The Spy

The Spy-min

By Paulo Coelho

Genres – History, Politics, Biography fiction

“When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never truly lost.”

It’s been about a month since I’ve read a book and I decided to complete a somewhat shorter novel this time. The Spy is a pretty engaging read, hard to put down once you’ve begun and let’s face it. Paulo Coelho? The man is a master storyteller who drops amazing pieces of advice from time to time when the reader is least expecting it. I’ve personally made it a habit to try and remember the page numbers where I find motivational quotes (I don’t really like folding pages. I’m sure a lot of you can relate) and somewhere near the end, I lost count. That’s how good this man is.

The Spy is a tale of an enigmatic woman, Mata Hari who moves to Paris before the First World War. Near the end of the war in 1917 however, she is accused of espionage. The novel is based on a true story and primarily describes Mata Hari’s life; her struggle, her fame as a dancer, the lavish life she led and finally, it briefly touches on the manner of her downfall. The book isn’t simply a narrative of this woman’s life, however. Paulo Coelho uses subtle hints to portray the hypocrisy of human beings and governments, and he also shows his readers how men and women alike feel threatened by a famous and beautiful woman who has worked hard to achieve success in life.

Paulo Coelho’s books aren’t what I’d call mainstream novels. Sure, everyone’s reading them nowadays, but there’s always something different about them. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what sets them apart. It could be that they are all translated from a different language. It could be the connection Coelho forms between his characters’ lives and ours. It could be his unique way of narration. Or it could be a combination of all three.

The narration is in the form of 2 letters written by Mata Hari to her lawyer and vice versa. The book’s pace seemed a bit rushed to me. There were instances when I felt a bit unclear as to which event happened where. The ending was also rather abrupt, albeit full of literary genius. But come to think of it, that may have been the initial objective of the author. I’ve noticed this sort of pattern before in Paulo Coelho’s novels. The main purpose doesn’t really seem to be story-telling. It’s to narrate a set of events and drop philosophical quotes in between these. The attention to detail is pretty non-existent. The surroundings are rarely described and even the characters have very vague descriptions. I hadn’t been able to form a picture of Mata Hari in my mind by the time I finished the book.

In spite of all these deviations from the classical norm of story-telling, I did enjoy the novel. I can’t exactly explain why though. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, I guess? The book was extraordinary and the profound wisdom of the author really caused a lot of mind-fuck moments. If you want to try something new and enjoy reading about philosophy, I’d definitely recommend this book to you.

P.S. – I’ve stopped rating books on a scale after reading this one. I’ve realized that you can’t really set a bunch of parameters to describe how much you’ve enjoyed reading a book. I’ll rate books very occasionally from now on.
Also, it was a bit difficult deciding the genres of this book because Coelho said it was based on a real woman, but had been slightly dramatized. Biography fiction seemed the safest bet.

Advertisements

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

Genre – Classic, Historical fiction

Cliché choice of book? I couldn’t agree more. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that has been read by a lot of people, whether as an assignment in school or because a friend suggested it. Personally, I don’t know why I didn’t read it a long time ago. This book had been suggested to me countless times and I finally decided to see what all the hype was about. Spoiler: The book does live up to my expectations.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book set in the 1930s in the southern United States. It describes primarily, the adventures of two children – Scout and Jem Finch as they go through life and learn about human nature. Their father Atticus, is a lawyer and is known to the entire town as an extremely honorable man. He’s one of the role models in the story because of his values and principles. The story mainly revolves around Atticus’s decision to defend a black man, Tom Robinson accused of raping a white girl, and how the lives of the Finch family change due to his decision.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Scout Finch, in the first person. The book spans three years of her life from the age of 6 to 9. Various events take place during this time, and as the story moves forward, we see Scout and Jem mature through the years. The change is so subtle, that the reader doesn’t really notice it, but it is present nonetheless. For instance, in the first year, their pastime is mainly playing in the yard and recreating the life of their neighbor Boo Radley. However, by the third year, they start attending Tom’s trial with all the other adults of their town. Harper Lee also shows us certain irrationalities of the adult attitude as seen through the eyes of a child. She portrays how at the end of the day no matter how civilized we are, no matter how learned we are, we are still human beings with the basic flaws that all humans have – prejudice, hypocrisy, and violence.

