British.

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Craftsmanship - Robert C. Martin

11 Aug 2014

This is a book about coding best practices. There have been some very good books about this topic, and quite a few good language specific ones too. This one is notable in it being a bit different though. The difference is on the aspects where emphasis is laid. The hint to it is in the the part of the title that says "Agile Craftsmanship", and there is quite some talk on what is the responsibility of being a "professional". There isn't as much emphasis on thinking through upfront, or on the nuances and guidance around class design and patterns etc., but there is huge emphasis on things like keeping function bodies small - really small, like 3 to 4 lines. Then things like having names be very meaningful, unit testing, testability as almost the most important part of code design. There is a great chapter on Error Handling by Michael Feathers - different chapters have been written by different people. Even the way you approach writing code is emphasized quite a bit, and different from what you'll find in lot of the classic literature. In this style, you write your first pass of code (preferrably with unit tests first), and it is well-acknowledged that this first pass will make your test pass, but will not qualify as "clean" code as prescribed by the book. Now you go over the same code making multiple passes over it, and improving it bit by bit until it is as clean as the book needs it to be. So rather than giving a lot of thought first, and then writing code, and modifying it until it works; you write tests, write code, make it work (and all this is the easy part), and now you go and read the code, and keep on improving it, leaving it as clean as you can. This applies to somebody else's code as well - whenever you come in contact with it. Something like the Boy Scout rule "leaving the campground cleaner than you found it". I think it is definitely worth reading and imbibing, though not particularly deep or insightful.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo

28 July 2014

This is a classic worthy of being one. It is a long book, and other than being a story of Quasimodo - the hunchback of Notre Dame, and La Esmeralda - the pretty dancing gypsy, and its many famous characters, it is also a treatise on architecture, society, and human natures. Particularly architecture - many other classics cover the other aspects, but this one specifically devotes several pages to the city of Paris, its evolution over the years, its architecture, on how architecture is a medium of humanity's expression, and then how it will be supplanted with the advent of printing. The story also is one having many famous episodes, and a few plots and sub-plots, some narrated by the characters themselves. The purview of the book encompasses the entire society - from the clergy, the student scholars, the destitutes, and the nobility including the king. The tale is sprinkled with wit and humour - some that make you laugh aloud, and though there is a lot of depth to the narration, it does not hang heavy with seriousness. I heard it as an audiobook from librivox, and I recommend that format.

The Strangest Man - Graham Farmelo

01 July 2014

This is a well-written biography of Paul A.M. Dirac, one among the all-time greats of physics counted alongside Newton and Einstein. He was the Lucasian professor at Cambridge (the chair that Newton held) and also won the nobel prize in physics. He was however best known for his legendary reticence, taking the oddity of eccentric English behaviour to the silent extreme. Dirac stories were legend among the stars of physics including Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli etc. You'll very much enjoy the many anecdotes in the book.

The book covers Dirac's childhood in Bristol in quite some detail. It coincided with World War I where Bristol had a significant part to play due to given its leadership in aircrafts. His experiences with his strict and demanding father is a possible reason for his awkward shyness, and so is his difficult relationship with an elder brother who was quite conscious of the younger one being much smarter. His mother doted on him though he may have been suffocated with her demanding affection. This is followed by Dirac's days in the stiff and formal atmosphere in Cambridge, home to greats like Rutherford, and his friendship with characters like the Russian physicist Kapitza which stood the test of time. There are accounts of many of Dirac's travel around Europe, to Copenhagen (Bohr), Germany (Max Born, Heisenberg), Russia, and then the United States. Then World War II comes along, and the book covers Dirac's role, his avoidance of direct involvement in the Manhattan project, while still contributing to sticky problems faced by the project team. We also hear of his wife; the fact of his marriage took his physicist friends by surprise, Margit Wigner (Eugene W's sister) who was an extrovert, a colourful character, though devoted to her husband, possibly somewhat nagging, nevertheless giving him a long and stable married life.

The book also gives a good description of Dirac's work, his papers and their reception, his audacious approach of sticking to a theory based on his faith in the beauty of its mathematics, even when it had no experimental backing yet - the most famous being his prediction of the positron which was later discovered. It also covers those parts of his work which weren?t all that successful. Then there is coverage of his later years in Florida, where he was no longer on top of physics, had begun to dabble in a bit of philosophy of science (a surprise change from such a literal minded person), and all in all, was held in high esteem for his past, but looked at with amusement by the next generation of young scientists. Feynman called Dirac his hero.

All in all, this is a good work. The British English makes good reading as well. A word of caution that it may seem lengthy and tedious along the way, and you have to stick with it, and then you begin to enjoy it again.

Three Men in a Boat (Campfire Graphic Novel) - Jerome K. Jerome, Nidi Verma, and K.L.Jones

22 June 2014

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, is considered somewhat of a classic as a Victorian work of British humour. We had multiple chapters in our school English textbook excerpted from the book. However, I must say that I am not particularly a fan of the book. I admit that it is quite funny but in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated and somehow not subtle or clever enough. Basically, it is the story of three men going on a boat on the Thames with a lot of funny episodes and observations (like the difficult of packing), and some of the eccentricities of the principal characters well brought out.

This book though, is a comic book form of the tale. I must say that as a comic book, this has done an excellent job of bringing the story in graphic form. The quintessential English characters are wonderfully illustrated with dialogues to match, and the background picturesque English scenery is nicely captured. There are episodes that make you laugh, and in general, you enjoy reading through. I did have some starting trouble where I did not quite enjoy it that much, but you begin to enjoy it once you go beyond the very beginning.

Nice work Campfire publications - recommend it, and especially if one liked the original book (and it does have quite a few fans), I think they'll enjoy this comic book for of it.

World War I: 1914 - 1918 (Campfire Graphic Novel) - Alan Cowsill and Lalit Kumar Sharma

22 June 2014

This is a comic book / graphic novel - the story of World War I, "the war to end all wars", presented in first person and narrated by George Smith, a British soldier as the narrator. It captures the dangers and tragedy of war very well, where the sheer waste of human life is brought to fore. It also covers bits of World War I history removed from where our narrator is positioned - like the murder of Archduke Ferdinand that started the war in the first place, the work of T.E.Lawrence in the Middle East, or the life of ladies and family who sent their sons to war. The illustrations are nicely done caturing the somewhat dark nature of the tale, and bringing the key points in firm relief. At the same time, the limits due to the small size of the book also means that all the history is not quite covered to the extent that would satisfy you; so I am guessing that you'll enjoy the book more if you already have some idea of the WW I. The other little criticism would be that there isn't too much of a character development in the stories, so most of the characters could just as well be anybody.

Would surely recommend it. Also, it's very nice to see such graphic novels coming out of Indian publications.

The Story of Abraham Lincoln - Mary A. Hamilton

28 May 2014

I listened to this one as an audiobook from librivox. It is what the title says - the story of Abraham Lincoln. A good book that tells you the story of the great man, along with giving you a picture of America of the time. The style of writing keeps you interested throughout and also builds quite an imagery in the mind as the story progresses. It is meant for a young audience, and is rather gushing about its hero. I suppose a book for adult audiences will also cover the other side of things, evaluate Lincoln's legacy along with some critique etc. but I still like these books for the young audience as they keep things simple and still cover all the important aspects. Great one as an introduction to the man who remade America after the founding fathers had done their bit.

Empire of the Moghul: Raiders From the North - Alex Rutherford

28 May 2014

I have a new policy: It is okay to stop reading a book and just drop it, if you are past the one third mark and still not quite enjoying it. This book was the first one in that list, and the one that really made me make that policy. Don't mistake me, I am not sure it is a bad one, it's just that it is quite long, and after reading almost 200 pages of it, I didn't think it was worth the time to go through the rest.

This is a work of historical fiction; the first in a series about the Mughal dynasty. This one is about Babur and I read the part of his formative years in Central Asia. I was still going through his attempts to conquer Samarkhand. The things that stood out is the importance of Timur's legacy in their minds, how Babur became king at a very young age but matured quickly as he learnt the ropes, and the general feel of those times.

I haven't been able to pin down why I didn't quite enjoy reading it. The subject is supremely interesting. It is perhaps the writing, and the way it is a mix of movie-like action and sensationalism, and attempt to showcase deep musings and insights into the human character. Something didn't quite gel.

Captured in Miniature - Suhag Shirodkar

28 May 2014

This book is a really nice introduction to Mughal miniature art. Though meant for children it is a nice and ediucative read for all. I feel bad that such things are not covered in the school syllabus and so am always pleased when I find these kinds of books. The book starts with some history of how the best artists were brought in from Persia and how their art was transformed by India to come up with the unique Mughal miniature art. Quite a few paintings are reproduced, and we are guided as to the things we should be noticing. The paintings also cover a range of subjects from court life, portraits, to nature, and those depicting the artists at work. There is also some coverage of how these schools of miniature painting operated, and how the artists came up with these works. Small book, but definitely worth it.

Rusty Runs Away - Ruskin Bond

18 May 2014

This is the second volume of Rusty stories. Rusty is now 17 and in that age between being a boy and a grown-up, where independence begins to build up. After two little stories about the life in his room, there is the story where Rusty and his friend attempt to run away from the boarding school and undergo adventures. Subsequently, Rusty also escapes the protected European society and neighbourhood that he is constrained to, and visits the bazaar, the chaat shops, makes Indian friends, and horror of horrors, even participates in barbaric activities like holi! He then breaks away from his guardian into the shelter of his friends and even finding a job.

This is another set of charming stories with light but deep revealing of human character. Once again, recommended. Read it after you read Rusty, the Boy from the Hills (also reviewed here).

The Code of the Woosters - P.G.Wodehouse

18 May 2014

As I normally do for books by Wodehouse, I won't write a review, but just a brief description of the plot just so that I remember which book is which. This is the one with Aunt Dahlia wanting Bertie to steal a Silver Cow Creamer. And Bertie fumbles into quite a few dire situation involving Sir Watkin Basset and the human gorilla Roderick Spode, but smoothly gets out of the many situations with Jeeves' help of course. Bertie suffers from a history of being declared guilty of purloining a policeman's helmet in his youth by this very same Watkin Bassett. This is also the one with the hilarious Eulalie episode, also features Stiffy Bynge who wants to marry the local curate, as well as Gussie Finknottle - the loopy newt-fancier who has been creative enough to produce a dangerous leather-covered notebook detailing Watkin Bassett and Spode's various character flaws. One of the best.

Three Plays - Gurucharan Das

18 May 2014

This book is a set of three plays by Gurucharan Das.

The first one, Larins Saheb, is about Henry Lawrence and his time in Ranjit Singh's kingdom in Lahore after the king's death. It is a well-written play that shows the transformation of Henry Lawrence from a figure popular among Indians, looked at with some amusement and annoyance by few of the British, to a bit of a megalomaniac with illusions of grandeur, of being a new Ranjit Singh - a British Badshah. This is a good play with quite a bit of historical interest with also the the Koh-i-noor that figuring in it.

The second one is about Mirabai. It is not a conventional play, but more like a musical with lyrical dialogues stitched together and not quite following a linear plot but building the atmosphere with background and foreground lyrics and dialogues. It is about the Mira a newly web princess turning into the Krishna-bhakta and saint that she became. It is intersting in the human element it introduces in the otherwise lofty tale.

The third play is also quite interesting. It is set in a house in Simla and deals with the changing middle class from one interested in culture etc. to one that has become material and ambitious. It is quite an interesting play with interesting characters where the old-worldliness of the Simla family clashes with the worldly smartness of the visiting relatives from Bombay.

All in all, I recommend the book.

Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg - H.R.F.Keating

17 May 2014

This book is particularly interesting because it is written by an Englishman but is crime fiction set in India. Inspector Ghote is an inspector with the Bombay police. He is not a super-smart eccentric detective but a regular policeman trying to do his job with sincerity. He has to face realities like being sent to a small town with powerful rich politicians wielding a lot of influence while being pressured for deadlines by the " Eminent Figure " from Bombay. In this story, he is trying to solve a 15 year old murder which the Eminent Figure wants to pin on the rich influential politician in the small town. The people from that time are hard to find and elusive in their answers. To top it all, there is a holy man who has gone on hunger strike asking for the investigation to not happen, and that charges the local populace against poor Ghote. And we read how Ghote fares against all these odds.

The foreword by Alexander McCall Smith is also nice and interesting and sort of guides you with what to appreciate in the book.

The Card - Arnold Bennett

01 Apr 2014

This is a charming story set in Edwardian times, about Denry, a regular but impulsive, somewhat clever, and somewhat lucky boy, who goes on to become the premier " Card " of Bursley and the five towns. To be a Card, is to be a colourful character that everyone talks about. The story goes over Denry's adventures with the society of the time, and his clever forays into economic activity and social adventurism. It makes you smile for the most part, and you get a lovely glimpse of the life and times, not in big city London, but in a suburban place that is not quite as fashionable, but is proud of what it is. I listened to the librivox audiobook version, and I'd say this is one of the best audiobook readings, and very suitable for the book. Listen to the librivox version yourself, and enjoy!

The Calvin and Hobbes, Tenth Anniversary Book - Bill Watterson

16 Mar 2014

I never really liked the Calvin and Hobbes strips in newspapers though a lot of my friends were avowed fans. Perhaps the illustrations were quite hard to decipher given the newspaper print, and the fact that I never read it daily in sequence, made arbitrary reading of a random strip unmeaningful. Anyway, after reading this book, my opinion has changed. This book starts with some very interesting notes by the author on various topics such as his take on the state of comics, the what he liked and did not like in the comics he read as a child, notes on licensing, on the difficulties of working with syndicates and newspapers who think they can dictate terms, on the question of his taking a sabbatical and whether sabbaticals are a good idea, the different ideas of different newspapers on how a Sunday strip should look like, each having their own different formats that a single strip should somehow magically cater to, on the process of his creativity, and his own personal notes of how the characters of his strip came about and evolved. This is followed by a marvellous selection of strips that you can but read and enjoy.

I am an admirer of comics as a medium, though haven't read as much as " comic fans " normally would. And I think this is a great book for anyone with any interest in any of this would enjoy.

Hanover to Windsor - Roger Fulford

01 Mar 2014

This is a book in a series about the British Royalty. This one covers William IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and ends with George V. It is full of delightful character sketches and anecdotes, but also has a few tedious parts full of one too many detail. The period is very interesting in the waning of royal power but still having enormous royal influence over the running of the country. The other interesting part is the relation of the British Royalty with the other royal houses of Europe. In fact, it is actually one big family where the Kaiser would be a nephew, and the Czar a cousin. It is also the period with the British Colonial empire at its peak, and getting a view of what occupied the royal minds in those times is quite charming. Other than these kings and queen, we also learn about the how influential was the thought of Prince Albert (Her Royal Majesty's husband) on the Queen, and how that had a lasting influence.

