The Big Short
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The Big Short

by Michael Lewis

About the book:  'We fed the monster until it blew up ...' While Wall Street was busy creating the biggest credit bubble of all time, a few renegade investors saw it was about to burst, bet against the banking system - and made a fortune. From the jungles of the trading floor to the casinos of Las Vegas, this is the outrageous story of the misfits, mavericks and geniuses who, against all odds, made the greatest financial killing in history.


Notes:  Reread 1.

I first read The Big Short in 2012, fresh from Business School. It's important to note that I went to a different sort of school - a residential campus that leaned (sometimes alarmingly) to the left, and took great pains to instil in its students an ethical way of going about life. And coming from there, I read The Big Short as a vindication of what my professors had been trying to teach me. I enjoyed it, but I also knew and understood that somewhere in the story was a sceptre of cynicism, a silent acceptance of the selfish approach that Wall Street seems to embody.

This is telling, as even in the foreword, Michael Lewis laments that though written from a different viewpoint, his first book, Liar's Poker, was read by college students as a how-to guide rather than as a warning notice. When I read it then, I was an idealist, and it fit right into my scheme of ideas. But today, several years later, The Big Short makes a lot more sense to me in its convoluted characters and flawed heroes - Wall Street is responding to incentives. Sure, its incentives are obscene and vulgar, but they are only responding to the societal worship of money, and money as a source of power. Just that their scale was much bigger than normal people's, and what they were playing with could disrupt the world financial system, which it did.

The prose is brilliant. I've been a fan of Michael Lewis for some time and read almost everything he writes. And even by his own admission, The Big Short is not a subject that feeds his strengths. But he manages, and how. Lewis sparkles in character studies, that is his home ground, and the portraits that he paints of Steve Eisman and Michael Burry, among others, are by far the most enjoyable elements. The villains are more or less invisible, with exceptions like Wing Chau, but the heroes we know; them we understand.

An important part of the book is the finale, when everything comes to a close and Lewis wraps it all up with a few telling observations. None of the perpetrators of this massive fraud among the American people (and in many ways, on the world's people) really paid for it. Almost all of them moved on with huge bonuses and even better jobs, as if nothing had happened in those years. I looked up several of them on LinkedIn. None of their careers has seen even a hurdle. And yet we know how hard it was for the people who Wall Street conned into their great game. Tens of thousands lost their houses, their life savings, the funds they set apart for their children's education. They paid. The American taxpayer paid.

The ones who were responsible never did.

This, ultimately is the soul of Michael Lewis' book. A group of smart, brave people can at times screw a corrupt system, and come out on top. But in the long run, remember, it's a casino. The house is rigged in its own favour.
The house always wins.

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The Lost Generation
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The Lost Generation

by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

About the book:  A Haridwar pandit who maintains genealogical records of families for centuries; a professional mourner who has mastered the art of fake tears; a letter writer who overlooks the lies that a sex worker makes him write to her family back home. These are remnants of an India that still exist in its old streets and neighbourhoods, an unshakeable sense of belonging to a time that was the everyday life of our ancestors. In The Lost Generation, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia narrates the unforgettable stories of eleven professionals—from the hauntingly beautiful rudaalis to the bizarre tasks of a street dentist—uncovering the romance, tragedy and old-world charm of India’s ageing bylanes and its incredible living history.


Notes:  In the hands of a better writer, this book would have gone down as a classic. And that's the thing - it should have. On the level of the idea, The Lost Generation is captivating. But it is in the execution, in the writing, that it fails, and how. I was extremely irritated by the time I reached the mid-point, and continued only because I was aghast at how such a good premise had been let down by bad writing.

At its best, the writing is passable; at its worst, it's cringe-inducing. A few examples:

"With every gust of wind that blows into the hut, bouquets of light and people are displaced in the room."

What. What does that mean?

"Stories that dissolve in their bloodstreams like pearls in the sea, becoming tender memories that comfort like a mother's soft caress."


First, pearls do not dissolve in the sea. That is wrong. And that next sentence. Jeez.

"A pregnant silence fills the room in spite of the old fan whipping through the thick, dry air, the annoyingly happy sparrows chirruping outside and the exaggerated sounds of the sheets of paper as he wastes long minutes rolling each of them."


First, 'wastes long minutes rolling.' Wow, talk about a writer passing judgement instead of recording. And of course, that entire sentence. 'Pregnant' silence, 'in spite of'. Why?

I could find a lot more. The writer is trying too hard, and this is a badly written book. The romance of the professions the writer describes, their other-worldliness, is just lost. And even the research just doesn't seem deep enough. Some of these are just surface level portraits, and do nothing for the reader.