The story has multiple themes which Harper Lee brings out by introducing various characters. Atticus Finch and Mrs. Dubose are symbols of bravery. Scout’s teacher Miss Gates is representative of hypocrisy. The list goes on, and a lot of characters are introduced at various points in the book, all of them unique and interesting. A character I found interesting was Mr. Underwood (Atticus was a bit naïve in my opinion). He doesn’t have much of a role in the book, however. He openly admits that he has a dislike for blacks but he still defends Tom’s right to a fair trial and this is what I admired about him. A human being can have his/her own personal prejudices against someone or something but shouldn’t allow those biases to come in the way of the law.

Personally, I found the book to be a very accurate representation of human nature and society. The fact that it was a young girl narrating the story made for a different sort of reading. Young children notice little details that adults tend to overlook. A child’s analysis of racism and her inability to grasp its meaning is a message to the readers, a message that is important even in today’s world. Harper Lee is indirectly advocating the need for a free and fair world, where everyone is treated equally.

Finally, I’d like to say just this. To Kill a Mockingbird is an extraordinary book. It has received countless accolades and rightly so. I’m not going to rate this book right now like I’ve done in my previous reviews, because I think this book goes a lot deeper than what I’ve understood. I feel like I’d need to be a lot wiser to be able to fully grasp the hidden messages in the book. However, it does make for an interesting read and I’d not hesitate before recommending it to anyone.

A quote from the book which I found interesting – “It’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

1984

By George Orwell

Genre – Fiction, Classic, Dystopia

1984-min.jpg

I read 1984 for the first time back in grade 8, about 6 years ago. Back then, I was awed by the book if nothing else. At the time, it was one of the darker novels I’d come across and I was rather awed by the concept of an authoritarian society. At the suggestion of a friend, I decided to read the book a second time. And just so you know, I don’t regret that decision at all.

1984 describes the world of Oceania, a world in which Big Brother is always listening in. Big Brother is the symbol of the dictatorship and the fabled leader of the “government” in Oceania. People are under surveillance 24/7 inside their own houses, through telescreens which are basically two-way TVs. They aren’t allowed to have any rebellious thoughts or individualism, or they will be prosecuted by the Thought Police. All forms of literature, art and music are banned. Oceania is constantly at war with one of the two neighbouring countries and the “Party” constantly propagates fear and hatred for all foreigners. Concepts like doublethink, two plus two equal five, reality control and thoughtcrime are introduced at various stages in the book. The Party also constantly alters historical records to reiterate the belief in people that everything which the Party predicts eventually comes true.

Sound scary? It sure is. Novels like these make me realize the importance of freedom and the benefits of living in a democratic society. I’ve read very few dystopian novels before this, a few of them being Divergent, Animal Farm and the Hunger Games series and I can easily say that 1984 tops the list. The book focuses on a very key aspect of our lives. Freedom. Freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. To have this freedom stripped away from us is to no longer be human. To touch on a topic like this (on which multiple books already exist), and to have such a profound impact on the reader requires nothing less than a literary genius. It’s this very book which sets George Orwell a class apart when it comes to dystopian novels.

The novel is written from the point of view of Winston Smith, a middle-class Party member in Oceania who despises the dictatorship. The pace of the novel is just right and it always seems like something or the other is happening. Throughout the novel, there wasn’t a single instance when I felt bored or fatigued. The story was a bit depressing, I’ll admit but that just goes to show how good of an author George Orwell actually is. It’s truly praiseworthy when the author can make you connect with the character. When he can make you feel like the events are happening in your own life. When you feel that your grief at the characters’ misfortune is justified because it’s happening to someone familiar.

However, the most impressive aspect of the book wasn’t its style. It wasn’t George Orwell’s creation of a terrifying world, the horrors of which we can barely fathom. It was the fact that the book encouraged the reader to think. The policies of the Party, their slogans and their prosecution of “thought criminals” all seem to be mysterious and a bit stupid in the beginning. The reader begins to think George Orwell got a bit carried away in his creation of a terrible world. However, near the end of the book, all of it is justified and the reader is left with no doubt as to why the Party does what it does. The reader understands the way the top Party members think and all the pieces fall into place.

In conclusion, I have no words which will do justice to the literary masterpiece that is 1984. The book is remarkable to say the very least. I’d give it 4.7/5 because it compelled me to think and because it takes a great deal of creativity to come up with a new world altogether. Read it, I say. Just read it.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

By Jules Verne

Genre – Science Fiction, Classic

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is an intriguing read. That’s the best word I can find to describe it. Intriguing. The book features an eccentric professor who decides to go on a journey to the center of the Earth (too obvious? Perhaps). He is accompanied by a rather unwilling nephew and an Icelandic guide, who quite frankly doesn’t even seem human to begin with. When I started reading the book, I had only one objective in mind. I wanted to find out how Jules Verne would convince readers that humans would be able to survive a journey thousands of miles underground. However, the book soon became interesting and I eventually did finish it.