I found this a book worth reading even though it is neither heavy in plot or character, and does not make any startling revelations, it opens a window into the most glorious royalty of the time, only so much to give you a life glimpse of what went on inside.

The English style and writing also makes it a nice read.

Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G.Wodehouse

01 Mar 2014

As usual for Wodehouse books, I won't add a review but just a sketch of the plot to help remind me what it contains. This one's the story of Aunt Dahlia trying to corner Bertie into obtaining the antique Silver Cow-creamer for Uncle Tom, with the thread of depriving him of Anatole's cooking. Bertie lands himself into a soup with characters like Sir Watkin Bassett and Roderick Spode. There is the looming threat of Madeline Bassett getting engaged to Bertie unless he makes sure that all goes well between her and the queer bird Gussie Finknottle. And then there is the story of how the venerable Jeeves helps Bertie tame the wild Spode with the magic word Eulalie.

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzegerald

07 Feb 2014

Great Gatsby is one of the famous classic works in American fiction. It is narrated in first person by Nick carraway, who ends up living next to the large and ostentatious mansion of J. Gatsby. Gatsby is a bit of a man of mystery - he throws parties that the glitterati attend, but nobody's sure of his background or where he got his money from. Reminds you a bit of the Count of Monte Cristo for a while. Then we slowly learn what he really wants (a lady love) and his obsessive, strange, and somewhat materialistic way to pursue that dream he is weaving. The story then goes through a type of a climax and ends. I think the author wants to show us the shallowness of high society, especially the lady Daisy and her husband, in the heady times of 1920 America.

The language, imagery and choice of words is nice. So are some of the musings about life and some rather catchy but wise one-liners.

Full Tilt - Dervla Murphy

29 Jan 2014

This is a book about a remarkable cycling journey by a remarkable woman. A journey from Dublin to Delhi, on her bicycle Rozinante, as she'd secretly decided in childhood. It started with a historic " coldest winter " through Yugoslavia where she had to drag herself and her bicycle through deep snow. Then Azerbaijan, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally India. A journey from hot deserts to the very high cold reaches of Himalayas, and scenes she absolutely loved to those she found boring. The best part is her observations about countries and cultures, and the little stories of her meetings with people. People ranging from customs officers, tehsildars, embassy officers and eminent people, even some people evidently come to rob and molest, to very poor villagers and even nomads and tribesmen. These little tales are too many to tell here, but they are all very charming. She stayed from Raja's palaces to dak bungalows and nomad tents. It's nice to read her musings that tend to see both sides of anything, but at the same time are also quite subjective and mood-dependent - not the cold objective sort. It is also a tale of courage and determination, but you don't feel that way from the somewhat understated writing.

Would recommend you go and read the book.

Cracking the Code Book - Simon Singh

12 Jan 2014

The book is all about the interesting field of cryptography ? quite some history, and a high-level idea of the current state. It is quite an easy read for the lay person, and not very technical.

Begins with old uses of cryptography. Interesting anecdotes like the Greeks sending a messenger with a message written on his scalp and then letting the hair grow. Another story of how cryptography played a key role in the downfall of Mary, the Queen of Scots ? her life hinged on whether the code used in a secret letter could be broken.

Then the next more modern phase with the shift ciphers, the Vignere cipher (a combination of more than one shift ciphers) and how it was broken. This also covers the work of Babbage in breaking the latter cipher coupled with an entertaining glimpse into his personality.

Then moves onto mechanization of encoding and decoding with very early devices like the scytale, and then moving on to the Enigma machines which are covered in quite some detail, though still being easy to read and understand.

There is a also a small detour to talk a bit about deciphering ancient scripts and languages and how that was done. Also covers the use of things like the American use of the Navajo language when in war with the Japanese, to create messages unbreakable by those not familiar with that language.

Then of course, the book has the mandatory coverage of public key cryptography, but again with an excellent attempt to cover the human angle with the nature and stories of the people who came up with it. The book also talks about how many things like asymmetric key cryptography, as well as the first programmable digital computer etc. were actually built in the British Intelligence Services GCHQ but not revealed for a long time, and hence have been popularly attributed to American scientists (RSA) and Engineers (ENIAC) ? this gives an idea of the culture of secrecy associated with the field.

I very much recommend this book ? even for those who are not necessarily very interested in the field upfront, because I think they are sure to find the material (and hence the subject) interesting when they read the book.

Captains Courageous - Rudyard Kipling

12 Jan 2014

This is the story of Harvey Shane, a rich pampered boy, the son of a railroad magnate, who learns about the real world and its values. He gets thrown overboard during one of his journeys with his mother, and is picked up by the crew of a fishing boat, while his mother thinks he might have died. The rest of the book is about Harvey?s life as part of the fishing boat. You then read about how the crew does not quite believe his boasts about rolling in the stuff and thinks him a bit looney, but soon accepts him warm-heartedly as one of them. The crew is made up of different colourful personalities that are well brought out by the author. This includes Dan, the son of the crew captain Disco Troop, who becomes Harvey?s pal. Their fishing expeditions, the tales they exchange with each other, their meetings with other boats and crew, and the technicalities of sea life are covered in quite some detail. Harvey learns the value of hard work and the value of life, and is eventually reunited with his parents.

The part where his father sees promise in his son, and where the author reveals the character of the father as well, as someone who single-handedly built a fortune by understanding the way the world works, but whose biggest advice to his son is to get a good formal education, is also an interesting one.

Good book to be read, especially for young people, setting out into the world.

Learn You a Haskell for Great Good - Miran Lipovaca

02 Dec 2013

Just finished the tutorial Learn You a Haskell for Great Good. It is a wonderful way to get to know Haskell. I have read multiple academic papers, some tutorials, and even some books, but didn't like anything as good as this. The tutorial is written in a fun style, with cute sketches sprinkled here and there, but the material is well thought-out and examples are good. The starting material was something I was quite familiar with, and maybe that's it wasn't particularly special, but when it came to things like functors, applicative functors, monoids and monads, it is quite well covered. The chapter related to zippers is also important, interesting, and was new to me.

I guess one thing that's missing is giving you a deeper understanding of how things work under the covers, the implication of laziness, how to debug and unit test, etc. Adding that would make it even more complete and useful.

Definitely a must-read for people that wish to learn the language. (I'd started out with a book/paper on Gofer, and that was nice too http://www.cs.olemiss.edu/~hcc/reports/gofer_notes.pdf)

Enigma - Robert Harris

02 Dec 2013

Enigma is a thriller / mystery story, but what makes it special is that it is set in Bletchley Park where the British were engaged in the oh-so-cool job of deciphering the German messages encrypted using the Enigma machines. Having said that, the book itself was a bit of a disappointment. I really enjoyed Imperium by the same author, and was looking forward to another historical fiction by him and that too set in this top secret myseterious environment. The plot involving a murder, and the sprinkling of odd and colourful characters is interesting and even somewhat gripping, but you feel that the author could have unravelled more of what it meant to be part of that project, and maybe some more about what exactly the work involved - what were the different roles, what exactly did they do, how did the whole decryption process work etc. I think the author assumes you know what goes on in there, what cribs mean etc. Anyway, worth a read, but only if you know about all this a bit - perhaps read Cracking the Code Book by Simon Singh first.

Pattern Hatching: Design Patterns Applied - John Vlissides

30 Sep 2013

This book is by one of the " gang of four " that wrote Design Patterns. It is a rather small book and can be read end to end. The Design Patterns book is written in a somewhat to-the-point formal style, and may even leave you skeptical of what the hype is all about. This book is indeed a valuable contribution in that gives you insight into how to apply patterns when working on problems. The other key insight is about what goes on behind the scenes when a certain thing is identified to be a design pattern. The behind the scenes activity is like so many other activities of technical collaboration with back and forth but reasoned argument, differences of opinion on subtle points and nuances; eg. is it really a new pattern or just a variation of this other well-known one?

All in all, worth a read, mainly because it helps give you the big picture, and tells you where the body of work on design patterns fits into that.

Modern C++ Design - Andrei Alexandrescu

12 Sep 2013

This is an interesting and much-desired book that throws light on a facet of C++ not covered sufficiently in other books. It deals with designing of libraries by making use of various static (compile-time) mechanisms available in C++ and makes quite some use of what's known as template metaprogramming. You get introduced to a face of C++ you have not seen before. A lot of the building blocks and underlying mechanisms are somewhat hacky, and exploit obscure corners of the C++ behaviour. However these building blocks are used to build an elegant edifice with things like type lists, compile time asserts etc. Once these higher-level constructs are in place, they are used to solve various problems and illustrates significant compile-time extensions of different programming patterns. The code though is not exactly very easily understandable by itself, and the explanatory text is required to understand why things have been coded the way they are. Example problems and patters that have been tackled are: singleton handling, smart pointers, object factories, abstract factories, the visitor pattern and multiple dispatch. The author has built a library called Loki out of all this, and the code is downloadable and compilable.

The title I'd say, is not entirely precise since the book covers one style of design, which admittedly is modern, but does not quite cover the gamut of C++ design. Having said that, this is definitely recommended reading, and makes interesting learning - you get a lot of insight not only into static mechanisms, but also all the patterns dealt with in the book.

City and the City - China Mieville

12 Sep 2013

Not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, this is more of a detective novel set in very interesting imaginary cities - Beszel and Ul Quoma. The cities are geographically (or " grosstopographically ") intervowen, and the respective citizens are trained from birth to unsee, unhear, anything happening in their neighbouring city. And then there's the mysterious " Breach " that ensures that there is no transgression that cuts across the city boundaries.

In the midst of all this, inspector Borlu narrates in first person his investigation into the murder of a young American girl - an archealogical researcher. There are colourful characters from both cities involved, and it all makes for a rather gripping tale. I learnt later that this work has earned quite a bit of critical praise.

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji - William Poundstone

20 Jul 2013

This is a book about logic puzzles, and also open-ended questions of the type "how many gas stations do you think are there in the US?", and their use in interviews. To cover some history, there is some discussion about how the concept of IQ came into fore with related criticism on it use. There is some critique of whether the use of such puzzles and questions are really useful in interviews. The best part of the book is the example puzzles and open-ended questions, and their solutions that are provided. There is also some colourful anecdotes of Microsoft interviewing as well as similar interviewing practices in other companies (including non-software places like investment firms). It is a fun read. Whether it is a quick read depends on how many puzzles you already know, and how many you like to think about before looking at the solutions.

Damsel in Distress - P. G. Wodehouse

20 Jul 2013

As usual, given that Plum W is a favourite author, would put a description of the book rather than a review per se. George Bevan, the American composer falls in love with a impetuous and charming Lady Maud Marsh who, on the other hand, believes herself to be in love with another. There's Maud's likeable father the Earl of Morshmoreton who'd rather spend his time gardening, than be a peer and work on the history of his family that his domineering sister Lady Caroline Byng never lets him off of. Then there's Maud's brother Percy, a pompous fellow, who is more often than not, humiliated in the story. There's his friend Reggie, a light headed chatterer, who harbours affection for the Earl's secretary who nevertheless is an annoyance to the Earl since she's wont to have him work on his history rather than his garden. Through twists and turns, wonderful language, and more characters from the household staff, the book goes to a happy conclusion.

Taming of the Shrew - William Shakespeare

04 Jul 2013

I have this long-term, but somewhat low priority goal of reading all of Shakespeare. Had read a few a long time back, but now picked up Taming of the Shrew. It is a delightful tale of how the sharp-tongued shrew Catherine is tamed by Petruchio. Then there is a somewhat complicated plot and another marriage that gets fixed on the way with the more lovable Bianca, and how other gentlemen vie with each other for her heart. All in all, it is a witty light-hearted read.

Brain Rules for Baby - John Medina

23 Jun 2013

This book, recommended by a friend to me, aims to capture research in baby's brain development, separate myths from concluded research, and also point out research that has presented significant evidence in a certain direction, though not yet widely accepted conclusions. The chapters cover pregnancy, the relationship between parents (and how it is strained around times of childbirth), then chapters covering the seed (nature) and soil (nurture) around developing a smart baby, happy baby, and then a moral baby. The key aim, more than presenting research, is to convert that to practical tips on parenting in the form of dos and donts. In some sense it is a typical book in the self-help genre, and since I haven't read too many of these, I don't know where it'd stand among books of this sort. It is a useful read though in that, like in most such books, you definitely do pick a lesson or two that helps you for the better.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

23 Jun 2013

I'd read the book, but not in its original form I think, when I was in school. Now took to re-reading it after I saw an old Tom Sawyer movie on TCM. Huck is one of those up-to-no-good kids who tramp about town. He is Tom's pal and the narrator of this tale of his adventures. It is very interesting in that you get a sense of America of those times, and from a point of view of someone who, in some sense, is a bit on the border of "civilized society" and tramps. His father (pap) is a drunk with no scruples, but many wants, who has his own brushes with civilized society and its authority. Huck's adventures begins with most of his dealings with "the widow" who's adopted him to reform him, his pap and his excesses and eccentricities, and then his running away. Then is the time with the nigger friend Jim (the runaway slave) on the raft over the Mississippi river. There's also the Duke and the King, the two frauds who go about the place swindling different towns and villages. There is a lot of action in this part. Then there's the last bit of comedy adventure where he and Tom get back together by chance with Aunt Sally, and Tom goes about his quixotic ways help Jim the nigger escape in the grand way of the French novels (very much influenced by Dumas I think) without any necessity at all. It is good to read, and the first-persion narrative is a good choice. We hear Huck, apparently uncivilized and a tramp, but with keen insights on life and human nature. Somehow though, I am still left with a feeling that this is not as much a classic as it is said to be, though it is an enjoyable work of course.

Rusty, the Boy from the Hills - Ruskin Bond

I hadn't read any Ruskin Bond, and this is the first one I picked up. This is first of a series of books where Rusty stories are arranged in a roughly chronological order. These are stories of a British boy growing in colonial India. The stories are charming and delightful, and told in the first person with childlike innocence. There's Rusty's grandfather with his antics made of animals such as his monkeys and python, his ever-present granny, the expert cook who warmly tolerates all the eccentricities of the family, and then various characters such as the tonga waala, the village, the trains and railway platform, the gardens and gardeners, the various trees, insects and what not, his aunts and uncles, his childhood friends, and so on. While a lot of the childhood is in Dehra, there also are stints in Batavia with World War II in the backdrop. There also are some episodes and musings that reveal a certain understanding of various human natures. Somehow the work has a resemblance to R.K.Narayan's works, in the seemingly simplistic narration with lot of insight revealed.

