Category Archives: review

Book Review – Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet.

What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the “father of the Japanese short story” and has Japan’s premier literary award named after him, is also remembered for having killed himself at the age of 35.
Their literature and writings seem to have a cult following, because they definitely aren’t mass market material – and this is what attracted me to read some of their works.

This is a set of 6 tales that essentially explore dimensions of human nature. I don’t want to summarize the stories here, but I have to say that after reading each one of them, I looked up analyses online to understand the latent meanings that were clearly evading me – and in some cases I was surprised that I had almost completely missed the point – which in itself was amusing.

These are good stories to be read aloud, discussed and ruminated over. A good choice for book club reading. They are not very long, but some of them are complex.

The movie Rashomon was made based on two stories from this set and is highly acclaimed even today – with a rating of 8.3 on IMDb. That will be an interesting followup to the book.

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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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Why I’m Still Rooting for Blackberry


Most people I know have written off the BlackBerry. In fact, its more than most people, its nearly everyone.

When people at work (and for that matter at home) see me using my BlackBerry phone (the Z30), its like a novel experience for them to watch someone use what they believe is probably the biggest failure in mobile technology today. The most natural reaction is generally the “but why” reaction. But why must you be using a BlackBerry when there are so many great Android / Apple options!? But why must anyone be using a BlackBerry at all, isn’t the company closing down?

So, while earlier I used to try and defend why I continued to be a BlackBerry user for the past 6 years, I’ve simply stopped doing it anymore. And that’s because until one actually uses a BlackBerry that runs the BB10 OS – which I have been using for the past 4 years, I don’t think they can fully appreciate why some BlackBerry loyals aren’t giving up on it just yet.

BlackBerry released the BB10 OS in 2013 taking a leap from its BB6 version, which everyone said was a desperate attempt at bringing itself at par with Android and iOS. And maybe it was,  an attempt to re-imagine and re-position the BlackBerry on an equal operating plane.

But consider what BlackBerry did with BB 10. It actually innovated! And it out innovated Apple as well as Android.If we leave the app world factor out, BlackBerry actually delivered a much more sophisticated, productive, thought through and streamlined operating system. The Hub, which is the central feature of the BB 10 operating system, is such a simple, efficient and practical solution that I cannot imagine functioning without it. It is immediately intuitive, integrating all notifications from SMS and emails, to social media and instant messaging. I never have to actually enter the Gmail, Twitter or Whatsapp apps to check and respond to my messages, which if you think about it, is a huge convenience.

BlackBerry Flow – gesture control. When I first started using a BB10 device, it took me about a week to get used to having no home, menu or back buttons on the phone. But pretty soon, I realized what a blessing gesture control was! True to its name, BlackBerry Flow allows you to run apps side by side; you can hop from one to the other without losing any content or progress and pickup exactly where you left off without having to exit and enter apps repeatedly. Try doing that on the iOS or an Android, and tell me if it isn’t super annoying to constantly get in and get out of every app you’re using. With Flow, BlackBerry nailed navigation. It is the single most fluid operating system and interface I have experienced across devices – and I’ve used both iOS and Android.

Don’t they call Blackberry the king of the keyboard? Yes they do, and for good reason. Whether its the touch keypad or the iconic physical keyboard, BlackBerry knows what its doing and is hands down the king of keyboard design, so lets not even get into that.

And finally, the handsets. BlackBerry launched a whole new generation of handsets when it released the BB10 OS. And while some of these had a bumpy start, almost every flagship device won accolades for its design and performance. In 2014, the BlackBerry Z30 won gold in the ‘Consumer Product of the Year’ category at the Best in Biz Awards 2014 International. The same year, it also won the WIRED’s CES Smartphone Thunderdome Challenge with a 110 point lead on Apple in the second place (hah!). CES is a global consumer electronics and consumer technology tradeshow that takes place every January in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2015 the BlackBerry Passport won the Red Dot ‘Best of the Best’ Award for Product Design – I could start gushing endlessly about this device, so just go and read what the jury had to say about it here. And in 2016, the BlackBerry Priv won it again.