Given that the book was written in the 1800s, I think it’s fair to say that Jules Verne could possibly be one of the first science fiction writers ever. He uses half-baked scientific facts to try to convince readers that the interior of the Earth doesn’t necessarily have to be hot, even though most of the evidence points the other way. The thing to keep in mind is that this may not have been so inconceivable to the general public who lived during that time. The scientific inaccuracies, however, aren’t a big deal because this book is a work of fiction.

The book was very exciting, and it had numerous ups and downs. The professor and his nephew are relatable characters, the guide much less so. Throughout the journey, there’s always something that seems to be happening. There isn’t one dull moment in the book and this makes for a very compelling read.

The narrative style is really good and the entire book is written from the viewpoint of the professor’s nephew. There are a few instances where we find subtle sarcasm in the book, and it’s interesting to know that it existed in the 1800s. However, the most prominent feature of the book was the descriptions. Jules Verne painted a really vivid picture of the interior of the Earth, and the attention to detail was commendable. There was one aspect that was somewhat interesting for me, as a reader. While reading about the initial phase of the journey, I felt this sense of déjà vu, that I couldn’t explain at the time. A few hours later, it struck me. The description of the caves in the initial part of the journey, with the stalactites and the worn away rocks, held an uncanny resemblance to a cavern described in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Both books were written in the 19th century and apparently were published only a few years apart. Go figure.

If I had to rate the book, I’d give it a 4/5, primarily because of the descriptions and the fact that I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started. Overall, it’s a really great book. If you’re thinking of starting classics, this is definitely one of the books to begin with. I’d also recommend it to anyone who has an interest in science-fiction.

The Spy Chronicles. RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace

Authors: A.S. Dulat, Asad Durrani, Aditya Sinha

Category: Non-fiction, history, politics

SpyChronicles-min

When I first heard about the Spy Chronicles, my first reaction was, “That’s not possible! A book like this couldn’t possibly exist.” The idea that two ex-chiefs of the RAW and the ISI had gotten together and co-authored a book about the relationship between India and Pakistan seemed impossible. For people who don’t know about the rivalry between these two agencies, it is somewhat comparable to a book being written by a collaboration between the CIA and the KGB during the Cold War.

As it turns out, not only does the book exist but it’s also pretty informative. The fact that Aditya Sinha managed to get ex-heads from both agencies is what sets this book apart. Sometimes, in a conflict, it is necessary to look at the issue from both viewpoints, and the Spy Chronicles does exactly this. The entire book is divided into chapters, where each chapter is in the form of a dialogue between these two men.

If you’re someone like me, you’ll probably be disappointed in the beginning. Nowhere in the book have either of the spymasters revealed any confidential or classified information. But then again, why would they? The book covers a vast range of topics from the beginning of the Kashmir problem to recent events like the surgical strikes. Both the men put forward their views and try to be as frank as possible. Well, as frank as you could expect two spymasters to be. They provide an insider’s view on a lot of issues, and this makes for a pretty interesting read.

The India-Pakistan relationship has undergone numerous ups and downs in recent years. It was refreshing to see two cold analysists, sitting together, speaking about the dynamic based on pure facts. At certain points in the book, a noticeable feature was that whenever a topic came up which could cause embarrassment to one side, that person became extremely diplomatic. For example, when Asad Durrani was asked about the terrorist Hafiz Saeed and why the Pakistani government wasn’t taking action against him, he retreated behind a number of rhetorical questions and tried to sidestep the topic. A.S. Dulat didn’t press the issue. Both the men talked about “choreographed responses”, agreed that the enmity between the countries was promoted by their respective media and that politicians on both sides thrived on this animosity.

The last few chapters of the book were dedicated to an idea of “Akhand Bharat” or undivided India, comprising of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Both of the men presented ideas on how to bring this about, the potential problems and how it would benefit both sides ultimately. Frankly, I found this idea to be excessively optimistic. Both the viewpoints were based on the idea that if one side did the other a favor as a sign of goodwill, it would be reciprocated. However, this is highly improbable.