Indian Art in Detail - A. L. Dallapiccola

08 Jun 2013

I picked this book up at the British Library. It contains pictures and explanatory text, on various works of India art in the British museum. Interesting parts of those art works are zoomed in as well. Its introductory text on Indian culture, philosophy, and way of life, and its influence on Indian art is very well written, and very much to the point. The works of art themselves are very interesting. There is a good coverage of art from the South, North, West and East, from various periods of history, and art forms from painting, sculpture, to cloth work. It also gives you an idea on what to look at in an old and historic work of art. Of course, being limited to the Indian collection of the British museum, many other famous works of Indian art, and those from monuments located in India are not represented in the book. However, if you are not specifically looking for an exhaustive collection of all the famous historical art pieces, this is a very good book to go through.

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

25 May 2013

Completed another Dumas and thoroughly enjoyed it. A gripping plot, exquisite dialogs, a wonderful picture of the fashionable Parisian society (" the captial of the world ") and very interesting characters make it a delight. I vaguely remember reading in Agatha Christie's autobiography that she really liked this book. This is the story of the promising sailor Edmund Dantez who is unfairly imprisoned in a dungeon, and gets back into the world as the very rich and intriguing Count of Monte Cristo who, unbeknownst to all, is set to avenge the folks who falsely entrapped him. Recommended. Note that I listened to the audiobook from librivox so did not quite read it in a book.

The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers - Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland

27 Apr 2013

This is a book about how to make sense of numbers and stastics, and what to watch out for to guard against sensationalism or simple misinterpretation by institutions and media. The book is well organized with each chapter taking on a different aspect. The material is not technical, and you don't really get deep insight into the subject of statistics. It is more oriented towards the application of common sense, in a way that would not be readily apparent since we have a tendency to trust official and semi-official statistics and conclusions drawn from them. The authors are British, and that reflects in the language and in the writing style, also there are quite a few examples drawn from the National Health Service. This is a quick read and worth it. I am aware that there have lately been quite a few books on a similar topic but not having read any of those, I can't offer much in terms of a comparison.

The Heart of Haiku - Jane Hirshfield

27 Apr 2013

This is the first time I tried a Kindle Single. It is a nice introduction to the art of Haiku, and to Basho and his life and times. It is a nice read and a quick tour of Haiku, whence they arise, and what to look for in them. It is also about how Basho lived a life of a penniless wanderer, alive to the present, and surrounded by students. I plan to read it again to get a better grip on what all was in it, since my mind was kept moving towards how nice it'd be for me to capture life and observations in Haiku form, drawing away attention from the subject matter of the book.

Shiva Trilogy - Amish Tripathi

28 Mar 2013

This is a set of three books - Immortals of Meluha, Secret of the Nagas, and Oath of the Vayuputras. It is a retelling of the story of Lord Shiva. The beauty lies in the overall framework of history created by the author and how well he brings in various well-known myths and legends, to make it part of his alternative telling. Not only that, he has also boldly included other observations from prehistoric studies linking the Vedic civilization with other nearby ones in Mesopotamia, Persia, Indus Valley etc. I'd consider the whole attempt as an audacious one, but well executed. There is a rich cast of characters starting with Lord Ram and Lord Rudra (already ancient in the story) to Daksha, Dilipa, Sati, Bhrigu, Ganesh, Kartikeya, Vasudev, Bhagirath; and also an impressive incorporation of the geography of the subcontinent - its rivers, hills and forests. There is also a splattering of philosophy which not very deep or illuminating, but nicely blended in.

It is nice to see such work appearing in the market - a mix of fantasy and fiction, but also something that most Indians will very well relate with and be fascinated about. Recommended.

The main drawback though is the language and the writing. It is very plain, and you also find it peppered with modern lingo and some Americanisms. If the same work was tackled by one of the great wielders of the language it would have been a classic.

The Hobbit - J.R.R.Tolkien

28 Mar 2013

I didn't really read the original book, but listened to an excellent BBC audio dramatization. Having listened to a similar audio dramatization of Lord of the Rings, I say that this is just as good. Bilbo is loveable guy and Gandalf is just as grand. There is quite some adventure and fantasy. Worth listening.

The Advancement of Learning - Reginald Hill

28 Mar 2013

This is a British detective story that I picked up at the British Library where the principal characters are the earthy and bulky senior inspector, and the "intellectual" (as he is mockingly called) junior who has been to college. The pair is interesting in that they respect each other, but also get on each others' nerves. In this story the investigate crime in a college environment. The story is full of colourful characters, some spice sprinkled, and snappy dialogues. A quick read.

Mahabharata Podcast - Lawrence Manzo

This is a podcast created based on an unabridged reading of the Mahabharata - that's what makes it special. The story is narrated in what I'd call a bit of an American style, and it takes a while getting used to, but once you get used to it, you really enjoy. Other than a reading of the epic itself, the author also sprinkles some interesting insights and his own opinions which add a very good touch. Recommended.

Evolution of Cooperation - Robert Axelrod

09 Feb 2013

This is a book about the author's seminal work on applying mathematics and game theory to study how cooperation evolves in a sytem. The author uses Prisoner's Dilemma as a typical model of real world situations. The constraints are rather loose and model several situations. The author then comes up with several propositions which are all proved in the appendix.

The author starts with a description of two computer tournaments he ran by inviting entries from various game theorists and experts to implement a strategy when playing against another opponent. The results from this are very insightful and the author masterfully develops them.

The author also shows how co-operation can evolve even among people who have no wish to be friends (trench warfar in World War I) and even in biological systems with organisms who don't even understand what cooperation means.

Then there are chapters on what you learn from all this - what is the strategy to follow if you are a participant in a system, and what are the things to bear in mind if you are the creator of a system or organization where you wish people to cooperate or otherwise (to prevent collusion).

This is a very well written book on a very important and interesting subject. Recommended.

Jill the Reckless - P.G.Wodehouse

26 Jan 2013

Ol' Plum Wodehouse is a favourite author. Won't really review the books but describe it in brief, more for me to remember what it contains.

This is the story of Jill Mariner, impulsive and charming, her bumbling but nice-hearted friend Freddie Rooke, the man she is originally engaged to - Sir Derek Underhill (whose true colours come out later), her man-of-the-world uncle Major Selby. How Jill loses her money, goes to America and plunges into the world of musical comedy theater, meets her childhood friend Wally Mason, and so on. Particularly nice character development, and some hilarious pieces such as PGW's paragraph on "one's limitation as a writer" compared to Russian masters, the episode of the Bell Porter wearing a uniform that looks like a Guatemalan general, and how the description of the hard-of-hearing music composer, readying himself to read a written note.

Gita according to Gandhi - Mahatma Gandhi

22 Jan 2013

This book is based on a lecture series on Bhagavadgira by Gandhi in his ashram. The lectures were in Gujarati and the book presents an English translation. The explanations and interpretations are mainly for a non-specialist and non-scholar audience. I felt that in quite a few places the emphasis was a bit off or that the light shed on the verses was not complete enough. It appears that the first three chapters of the Gita are seen as pretty much containing all one'd need to learn, and the rest as somewhat supplementary. What you get though is an idea of how Gandhi adopted the teachings of the Gita, and there perhaps is no better direct, completely honest and transparent attempt to adopt the teachings than what you'd see from this author. All in all, I think it is worth reading when a separate study of the Gita has already been undertaken, and there is some interest in learning about Gandhi as well.

My Days - R.K.Narayan

06 Jan 2013

This is a delightful little autobiographical work by R.K.Narayan. Rather than a detailed account of life, it provides a glimpse of his life in different phases - the impish schoolboy, college life, youth, love and marriage with subsequent bereavement, his grappling with the fact that he is now expected to be an "economic entity", his love of books, writing, the initial enthusiasm and starry expectations of every poem, story, and novel, initial and aborted stint as an employed teacher, amusing journalistic forays, rejections by publishers, slow and sure success and fame with help from Graham Greene, and yet always in bit of difficulty where financials were concerned. And then there is a description of those times, of the cities of Mysore, Madras, Coimbatore, how one whiled away his time, a rough idea of people's lives and values of the time, his time with his colourful uncle (the "junior"), the other uncle ("senior"), grandmother, father, brothers and sisters etc., all this forming a charming picture. The writing is crisp and witty. There is a chapter that deals with rather intriguing spiritual experiences that he went through after his wife passed away. You also get an idea of how the different books came about and who were the real life characters who were turned into characters of fiction. I also love some of the observations on life, people, different interests and his love of the simple beauty of nature in India (cows grazing, farmer ploughing, birds chirping).

Steve Jobs (comic book) - Jason Quinn and Amit Tayal

27 Dec 2012

Great job by folks from Campfire, an Indian publication. It is a comic book on the life story of Steve Jobs. The script is well-written to cover the story as well as develop the characters (both the good and the not-so-good aspects). Illustrations have a clean, elegant and reader-friendly style. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book. It also must be a challenge to create this book when there is so much hype surrounding the man, and when style and elegance is his claim to fame. The book does justice to his legacy. Plan to see whether they have other works in their list.

India Discovered - John Keay

21 Dec 2012

This is lovely book on a gem of a topic. This is about how knowledge of India's history, and many things else, was pieced together. When the British first came to India all that was known of history was the recent Islamic period and that Alexander had visited it. Among the Indian population itself, the knowledge was scattered and entangled with legends and myths. This book tells us about how discoveries and studies led to the systematic assimilation of information. This was done by various means and sources - study of Sanskrit literature, finding similar iron pillars in rather disparate parts of the country, inscriptions in different scripts, coins etc., and how it was then determined that there was someone called Chandragupta Maurya, someone called Ashoka, the Buddha seems to have been Indian, there was a dynasty called the Gupta dynasty and so on. For us who take this information for granted as though it was always available, it is wonderful to read how much was unknown in such recent past, and how it was all pieced together. Not to mention the whole new chapter opened up by the findings in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.

The book covers various other fields of study such as sculpture, architecture, painting, zoology, and botany. You get to know the remarkable people involved such as William Jones, Prinsep, Cunningham, Havel, and Everest, the Asiatic Society, and also a glimpse of the range of attitudes towards anything that was Indian as viewed through colonial eyes. As in any John Keay book, it is sprinkled with direct quotes from articles and correspondance of the time, which is a treasure by itself. Almost a must read.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking - Oliver Burkeman

05 Dec 2012

This is a book that takes a different track, in fact, attempts to take the opposite track, compared to the usual Positive Thinking and Self Help books. It is more a survey of various schools of thought that diverge significantly from the Positive Thinking approach, that has been all the rage in the last few decades - especially in the West, but also being mimicked in India and Asia. It covers Stoicism, aspects of Buddhism, and then some more recent thinking, and scientific research such as the Ironic Process Theory. It then goes on even further to talk about the current emphasis on goal-setting, about the "security theater" involving irrational policies mainly intended to get a feeling of security, the avoidance of insecurity, the question of Self, etc. It is nice that the author has done quite some research by specifically trying out some of the approaches, meeting with the researchers, scientists, and proponents of these different approaches, and describes his experiences in typical somewhat understated British style. All in all, I think this is a good read.

One glaring gap I noticed is that it does not even mention the rich Indian thought in this field - the Upanishads, the Gita, yogic texts etc.

Pragmatic Programmer - Dave Thomas, Andy Hunt

25 Nov 2012

I'd put this book as one of the "must reads" for anyone who codes for a living. It is a collection of practical insights and advice that is applicable to everyone but not really explicitly taught in school or at work. However, the insights immediately resonate with you, and it is wonderful to see them spelt out even though you knew and followed them all along. The tips are also quite thought-provoking, and I am sure everyone will find a few tips that they don't already adhere to, but will do so after reading this book. It is sure to make its readers better programmers. Perhaps after reading the book, you should print out all the tips and paste it on your wall.

Chokher Bali - Rabindranath Tagore

15 Nov 2012

This is my first Tagore story. This is about Mahendra the spoilt son, his devoted and sensible friend Behari, Mehandra's quite simple wife Asha, and the beautiful and smart widow Binodini who enters their life. It is a human drama narrated with empathy for human folly. The characters are built quite well, and the narrative shows a keen insight on what goes on in different minds. The plot also makes for a good hindi movie-like story. There is some humour, some charm to the setting, and on the whole a quick read. It was good reading it, and I look forward to read more of his work.

Three Signs of a Miserable Job - Patrick Lancioni

10 Nov 2012

This book was recommended to me by a friend. It looks into the factors that make one miserable in a job, and how to address that. There are three factors mentioned in there, but I am afraid that if I list them here, then I might give away the secret of the book. The style of the book is to illustrate the problems in a story form, and then in the end summarize the underlying principles. This is not about what is a good job and what is not, but it is about what makes you miserable in a given job (even that which would normally be considered "good") and how you as an individual, and how the organization and its leaders can take steps to alleviate that. All in all a good read. I haven't read many self-help / management type books so don't have anything to compare against. I think you'll find some aspect of the other which will change your outlook a bit, and help you cope better.

D'Artagnan Romances - Alexandre Dumas

21 Oct 2012

D'Artagnan Romances is the collective name for Alexandre Dumas' series of novels that tell us of the adventures of D'Artagnan and his friends, the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. I have read The Three Musketeers, and Twenty Years After. The third work - Ten Years Later, is usually divided into three parts, of which I have read the last: The Man in the Iron Mask. I love these characters: Athos - the epitome of nobility and chivalry, Porthos - the simple-minded man of giant strength, Aramis - very much man of the world who is working towards being a man of church, and of course, D'Artagnan - the brave, witty and shrewd Gascon. The other characters such as their respective lackeys, each with their own characteristics, the female characters, the king, the cardinal, the queen etc. are very well presented and very interesting. The part I liked best are the dialogues, and the sparring with extreme politeness and great wit.

The first novel is in the times of Louis XIII and the great Cardinal Richelieu, and tells us of how D'Artagnan meets the three musketeers, and their subsequent adventures for the king, against the cardinal, and most of all against the beautiful but evil Milady. They then meet again after twenty years, this time when the king Louis XIV is but a child and the power rests with the queen mother Anne of Austria, and really with the Italian cardinal Mazarin. The old days of grand nobles is gone, and the time for popular unrest against the cardinal and the royalty has arrived. Our friends meet after a long time, each initially trying to judge whether the other has changed, the lackeys enter in turn but in different occupations now, and they go through grand adventures covering not just France but even England and the overthrow of the king Charles. Then I missed reading two novels and moved straight to Man in the Iron Mask. This tells us about the audacious scheme of Aramis, now the Bishop d'Herblay, and how the other friends get involved.

The whole work is a joy to read and even re-read. Listening to it in audiobook form librivox is also great fun.

