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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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The 7 Best Things I Read in 2016!


2016 has been a bitter-sweet reading year with the usual mixed bag of disappointing books but also some very very good ones that I couldn’t recommend enough!

Surprisingly, I very comfortably finished my reading target of 31 books for the year (which is a tiny number  compared to the many book bloggers here – and I wish I could read even half as much as they do!). The down side is that I haven’t been able to sit tight with a single book since that happened – and my last month this year has gone with me pining to read but making no progress with the annoying reader’s block that I can’t seem to shake off!

So! Since its that time of the year, here are the 7  best things I read in 2016!!!! (in no particular order coz they are all great). Click the title to read full reviews!

  1. The Blood Telegram – India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary J. Bass

Ah, such a pleasure to think about this one again. A journalistic masterpiece. I read this book  like the history student I never was, completely absorbed in the details, marking margins, watching interviews on YouTube as I read and constantly resisting the urge to underline complete paragraphs on nearly every page in the book. The 1971 Bangladesh War is an important, recent and probably much misunderstood / misinformed event in modern history. This is a must read. Cannot compliment Gary Bass enough for writing and researching this as well as he did.

2. Five Days in November by Clint Hill

If you’ve ever been obsessed by the the JFK assassination, then you will appreciate the very personal insider account of what happened immediately after the shots hit JFK. Written by the Kennedys’ secret service agent, Clint Hill, and published on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, it is a sensitively written book that gives you a glimpse at the profound sense of grief that everyone close to JFK felt but had to keep in check as official procedures and protocol took precedence. This is easily a book you can finish in a couple of hours.

3. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I spent a beautiful month reading all four books in this series. Actually I tore through one book after the other until they were all done and each one was brilliant. If I had to summarize, I’d just say that Elena Ferrante’s writing captivates, engrosses, absorbs, consumes, devastates and satisfies. All the fuss and buzz around these books is completely authentic and well-founded. Being nominated for the Man Booker was well deserved. I only wish she hadn’t been harassed by that Italian journalist’s obsession to uncover her true identity – in the end it has nothing to do with who she is as an author and this all this reader cares about.

I reviewed each book in this series separately, so I’m leaving links to those here:

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

The Story if the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

4. The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie

Oh what an adorable, wonderfully written book on the basic tenets of Buddhism and its simple yet profound philosophy for a happy life narrated by the Dalai Lama’s cat Rinpoche! A happy book that must be read by everyone at least once.

5. The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Probably the only thriller that worked this year! Also, it breaks away from the usual ‘super hero’ typecasting of the main character, which is refreshing and realistic, and gives him a great back story too. Modern day fast paced, intense and exciting – its just the kind of book you can curl up with on a cold night this winter; with some hot tea or chocolate? whatever you prefer!

6. Belonging by Umi Sinha

I still consider this to be one of the most underrated and undiscovered books of the year. A well-crafted, elegantly written epistolary novel set in early 19th century India, spanning three generations and their struggle to understand their identity in colonial India.A definite must read.

7. One Child by Mei Fong

Wrapping up the list is another brilliant journalistic novel on China’s one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. Reading about how this policy was implemented has impacted and will continue to impact the country’s people and economy was disturbing but also such an important story that needed telling. China never ceases to amaze and this social experiment from its modern history is a big lesson for the world to reflect upon.

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And that wraps its up! If I wasn’t such a slow reader, I would have likely re-read nearly all these books again, but for now I’ll be glad for having read them at all.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year everyone!!!!

Looking forward to a bookpacked 2017!!!!!!

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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The Infinity Dreams Award


Thank you for nominating me Seldjana (The Book Orchids)! I enjoyed reading your answers and always enjoy your posts. This is the perfect way to relax and unwind after a really long and tiring week for me, so here goes!

Before I begin, here are the rules:

  1. Thank and follow the blog that nominated you.
  2. List 11 facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the questions that were set for you to answer.
  4. Nominate 11 bloggers and set 11 questions for them.

11 facts about me:

  1.  I’m a big foodie. I love eating out, but I also love simple home food, which I find extremely comforting. I always choose salt over sweet.
  2. I’m very very lazy, and I’m not proud of it 😛
  3. I’m a bit of a loner and quite independent.
  4. I LOVE baking. I love the smell of baking breads, cakes and pies. I hope to some day own a small bakery.. be the Baker who loved books…
  5. I love animals, specifically dogs. I’ve always had one as a pet and I think they’re extremely adorable, each one with a distinct personality.
  6. I’m a crime fiction junkie and get pretty obsessive about real crime too – from the JFK assassination to OJ Simpson, to Oscar Pistorious, to the Madeleine McCann case and so on..
  7. I love cinema, and I love going to the movies for the big screen experience. Who doesn’t.
  8. I’m so greedy about books, that my TBR list is over 250, I own 18 unread books and at least a 100 unread ebooks – each one chosen after careful research. The one thing I love as much as books is reading about books.
  9. I love gadgets. Smartphone, iPad, laptop, mp3 player, Bluetooth speakers, pedometer… I’m trying to contain the list to that. My only guilt minimising consolation is that I pay for these myself 😛
  10. Word puzzles, scrabble, crosswords and soduko are some of my favorite games. I’m a Boggle pro – of the original written down kind, Not the iPad app kind.
  11. I decorate and redecorate spaces in my head. I’m a mental interior designer.