My only regret would be to miss out on the BlackBerry Passport, which was going to be my next device – and that too only because it wont get Whatsapp support, which I use extensively like everyone else. But for more reasons than that, Blackberry shouldn’t let this premier device slip through the cracks, and I can only hope they bring an Android integrated version on it too.

So yes, I have more than “some” hope in BlackBerry’s revival and I am waiting to see what they bring out next!

Featured image: 4hdwallpapers
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Book Review – Belonging by Umi Sinha


5/5STARS!!!!!!!!

Probably one of the most undiscovered and underrated books from the past year. I would never have discovered it myself, but for a completely unplanned (impulsive) trip to the local bookstore where I made a very poor choice and was back to exchange it for something better. And this time too, with the bookshop owner waiting to close shop, I almost randomly picked up ‘Belonging’. The cover was beautiful, but the author and book were completely unheard of, and a quick check on GR told me that with a 4+ rating it was a safe buy.

But I was not prepared for this book to be as fantastic as it was! Why hasn’t it showed up on any lists!? And I am surprised that even the Guardian hasn’t done a review on it, when it seems to review every new book that comes out! – – especially since this one has such a contextual British-Indian theme.

I seldom describe a book as “well crafted”. Many are well written but this one has something beautiful and intricate about it, much like the fine embroidery that adorns its cover and is a pivotal part of the story. As a debut author, Umi Sinha has set the bar very high and admirably demonstrates, by example, her background as a creative writing mentor and manuscript appraiser.

There is something about epistolary novels and I loved this one even more because nearly two-thirds of it is written in the form of letters and diary entries – making the reader so much more involved and engaged with characters and their deepest emotions. Sinha treats her characters with a lot of compassion and sensitivity and one comes away understanding each one – why they became who they were, what shaped their lives.This is a book worth reading again. Beautiful and elegant.

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Book Review: The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons


5/5 STARS!!!!!!!

27239265Well…. that was pretty intense, exciting and enjoyable!
Gibson Vaughn is like the American equivalent of Cormoran Strike – in a refreshing, believable and non-super hero kind of way; and this first book builds a great back story for him. This is not a James Bond / Mitch Rapp equivalent and I’m so grateful to Matthew FitzSimmons for keeping it real. I am definitely looking forward to the release of the next one in October this year.

The story hooks you from the very first page and keeps the tempo up throughout. There is something about surveillance videos of missing persons that just keeps you glued and I’m sharing no more than that. Though I was able to guess the plot before the big reveal, that didn’t spoil it for me, it was still super interesting till the end.

Usually, in this genre, the lead character is either unbelievably ‘uber cool’ or so ‘flawed’ that it doesn’t seem real anymore and I find it hard to relate to. But I liked all the characterizations in this book. They are well balanced, and don’t fall into the usual cliched territory. The other thing that sets this one apart is that while the book is so fast paced, its not a shallow story and makes one care for its characters. It will stick in the mind for a while.

I think this story is perfect for American TV or at least a movie, though I think 2 hours wouldn’t do justice to all the plot lines.

Read it!!

Featured image: Goodreads.com

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Book Review – The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham


4/5 STARS

The Killings at Badgers DriftA classic mystery thriller that takes you back to those quaint English villages, where time seems to move slowly, everyone knows everyone, and everybody has something to hide. Yet, while the story seems to be set in a conservative time, it brings out a most sinister and twisted plot and a range of characters, all of whom seem to have a motive to kill.

The writing is so different from how books are written today, refined in a way that you cannot rush through the book, and definitely something that can build your vocabulary. Reminded me a little bit of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories where you are always guessing till the end and this one definitely keeps the final revelation hanging to the last.

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Book Review: The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie


5/5 STARS!!!