Adventures of Timpa

14 Oct 2012

This is a comic book very much along the lines of Tintin. Except that it is set in India (mostly Calcutta and around), has Timpa instead of Tintin, his grandfather instead of Capt. Haddock, and no Snowy. However, it is still a lot of fun to read. The illustration is similarly detailed like that of Tintin, and the stories also seem to be of a similar nature. There is some humour thrown about and the usual adventure story. I have just read one - Operation Rescue, and I had fun with it.

Out of their Minds - Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere

04 Oct 2012

This is a book with chapters on the lives and works of computer science luminaries. I really liked the way it is written. It gives an idea about the type of person the scientist was, complete with anecdotes and eccentricities, but at the same time does do a good job of the area of work, the work itself, its beauty and its importance. It is also quite inspiring. I'd call this a must read for all computer science students and practitioners. Here's the list of scientists it covers as categorized by the authors. Linguists: John Backus, John McCarthy, Alan Kay. Algorithmists: Edsger Djikstra, Michael Rabin, Donald Knuth, Robert Tarjan, Leslie Lamport, Stephen Cook and Leonard Levin. Architects: Frederick Brooks, Burton Smith, Daniel Hillis. Sculptors of Machine Intelligence: Edward Feigenbaum, Douglas Lenat.

S. Chandrasekhar: Man of Science - Radhika Ramnath

26 Sep 2012

This book is a tribute to the physicist and Nobel Laureate Subramahnyan Chandrasekhar. The first part consists of some of his essays and articles, but the best is the second part that consists of family reminiscences. Chandra was one of ten siblings - 4 brothers and 6 sisters. Theirs was a joint family with their home Chandravilas in Madras. The reminiscences of growing up in that house - what I'd call a typical South Indian brahmin joint family home, suffused with scholarship, music, poetry, and literature, is a treat to read. Chandra spent most of his working life in the UK and in the States. So the reminiscences of the next generation of their Ayya Mama or Peripa is centered more around his visits to India or their visits to the US. The family itself is rather accomplished. C.V.Raman was Chandra's uncle. His nephews and nieces also have PhDs, are doctors, practise literature, have been VPs of reputed companies etc. He chose his wife Lalitha, herself a student of physics with him Presidency College, Madras, at a time when that was not common. Chandra comes across as a gentle and elegant personality extremely well-read in English and Russian literature, and a lover of Western Classical music and operas. The anecdotes about him are too many to remember but very nice to read. He has worked with several very well known scientists like Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, Penrose, etc. The contributions by family members indicate how he was held in great reverence in the family, but also was not easy for all to approach. So there is a mix of fond memories of interactions as well as his distance from diffident relatives. There is also the aspect of his being away from the country of his birth, and the resultant tumult in the mind. He and his family exchanged very many letters that touch upon several topics and indicate the depth of their thinking - quite a few excerpts have been included. All in all, recommend the book.

The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless - John D. Barrow

02 Sep 2012

This is a book about infinity. A quick and happy read. It does not so much explain the mathematical concept of infinity very well but does very nicely go over how humanity has tackled the concept of infinity so far. It talks about the three infinities made famous by Descartes - the mathematical, the physical, and the divine. The book also goes over many recent development in theoretical physics, philosophical musings and other half-serious speculations; which are very fascinating especially to those who are new to this whole idea.

The Honourable Company - A History of the English East India Company - John Keay

17 May 2012

This is a history of the East India Company, the name that it is most known by, though as you'll read, it has gone through some name changes. It covers the history from the beginnings in early 1600s to about early 1800s. The later events of 1857 and transfer to the crown are not covered. The history itself is fascinating yet messy. Pulled in various directions by factors such as the rivalry among the European countries, sudden wars and peace among those countries, company politics, English politics involving the parliament, the crown, events in other colonies like America that change mindset and priorities, fluctuations in commerce and demand, individual eccentricities and ambitions, piracy, activities to accumulate private wealth, "native" rulers and cultures, and so on, the history itself takes various twists and turns. Geographically it encompasses Europe, Arabia, India, China, Indo-China, South East Asia, with appearances from the Americas and Australia. There are amusing and fascinating episodes like the English ambassador going with poomp to the Mughal emperor, attempts to reconcile with the Chinese emperor, handing over of Bombay to the English as dowry because the king married a Portugese princess, and many such. The extent of influence of the market economy in those times is also a bit surprising. It is also interesting to see how incidental refuges of somewhat insignificant pieces of land in those times have grown into major metropolises of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. So it is a very interesting subject covered in the book, the authors language and choice of words is very nice, but at the same time the books sometimes seems lengthy and tedious. Recommended to those interested.

An Autobiography - Agatha Christie

29 Apr 2012

This is Agatha Christie's autobiography. More than a chronological story of her life it is a collection of little memories and impressions through the life. The periods of her life are interesting in that they begin in Victorian England and go through the first world war and then the second, and we indirectly see how the society, its practices and norms change through all these. It is also interesting how the autobiography focuses on little memories and quirks of the time rather than any big stories of heroism, courage or suffering. Ample number of pages are spent on the childhood days and the kinds of things that go through children's heads, and you get a fond feel of the upbringing of children in the Victorian age. There is also plenty about Agatha's travels in the middle East with her archeologist husband Max and her various experiences during the period. Curiously, her writing is never so much in the forefront and more of an activity that happens in the background of all the other things in life - family, social, travel, changing houses, contributing in the war effort and so on. I rather enjoyed reading it, though I suspect some may find the slow pace and lack of interesting plots a bit of a drag.

Man Eaters of Kumaon - Jim Corbett

16 Mar 2012

This is the first book I read to completion on my Kindle. It has stories of Jim Corbett's tackling of various man eating tigers in the Kumaon region. It is a great read for the stories and adventures of course, but also because they give you an idea of the forests of the time, the people of this hills, the wildlife, and all the little things that one thinks of and goes through as one tackles the forest wild. It also leaves you with awe of those tigers. As always, the author avoids any over-dramatization but is rather matter of fact but full of keen observations and nice little nuggets. Recommended.

Fallout - Jim Ottaviani, et al

26 Feb 2012

After reading Suspended by Language by the same author, I was eager to get my hands on Fallout - his book on the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed. I suppose, after reading quite a bit about that project and the several charming anecdotes, I expected a lot from the book. The book however, rushes through the background, the actual project, and also the science behind it. Characters come in and go out, and it might get hard to identify who is who, unless you already have some background of this space. A lot of focus is laid on Oppenheimer's trial after the project and the court cases are dealt with in quite some detail. To me however, that's not the part of the project that's most interesting. All in all, won't really recommend this book, unless you would like to learn less about the project and the scientists, and more about how the government dealt with the leader of the project after he had accomplished the almost impossible for them.

The Fall of a Sparrow (Illustrated) - Salim Ali

29 Jan 2012

This is Salim Ali's account of his own life. Like he says, he did not really maintain autobiographical notes but has put together this work with aid of memory, his notes, people reminiscences etc. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for several reasons. One is his life and outlook, and his work and adventures in ornithology. Then there is the account it gives of the India of the time, and even the world at the time. For example, who knew that Chembur was a idyllic place with bungalows and shrub forest where the children could spend the summer in the lap of nature, and that the road from Pune to Solapur was full of Blackbucks and it was hard to drive through it without having them criss-cross the road. There is also the abundance of game hunting given the abundance of wildlife that makes one stop and think. Also very interesting are the people he worked with - both Indian and European, and his keen observations and witty accounts of their style of work and thinking. Then there is his typical Muslim family of the time, and his hobbies such as his love for motorcycling and his car. The language, turn of phrase, and brand of subtle humour is also very enjoyable. I'd recommend this book for the like minded. There is a fuller version of the book but unfortunately my library only had this shortened, though illustrated version.

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

08 Jan 2012

This is the story of Okonkwo - a warrior of a Nigerian tribe. It is a wonderful book that does a good job of taking us into the daily life of a clan member, its customs, its folklore, its values and its shortcomings. Reading it gave me a certain direct understanding of how the various Indian customs, rituals and festivals, so tied to seasons and agricultural activities may have come about. We learn how Okonkwo grew up to gain respect in the clan, but also the familiar tale of him wondering why the next generation is not shaping up with the strong old values. Then comes the a point in the plot where Okonkwo is asked to leave the village for seven years, and then a larger turn as Christian missionaries arrive. The impact of the arrival of the missionaries and how it slowly changed everything is so well written that the reader gains insights into how two cultures that are so different that they are not even aware of each others' values will interplay, and how in the end the missionaries won out by their own blend of tact, deceit and agression. Recommended.

Suspended In Language : Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped - Jim Ottaviani (Author), Leland Purvis (Illustrator), Roger Langridge (Illustrator), Jay Hosler (Illustrator), Steve Leialoha (Illustrator), Linda Medley (Illustrator), Jeff Parker (Illustrator)

12 Dec 2011

I am big fan of Neils Bohr (the first review on this page is of a book about him). Not of his work exactly, I have never studied it really, but more about whatever I have read regarding his nature, his mannerisms, his style, and how he was sort of a father figure to all the brilliant physicists of that golden era that heralded the birth of quantum theory; and how they hovered around him. Suspended in Language is an excellent comic book that wonderfully captures exactly these aspects of his. Apart from that, it is also admirable in how it tries to give us an idea of those times; and sets the context by pointing out the notable figures and events of the time. It also captures all the lovely anecdotes of even some of the other pysicists like Pauli, Dirac, Einstein etc. Bohr's innocent frustration as to why Einstein won't seem to agree to his outlook on quantum theory is rather cute.

Bohr is very interesting in his approach, philosphy and his ways. His life was quite eventful too though you wouldn't think of him as an adventurer. He was the chief steerer of the quantum theory and atomic structure, was loved and admired by all, he built his institute in Copenhagen and instilled it with its own informal and lively culture, stayed back during the Nazi occupation until he had to make his near-miraculous escape, visited the US during the Manhattan project grappling and fumbling in his own way in that veil of military secrecy, and then made his own very active attempts to establish an order of piece in the post-atomic bomb world by engaging folks no less prominent than Roosevelt and Churchill.

Would very much recommend this book.

Longitude - Dava Sobel

29 Oct 2011

This is the story of one of the most important problems of the time, that in navigation - of finding the longitude. You learn that the lack of a solution had caused some fortuitous accidents but also many serious tragedies. The problem was so significant that there have been acts of parliament to incentivise the search for a solution. It was so significant that people such as Newton, Haley, Captain Cook were intimately involved with it. There were two approaches, one of astronomy and determining the longitude using the stars. The other of clockmaking. Not to mention many other that were coming from cranks. In the end it was the clockmaker John Harrison who had the answer. He claimed the grand prize declared by the English parliament but not without having to grapple with all kinds of politics. This is the story we read about.

Recommended. Yet, it seems some key details are missing, and more diagrams would have been nice.

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary - Simon Winchester

15 Aug 2011

This is the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary; just the type of mammoth enterprise that Victorian England would undertake. We learn about the evolution of dictionaries for the large and fluid English language, starting from the first one in 1604 that mainly only contained difficult words "for ladies and other unskillful persons"! Then there is the Philological Society and Dean Trench's talk that kick-started the project. The project itself took much much longer than anticipated and went through seven decades of work with phases of flourish, steady work, and languish to the point of closure. It exchanged hands from Dean Trench, to the interesting spirited but unsteady Frederick Furnival until it rested in the safe hands of James Murray. The characters are Victorian men, polymaths in their range; and men of learning and "leisure", that is so characteristic of the time (and of great appeal to me). Other than the very interesting characters that make the story, there is also the logistics of the grand enterprise itself. Scores of volunteers all over the world scouring through all literature starting from the tenth/eleventh century ranging from novels, newspapers, magazine articles and what not; looking for and sending quotations for words. Then James Murray and his team in the room they called the Scriptorium pouring over the very many bundles, sorting them out into the custom-made furniture of pigeonholes, verifying all the quotations and trying to classify the various shades of meaning into crisp definitions. There is also the ever-present mundane world with its constant squabbling and annoyance over budget and timeliness for publication. There is the remarkable adherence to quality and standard at all cost, regardless of pressures on time and money - such a grand enterprise that will last the test of time mustn't be held hostage to immediate considerations.

The book is well worth a read. Having said that there is also the feeling that it could have been richer with more information, anecdotes, and more gems of the language covered.

The Soul of India - Bipin Chandra Pal

04 Aug 2011

I am happy to have found this book. Where else but at International Bookstall, Pune. This book is a collection of four letters by Bipin Chandra Pal to his young English friend who is all eager to come and visit India. The author wants her to have a good understanding of India, and not succumb to the euphoria around all that is exotic and alluring about India, nor to the impression that its past was glorious but present is nothing much to talk about.

He starts with explaining what India fundamentally is, and with a classification of the various prevailing European misinterpretation. He covers various aspects such as the perceived 'nakedness' of the Indian, to the difference in their approach to the Universal between Greek and Indian thought. The innate subjectivism and inwardliness of Indian temperament versus the innate outward objectivism of the European. He gives a wonderful insight into Indian mysticism and its universal love and spontaneous outpourings with some real and contemprary example mystics. He goes on to explain the quintessentially Indian concept of dharma that's so difficult to render in English. Then covered are the modern Indians of the time, either those very eager to 'reform' it or the reactionaries so eager to 'go back to old times'; both equally blinded by their own ardour and lacking the broad mind that India essentially has. He explains how India has been looked at by strangers and foreigners of past and present, and how her own children have always seen her. How it is Bharatavarsha and has its unique form of unity despite not being a nation-state nor being homogenous in culture or religion.

I also enjoyed his elaboration of the genius of varnashrama-dharma and its magic in assimilating outside cultures. How varnas enabled different groups among the peoples of the assimilated cultures harmoniously find their own place in the vedic society, and how the ashrama system helped in avoiding conflicts among the varnas through its strict discpline in brahmacharya, and recognition of the worldly and non-worldly roles of the other phases. He also covers how there have been various rivers of thought with intellectual freedom for individuals in the essential philosphical methods and variety of it.

He goes on to touch upon the enriching of India through Mahomedan influence. Also touches upon the purusha-prakriti concept. Towards the end he goes a bit more into detail in his own favourite path of Krishna Bhakti perhaps based primarily on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

All in all an interesting work to be read with a mature understanding. Also a pretty quick read. (It's been some months since I read the book, hence the review might not be quite as fresh and complete. But there's that).

My India - Jim Corbett

15 Apr 2011

This is a collection of episodes from Jim Corbett's very interesting life that illustrate the nature of the "real India" and its people - particularly the poor humble people that he often came in contact with. There are tales of animals, forests and adventure, tales of remarkable courage and bravery by poor people who went out of the way without a thought for themselves, and tales of loyalty, sincerety, and simplicity. All this in the backdrop of India of those fascinating times with its various ways of life, customs, and manners. It is a nice read and written from a perspective of an Englishman who wants to tell his people what the poor of India are really like through simple well-written (true) stories. Recommended.

