Category Archives: non fiction

Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran – Marina Nemat


Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside a Torture JailPrisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside a Torture Jail by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It amazes me to read stories from around the world that reveal how in the name of religion, power, politics, revolution…. innocent people who choose not to comply end up paying such heavy prices to maintain the most basic of liberties.

It is not that I live in an idealistic world, oblivious to the realities and sufferings that result from war and violent conflict – but when one reads in such detail, the ordeal of an individual who survived a conflict, the gravity of what he/she endured really hits home. From a statistic, this person turns into someone who you get to know almost as intimately as your own family and friends, and it is that connect that provides such perspective into the silent suffering and strength of millions trapped in conflict zones.
I think with war continuing to carry on in so many parts of the world for so many years, one dismisses it as an event beyond one’s control and in the process also loses sight of all the lives that are changing and getting lost everyday.

This is an important story, one that took so much courage to tell.

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Book Review – Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim


Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was meant to be investigative journalism, but it certainly does not read like one. Infact there was quite a controversy around it being publicised as a memoir – a woman’s journey of self exploration, much against the wishes of the author, who protested that tagging it as a memoir stripped the book and the author from its journalistic expertise.

While this may well have been the effect for many readers, it did not really change my perception about the book or the author’s journalism expertise. I still picked it up believing that it would provide a rare and engaging insight into this unexplored section of the North Korean society.

But the irony is that it reads exactly like a memoir, and not an interesting one at that. First I almost quit at 20% and then at 60%, and then just trudged on to the end because I wanted to read about what the author witnessed when Kim Jong Il died. But the details she shares from her two teaching months come across as so superficial, that anyone who has been reading about North Korea or has watched enough videos on YouTube, won’t be surprised by or find anything new in her reporting. There is so much of herself in there that all of this taking place in North Korea almost seems like a sub plot.

So much lost opportunity, not just in the writing but also in the information / investigation of information, especially since the book is a result of ten years of work.

People read about North Korea to understand it beyond the generic assumptions we have or make about the country, it’s systems and people. Investigative journalism is probably the most potent and dangerous means of getting the real picture. But how does it work in a country like DPRK when your every move is being watched, every word heard. So I understand that this is a big challenge and carries immense risk and may not actually provide the results one hoped for.

But a nearly day by day, lesson by lesson account of her time teaching English there adds no value to the larger scope of information that could have been gleaned and what one actually learns from this book could easily have been wrapped up in a chapter or two.

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Book Review: Dear Leader – Jang Jin-sung


Dear Leader: North Korea's senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regimeDear Leader: North Korea’s senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime by Jang Jin-sung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What made this book so interesting was the fact that the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they have managed to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question.
In an article with the Guardian, he describes the regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the center of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

After working as an expert analyst on North Korea for the South Korean government, Jang Jin-sung now runs an independent reporting website out of South Korea, with the primary agenda of dispelling myths and assumptions about North Korea and helping shape a picture that is much closer to reality – all as he continues to be a wanted criminal in North Korea on false murder charges.

The story of his escape and final entry into South Korea via China is amazing, bewildering and exciting and forces you to think about how such a country continues to exist even today, and the people who continue to languish there, stuck and stagnant.

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Book Review – ONE CHILD by Mei Fong


5/5 STARS!!!!

An account of what may possibly be the world’s most extreme social experiment in modern times, ONE CHILD tells the story of China’s one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. The policy was phased out last year, in 2015, and this book takes a look at what this policy has really meant for the people of China, how it was implemented, and how it will take a long time for the country to recover from its impact. 

Two of the most striking emotions that I have associated with China from whatever I have read and heard in the past, and more strongly through this book now, are fear and control. The way the Communist Party and government system control the country down to the last and remotest person is disturbing. Several instances in the book show how people were bound by the one-child rule, breaking which brought about a slew of fines and punishments, economically debilitating an already poor population and leaving them with nearly no choices of a fair recourse. It was non-negotiable. 

