Archive for April, 2019

I discovered this new book by A.J.Jacobs by accident when I was browsing at the bookshop a couple of weeks back. I got it for my friend and I was so tempted that I got another copy for myself. I finished reading it today.

In ‘Thanks a Thousand : A Gratitude Journey from Bean to Cup‘, A.J.Jacobs tells us that he wants to change himself and feel more happy. (He says in one place that his default mental state is ‘generalized annoyance and impatience‘ and in another place he describes himself as ‘My innate disposition is moderately grumpy, more Larry David than Tom Hanks.’) To accomplish this, he focuses on his morning cup of coffee, which he loves very much. He decides to find out who are all the people who are responsible for his morning cup of coffee, and thank them individually, either in person or on the phone. He hopes that by feeling gratitude towards people who bring joy to him everyday through his cup of coffee, he will feel more happy. He starts by thanking the barista at the local coffee shop. He next meets the person who buys coffee for that coffee shop and thanks him. A.J.Jacobs thus continues on his gratitude journey during the course of which he goes to interesting places and meets all kinds of fascinating people, including people working at a steel mill, and people working at a post office, and Colombian farmers who grow coffee. It is a fascinating journey and it is fun to vicariously take that journey alongwith A.J.Jacobs, while reading his book.

I loved ‘Thanks a Thousand‘. It is a beautiful book. It is just 112 pages long, but it has a lot of interesting things in it. We learn how many diverse elements are involved in coffee making, we learn about the fascinating kinds of people involved in it, and it is mind-boggling to learn that so much of work goes into putting that morning cup of coffee in our hands. It is something that I should definitely feel thankful for. A lot. The book is well-written, A.J.Jacobs’ humour is charming, and the pages fly. I am glad I read the book. Now I want to read more on coffee.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. Unfortunately, they are not about coffee.

“I should really be thanking my mom, especially on this day. It seems odd that birthday celebrations are all about the kid, when they should be really honoring the mom. The emphasis is askew. I mean, what did I do on that day several decades ago? I came out, I cried, I demanded food, I got a mediocre score on my Apgar. The real hero is my mom. She’s the one who had her body dangerously distorted by my infant skull.”

“We overemphasize individual achievement when, in fact, almost everything good in the world is the result of teamwork…. By elevating individual achievement over cooperation, we’re creating a glut of wannabe superstars who don’t have time for collaboration. We desperately need more bassists in the world. We can see this playing out in many industries, but let me stick with science for a second. Your typical scientist craves the glory of creating a bold new hypothesis, instead of the equally important but less flashy task of replicating experiments to make sure the conclusions are true. This has led to what’s called the “replication crisis.” A shocking amount of our scientific knowledge may be inaccurate because we don’t have enough bassists in labcoats doing backup.
I’m not immune to the responsibility bias. This book has my name on the cover, but its existence is the work of dozens of people. The idea of a lone author warps reality. In a more accurate world, this book would have many names on the cover, not just mine. We considered it, but my editor, Michelle Quint – one of the best bassists in publishing – thought such a cover would be too confusing and hard to read, so here I am, perpetuating the lead singer myth.”

“I’ve been obsessed with luck for many years, and especially with the debate over whether our lives are ruled by randomness, or whether we are the powerful captains of our own fates.
It’s an ancient debate, of course. When I wrote a book about the Bible, I learned the scriptures contain both points of view. In Proverbs, the reader is told over and over : Work hard and you’ll be rewarded on this earth. If you follow the rules, if you’re not lazy, your crops will flourish and your offspring will be plentiful. This line of thinking has persisted. You can see it in Ayn Rand novels and the ideals of the American Dream and the Puritan work ethic.
But there’s another way of looking at the world. The very next chapter following Proverbs is Ecclesiastes, the most modern and philosophical of the Bible’s books. Ecclesiastes says : “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, not favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” In other words : Don’t be prideful. Fate is fickle. More than fickle – fate has Borderline Personality Disorder.
The real world is no doubt a combination of luck and skill, but I lean strongly towards Ecclesiastes. If I had to put numbers to it, 20 percent of my fate has been determined by hard work and persistence, and 80 percent has been cosmic Powerball…
I’m not dismissing the need for effort and persistence. Those who worked their way up from the bottom, who didn’t have the advantages I had, need effort and persistence even more than I did. I also acknowledge that, to a certain extent, you make your own luck and create your own opportunities. But only to a certain extent. You also need pure luck. As Barack Obama said in a postpresidential interview with David Letterman, “I worked hard and I’ve got some talent, but there are a lot of hardworking, talented people out there. There was an element of chance to it, this element of serendipity.”
I agree with our former president. There are millions of hardworking, persistent people around the world living below the poverty line. I believe there are thousands of could-have-been Meryl Streeps working as waitresses because they didn’t get the lucky breaks. There are thousands of alternative-universe Steve Jobs working in assembly lines in factories.
Here’s why I’m a fan of thanking our lucky stars every day : it helps with forgiving yourself your failures; it cuts down on celebrity worship and boosts humility; and, perhaps most important, it makes us more compassionate.”