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

15 Mar 2011

I didn't know about this when I decided to read the book, but this is a work of science fiction that is one among the three (I think) that have won both the prestigious science fiction awards - the Hugo and the Nebula.

I haven't really read much of science fiction, but this is a nice old fashioned science fiction story. An object is spotted in the asteroid belt - it is named Rama, after ths Hindu God. One is not sure whether it is from the solar system or from the inter-stellar space, is natural or artificial and so on. Close inspection reveals that it is perfectly cylindrical with a smooth surface indicating that it might be artificial. Commander Norton is entrusted with a team to dock and investigate it. The rest of the novel is about the adventures and findings of this team in Rama. The other cast of characters is a Rama Committee, a group of eminent people in various fields, from the four planets and Earth's moon, that humans live on, who advise on how to deal with this potentially extremely signficant event.

If I am not misaken, this is a work of what's known as hard science fiction wihch means that ths usual laws of science hold, and the novel explains in some detail the use of science and engineering to solve the various problems that are encountered. There are no mind-bending fundamental concepts to grapple with like in the more modern science fiction books and movies. As regards character development, individual characters are not quite developed, but the character of peoples and humanity as a whole is well captured.

I enjoyed the book, it is a quick read, would recommend it.

An Equal Music - Vikram Seth

10 Feb 2011

This is a novel narrated in first person by Michael, the second violinist in their Maggiore quartet. The wonderful thing about the book is that it is seeped in the world of music - the different personalities of the members of the quartet, how they work with each other, their overarching love for music, their petty quibbles, their musical insruments, their favourite composers and music, and so on. The plot however revolves around Michael and Julia, his love from his student days in Vienna, and whom he loves, loses, loves, loses. All in all I quite enjoyed it; the use of language and the turn of phrase is also quite charming. Listened to it as an audiobook from Audible, and it is a very nicely read audiobook.

Relativity Simply Explained - Martin Gardner

11 Dec 2010

This is Martin Gardner's work to explain the theory of relativity to the lay man. The book is brief but well written. As in most such books, the special theory is well covered to give a good feel for the concepts, but the concepts behind general theory seems to be rather summarily dealt with. That is likely to do with the inherent difficulty in the understanding of the concepts behind the general theory. The coverage is primarily in a chronological style. Related material like quasars, pulsars, etc. is nicely covered, and so is the experimental background and the various attempts to validate these theories by other scientists (Einstein is remarkable in having thought it out almost entirely without having really any support of experimentation). Some key points like the theory of equivalence of inertia and gravity is very nicely covered. With good historical background, good understanding of the theory, broad coverage of related topics, good discussions of some particular points like the twin paradox; this is a good book to read.

Jaya, an Illustrated Retelling of Mahabharata - Devdutt Pattanaik

06 Dec 2010

This is a "retelling" of Mahabharata by Devdutt Patnaik (who calls himself a "mythologist" and also gives management lectures and so on). The story is divided into small chapters that can easily be finished in a small sitting, It also has very nice illustrations by the author. Each chapter ends with a box containing interesting factoids, some author insights, information on some folk variants, and so on. The work follow's Vyasa's version for the most part but also contains quite a few local variants that are quite interesting.

The book is well researched, and some of the author's comments are quite insightful. At the same time, the book seems to be written for the "modern reader" who likely reads blogs, listens to Ted talks, has a short attention span, goes for charismatic writing, and is eager to collect factoids and impressive talking points. The tone is often irreverant and brash, with no tinge of any of devotion, picturesque writing, use of classical language, or simple familiarity with the work, that Indian retellings usually have. The chapters on Bhagavadgita also has a little too much of the author's own take of the teachings and use of words like "each one's measuring scale" that perhaps is one of the management lecture terms that's been coined.

All in all, it is worth having for quick reference and collection of factoids, but definitely not good for a first reading to get introduced to Mahabharata.

For Pepper and Christ - K. K. Daruwalla

15 Aug 2010

This is a work of historical fiction around Vasco Da Gama's voyage to "discover" India - a word that sounds very funny to the sea-faring Arabs (like the legendary Ibn Majid) and Indians who have been on those seas for centuries. The pilot on Gama's boat is one of the central characters and we get to know about Cairo (Al Qahira) under its Mamluk rule during his childhood and youth. There is also the muhtasib (the keeper of morals) of Cairo and an artist among his group of friends. Then there are the Portuguese ranging from the navigators to the Christian friar. The Indian society around Kerala with Samudriraja (the Zamorin) and the Hindu and Muslim subjects also plays its part along with the visiting monk from Sri Lanka.

The book is a window into the world of Islam at the time, the arrogance and self-confidence of the Christian Europeans out to "civilize" the world (with its shades of naivety and ruthless violence), and the complex Indian society with the depth and decadence of any ancient and complex civilization. All the undercurrents of the rather violent Portuguese entry into India is well brought out.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers - Paul Hoffman

07 May 2010

This is the story of Paul Erdos, one of the most prolific mathematicians in history. He has collaborated with so many people that there is this concept of Erdos Number among mathematicians. Erdos had a Erdos number of zero. People who co-authored a paper with him have Erdos number 1. People who co-authored a paper with someone with Erdos number 1, has an Erdos number 2. As per the book, the highest known Erdos number of a working mathematician is said to be 7.

Born in Hungary, Erdos never married or had a permanent home. He used to just turn up at any fellow mathematician's residence with his bag, and stay there as long as they'd put him up, doing intense mathematics while he was there (his motto was "another roof another proof"). The book is so full of interesting anecdotes that you forget everyone of those. He had his own quirky language too. For example, he called children, epsilons!

The book also covers mathematical tales of other mathematicians ranging from Ron Graham who worked most with Erdos, to older legends like Gauss and Fermat. It also covers a wide range of mathematical gems mostly centered around number theory and Erdos's work.

This is an interesting book to read, but also like so many books of this kind, you forget most of what you have read, but are still left amused, awed, inspired, and with a mix of being able to relate to the people as well as thinking how different you are.

The Philosophy of Visistadvaita - P.N.Srinivasachari

07 May 2010

This was in my reading list on ancient Indian thought. The book is about the philosophy of Visistadvaita as firmly established by Ramanujacharya. The book is a scholarly work, and the style and language is wonderful. Visistadvaita is somewhat unique in being a full "philosphy of religion". The philosophic side, the religious side, and the side of practice is well explained. The mystic beauty is brought forth. In any vedantic philosophy, the relation between prakriti, jiva, and Brahman, is of central interest, and that is expounded at length. The great names in this line are mentioned and their works described. The points of commonality and difference between Visistadvaita and other philosophic - vedic, vedantic, and others; is also covered. On the practice side, Sri Vaisnavism and some of its history and evolution is explained. Would recommend the book to anyone interested in the area.

Narmada, River of Beauty - Amrit Lal Vegad

28 Feb 2010

This book was a delight to read, and a perfect companion in my train travel from Chennai to Pune. The author is an artist who studied at Shantiniketan. The book was written in Hindi and translated into English by Marietta Maddrell. It is a simple narrative of the author and his companions' walk along and around the Narmada - the Narmada parikrama. The walk was not in one single stretch, but left off and picked up again thrice.

The narrative is peppered with meetings with village people, Bhils, hermits, policemen etc. The description of the river, of nature, of the people, is simple and sweet; sometimes touching, sometimes funny. The author made little sketches as he met people and saw sights. This parikrama was made before the Sardar Sarovar project submerged much of the things into the dam's reservoir, and the author anticipates that project in the book. However, there is no strong sentiment for or against the (rather controversial) project, but a simple admission that while a lot of the pristine beauty (of nature and people) will be lost, the project will also transform the area with its utility and water supply.

Some thoughts and musings are nice to read and sometimes veer into the philosophical realm. The acts of kindness of the poor people met on the way gives joy and reminds one of the essence of Indian culture and thought. The parikrama is by no means an easy task, but the author only lightly touches upon it, and avoids making this a story of courage or bravado.

Would very much recommend the book to people interested in this sort of thing.

The One True Platonic Heaven - John L. Casti

04 Feb 2010

This is a 'scientific fiction' purportedly revolving around the subject of the limits of knowledge, and perhaps more specifically, on the limits of scientific knowledge. The setting is the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, and the characters are well-known people including Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bethe, Pauli, and primarily Johnny Von Neumann and Kurt Godel. The story revolves around two contentious questions; that of Johnny's proposal to build a computer - a somewhat applied project in this 'Platonic heaven of rarefied thought', and of Godel's promotion to full professorship from being a Permanent Member. The deeper conversations are centered around the question of limits of knowledge in light of Godel's incompleteness results in Mathematics, and things like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in physics.

It is a nice and quick read, and quite engaging to have these real scientists, of whose work and life we have read off and on, play out the plot and dialog with each other. I felt that the deeper subject of limits of knowledge was not quite insightfully dealt with.

Sri Sankara : His Life Philosophy And Relevance To Man In Modern Times - S. Sankaranarayanan

22 Oct 2009

I had been looking for a good book on the life of Shankaracharya and I finally found this one at the famous International Bookstall. The book is is written for the layman by a scholar, and is somewhat academic in style. It starts with an introduction and the (comprehensive and useful) list of Shankara biographies (or "sankaravijayas") that are known to us, and how one has the difficulty of trying to build a coherent life story for often contradictory accounts in these works. This is followed by the remarkable story of Shankara's short 32-year life, the various legends of his birth and life, with specific mention wherever different biographies differ from each other, and that too often with enough historical context and author's explanation of what the legend might been, and why the biographies might have differed.

Then there is a chapter on Shankara's all-conquering advaita philosophy. It is explained in a very structured manner, by covering the three parts of the famous advaita heptastich "brahma satyam jagan mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah" (Brahman alone is satya, the world is mithya, the jiva is verily the brahman and no different); and explaining the purport of it in the context of other vedic and upanishadic texts, while also bringing out the genious of this philosophy in uniting the various differing erstwhile schools of thought under one grand umbrella. This is followed by a section covering the relevance of Shankara and his philosophy to modern times. While this is a well written chapter, there is not too much of note to this part.

All in all, a very well written book.

Imperium - Robert Harris

08 Sep 2009

This is a historical fiction set in the ancient Roman replublic and tells us the story of Marcus Cicero - the astute politician, successful lawyer, and most of all, an expert orator. Cicero was an "outsider", that is, he did not belong to any of the aristocratic or powerful families of the time, and it is his remarkable journey in politics that is described in the book. The book is narrated by Tiro - Cicero's slave and private secretary.

This is a gripping and enjoyable read. It gives us an idea of the rich and active politics of ancient Rome with all the kinds of elements that we see in politics today. The book is supposed to be very well researched, and in fact the author states that all the major incidents in the book did indeed happen, the details that were filled in also could have happened, and that he hopes that there is nothing in the book that did not happen. Apparently, the real Cicero's secretary Tiro is said to have really written an (now lost) account of Cicero's life.

An enjoyable read.

Nightrunners of Bengal - John Masters

08 Sep 2009

This story is set during the Sepoy Mutiny (or the First Indian War of Independence). It runs us through rather dramatic incidents in the life of a British captain Rodney Savage, of a Bengal infantry regiment. It begins with a good and detailed picture of daily life when all was normal, with all joviality of the British officers, some bravery, some weak-kneed-ness, and some corruption, the intrigues and petty politics of the memsahibs; and the Indian solidiers and servants, with all their religious beliefs, little rivalries, and varied characters. Inspite of being rather supportive of the Indians and the need to respect their way of life, Rodney finds himself compeletely swept by the entirely unexpected tide of the Sepoy Mutiny. There's the violence of it, the escape, and the internal battle as to whether to hate all Indians, or as the strange intelligent English woman Caroline Langford advises, to adopt a larger human outlook. There also is the very passionate and strong Indian Rani of a neighbouring state.

This seems to be a well researched book, and is a gripping plot which also gives a good idea of the British view of the Indian society at the time. Having said that, though the subject matter is of interest to me, and the book doesn't really have much that isn't good about it, reading it rather wearied me.

Kim - Rudyard Kipling

17 Aug 2009

I heard this one as a audiobook from librivox.org, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a story of adventures of Kim - a street smart, half-Irish lad living in India in the late 1800s; a charming boy and a perfect imp who grows up with the story, referred to by people who know him, as "little friend of all the world". Kim knows the native ways, all the alleys, and how to talk to what kind of people. He, by turn of cirucmstance, attaches himself as a chela to a Lama, a wise, old, and very simple man, whose only quest is to find the holy river which can wash all your sins. There is Mahboob Ali, the pathan horse trader for whom Kim used to run mysterious errands. And then there is glorious India of the time, and the story takes us from the plains to the Himalayas, walks us through the Grand Trunk road, and all the various types of people, and their peculiar way of talking and thinking. There is also the "Great Game" and the sahibs, in which Kim gets involved, that's made of espionage and intrigue between the Rajas and the British. All in all, it is an enjoyable work, and Kipling has beautifully captured the manners and thoughts of various different Indian and sahib types, and made Kim, Lama and Mahboob a charming lot. Recommended.

The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

23 Mar 2009

I had heard good reviews of another of this author's book, and when I found this one in audiobook form, I grabbed it. The book however left me rather disappointed. It starts with some promise - a detective story where the protagonist is a philospher and the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, is sure to be interesting. However, not only is the plot weak, but even the intellectual sprinkling is not really so impressive. There is a good set of characters and their relationship, and the whole Edinburgh lifestyle that does hold you interest, but that's not really enough. Would recommend you stay away from this one, though I plan to pick the other one that I heard was good.

Life of Sri Ramanuja - Ramakrishnananda

11 Jan 2009

This book by the Ramakrishna Math, is the story of Ramanujacharya, the great acharya of Sri Vaishnavas who is historically placed in the eleventh century. This was the time when Buddhism had all but waned in India and Sankara's highly intellectual advaita philosophy had taken hold, and begun to slip into elitism, arrogance and corruption. Ramanuja with his knowledge and a bit of genius, brought back theism, the concept of a personal God and loving devotion, into the time where the abstract intellectual advaita seemed to have won. Ramanuja, a great devotee and scholar, came up with several works such as the Sri Bhashya (commentary on Brahmasutras) and Gita Bhashya (commentary on Bhagavadgita) where in he propounded his line of philosophy and called it Vishishtadvaita.