The questions:

1. If you could choose any place on the Earth and even from the space to live, where would it be?

I think I’d keep myself on Earth only. I’ve always fantasised about living in a quaint little Spanish village, as a baker’s apprentice, with a cottage full of books and a robust Internet connection

2. What superpower would you like to have?

The “I dream of Genie” kind. It covers everything.

3.  What is the TV show you can’t stop watching over and over again?

I think I’ve watched and rewatched  F.R.I.E.N.D.S. more times than I can remember. But it never gets old and I never tire of Chandler’s jokes.

4. What is the book you haven’t read although it’s a must read? (no lies)

Haha, I can name more than one. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco); Beloved (Toni Morrison) ; all the classics…

5. What movie adaptation of the book do you hate?

The Twilight series.

6. If you could name a planet, what name would you choose?

That’s a tough one. Aron I think…

7. What’s your favorite actor/actress?

Leo Dicaprio. Jennifer Aniston, Mark Rylance, Amy Schumer….no favorites, they’re all good.

8. When have you realized that you are something like a book addict?

I think when Goodreads happened. I realised I spent way too much time on it and still do, and it’s really fuelled my passion for reading.

9. If you could punch the character from a book/movie in the face, who would it be?

I would say Mitch Rapp from the Vince Flynn series. He’s so perfect he irritates me.

10. Which fairy tale is your favorite?

Cinderella 🙂

11. Ask yourself one question.

What are you going to read next? (That was obvious)

My questions:

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2016 TBR Book List – Indian History


Following an extremely interesting discussion on Indian history, I realised there was much more to know about what happened, when it happened and most importantly why. In today’s day and age,  when one has all the resources to inform oneself on historical facts, I don’t see why we mustn’t be well informed – after all, our history defines our present, shaping thoughts, opinions and decisions. So to avoid developing my own version of history and instead to develop a history’s version of history, I’ve resolved to read the following books in the next few months. Its a 2016 resolution come early! and I’m raring to get started.

In no particular order, here’s my list. Being someone who is as much a hoarder as a reader, I happen to have all of these in paperback, hardback or ebook formats 🙂

  1. The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple
  2. White Mughals  – William Dalrymple
  3. India After Gandhi – Ramachandra Guha 
  4. Delhi: A Novel – Khushwant Singh
  5. The Blood Telegram – Gary J Bass
  6. Indira Gandhi, the Emergency and Indian Democracy – PN DHar
  7. The History of the Sikhs – Khushwant Singh

I guess there’s nothing left to do but read.

 

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Sad Case of Intolerance…..?


The key word caught my eye, so decided to re-blog this. An outdated post but the concept of #intolerance has a new found relevance today…

Brain Curry.....!!!

What does one make of a case like SR Siras’ – a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who allegedly committed suicide because apparently the “shame” of being a homosexual consumed him.

Now SR Siras was reader and chairman of Modern Indian Languages at AMU. He had been teaching at the university for a good 20  odd years. Recently, about a month ago, he was suspended from his duties by the Vice Chancellor of the university on the pretext of having being involved in “grave misconduct” by indulging in “consensual” homosexual activities within the “privacy” of his home. (Consensual and privacy are two key words to be noted here – but it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to pay attention to them.)

This suspension came as a result of a complaint by students of AMU who had planted spy cams in Siras’ home and presented it as evidence while…

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Everything I Never Told You – Book Review


5 / 5 STARS

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One of the best books I’ve read this year, EINTY had me hooked from the very beginning and kept me absorbed with the same (if not increasing) level of interest and involvement throughout. Being a debut novel, this is an accomplishment. As The Guardian put it very well, “By the third of the 12 chapters, it is apparent that there is much here that might impress Pulitzer and Man Booker judges as much as the panellists of an online bookseller”. The book topped Amazon’s 2014 list of top 100 best sellers of the year.

The story of a mixed race family that snaps, cracks and splinters when Lydia, the apple of their eye daughter, is found dead. The narrative runs back and forth in time, lending perspective and background to how the family has shaped into its present form over the years. What expectations, insecurities, failures and disappointments have culminated into this one dreadful and tragic event and the desperate attempt they make to explore and question everything and anything that may have led to it.

All of the 6 main characters are very well developed. Their perspectives, flaws and feelings, even the ones they don’t express, come through so clearly, it is not difficult to empathize with each one and to understand their motivations and impulses. The desperation of both parents in trying to mold their unfulfilled ambitions into one child is unsettling. Hannah, the youngest member of the family was the most endearing character for me, I wished many times to be able to re-assure her.

In the end, the book is about so many things. About love, ambition, identity, loss, fear, security and individuality.
#HighlyRecommended #AMustRead

Camera Antics


So my joblessness (read: unemployment) has led me to try out some photography. Here are some select clicks at Bandra West, Mumbai 🙂

Rosary Beads - Mount Mary Church

Rosary Beads - Mount Mary Church

Light a Candle - Mount Mary Church

The Bandra Worli Sea Link

The Fort at LandsEnd

Being a rather over cast day, I had to take most of the pictures in Black and White – which was good in a way, as it brought out a lot of character in the pictures.

The walls in Bandra are decorated with some very beautiful and interesting graffiti. You can find these on the outer periphery walls of schools and a few homes 🙂

Street DAWGS!!!

OOOh Close Shave..... Huh!!!!

Blue Smokey Girl

In Unity is Strength!

PEACE!!

Khush to tum aaj bahut hoge...hain!!!!

That Fish is gonna feed all of Bandra!

And a few more……..

Signs of The Good Times......!

Beautiful Blooms

Dramatic Flowers

Colours of Fire

Stairway to Heaven.....?

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