The book shows how the policy has affected not just the parents who were forced to adhere to it, but also its impact on the children who were born as the one-child generation. There are horrifying instances of in-human forced late-term abortions, and sad tales of parents losing their only child to natural disasters – like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of thousands of children, who were at school at the time, due to the poor quality of their school buildings. In the aftermath of such incidents, the desperation of parents scrambling to register themselves to have another child, as they would be eligible again, is heartbreaking. 

But there is also a very economic and pragmatic reason driving them to make such desperate scrambles to have children. As the author states, everything in Chinese society is geared towards marriage and family, and being unmarried or childless placed you very low on the societal totem pole. (There are labels like “leftover women” for those who remain unmarried after 25, and “bare branches” for men who are also unmarried after the designated ripe age. There are “bachelor villages” because of an extremely lopsided gender ratio, that was further exacerbated by the one-child policy, which encouraged people to be even more choosy about having their “one-child” as a boy.) 

People who broke the one-child rule or did not have any children, could not claim several of the benefits that the state offers – they simply became ineligible. Without any progeny, people found it difficult to buy even burial plots for themselves. Also, as the ratio of the older generation in China increased, and with expensive hospice care, having a child to look after you in old age became a critical requirement and investment. 

Other discriminating policies like hukou, which prevents migrant populations from overpopulating cities by making them ineligible to government benefits that a resident would normally get, show how difficult life is in China for the economically weaker class.  

There is a very interesting section early in the book, that talks about how the Olympics were also one area for the authorities to exercise population control to bring glory to the country – – where selective breeding to raise more talented humans was a central part of the elite sports program. 

Held very soon after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were China’s opportunity to dazzle the world, and they likely did. But some of the facts about how they did this has been an eye-opener – from spray painting the city’s dry grass an emerald green, to deploying 25 control stations to fend off rain clouds approaching the Bird’s Nest stadium, to the computer generated imagery of the fireworks one saw on TV – – it shows how China can and will go to any extent to paint a picture of perfection. 

Ironically, after three decades of making the one-child policy mandatory, the Communist Party is now having trouble making people choose to have two children – With such high parenting and child rearing costs, most middle-class Chinese now prefer to have only one child. 

There’s a lot more that the book covers that is interesting, insightful and informative and I would recommend everyone to read it, just to know a little bit more about this intriguing land of smoke and mirrors and the struggles of its people.

Featured Image Source: Amazon.in 

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Five Days in November – Book Review


Five Days in NovemberFive Days in November by Clint Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a time when I couldn’t read enough about the JFK Assassination and the various conspiracy theories about it. Traveling from one link to another on Wikipedia to buying an original DVD of JFK-the movie, only so I could watch and have a copy of the Zapruder film, like many people I obsessed on this event to an unhealthy degree. The last related book I read was 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which I loved.

‘Five Days in November’ was published 3 years ago, but I missed it somehow. When I did finally get it, it was like an after thought, and that too only because of the cover. So yesterday, when I finally picked it up, I was pleasantly surprised and very glad that I had not let it slip.

‘Five Days in November’ presents a very personal and intimate account of events from the inside. I’ve not been reading anything on this topic for years, and never picked up a book on it either, so for me the details in this book are a revelation. It is easy to see the high level of regard and respect Clint Hill had for the President and more so for the the First Lady, whose safety he was responsible for. I think it is not only well written but also sensitively written. Even though he is talking about personal details and emotions, there is no attempt to exemplify drama. There is no need.

It doesn’t go into any speculative deviations, but simply delivers fact and narrates a minute to minute account of what happened two days before and after the assassination.

Easily a single sitting read.

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Daughter of China – Book Review


Daughter Of ChinaDaughter Of China by Meihong Xu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The remarkable story of a military spy who is then treated as an enemy of state, in the backdrop of a cautiously protective and paranoid China in the cold war era. No wonder they say that if this story wasn’t true, a Hollywood script writer would have written it.