A good thing that the book begins not with Ramanuja but from much earlier with the line of preceptors and alvars who can be considered the predecessors of the philosphy and tradition that Ramanuja was the culmination of. An account of the various previous alvars, of Andal, Nathamuni and Yamunacharya is given in the form of stories. Then comes the story of Ramanuja himself and also of the various gurus and disciples that he met in the course of his lifetime. This is told by way of various episodes (each a great little story) in that lifetime.

The book is not in the staid and academic style but rather is itself permeated with the loving devotion that so characterizes the Sri Vaishnava culture. This is very good since you get an idea of the underlying style of thinking that this whole school of thought entails. Also, there is a lot of imagery in the way the stories are written so it is easy to form a picture in your mind on how it might be in those days. Lastly, the thing I liked best about the book is that a lot of original sanskrit sutras and references are given, and there are some little stories of how Ramanuja interpreted a certain sutra different from how advaitins interpreted it etc.

A good book to read.

P.G. Wodehouse, In His Own Words - Barry Day and Tony Ring

20 Dec 2008

This is a biography of a different sort. It is a biography of P.G.Wodehouse woven together by stringing excerpts from his own novels, letters and plays. It is not a serious account of his life and work, but an entertaining book that gives you a pretty good idea of who he was, what he lived through, how were those times, what's special about his work, and how things might have shaped him. Since it is his own sentences and paragraphs you read, you immediately recognize the style and enjoy it. I suppose this would have taken quite a bit of researching on part of the authors, though they probably enjoyed it every bit. All in all, you'll like reading it end to end, and then will probably come back and try opening a random page to see if you find that little gem of a quote that you liked so much. Wonder why this book seems to be so little known.

The Feast of Roses - Indu Sundaresan

26 Oct 2008

This is the sequel to The Twentieth Wife , by the same author, and tells the story of Mehrunissa after she became the wife of Emperor Jehangir and came to be known as Noor Jahan. I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed its prequel, if not more. It is fascinating to read and you feel as though you are part of the whole setup and are living in those Mughal times. There is all the grandeur, court intrigues, little charms, that you'd expect if you've read the previous book; and there's also a lot of interesting history. One of the things that makes this period in history interesting the advent of the English to the British court, and their attempts to make an impression on the Emperor and gain some favour, while upsetting the long-established Portugese. This review might be a bit rusty since it's been over a month since I finished reading the book, but I'd recommend both The Twentieth Wife, and this book for anyone who likes good stories, interesting personalities, and history.

Creation - Life and How to Make it - Steve Grand

22 Jul 2008

This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It is about the author's work on simulating life in his game Creatures. It begins with the author describing his thought process and philosophy. He describes how he thinks of life, intelligence etc. not to be a yes/no thing, but a gradation of what he calls persistent phenomena. He describes how the various levels of feedback loops, and the complex systems built out of simple rules of the various constituent parts can lead to emergent behaviour such as life. So if one were to simulate intelligence, the method should not be to to try to teach a computer program the rules of language and to provide rules on how to respond to certain sentences etc. In the author's opinion, intelligence is an emergent property of how life is built and it is the lower level building blocks to be simulated, and let the higher level behaviour emerge, and then it'll be truly intelligent. For example, let's say for a moment that we are able to simulate the laws that govern atoms. These simulated atoms are obviously not real atoms. However, if these atoms get together and form molecules, and furthermore cells and tissues, how is one to deny that they are different than real molecules, cells and tissues? Molecules are patterns that emerged from the behaviour of underlying atoms, and if the same molecules emerge by similar mechanisms from simulated atoms, they are real molecules for all intents and purposes in the simulated world. This in short, is the author's approach towards artificial life.

After such conceptual subject material, comes the author's real work in his computer game where, he builds (very much) simplified building block mechanisms, that nevertheless give rise to creatures for his game that develop some memory, develop their own behaviour and tendencies. Game players are drawn to these creatures whose life they shape, and there is a community developed around this game, which provide ample evidence for some amount of success to this approach. This part is also interesting since it tells us how abstract thoughts can be put to use in real programs.

The last part of the book goes on to further philosphical musings, which also has certain points of interest.

All in all, would recommend the book.

Palestine - Joe Sacco

08 Jun 2008

This is a graphic novel about the life in Palestine. It has been presented to us in the visual form unique to the medium, and is mainly a trip report of the author's visit to Palestine. The author is himself the main character who goes about visiting West Bank, Gaza etc. visiting refugee camps, talking to people (of different generations from old people who were around and personally affected in 1948, to young children who have known no other life than the suffering they are living through), visiting hospitals, seeing Israeli soldiers storm streets and fire grenades and tear gas shells, and having cups of highly sugared tea offered to him one cup after another wherever he went. The book gives us a good idea of the Palestinian situation from the point of view of the average Palestinian - one who has had close friends and relatives killed, injured, cheated, by Israeli soldiers and policies, and has himself been arrested once or twice. It is presented with down-to-earth, real and human feel with no pretense of understanding the "real reasons" behind the problems or proposing any solutions.

So while it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the reality of the situation on the ground, it's also true that it doesn't provide any history, background, or anything of the kind that might help you get an insight of the complexity of the situation in broad terms. Having said that, the author seems to have achieved what he aimed to, and the graphic novel medium has been put to good use, and that's another (perhaps smaller) reason to read this book.

The Siege of Krishnapur - J. G. Farrell

17 May 2008

This book is set during the 1857 sepoy mutiny. Trouble is brewing, and soon the Collector's residency in Krishnapur is under seige by the sepoys. In there, are several English gentlemen and ladies (and some loyal natives). It is this time of siege, and what happens there, and the various thoughts and conversations, that this book is all about. It is a well researched and very well written work. It is almost as if you are there and seeing the situation grow more grim but people carrying with all the little things of life while also trying their best to defend against the enemy. The focus is not on the story but on bringing out the thinking of the time. There are all kinds of people - young soldiers, pretty ladies, the atheist rational magistrate, the dutiful Collector whose mind privately ponders on various topics on life; and various interactions from attraction and budding romance, to petty bickering, one-upmanship and rivalry, to lofty debates on philosophy, civilization, science, materialism and the arts; and all this collectively brings out the essence of English thought at the time. There are also some interesting observations of India, Indians, and the English view of Indians. The book is also sprinkled with subtle wit and humour for that faint smile.

Having said that, this book is not for the reader who looks for gripping tales. This one's for the more patient reader who likes to think about history, culture, society, and that sort of thing. Would recommend the book. Also, this is a Booker Prize winner.

India Unbound - Gurucharan Das

31 Mar 2008

This is the story of changing India and comes with the author's personal perspective. The author is a Times of India columnist, ex-CEO of Procter and Gamble India, and has served on the board of, and advised many companies. The best part of the book is the chapters on pre-independence and just-independent India. There is some history of Indian trading culture such as the marwari class, and few anecdotes about both the common man and the famous and powerful. The social and economic zeal and idealism of Nehru's time is described with some reflection of why it all failed. Was interesting to read that this enthusiasm and idealistic spirit was not unique to the newly independent and young India but to the world in general, and particularly scholars of the time. Then the dark period of Indira Gandhi's rule and subsequent years of overall social and economic stagnation with License Raj etc. is described. All this is interspersed with the author's own experiences and observations of the time as he travelled around the country as a young executive. This is followed by a bit of inside story of the miracle of liberalization in 1991 during Narasimharao's tenure and how much India has changed since. However, there is a strong cautionary note as to how reforms have slowed down and only carried out with a defensive mindset of it being "inevitable" rather than "desirable".

All interesting reading, quite some insightful observations, though gets a lengthier and less interesting in the later sections. Also must observe that while the author's point is sometimes quite repetitive (across chapters) and sometimes not clear at all - you get the rough idea, but are not sure what exactly he wants to say. All in all though, a good read especially to learn about the post-independence days of India and how things have changed in a silent but sure way.

Life on Air - Memoirs of a Broadcaster - David Attenborough

23 Feb 2008

This is a delightful book - the autobigraphy of David Attenborough. It is one of my favourites now. There is so much to it that I am afraid I might not capture it all. Beginning with how David Attenborough first joined the BBC, you learn about the very early days of television, and the thinking and methods of the time. Then as he found his calling as a producer of natural history programmes, you are led into fascinating accounts of travel to exotic places, tales involving various animals, plants, geology and what not; anecdotes involving very interesting people, the wonderful techniques developed in filming as years went by, adventures and thrilling moments, wise observations, many achievements like first-time filming of certain species and first time contact with certain tribal people, and a lot more. There is also fun childhood and family life, and the period as a BBC employee making his mark on the corporation that gives you an insight into that life, people and industry. It is wonderful to imagine the events as you read about them, and you really like the author's thinking and points of view.

I heard this as an audiobook and that's what I'd suggest you do. Expertly narrated by David Attenborough himself, you enjoy every bit of it. And of course, there is the characteristic British understatement and humour sprinkled all over, that will keep you smiling. One of those books you would want to re-read.

My Name is Red - Orhan Pamuk

29 Jan 2008

Written by a Nobel Prize winner, at one level this is a story of the murder of a guilder for miniature paintings in Istanbul in the late 1590s. However more than that, this is a wonderful history and philosophy of the art of Islamic miniature paintings. It is full of very interesting discussions between the characters - most of whom are miniaturists, on the nature of this art, its philosophy, its standing in religion (which is against idols and realistic depictions) and its practice involving workshops, masters and apprentices in the famous schools of Herat, Tabriz etc. It is set in interesting times where the influence of Venetian and Frankish masters from Europe is entering the Islamic world. The literary style was also quite new to me wherein every character takes turns in talking to the reader, so that we get to know their perspective as things unfold. Moreover, these characters, as they tell their tales, are fully aware and conscious that they are talking to the reader and might well try and deceive to show themselves in better light. Some of these characters that talk to you might even be a dead body, or the colour red, or the general concept of a horse. All this was fascinating, and set me off looking through websites to learn about miniature paintings.

At the end of the book is a chronology of various events in history where we realize that some of the characters in the story are real people from history.

One caution about the book is that it is quite long and slow-paced. The plot is not the focal point and in that says it is not a gripping tale or anything of that sort. If you are interested in art and all the thinking about it through history, you must read this one. But if you are looking for a story mainly, you could give this a miss.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies - Jared M. Diamond

25 Dec 2007

I listened to this one in audio book form. This book tries to answer the question of why human history evolved in different ways in different continents in the last 13000 years. Both the subject matter and the author's thesis is very interesting. The book is quite interesting and sprinkled with facts. Primary factors dealt with, include the onset of food production from a hunting-gathering lifestyle influenced by the availability of domesticable plant and animal species, spread of cultural development (and diseases) influenced by the geographical layout and features of continents etc. Quite a few fascinating example are cited to support the theory. Don't want to get into whether I think the theory is sound etc. - it sounds reasonable for the most part, and most criticism I read is more about it not being complete (in the sense that there might be other type of influencing factors not addressed in this thesis).

All in all, a great subject matter. The only problem with the book is its length and a somewhat bland writing style. I would call the same also a merit, given that so many specialized-subject-for-the-layman books mostly focus on making things dramatic rather than the core subject at hand; but this leads to a book that while very interesting is not quite gripping. If you want a quick peek at what the book is all about, read this article . Also, by looking at the table of contents of this book on Amazon, I see that my audio book simply skipped the last chapter (the one before the epilogue).

Would definitely recommend the article above and advise you to go for the book if you get motivated enough.

The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved - Mario Livio

08 Nov 2007

This is a book about group theory, symmetry, Galois, and Abel. It is fascinating to read about Galois and Abel - the two shining lights of mathematics that both died tragically young. The historical setting, along with the prevailing mathematical style and personalities, is quite well presented. This is the part that I'd recommend the book for. The part of mathematics mainly dealt with is algebra, group theory and solvability of equations of third, fourth, fifth and higher degrees. They are described well for the non-mathematician to follow. The purported central theme of symmetry however, seems not very natural to the book somehow. Having said that, the topic of symmetry is also quite covered, along with how symmetry and group theory proved useful in physics, and are to be found in various areas ranging from biology to music.

King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

06 Nov 2007

Heard this as an audiobook. It's one of those classic adventure stories with colonial men in Africa encountering native tribes and treasures, battles and animals, and native kings, pretty damsels and royal witch doctors. Containing not just telling of a tale but also insights on human character, it is a good read. At the same time it also brings out the 'arrogance' and feeling of superiority in colonials of the time - this is not only in the stories and characters, but also in choice of words and phrases. In fact, this book would probably come out as being sympathetic towards the native given the prevalant thinking of the time. It is also this aspect that makes this book an interesting read.

1984 - George Orwell

17 Sep 2007

This classic from Orwell is thought-provoking and paints a scary picture of the future, well, past - 1984 (the book was written in 1949). The setting is a of a rule that goes beyond the communists and the Nazis in the extent of their totalitarianism. The Party wants to control and transform the mind, and does so by its peculiar philosophy, methods and by observing your every move using the telescreen. The most interesting method I thought, is the one of controlling the past - every record of an event will be modified so that it confirms with what the party wants it to be, and this is done on a continual basis. What is unwanted not only does not exist, but never existed - since there will be no record of it. Traditional institutions of family, love etc. are all broken down, and the only thing the Party wants is power. This is a much praised classic, and I found it an interesting read.

Essentials of Indian Philosophy - M. Hiriyanna

27 Aug 2007

This 1948 book is apparently a textbook for college courses. Very well written and edited, it systematically covers schools of Indian thought. Starting from initial Mantras, Brahmanas and Upanishads, it covers schools of thought such as Jaina thought, Buddhist thought, Nyaya Vaisheshika, Sankhya and Yoga, Purva Mimamsa, and then atheistic and theistic vedanta. While very interesting in itself, the book makes no specific attempt to appear interesting - there is no stories, no humour, or anything generally found in books that cover academic topics for lay people. To really appreciate the philosophy and the book however, I think one should study some ancient philosophic work in original Sanskrit (such as Bhagavad Gita) along with meanings and commentary.

The Undercover Economist - Tim Harford

28 Jul 2007

For someone as clueless about economics as I am, this book provides the light. Very nicely written, with material developing systematically and covering quite some breadth; this provides a very good introduction to economics to the uninitiated. It is also nicely peppered with examples of various events in history that provide further insight. Of course, while the book provides initiation, it doesn't seem to quite provide the ability for the reader to independently think of clever economic explanations and recipes of the problems that affects one's life. That would need further study.

The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-time - Mark Haddon

01 Jul 2007

This book is a story of Christopher who is a " special child " with photographic memory, magical calculation abilities etc, but unable to understand other people, their feelings and social norms. The story, in the first person, tells us of an incident in his life, in the background of a disturbed family and problems between his parents. The narrative is fascinating since it is from the perspective of this child with autism, but the plot and the story leaves much to be desired. It is a good and fast read, makes you think about how our brain works and how Christopher's brain works, and how it is so intriguingly similar and different at the same time. On the whole however, I won't term this work an enjoyable read - it leaves you with the feeling that it could have been better somehow.