Its amazing that I found this book three years ago, slotted it in my to-read folder, and only happened to finally read it now. I guess I was ordained to meet His Holiness’ Cat now more than ever. This is a wonderfully written book that brings forth the basic tenets of Buddhism and the whole point of its philosophy very gently and subtly through small day to day examples with a handful of characters in Jokhang and McLeod Ganj.

The author, David Michie, is very convincing in telling this story from the intimate confines of the Dalai Lama’s own residence and you can almost feel the positive and glowy warmth of his presence and the kindness, wisdom and patience of his words. I marked so many passages from this book on my kindle app. A happy book that must be read.

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Source: Goodreads.com

“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings … As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

In Rinpoche’s own words – “This is exactly that kind of book.”

 

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Book Review: Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima


Spring SnowSpring Snow by Yukio Mishima

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spring Snow is not a book you can rush through. The very style and period of writing gives it a reserved and restrained feel, as if it’s almost impolite to be reading it any quicker. Considered Japan’s most famous writer, Mishima’s own story is so strange that it almost doesn’t fit with his intellectual and philosophical writing style. But then again, probably only such a man, who so definitively broke cultural boundaries and traditional aesthetics, would have as strange a story as his own.

While the book isn’t a difficult one to read, there are many lengthy philosophical digressions, and some very very descriptive passages about the environment the characters are surrounded by. Sometimes a whole chapter will consist of only the description of the snow, trees, blooms, the sea or procedures of a ritual, often disconnected to the actual story. But what it does do, is that it creates a very detailed picture and mood of Japan in the 1910s.

I felt the need to read a couple of reviews and analyses after finishing the book, probably in an attempt to understand if there was more than met the eye and a deeper essence that I was supposed to have appreciated. In the end, the story was a simple tale of rash youth that ends in tragedy (an avoidable waste of lives), but the mystic setting of early 19th century Japan and the interesting characterizations that appear to be so mute and demure on the outside, but are really so vocal and unquiet on the inside give it a very classic ‘Japanese’ feel – which to me was the main appeal of the book.

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Book Review : Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante


Those Who Leave and Those Who StayThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of this one, I knew I had to take a break and not start the fourth book immediately. That is the effect these books have had on me and I’ve torn through the first three non-stop, as if they were one book and not three.

In this one we see Elena and Lila go through their 20s and 30s. Time passes quickly for Elena from being a young university student to unknowingly a somewhat acclaimed author and then the wife of a professor – all signs of having truly ‘arrived’ in life. Lila on the other hand is going through a disturbingly downward spiral in her life and there is an evident distance between the two friends during these years.

This one brought out the really raw emotions of both women and I wondered many times if their relationship could really be called a friendship anymore. There’s a constant love-hate equation that is frustrating and disturbing to witness. There is a demanded dependence, rough abdication. Jealousy abounds. Its almost claustrophobic – a claustrophobia of the mind.

And yet you keep reading, hoping to understand why, hoping they will relinquish the cold war, or break off completely rather than be mirrors of misery to each other.

Elena’s need for verification is almost tragic – Lila never ceases to be a benchmark, she can never shake her off.

“My becoming was a becoming in her wake.”

“my thoughts were cut off in the middle, absorbing and yet defective, with an urgent need for verification, for development, yet without conviction, without faith in themselves. Then the wish to telephone her returned, to tel her: Listen to what I’m thinking about, please lets talk about it together.”

And Lila, unapologetic and vengeful, violently expresses her independence and disengagement – which displays her need to coverup insecurities, setbacks and failures even more – which are unacceptable to her, and yet her reality.

The story traces how both women deal with their own circumstances and situations in life. Each reassuring herself of having the better one in comparison to the other, and each seemingly unhappy with it. They compete constantly. They are bolder, more reckless, more selfish and yet there are a few tender moments that confuse and conflict how you feel about them.

One cannot help but ‘feel’ – for them and with them.

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Cover Image: Goodreads.com
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