The simple language and first person narrative transports you into that time and place in China, when the country’s most defining transitions take place and where Meihong’s life path unfolds. Reading the first hand experience and perspective of a former ‘red’ citizen is an eyeopening account of the fear psychosis that was built under Chairman Mao’s rule – something that is deeply reminiscent of how North Korea functions even today.

The stories of the two women, other than Meihong, that impacted me a lot were those of her aunt and her paternal grandmother. Those are extraordinary stories of principle, courage and endurance… and make you wonder about the measure of human capacities for tolerance. I like this story because it is true and honest, and becasue it shows you how the worst can happen to the best of us, and how even the worst will one day be behind you. Yet there will be more to come and the only thing you have to do is try and keep your courage, trudge on and make the most of what you have.

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The Blood Telegram – Book Review


***** 5 STARS

The Blood Telegram may possibly be one of the most important and well written books I’ve read on modern Indian history so far. As someone who is almost always incurious, indifferent and unenthusiastic about politics (national and world) in general, reading this book has been a revelation on international diplomacy as well as a completely new perspective on the maneuverings that take place in the highest offices of the world, and the decisions that set in motion a series of incidents that alter the future of generations to come.

I’ve read this book like the history student I never was, completely absorbed in the details, wanting to take down notes, watching simultaneous interviews on YouTube (bringing to life the pages of the book) and constantly resisting the urge to underline complete paragraphs on nearly every page in the book. In the end, I had to make an exception to my ‘no markings in books’ rule – to highlight passages that I knew I was going to want to refer to again.

 

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My interest in modern Indian history is a fairly recent development, sprouting in the last couple of years mostly because of the extensive research I did for a project at work. Before this, my world view was limited to what we studied (or were taught) in school, which was nothing short of propaganda that the ruling party wants to feed you, and therefore hardly worth basing lasting opinions on. And so for a long time, reading history was not even on my radar.

It is laughable that up until now, I did not even know that the major part of the 1971 conflict was actually on the eastern side! It is the western side of the war that I’ve always remembered hearing about and being born just over a decade after this war, it is appalling to realize how little I knew about ‘India’s greatest triumph’ and what led to it.

This is why ‘The Blood Telegram’ came as such an important lesson for me on not just the 1971 war and the history of the birth of Bangladesh, but also as a lesson in world politics, the Cold War context, international relations, foreign policy and the hidden motives that define the realms and repercussions of international conflict. 

Gary J Bass’ research is detailed and expansive, and while there is always the danger of the author’s opinion coloring the inferences in the narrative, I think he dealt with every aspect as objectively and un-biasedly as is possible, basing all his interpretations and conjectures on hard facts. This is one of the reasons I am so taken by the book, because every fact literally comes from the horse’s mouth.

The one thing this book would not have been possible without, is the Nixon White House Tapes. Another fact that was news to me. I find it hard to believe that in the era of the Cold War, when secrecy and confidentiality were paramount, a US President would decide to have his office bugged and all his conversations and confidential meetings recorded. A tradition that continues to be practiced even today. In the Indian context, I can totally picture the author and his researchers diving into archival records and microfilms at the Nehru Memorial Library – a place I think is frozen in time from the 70s… and one I have spent several blissful days doing my own historical research in. Oh what a pleasure it would have been to be a part of the research team for this book.

In the end, we are ruled by our personalities, our temperaments, identities and insecurities – and I think what hit me most from the book was the interface it provided with Nixon and Kissinger in their revealing closed door conversations. Ultimately, it was their convictions, preferences and personal opinions that largely affected the outcome of the events in 1971, which despite numerous warnings and evident indications did not waver – and set the stage for a continuing conflict between India and Pakistan.

A #highlyrecommended book for anyone who would like objective and detailed insight into one of the largest but forgotten conflicts of the Indian subcontinent.

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