Super-disappointed.

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Cut Like Wound
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Cut Like Wound

by Anita Nair

About the book:  Introducing Inspector Borei Gowda... It is the first night of Ramadan. At Shivaji Nagar in the heart of Bangalore, a young male prostitute is killed and burnt alive. It would have stayed as yet another unsolved murder, but for Inspector Borei Gowda, the investigating officer. As bodies begin to pile up one after the other, and it becomes clear that a serial killer is on the prowl, Gowda recognizes a pattern in the killings which no one else does. Even as he negotiates serious mid-life blues, problems with his wife and son, an affair with an ex-girlfriend, and official apathy and ridicule, the killer moves in for the next victim... Steeped in the lanes and atmosphere of the city of Bangalore, Cut Like Wound introduces to the reader a host of unforgettable characters and is a brutal psychological thriller unlike any in Indian fiction. You can also buy from Online stores: Buy from a nearby bookstore: Reliance Timeout Flipkart.com DC books Homeshop18.com Crossword Bookstore Infibeam.com Landmark Bookstore Indiaplaza.com Om Book Shop Uread.com Starmark Bookstore Bookadda.com Sapna Bookstore Full Circle Bookstore Bahri Sons Bookstore Teksons Bookstore Sankars Bookstore


Notes:  I came to Anita Nair's much talked-about first Inspector Gowda book with a lot of expectation. And it has both been an enjoyable read as well as bit of a let-down.

I'll explain.

As a police investigation thriller, Cut Like Wound fares very well indeed. Well rounded, complicated, very detailed character studies make this novel come alive, and how. It's not just Gowda, even the villains have brilliant back-stories. You know why they are who they are.

But Cut Like Wound was also supposed to be a novel of the Bangalore underworld, and somehow I don't think it completely achieves that (admittedly) lofty goal. Not that Nair doesn't achieve an effect of place. She does, like in the UB city passage. But as someone who has read her earlier books, I'm slightly disappointed.

All that said, the book still sets this up as a series to watch out for. Maybe as we keep meeting Inspector Gowda, his Bangalore will become more and more clearer, and we will understand and be afraid of the coldness in this southern megapolis.

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Roads to Mussoorie
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Roads to Mussoorie

by Ruskin Bond

About the book:  Ruskin Bond emerges again, with a delightful set of sketches set in and on the way to his beloved Mussoorie. With an endearing affection and nostalgia for his home of over forty years, Mr Bond describes his journeys to and from Mussoorie over the years, and then delves into the daily scandals surrounding his life and friends in the (not so) sleepy hill town. The pieces in this collection are characterised by an incorrigible sense of humour and an eye for ordinary-and most often unnoticed-details that are so essential to the geographic, social and cultural fabric of a place. Accompanied by beautiful illustrations, Roads to Mussoorie is a memorable evocation of a writer's surroundings and the role they have played in his work and life.


Notes:  Short compilation of a few Ruskin Bond pieces on Mussoorie and Dehra. Passable, could have been chosen and presented much better.

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Tilled Earth
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Tilled Earth

by Manjushree Thapa

About the book:  Startlingly Original And Closely Observed Stories That Capture The Dynamism And Diversity Of Nepali Society In A Time Of Great Flux In Tilled Earth Several Compressed, Poetic And Deeply Evocative Micro-Stories Offer Fleeting Glimpses Of Small, Private Dramas Of People Caught Midlife: An Elderly Woodworker Loses His Way In A Modern Kathmandu Neighbourhood; A Homesick Expatriate Nurses A Hangover; A Clerk At The Ministry Of Home Affairs Learns To Play Solitaire On The Computer; A Young Man Is Drawn To Politics Against His Better Judgement; A Child Steals Her Classmate S Book . . . The Longer Stories In The Collection, Too, Span A Wide Course, Taking Subjects From Rural And Urban Nepal As Well As From The Nepali Diaspora Abroad. In Tilled Earth A Young Woman Goes To Seattle As A Student, And Finds Herself Becoming An Illegal Alien. Love Marriage Is An Inner Narration By A Young Man Who Defying Family Pressure Falls In Love With A Woman Of The Wrong Caste. In The Buddha In The Earth-Touching Posture , A Retired Secretary Visits The Buddha S Birthplace, Lumbini, Only To Find His Deepest Insecurities Exposed. With Their Unexpected, Inventive Forms, These Stories Reveal The Author S Deep Love Of Language And Commitment To Craft. Manjushree Thapa Pushes The Styles Of Her Stories To Match The Distinctiveness Of Their Content, Emerging Confidently As A Skilled Innovator And Formalist.