Have you read ‘Thanks a Thousand‘? What do you think about it?

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One of my favourite friends was visiting last week and I was very excited because I was meeting her after many years. Time flew by after she arrived and before we knew we were at the airport, saying goodbye. I didn’t want to go home after that as I felt it would be too depressing, and so to cheer myself up, I went to the bookshop instead. What is the point of going to the bookshop if we don’t buy a book? 😁 This one, ‘The Poet’s Dog’ by Patricia MacLachlan caught my eye first and I couldn’t resist getting it – who can resist a book about a poet and a dog? I have been reading it for the past two days and I just finished reading it.

The story told in ‘The Poet’s Dog’ goes like this. Teddy is a dog. He is the dog of a poet called Sylvan. As Teddy describes it –

“I’m a dog. I should tell you that right away. But I grew up with words. A poet named Sylvan found me at the shelter and took me home. He laid down a red rug for me by the fire, and I grew up to the clicking of his keyboard as he wrote. He wrote all day. And he read to me.”

At the time the story starts, there is a blizzard, and Teddy finds a boy and a girl outside, who seem to be lost. He helps them and gets them inside the house. We know about Sylvan at this point, but Sylvan doesn’t seem to be in the house. What happens after that – who are these two children? What happened to Sylvan? Do these three, the girl, the boy and the dog, survive the blizzard? – forms the rest of the story. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to read the story and experience the pleasure and joy it offers, for yourself.

The Poet’s Dog‘ is a beautiful book. It is about love, friendship, family, loss, grief, and finding love again. It is also about this beautiful furry bundle, which has a heart of gold, and which offers unconventional love, which we call a dog. Teddy is such a charming narrator and we see the whole story unfolding through Teddy’s eyes. I loved the characters, Flora (the girl), Nickel (the boy), Sylvan and Ellie (Sylvan’s student). The book had bigger-than-normal font with generous spacing between lines. Patricia MacLachlan’s storytelling style and dialogue were beautiful and spare and stylish and such a pleasure to read.

The Poet’s Dog‘ is just 88 pages long, and I loved it so much that I was sad when it ended. It is a beautiful, poignant book and one of my favourite reads of the year. If you have dog babies at home, you will love this book.

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When I discovered that Dr. Rebecca Verghese Paul has published her first book, ‘Una Bo, the Magic Tree of Love’, I was excited and couldn’t wait to read it.

Filgard the wizard passes through the land of Darae. He sits down to have his lunch of bread and cheese when a boy approaches him. Filgard calls him by his name, Podero, and asks him how he can help him. Podero is surprised that this stranger knows his name. They sit down together and talk. Podero tells the wizard that he has always dreamt of having sweets, because he has heard his parents raving about them, but unfortunately, since the war, sweets were impossible to find and to make. Filgard asks Podero what he would do if his dream comes true and he gets sweets now. Podero tells him that he would be excited and he would call his brothers and his friends and would share the sweets with them. The wizard closes his eyes and a blue glow envelops him. Suddenly a small plant sprouts out of the ground and before their very eyes it grows two leaves and then four and then many and before they can imagine it grows rapidly and becomes a big tree! And hanging from the tree are not fruits but all kinds of delicious sweets! Podero goes to his village and tells everyone about it. Everyone comes and looks at the tree in wonder. The wizard tells everyone that the tree offers beautiful sweets and treats to everyone who asks for it with love. The wizard also says that Podero will be the guardian of the tree from now on and he leaves and continues on his journey.

What happens at Darae after this magical tree arrives? Does the tree make people love each other more? Or do the gifts offered by the tree make the people greedy and jealous? Does the fame of the tree spread beyond the village to distant towns? Does it bring unwanted attention? What happens to Podero? Is he able to realize his dreams? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

Una Bo‘ is a beautiful love letter to sweets and a beautiful ode to the power of love. The book is beautifully written, exquisitely produced and gorgeously illustrated. The artwork by Ada Konewki is beautiful. The story ends with something equivalent of a cliffhanger and now I can’t wait to find out what happens in the second part. This is a great book to present to your younger ones at home and read to them aloud during storytelling sessions or at bedtime. The Kindle version of the book comes with a free audiobook which is beautifully narrated by the author and is a pleasure to listen to. I loved reading the book and listening to the audiobook.