Comprehensive History of Medieval India - P.N. Chopra, B.N. Puri, M.N. Das, A.C. Pradhan

07 Apr 2007

This is the next phase of Indian history covered in the same series as the book above. I enjoyed reading this book as much as I enjoyed reading the previous one. The book covers the period from around the last couple of centuries in the first millenium AD to the end of the Maratha period i nthe eighteenth century. Beginning with the rise of Islam after the initial Arab prescence, it covers the invasions of Mahmud Ghazni and the Turkish conquest by Muhammad of Ghor, followed by the sultanate period with Qutbuddin Aibak, Iltutmish, Raziya Sultana, Balban, the Mongol threat, the Khiljis, Tughluqs, Timur's invasion, and Syeds and Lodis. Then after giving a review of the various Hindu kingdoms of the period, it comprehensively covers the Mughal era, and then the rise of Marathas, and their final defeat under Abdali. The nice thing about the book is that it not only covers the political aspect, but also the social, art, religious aspects and living conditions. At various places it points of sources from where conclusions were arrived at.

Once again, it suffers from the problems of not being very well edited, has some grammatical mistakes etc. But I have now come not to mind that.

A Comprehensive History of Ancient India - P.N. Chopra, B.N. Puri, M.N. Das, A.C. Pradhan

25 Feb 2007

This is exactly the kind of book I was looking for - a brief but comprehensive history of India covering all aspects; political, social, religious, artistic, literary, and intellectual. There are three volumes - ancient, medieval and modern. The book on ancient India covers the period right from the Harappan times, and going over the vedic times, the pre-Mauryan, the Achaemenian presence, the Alexander campaign, the Indo-Greeks, the Mauryan times, Sungas to Sakas, Pahlavas and Kushanas, Chola, Andhras and the Deccan kingdoms, the Guptas, the post-Gupta preiod of Harsha, Chalukyas, Pratihara, Pala, to early medieval India. Geographically it spans from Persia, Greece and Arabia in the West, to Kambuja, Champa and Yavadvipa (Cambodia, Vietnam and Java) in the South-East.

Another thing that I really liked is that historical conclusions are presented with mentioning the sources from where the conclusion was drawn; say inscriptions or literary works. Different historical points of view of certain events are all presented. Original Sanskrit, Prakrit references are mentioned.

Having said that, I must say that the book is not very well edited and put together. It is too brief, and a bit disorderly to be an academic work - many terms are used without explaining the meaning, places are mentioned without providing the location on a modern map etc. It is a bit too bland and factual to be a work of popular writing. But the content is good and it provides a rich bibliography. Accompany this reading with regular visits to Wikipedia for extra pleasure.

The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde

10 Feb 2006

This is a delightful comedy play telling the tale of love of two English gentlemen and ladies. The plot involves the usual confusion and running around that such stories entail. The dialogues are full of witty humour, some "smart" remarks, and wise sounding statements that are quite contrary to the usual ones (such as "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing"). This is a quick fun read, and quite recommended.

Across the Frozen Himalaya - Harish Kohli

28 Dec 2006

This is a tale of the Ski-Himalaya expedition of Capt. Harish Kohli of the Indian army, and his team. This is the second big expedition of Harish Kohli after the first widely regarded Trans-Himalaya expedition. Ski-Himalaya involved skiing across the Himalaya from the Karakoram Pass to Lipu Lekh. This is a fast moving story of their planning, the various aspects of organizing a Himalayan expedition, the physical and mental strength required, the varied personalities of the team members (who kept changing at each revictualing point), the difficulties of terrain, weather, avalanches, rock slides, wolves and snow leopards, the enchantment of Himalayas and how the whole adventure took place. Reinhold Messner has said of Kohli - "what I have achieved vertically, you have done horizontally". In this expedition, the team also discovered three new passes which is shown in the accompanying photographs and points on the maps in the book. My only gripe against the book would be that I somehow felt that bit of the writing somehow felt unnatural as if it was deliberately constructed and written by the author and did not come naturally, and at places the many details and points in the book had me a little lost.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, A Life - Abraham Pais

11 Dec 2006

This is a book about the enigmatic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, or Oppie as some people called him, by Abraham Pais, a physicist himself. The author says right at the beginning, that while he always thought of Einstein and Bohr as simple good men and felt it easy to write about them, he could not say the same about Oppenheimer. The book starts with an annoyingly brief account of Oppenheimer's early life and just a brush through his days spent as something as important as the head of the Manhatton Project that built the Atom Bomb. The first 100 pages has some interesting stories and comments, but leave you a bit irritated. Then it gets better as the author covers those days he himself spent with Oppenheimer. This was when Oppenheimer served as the directory of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. A lot of pages of the book are dedicated to the Institute, its history, its members, life in it, and its internal politics. This is followed by a gripping account of the Oppenheimer hearings where he was put on trial with suspicions of him passing on secrets to Russia. There is a lot here that reveals things about not just Oppenheimer, but also about the people and thinking of those perilious times of Cold War, and make you think about how circumstances can easily cloud people's thinking and bend the common understanding of ethics.

Oppenheimer comes across as a brilliant and mysterious man with immense charisma. The author, with his benefit of close acquaintance with not only Oppenheimer but many other famous physicists like Einstein and Rabi, as well as his understanding of the subject itself, gives a very candid account of Oppenheimer's life, and his and other people's opinion of Oppenheimer. The frankness is illustrated in lines such as where he calls Kitty Oppenheimer (Robert's wife), "the most despicable female I have known". Oppenheimer gives rise to a varied range of feeling in various people, and frustrates any description. From great respect for his brilliance there is the very apparent dissatisfaction about his contribution to his subject. There is annoyance about his arrogance, accounts of being mesmerised by his speech, and compassion for his condition. Interestingly, some phyisicists such as Rabi also point out Oppenheimer's interest in fine culture, paintings, literature and particularly his readings such as that of the Bhagavad Gita in original Sanskrit; as being the reason why he never could achieve what a simple minded physicist with complete faith in his subject can. The book also has many personal accounts of the impression Oppenheimer made on people, and little stories about him.

While the book is a good one, I think anyone interested in knowing about Oppenheimer, should also read some book in addition to this one.

Malgudi School Days - R. K. Narayan

27 Nov 2006

This book is a little gem. It is a set of episodes from the school days of Swami and his friends in Malgudi. R. K. Narayan is a master at bringing out typical events, thoughts, conversations and characters; that you can immediately relate to from your school days, and the things that went in your mind when you were small. Enjoyed the book.

The End of Eternity - Isaac Asimov

26 Nov 2006

I haven't read much science fiction, so can't compare much. But in any case, this is an interesting tale of a select group of people called "Eternity". Their job is to move in time, and modify reality of particular periods, by making sophisticated calculations as to what is the minimal change to be affected in the reality of a particular time, in order to maximize the chances of humanity's survival over time. Eternity has its own set of interesting characters, its own hierarchy, rules and bureaucracy. This is the story of how Andrew Harlan, a Technician, whose job is to be completely unemotional and do the job of precisely modifying the reality, as per the calculations and approval of Eternity. Andrew Harlan falls in love, fails to remain fully unemotional, and then the story takes place with an interesting end leading to some drama, a loop in time and a overall satisfactory end that also makes you think a bit.

Neither Here Nor There - Bill Bryson

21 Oct 2006

This is Bill Bryson recounting his experiences of a solo travel in Europe. We read his observations on things like the cities, people, views, cafes, cathedrals, waiters, traffic, queues, bus and train journeys, and shops, of various cities right from Paris and Rome to Sofia and Capri. It is a quick and enjoyable read. The travels are mainly through the various urban cities and towns, and in a largely unplanned manner based more on whim, mood and availability of tickets. Bill comes across as a fun guy reasonably knowledgible in maps, histoy, cultures, movies and architecture. For me, the one put off of this book is its attempt to be funny; it seems sometimes he tries too hard to be funny, and the humour is mostly what is often termed "cheap". Looking at the reviews such as "Hugely funny" from Daily Telegraph and the like, printed on the cover and the back of the book, it however appears that this is what is the selling point of this work.

The Story of My Experiments with Truth - M.K. Gandhi

02 Oct 2006

I read the translation, Mahadev Desai by Navajivan Publications. This autobiography appeared as weekly columns by Gandhi in Navajivan. It covers his experiments with truth right from childhood upto the launch of the non-cooperation movement in 1921.

This work is just what its title says - it is the story of Gandhi's experiments with truth. As he says in his introduction, it is not so much about his political life and things done in public life, but is full of personal development, private observations, thoughts and experiments. Gandhi is seen to have a disposition towards Truth since his very childhood. His courage and unwavering adherence to his principles is awe-inspiring and thought provoking. The book itself is not preachy, but contains a narration of various incidents involving these experiments and their results, and how they were used to revalidate, refirm, and revise his beliefs and principles. Gandhi's family was religious as far as the practice of tradition was concerned, but he had not really studied his religion. Only after his acquaintance with Europeans and his discussions with them in philosophy and religion, did he decide to study his own religion and was drawn inescapably to the teachings of Bhagawadgita and we see him practice the teachings of Gita in his own life. At the same time his life also gives rise to questions such as "how far should one go in adherence to truth in various practical situations of life, what is the right way?" etc.; these are the same kind of questions that come to mind when reading about Raja Harishchandra or Yudishthira. Along with truth itself, there are many experiments with diet, vegetarianism and brahmacharya. Some might even make you think, as he himself says, that he's a crank.

The glimpse into the India of that time is also fascinating. Gandhi's account of travel by train, meeting with various kinds of people, his very long walks, rides on elephant back are very interesting, and his boundless energy and dedication is very apparent. Also, his mention of stalwarts such as Gokhale, Tilak, Tagore etc. shows you how India had so many highly regarded thinkers at the time (where are they now?). We also notice almost a passion towards self-restraint and self-discipline in Gandhi; and his practice of taking vows that he'd observe for tens of years. While there is in him this obstinate adherence to principles, there is also intelligent self-doubt, questioning and revalidation. We are also amused by his annoyance with the "stamp of mahatmaship" put on him, and his frantic attempts to evade darshan-seekers.

One thing about the book is that it assumes that the reader is aware of happenings, politics and news of the time. Since I don't know too much of it, there is a feeling that I might have missed some things. Also, the book is full of many people and detailed incidents, and it is on the readers part to read through it without being distracted, and gather the essence of what is being said and shown.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World - Jack Weatherford

12 Jul 2006

This is the story of Genghis Khan, who more than anybody else in history, could lay claim to the title "Emperor of the World". Genghis Khan was born in the minor Mongol tribe but rose to rule all the land from Korea to Italy.

The book tells us about the many innovations he brought about in the art of war - his surprise attacks, his war strategies, reliance on cavalry alone and innovations in artillery. But his legacy is not just the art of war. He brought about globalization by encouraging free movement of people. He established protected trade routes, introduced paper currency and really understood the importance of trade and commerce and of a globalized economy. The third big break from history was the granting of complete religious freedom in the Middle Ages - a time when Christian lords and Muslim clergy dominated the state. The Mongol empire believed in the primacy of the state over religion and enjoyed religious debates among the Buddhists, Muslims and Christians visiting their court, but they worshipped nature and the Eternal Blue Sky. While having conquered so much, Genghis Khan did not believe in erecting glorius monuments and big cities, but was very practical and simple and continued to live in the traditional Mongol way of nomadic tribes with moveable tents. The book also tells us about the various visitors and travellers to the Mongol court from other countries, and then moves on to Genghis Khan's descendants upto Kublai Khan, and how slowly the tone of the Mongol empire changed and the empire finally was destroyed mainly due to the sudden epidemic of plague. The book also talks about how Europeans later completely changed the history and depicted Mongols as a despicable race.

The history is fascinating. The book is very interesting and I enjoyed it, but I won't call it "unputdownable". I recommed it wholehearetedly.

The Twentieth Wife - Indu Sundaresan

26 May 2006

This is the story of Mehrunnisa. A name that means "Sun among women". Mehrunnisa is the beautiful, charming and intelligent daughter of Ghias Beg who fled from Persia to find refuge in the Mughal court of Akbar, and rose to a position of honour there. Mehrunnisa frequented the imperial harem - the zenana, quite often and was enchanted with that life. This is the story of how she harboured love for Prince Salim, and how much later she became his wife and empress - later to be known as Nur Jahan.

This is a story well told. You feel you are in the Mughal period as you travel through that time and through places, and experience the daily life, the politics of the age, the crises and rebellions, the internal ladies' politics at the zenana, and everything else. The book is recommended to anyone who likes a good story and likes to get a taste of life at a different period in history. The story leads up to the point where little darling Mehrunnisa becomes Empress Nur Jahan. There is a follow up book by the same author called The Feast of Roses about what happens later. I intend to read that one too.

Understanding the Medicines We Take - Arun S. Nanivadekar

11 Mar 2006

This is a Oxford University Press book to explain medicines to the layman. It provides background on how medicines work, what goes in discovering new medicines, the process of bringing them out into the market, and the rigorous testing process that they go through. It also discusses questions of ethics and responsibilities of the pharmaceutical industry, physicans, and the society in general. The book is peppered with many little interesting examples and quite some history. The book is informative and interesting to read, especially to someone like me who knows very little of medicine.

However, you also get a feeling that language, style and structure need to undergo editing and improvement in places.

Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud

22 Feb 2006

This is a book about the medium of comics that is itself written in comic book form. I simply loved reading it. It is a scholarly work that starts by defining what comics are, and then dives into various aspects of it. We see the history of the art form, and read about intersting things like the universality of icons that cartoons bring out. The author tells us about the triangle where the three vertices represent realism, icons and the "picture plane". We see the special features of each style, and the impression created by it on the mind of the reader; and also a survey of where the various comic characters fit into this triangular plane. A similar analysis is done on the world of words and literature. This is one example of the detailed engrossing study that is put forth in the book - there is much more, like the subject of various kinds of panel to panel transitions, the distinctive philosophies of western comics and their Japanese cousins, the depiction of time in comics, the evolution of an artist, and such like.

Having read the book, you learn not just about comics but about art in general. This is really a learning experience that broadens the understanding about many things in art while being entertaining at the same time. Highly recommended.

The Financial Expert - R.K.Narayan

03 Feb 2006

This is the story of Margayya. We first see him sitting under a banyan tree telling villagers how to extract loans from the Co-operative Bank. We then see how his life changes, how he gains wealth, and all the ups and downs of fate, and how he thinks and lives through it.