Notes:  Haunting, extremely felt stories by a writer who made me a fan just a few pages into this remarkable collection. Two things have to be mentioned here: the understated, restrained beauty of the prose, and the etching of characters, with the attention to detail in the latter making the stories more than memorable. She knows her country and her people, does Manjushree Thapa, and if I were Nepali, I'd be proud to have her as a chronicler.

I will be reading her novels and her non-fiction soon enough, and I'm sure I'll enjoy them as much, if not more.

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The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal
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The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal

by Dervla Murphy

About the book:  The intrepid traveler’s stories from Nepal. Having settled in a village in the Pokhara Valley to work at a Tibetan refugee camp, Dervla Murphy makes her home in a tiny, vermin-infested room over a stall in the bazaar. In diary form, she describes her various journeys by air, by bicycle, and on foot into the remote and mountainous Lantang region on the border of Tibet. Murphy's charm and sensitivity as a writer and traveler reveal not only the vitality of an age-old civilization facing the challenge of Westernization, but the wonder and excitement of her own remarkable adventures. First published in 1967, The Waiting Land was a difficult book for Dervla. As she said herself: “It was a light-hearted account of an experience that had not been light-hearted.”


Notes:  My first Dervla Murphy, who I've been meaning to read for some time, and I enjoyed it immensely. Extraordinarily brilliant travel writing, with a delightful eye for detail that brings to life Nepal in the mid-1960s. Definitely reading more of her books. Very highly recommended.

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Kaleidoscope City
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Kaleidoscope City

by Piers Moore Ede

About the book:  'I will never forget my first sight of the river in Varanasi, from the narrowness and constriction of the alleys, thronged with activity, to the sudden release of the waterfront, the labyrinth's end . . . It seems that all of life has its assigned place on the stone steps leading down to the Ganges. Some are used for bathing, others for laundry, washing buffalo, puja (worship, ceremonial offering), and this one for the business of death. The smells are of wood smoke, buffalo dung, urine and jasmine flowers. The sounds are of rustling kites and lowing cattle, crackling wood and prayer. . .' Piers Moore Ede first fell in love with Varanasi when he passed through it on his way to Nepal in search of wild honey hunters. In the decade that followed it continued to exert its pull on him, and so he returned to live there, to press his ear to its heartbeat and to discover what it is that makes the spiritual capital of India so unique. In this intoxicating 'city of 10,000 widows', where funeral pyres smoulder beside the river in which thousands of pilgrims bathe, and holiness and corruption walk side by side, Piers encounters sweet-makers and sadhus, mischievous boatmen and weary bureaucrats, silk weavers and musicians and discovers a remarkable interplay between death and life, light and dark.


Notes:  A heartfelt, though quite short walk through the ancient town of Varanasi. I'd been meaning to read this one after a trip last year, but came to it late. I've read Moore Ede's travel writing before on the web, and there are shades of his signature, thrall-filled prose here too, though the time he spends on the ideas and stories in this book seems rushed. Still, there are quite a few passages of understated, intelligent beauty, like this one, with which the book begins:

Perhaps for all of us there is a country, and within that a single place, in which some essential element of the world is illuminated for the first time. Sitting down on a park bench in a beam of sunlight, or lost in the cacophony of a spice market, it comes to us that we have never been this vibrantly, persuasively alive.


I know and understand what Moore Ede is saying. This is Delhi to me, in the winter, where I know and feel incredibly, completely alive. In my nation's capital, under Connaught Place's massive tricolor, in the dusty, crowded Chandni Chowk streets, facing the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort, I feel the weight of the republic on me, its ideas, the why of the world's largest democracy, of which I'm an individual part. This book captures partly that unnameable feeling.

But that is all it does. It is a good book, certainly, but it could have been a great one, and it isn't. It just doesn't go deep enough. It could be read as an accompaniment to Diana Eck's masterpiece on the town, and perhaps a few other books. There are a few mistakes here and there as well, that dampen the reading experience. Example: Moore Ede refers to a Tata motorbike. Tata does not make motorcycles, it never has.

But on the whole, this is a good, enjoyable read. And if you have never read anything about Varanasi, this may be a good book to start before you move on to others.

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Inferno
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Inferno

by Dan Brown

About the book:  *NOW A MAJOR FILM STARRING TOM HANKS AND FELICITY JONES* Florence: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakes in a hospital bed with no recollection of where he is or how he got there. Nor can he explain the origin of the macabre object that is found hidden in his belongings. A threat to his life will propel him and a young doctor, Sienna Brooks, into a breakneck chase across the city. Only Langdon’s knowledge of the hidden passageways and ancient secrets that lie behind its historic facade can save them from the clutches of their unknown pursuers. With only a few lines from Dante’s Inferno to guide them, they must decipher a sequence of codes buried deep within some of the Renaissance’s most celebrated artworks to find the answers to a puzzle which may, or may not, help them save the world from a terrifying threat...