Have you read ‘Una Bo, the Magic Tree of Love‘? What do you think about it?

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I had wanted to read Joseph Roth’s masterpiece ‘The Radetzky March‘ for a long time. So when I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ were hosting a readalong of the book, I was so excited! Here is the first post for the readalong which covers the first part of the book.

For those of you, who haven’t read the book, this post is filled with spoilers. Please be forewarned.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March. What enticed you to readalong with us?

I love readalongs, especially German Literature readalongs. I have participated in many German Literature Month readalongs across the years. I also have wanted to read Joseph Roth’s ‘The Radetzky March’ for a while now. When these two things came together – a German Literature Readalong and Joseph Roth – I couldn’t resist joining.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I am reading the Michael Hofmann translation. The translation reads quite well. I have loved Michael Hofmann’s translations in the past and I love this one too.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

I finished reading the first part and the novel is wonderful till now. The edition I am reading has an introduction by Jeremy Paxman and Paxman says this in his introduction –

“The challenge for writers of historical fiction is much more than capturing what things looked like : they have to show readers how the unchanging impulses, lusts and kindnesses of humanity felt in that context. Most historical novels are paper cups full of coloured water made from instant granules. Joseph Roth is a strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.”

I got hooked into the book from that passage itself. I am loving Joseph Roth’s strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I liked those first lines. It shows the diversity of the Austrian empire, by stating that the main character was Slovene in origin. It also shows that simple people could gain glory by performing great deeds during those times, by describing that Trotta was ennobled. It also shows a distinctive personality trait of Trotta – that he is uncomfortable with fame and prefers to be anonymous. All these things are hinted at in the first few lines and we want to find out more.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I admired what the hero of Solferino tried to do – removing the exaggerated story of the war from the textbook and making it more accurate. It sounds like nitpicking and most people wouldn’t do that, but it showed his scrupulous honesty that he even went to the extent of meeting the emperor in the service of truth. It is hard to imagine what were the ramifications for his descendants – if the hero of Solferino had continued in the army, he would have risen to a high position, his wife would have had a more comfortable life and his descendants would have had it easier. But I also liked the fact that, inspite of Baron Trotta leaving the army, the imperial favour continued to be bestowed on his family for generations – it showed the Emperor in good light.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

Carl Josef joins the military because it was probably the in-thing to do those days. It was probably either that or the civil service. And with long decades of peace and with soldiers enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle than civilians, it was probably a preferred career. Is Carl Josef’s life honourable? From the perspective of his era, it seems to be. It is hard to define what honourable means outside the context of a specific time and a specific geography or culture. It means different things in different times and different contexts. It wouldn’t be proper to assess whether Carl Josef’s life was honourable when looking at it through 21st century eyes. But from the perspective of his time, it seems to be. It is not very clear whether Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant is platonic or romantic. It feels like Joseph Roth purposefully left that to the reader’s imagination, unlike Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Slama, which is clearly romantic. I personally think, based on what was described in the book, that Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant was innocent.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?

Maybe it means that time marches on, we all march to its beat, and war is never far away. I am looking forward to Roth telling us more about how the Radetzky March is related to the story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?

The military code of honour – I understand why it was there at that time, but when two good people die because of it, it feels silly. It would have been easy to apologize, shake hands, have a drink, slap each other on their backs, and make up. Two good people dying for nothing is a real shame and waste. I loved the way Roth describes it but doesn’t pass judgement on it – he ‘shows’ but doesn’t ‘tell’ and lets us make up our own minds. I also liked the way the difference in life, is portrayed, between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the normal person. When Carl Josef has an affair with Frau Slama, and later she dies and her husband Sergeant Slama discovers it, he doesn’t do anything but just returns the letters that Carl Josef wrote to Slama’s wife. But when there is a suspicion of a clandestine relationship between Carl Josef and Frau Demant, it leads to a duel and two people get killed. It appears that during that time, words like code and honour applied to the privileged class and not to the others. Is that a good or a bad thing? It is hard to tell. On one side two people from the officers’ class are dead because the code of honour was applied. On the other hand, someone like Sergeant Slama can’t do anything when a superior officer has an affair with his wife. He can’t take offence or ask for a duel. He has to just take it lying down. I love the way Roth’s depicts the social order and describes the contrasts between these two incidents.