The beauty of the book is how the author has brought out the very typical character types. There is also the very authentic touch of small town South India. You can immediately recognize the people of the story, their thoughts, their philosphies, and the sights and sounds of the town. There are many very specific observations that seem to hit the exact point. There are many paragraphs and conversations that make you laugh aloud. But behind all this is a more deep, and in a way, serious tale, that is typical of R.K.Narayan.

All in all, it is a enjoyable yet thought-provoking book, and is a quick read.

The World of Mathematics - edited by James Newman

The World of Mathematics is a collection of the most notable writings in and about Mathematics, edited by James Newman, and available as four big volumes. The writings range from the historical and biographical, to writings by eminent mathematicians, commentaries on different topics and some actual papers in mathematics. The articles are very accessible to non-experts and do not contain too much mathematical notation.

I first saw these books in our college library and almost fell in love with them. But I had only read an article or two. Then I found these books in the Strand book exhibition in Mumbai and bought all the four volumes. Plan to go through them one by one slowly. Plan to add reviews of most of the stuff I read.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

This is a fast-paced gripping book that was fun to read and also told me quite a bit about the history of Christianity that I was not aware of. Having read this book I looked up Wikipedia to get more of that history. This book is mainly a murder mystery where the victim tries to leave clues about his murderer. A Christian secret society and even the Vatican is part of the plot. The hero is a Harvard symbologist who tries to solve the mystery with the French police suspecting him of murder all the while. All in all, a good story, well-written and also informative background thrown in.

The Web of Life - Fritjof Capra

2nd Jan 2005

This is a book with an interesting subject matter. It mainly talks about the new developments in scientific thought that emphasizes on taking a holistic view of systems instead of the traditional reductionist approach, and also about the various interesting properties of non-linear systems and their emergent behaviour. In particular, it delves into applying these ideas to the study of living systems. It also briefly touches upon chaos theory and fractals to explain the nature of mathematics that the study of such systems will entail. The most interesting part of the book however, is the part dealing with life, biology, and the various inter-relationships and patterns at various levels - cells, organisms, and ecology. The book also includes very recent studies and findings, and how some of these might upset long held traditional views. There is also a discussion of emergent behaviour and its relation to evolution, of the huge role of bacteria in shaping life as it exists today, and of the Gaia hypothesis, as well as the nature of mind and consciousness. All in all, many thoughts and facts are very interesting and fascinating. However, I couldn't help shake the feeling that this book could have been written in a much better manner. In different parts it seems repetitive, pedantic, and even incoherent. So am left with a feeling that I'll have to perhaps read it again to form a better picture, and will definitely like to read about all these topics from some other sources.

In Xanadu, a Quest - William Dalrymple

24th Oct 2004

This travelogue is the author's first book - and has a freshness that they say comes with such works. On holiday from Cambridge, while the next term was yet to start, William Dalrymple left on a very interesting mission - to retrace Marco Polo's journey and carry a phial of the Holy Oil that burnt in the famous lamps of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the summer seat of Kubla Khan (Genghis's grandson) in Xanadu, China. The books takes us through the journey replete with adventures ranging from hiding from and talking sweet with authorities to get over the lack of permits, to meeting strange people in the strangest of places. Garnished with characteristic British humour, this book is also rich with historical information, and keen observation of peoples and cultures. With all this, the book is not heavy reading at all. It just takes you through geography and history effortlessly, and you just have to sit back and watch. The author was accompanied by Laura (from Jerusalem to Lahore) and Luisa (from Lahore onward), and they lend their own charm in those legs of the journey. As I was reading this, I also looked up the encyclopaedia to read up on things like history of Israel, the article on Marco Polo and such like - that was nice too. I would recommend this book.

Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun - Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelley

29th Aug 2004

This is the story of Ani Pachen narrated in first person, written as told to Adelaide Donnelley. The foreword is by Dalai Lama ("His Holiness") himself, and the preface by Richard Gere.

Ani Pachen is the daughter of a chieftain in the Khampa region of Tibet. The younger days of her life very nicely gives us a glimpse into Tibetan lifestyle, culture and beliefs. She has a happy childhood and in youth her one big worry is an arranged marriage. She does not want to marry some stranger and lead the usual ordinary life, she is deeply drawn by spritual study. But then gradually but venomously, Mao Tse Tung decides to spread communism (or rather Mao-ism) everywhere and destroy everything else. When her father dies, Ani Pachen resolves to lead the fight against the Chinese. This is where her life takes a turn and she has to undergo fighting, hunger, imprisonment and torture. But throughout all this, she lives on courageously, recalls all the spiritual teaching and finally escapes to India in Dharamsala where Dalai Lama is in refuge.

Though it seems to be a typical story of courage against odds, this book also shines in the portrayal of Tibetan lifestyle, culture and thoughts. You get to know the rich spirituality of the simple people, and how that Buddhism moulds their living and thinking. The Chinese invasion of Tibet was one chapter of history which was almost an unknown to me. Now I know what the Tibetan people felt about it. Secondly, I had recently travelled to Darjeeling and Sikkim and all the imagery in the book was something that struck a chord. Nice reading.

Poor Things - Alasdair Gray

2nd Aug 2004

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray is a award winning acclaimed book. But somehow I am unable to decide what to make of it. Reading a few other reviews I see that that is indeed what is supposed to happen. It is about a book that the author finds on street-side, that describes how a woman was revived from the dead and how a child's brain was used inside her (nothing gory or ugly in the text). Then by way of the woman's thoughts (that is the thoughts of a frank fearless innocent child's brain) there is some commentary on social evils as the woman encounters the cynicism, hypocracy, pompousness of society in her travels about the world. I must stress that this is not dull or heavy, but in fact quite light and, some might say, witty. The woman goes on to become a doctor with active pacifist / radical socialist opinions. Then the author has given the letter by the woman herself, about how that book is all false, and how in fact she was a normal human being and nothing like being resurrected from the dead. So the reader, that's me, is left wondering what is true and what is not, and what does Alasdair Gray want me to think. To top it all, there is a section called critical and historical notes, where Alasdair Gray attempts to confuse us further by stating some facts from that age and time, related to the story of this woman.

I am sure some people will love this book, will be fascinated and be all praise for the author. But somehow I simply do not get it. So I stop short of recommending this book, or not doing so, because I think my literary tastes aren't yet quite ready to be able to give a proper critique of a book such as this one.

The World Of Nagaraj - R.K.Narayan

24th July 2004

The World Of Nagaraj is the first R.K.Narayan book that I've read. It is a tale about Nagaraj who stays at Kabir Street in Malgudi. Nagaraj's is a simple man, whose mind is always abuzz with thoughts, and whose one ambition in life is to write a book on Narada. He loves to lead a peaceful life and sit on the pyol in his verandah and watch the life on the street. His peace however is broken sometimes by things like the problems created by his brother Gopu or nephew Tim or Tim's wife Saroja whose blaring harmonium he simply can't stand!

This is a very charming tale with simple likeable characters and brings out the life, thought and people of small town South India. The language is also very typically South Indian. Enjoyed reading this one.

An Oral History of Unix

17th June 2004

Am reading this page which has transcripts of interviews of the people at Bell labs involved in building unix. You'll find it here.

The interviews are by Michael S. Mahoney. Isn't it wonderful that he can walk into the same office twenty years after the original project and still find most of those people still working together in the same place?

By reading these transcripts you get a glimpse into the personalities, the different perspectives of people, and the time and environment, behind how Unix came to be. For example, Al Aho has this deep interest on the theoretical aspects of computing and talks about that, Ken Thompson comes about as a very pragmatic and clear thinking guy, Doug McIllroy comes about as the wise boss whom everyone loved and respected. It is fun and inspiring to read these transcripts.

Life Of Pi - Yann Martel

24th Mar 2004

This is a story about a boy stranded at sea with no companion but a royal bengal tiger in his boat. The story line is certainly unusual but the book is an interesting read. The boy Pi, is the son of a zoo keeper in South India. The childhood days in the zoo seem to be something every child would love to have. The book also has interesting information about zoo animals and there are some very nice philosophical ramblings sprinkled throughout. The book is quite gripping at start but in the later one-third it starts to drag a bit. The end of the story has a certain twist but left me a little disappointed. Guess I am a little old-fashioned when it comes to fiction, but I like stories with some concrete conventional ending. I have read other stories where there are some loose-ends, some part left open to reader's interpretation, and in general, the end is meant to be thought-provoking. Somehow this kind of stuff, atleast right now, is not very much to my taste. I am however sure that many people would love that though. But having said that, I quite liked the book for the description of the childhood days in zoo, all that stuff about animals, and all those musings about life, animals, society, nature and so on.

The Prophesies - Satyajeet Salgar

2nd Feb 2004

This is a short story written by a college buddy. You'll find a link to the story here: http://xenon.stanford.edu/~salgar/stuff/.

I haven't read too many short stories so can't give very intelligent comments on them. But the ones I have read are supposed to be very good ones. Most of them were unputdownable, but at the end left you with a little incomplete-ish feeling, which made them thought provoking. This story sure seems to fit that bill.

One is also left wondering about the choice of first person narrative for this story.

Modern Compiler Implementation in C - Andrew Appel

1st Feb 2004

This book is made up of two parts. Part#1 describes each phase of a compiler for Tiger - a language created for illustration purposes just for this book. The material in this part is general enough to give a good idea of how compilers work. Part#2 deals with more "advanced" aspects like compilation of object oriented languages, of functional languages, compiler optimization etc. I've finished reading Part#1 so am writing the review of that part. Will complete the full review when I finish reading Part#2.

Like the name says, this book is really "modern". I had studied compilers for a semister as part of my Engineering degree. The book I'd used was the one by Aho and Ullman. I had really enjoyed it, and had learnt enough about lexical analysis, parsing and sematic analysis. However, the compiler backend, except for a vague idea how it might be, was a complete mystery. This could also be because I did not study those aspects enough. But this book by Andrew Appel has changed that. I think, for anybody to get an idea of how an entire compiler can be built, and how it works, this is an excellent book.

Part#1 has a chapter on each phase, to mention the most significant - lexical analysis, parsing, semantic analysis, activation records, liveness analysis, instruction selection, register allocation. The amount of detail in each of these, is just sufficient for one to get an idea of how it works, and still make it a pleasant reading experience. I learnt a lot of new things in the chapters on the backend, like those on instruction selection, register allocation etc. The references cite even some papers written in after 1995 (which is quite modern if you consider the book by Aho and Ullman. I guess part#2 will have even more recent citations).

I urge any programmer who wants to know how compilers work without really wanting to get bogged down into too much detail, or on the other hand, not wanting to end up with a vague nebulous incomplete understanding, to read this book. I am glad I did.

Appointment with Death - Agatha Christie

16th Jan 2004

Wonder whether I should write reviews for Agatha Christie and such books too. Typically, anyone who happens to be able to lay hands on one of these books just reads it.

The backside cover of the book has this observation by The Observer - "Twice as brilliant as Death on the Nile , which was entirely brilliant."

This is a Hercule Poirot story about a horrible old woman with a sadistic mind, and her family. The family and some other folks (and Poirot) are visiting the middle east. Everybody hates the old woman who is genuinely a bad one. We get acquainted with the mind and personality of each character in the story. The old woman is murdered. Who killed her? Well, I have never been able to figure out the killer in a Poirot story before the end, when Poirot unveils the killer with his customary drama and flamboyance. Good one, doesn't take long. Read it.

The Overcoat - Nikolai Gogol

When I went to Pune University for certain work (I had done my B.E. and only wanted to ask whether I could do an M.Sc. in Mathematics as an external candidate), man, the clerks there had me running from pillar to post for days! I had to stand there for hours together to talk to some guy who was typically completely disenterested, and asked me to meet someone else, who typically would only be available a few days later. The bureaucracy had me sick. Somewhere in this period, I read the short story "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol.

Its about a Russian bureaucrat who buys and owns a prized overcoat and loses it and stuff. But the satire in there, and the way the Russian bureaucracy is represented is hilarious, biting and sad at the same time.

The satire is very well put forth, but the story takes a twist in the end which I didn't exactly like too much. But anyone who has had to face bureaucracy anytime will relate to this wonderfully and enjoy it. Go ahead read it.

By the way, I see that its available online here.

Great Indian Novel - Shashi Tharoor

The following paragraph is picked from one of the mails I had sent after reading the book.

Just finished reading the book "The Great Indian Novel" by Shashi Tharoor. Its got ENOUGH wit and wisdom. The story follows the outline of Mahabharata. But it tells the story of modern India, roughly speaking, from the time of British Raj to the end of Indira Gandhi. So the people have Mahabharatical names and episodes are from Mahabharata, but you see that the characters are really Gandhiji and Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi etc. Nice read. I am hesitant to call it an Indian masterpiece, but its definitely worth reading.

You need to have a background of the Mahabharata and some Indian politics from Mahatma Gandhi to Indira Gandhi to enjoy this book.

Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect - Paul R. Ehrlich

Its written by Paul Ehrlich one of the leading figures in the field. The book talks about "human evolution". This means genetic evolution, cultural evolution, evolution of societies - from hunter gatherers via agriculture, nation states to today's global cultures. There is a whole wealth of facts, knowledge and new thought in the book that broadens our mind. Since the book is new - first published in 2000, the thought and knowledge-base is pretty state of the art. The final discussion about the human prospect is also very interesting and I am beginning to think, like it is suggested in the book, that this entire subject must be part of basic school curriculum. Having praised the book, I must point out that it is not a quick read. Its 331 pages with another hundred or more pages of notes (which I abandoned reading). And somehow it took me quite a long time to finish it. So maybe the writing style could've been more gripping, the material could've been presented better, but all in all reading it till the end is worth the content.

Niels Bohr : The Man, His Science, and the World They Changed - Ruth Moore

We have this wonderful hardcover book at home. Its one of my favourites. Its about Niels Bohr. A very readable and lovable book that touches upon all aspects of Bohr's life - the daily life, Bohr's institute at Copenhagen, the culture and environment at the institute, the Danish setting, Bohr's physics, the World War II years, the Manhattan Project years, Bohr's friends (most of them great people in their own right); and it does so in a very balanced manner.

Bohr was a great man, a great scientist, and one of the most admirable qualities of his that comes across is his ability to gather the best folks around him, have fun with them, and bring out the best in them. The stories of the institutes and the people there, makes you wish you were one of them.

A little bit of physics and the problems that were tackled are also described well. Bohr's efforts to bring peace during times of the World War and the later Cold War are also something one gets to know on reading - and there are quite a few dramatic moments too where Bohr helped people escape, and then he himself escaped the Nazis.

You must read this book. It leaves you with a real warm feeling about the full and great life of Niels Bohr and all his adoring friends.