The book is fairly interesting to read. However, people who don’t know about the politics and history of the two countries will have a tough time keeping up. I’d give this book a 3.8/5 because the book does get a bit dull at certain points. Overall, it’s a pretty decent book and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in world politics.

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Category: Non-fiction, Autobiography

Mandela

From the son of a Thembu tribe chief to the first democratically elected black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s story is one of extreme hardship and struggle. Before I begin, I would like to emphasize the fact that Nelson Mandela was a great man. He was one of the pioneers of the freedom struggle in South Africa and continues to be a symbol of social justice around the world. The review I’ve written here is about the BOOK, not on Nelson Mandela as a person.
I confess, when I read the book I was a little disappointed. I personally felt that the narrative style wasn’t that great. In many instances, it seemed as if there were too many new characters being introduced at the same time, and the pace at which events moved was a bit slow. This made for a bit of dull and confused reading in the beginning and the book picks up pace only after a few chapters.
However, the book was also extremely informative for me. Apart from learning a lot about South African culture, I learned quite a bit about the mindset of the South African people who lived at that time. Their views on the white man, their initial indifference towards apartheid and how in the beginning everyone focused on the benefits of colonialism instead of renouncing it. As an Indian, I was surprised at how similar the South African liberation struggle was to the Indian struggle for freedom. Nelson Mandela’s defiance campaign had an uncanny resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement. The Sharpeville massacre, where unarmed, peacefully protesting South Africans were shot at was similar to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh incident.

The book is truly exciting to read once the pace picks up. Nelson Mandela’s peaceful ways of protest and his subsequent transformation into an “enemy of the state” during the freedom struggle make for a very interesting read. He would peacefully board trains meant only for whites to protest against apartheid and then would promptly be sent to jail. After the Sharpeville massacre, he caused social unrest in the masses and was declared a terrorist by the government. In the events following his arrest, he describes the appalling conditions of his jail, the cruelty of the guards and the grueling labor. The book is too large for me to have a “favorite part”, but there was one passage which had a pretty profound impact on me as a reader. Nelson Mandela describes his first day of school when his father decided that his son should be dressed properly. He proceeded to cut his only pair of formal trousers at the knees and using a piece of rope as a makeshift-belt, gave it to his son. I learned that when we think about heroes, we often forget that they too had a childhood. They also experienced the little things which we experience every day. Reading about these little things makes us feel closer to these legends, and we can relate better to them.

Overall, this book is quite enlightening, and one of the few autobiographies I’ve managed to finish. The tale of his patience, perseverance, and generosity will inspire any reader to reach new heights. I’d restrict this book to a 4/5, mainly because of the sheer length of the book. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in Nelson Mandela’s life and the history of South Africa. However, make sure you have the necessary patience before you start to read it.

 

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

By Randall Munroe

Category: Non-fiction, ScienceImageHandler

What would happen if I assembled a periodic table with bricks and each brick was made of the corresponding element? From what height do I need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it reaches the ground? If everyone on Earth disappeared, how long would it be before the last man-made light source went out?

If you’re a person like me, who’s intrigued by science you probably found the above questions to be interesting, albeit slightly strange. That was my reaction when I started reading this book. However, once I had begun reading, I was hooked. The questions given in this book have all been submitted by the author’s fans and are all purely hypothetical. Most of these questions sound silly when you read them for the first time and you think “Why would something like that even happen?”

However, the most impressive aspect of the book is that Randall Munroe manages to give a smart, concise and scientific answer to all of them and that’s what makes this book so interesting. He includes cartoons and funny little footnotes alongside his answers to provide comic relief and to make sure that the reading doesn’t become too monotonous. Another remarkable feature of this book is that the answers do not get too technical. Anyone familiar with simple high school science will be able to understand this book.

The book also contains a section wherein the author reveals some worrisome questions he has received in his inbox. Each time, he makes fun of the sender and includes a cartoon below the question.

The book doesn’t seem to have any sort of organization whatsoever. The questions covered come from a wide variety of topics and there doesn’t seem to be any specific pattern in how they are arranged. Randall Munroe’s style in the book is quite informal, as though he was talking to a friend instead of writing a book on science. The language is simple, clear and easily understandable which I found surprising, given that Munroe used to work at NASA and you’d expect someone like him to use really big and complicated words.

In conclusion, I think this is one of the better books I’ve read on hypothetical science. Proper scientific explanations have been given in all places, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored while reading it. I’d give it an easy 4.5/5 and would definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in science.