Notes:  Dan Brown was a college-time favourite. With important, mysterious ideas forming the backdrop for his books, there was so much history, symbolism, and knowledge in his books that made me particularly receptive. The parallel I drew was with Michael Crichton, whose books, laden heavy with real science and extraordinary futuristic speculation, were absolute magic for a curious school kid. But Dan Brown is not the writer even someone like Crichton was. Sometimes the plot meanders, sometimes the writing is pedestrian, sometimes the protagonists do things out of character. It didn’t matter. The plot, the central idea is the king in a Dan Brown book, and they are great fun. I wasn’t complaining. I loved Angels and Demons; the book is certainly one of the best thrillers in terms of plot I have ever read.



But The Lost Symbol stopped all that. The formula grated, I wasn’t taken by the plot, and it bored me. I did not pay any attention after. Until the Inferno trailers showed up, that is. Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were great to watch, and I looked forward to the Inferno movie so much that I just had to read the book. Which I did, in two days, and went to movie within half an hour or turning the last page.



I loved the book. I hated the movie. And there’s a reason I'm saying this. In Inferno, Dan Brown examines something the world is facing, and instead of shying away from the problem and giving it to us in black and white, faces it head on. This is a brave book in that sense. Here is a writer who, knowing his reach and his readership, has put forward a few brave ideas that might make us cringe, but is also trying to make his readers think. This is commendable. Though the movie isn’t the subject of this review, I point out the difference to underline something about the book: The movie shied away from the very important point the book is trying to make. Just that tells you how incredibly smart and nuance filled the book is.



Everything else is also there, by which I mean the Dan Brown formula. European art history, its cities, all that symbolism. It’s a treat, all that research. But in resurrecting Dante’s vision of hell for this century, Dan Brown has tried to tackle a problem the whole world is facing. This is fiction, so there are no solutions he is proposing, but he has done enough to make us (hopefully) think. And for a writer of any kind, that’s an achievement.


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The Amazon Way
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The Amazon Way

by John Rossman

About the book:  In just twenty years, Amazon.com has gone from a start-up internet bookseller to a global company revolutionizing and disrupting multiple industries, including retail, publishing, logistics, devices, apparel, and cloud computing. But what is at the heart of Amazon.com's rise to success? Is it the tens of millions of items in stock, the company's technological prowess, or the many customer service innovations like “one-click”? As a leader at Amazon who had a front-row seat during its formative years, John Rossman understands the iconic company better than most. From the launch of Amazon's third-party seller program to their foray into enterprise services, he witnessed it all—the amazing successes, the little-known failures, and the experiments whose outcomes are still in doubt. In The Amazon Way, Rossman introduces readers to the unique corporate culture of the world's largest Internet retailer, with a focus on the fourteen leadership principles that have guided and shaped its decisions and its distinctive leadership culture. Peppered with humorous and enlightening firsthand anecdotes from the author's career at Amazon, this revealing business guide is also filled with the valuable lessons that have served Jeff Bezos's “everything store” so well—providing expert advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, CEOs, and investors alike.


Notes:  Work reading. A short, rather rushed introduction to the management principles that have made Amazon what it is today. Definitely a good read, but a few more examples in some places and some deeper exploration of the ideas in some others would have made the book much better.



Still an interesting read, however, and worth the two or so hours it will take of your time.

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When Breath Becomes Air
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When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

About the book:  #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both. Praise for When Breath Becomes Air “I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. . . . Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him—passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die—so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times “An emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.”—The Washington Post “Possesses the gravity and wisdom of an ancient Greek tragedy . . . [Kalanithi] delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.”—The Boston Globe “Devastating and spectacular . . . [Kalanithi] is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it’s all heading.”—USA Today “It’s [Kalanithi’s] unsentimental approach that makes When Breath Becomes Air so original—and so devastating. . . . Its only fault is that the book, like his life, ends much too early.”—Entertainment Weekly “Split my head open with its beauty.”—Cheryl Strayed


Notes:  Such a beautiful, beautiful book. I was reduced to tears several times during the time I read this, and other times I had to keep it down and wait for some time to pick it up again. I do not think I possess the intellectual ability to analyse or judge this work at this point of time. This has to be read again, discussed, and read about, before I realise and understand its true value and teaching. But I do know that in its honesty, vulnerability, and extraordinary vision of life, striving and death, When Breath Becomes Air is destined to become a modern classic.

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