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?

That is a very interesting thing about the book. There were very few female characters in the first part. I loved both Frau Slama and Frau Demant, but they had very less screentime. I also loved the depiction of the wife of the hero of Solferino, though she makes only a fleeting experience. There is also Frau Resi Horvath who runs a brothel, who seems to be a fascinating character, but she also makes only a fleeting appearance. I hope there is a female lead in the second part of the book.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

My most favourite passage from the first part of the book was this :

“In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in this book took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.”

I think it is a beautiful ode to the central theme of the book and a poignant poem to a lost world.

I also loved the way the father-child relationship is depicted throughout the story. There is the original Baron Trotta, the hero of Solferino, whose father doesn’t talk much and when he does, tries to undermine his son’s achievements. Then there is Baron Trotta himself, who is a nicer father, but still emotionally distant from his son. Then there is Franz, the original Baron’s son, who though a tough parent, is able to understand his son better and gives him emotional support through his letters and gives him good advice. I loved the way how Roth describes, how fathers change across generations, from being distant and aloof and not capable of real affection, to being able to give emotional support to their children. It was quite fascinating to read.

I can’t wait to read the second part of the book now!

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When I was wondering which book to read next, Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon leapt at me. I have had this book for years, and so I thought maybe it was time to read it.

There is good news and bad news. The good news first.

Paul Johnson’s book narrates the story of Napoleon from the time he was born to his last days when he was imprisoned by the British in the island of St.Helena. It describes how he was lucky at times (for example, the island he was born, Corsica, used to be a part of Genoa, but in the year before he was born, Genoa gave away the island to France, and so by chronological fortune, Napoleon was born a French citizen, which helped him to accomplish great things later), but how at other times he accomplished great things because of his talent, ability, hardwork and because he was a man of action and took initiative, without waiting for things to happen. The book charts his meteoric rise from being a lieutenant in the French army, to becoming a captain, and later heading the army itself. By the time he was thirty five years old, he had been coronated the Emperor of France. It is so amazing to read and so hard to believe. There is a description of many of the battles that Napoleon fought and the book touches on how brilliant a general he was in the battlefield. There is a description of his Egyptian campaign and how the history of Ancient Egypt was rediscovered by the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. There is also a chapter towards the end, on the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost. There are quotes shared in the book by different people – his companions during his journey, writers, his rivals and other contemporaries. Paul Johnson’s prose is spare and breezy, and the pages fly at a rollicking pace. Paul Johnson is also honest and doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions. I also love the book’s cover – it is beautiful, isn’t it?

That is the good news. Now for the bad news.

The book has all the above nice things. But…

I can see you smiling now ☺️ Because you are probably remembering what Jon Snow says to his sister Sansa in ‘Game of Thrones’ – “What did father use to say? Everything before the word “but” is horse shit.” And that is true ☺️

One of the biggest problems I had with Paul Johnson’s book is that it is critical of everything about Napoleon from the first page. There is venom dripping from every page. For example, at the beginning, he says that Napoleon’s birthplace Corsica was “poor, wild, neglected, exploited, politically and economically insignificant.” On its own, this sentence looks like it is stating the facts, but when we read the surrounding sentences, we feel that Johnson implies that Napoleon didn’t have class and pedigree because he was born here and he just got lucky. The book continues in the same vein throughout. When Johnson describes how Napoleon and his army won battles, he either says that it was because Napoleon believed in action as he was impatient or because he had unlimited resources at his disposal. But when Napoleon lost a battle, Johnson goes on the praise the opponent. When Napoleon escapes from the clutches of his enemies, he got lucky, but when he got caught, it was because his enemies were brilliant. When Napoleon didn’t believe in privilege, but believed in merit, and he promoted people accordingly, Johnson says that this was not Napoleon’s original idea, or he shouldn’t be given credit for it. When describing how Napoleon’s team discovered the Rosetta Stone and deciphered it, Johnson adds a corollary that the Rosetta Stone was later captured by the British, making it seem as if that was the more important fact, and by doing so, trying to devalue one of most of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. When someone criticizes Napoleon, Johnson looks at them favourably, but when someone says nice things about Napoleon, Johnson mocks him. Most of the battles which Napoleon won are given cursory treatment, but the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost, gets a whole chapter. Johnson even goes to the extent of saying that if Napoleon had lived in the 20th century he would have been prosecuted for his crimes against humanity by an international war tribunal and given the death penalty. He mocks the fact that Napoleon has become a French national hero now and he blames the French government for building a memorial for him. The whole book would have been comic, if it wasn’t tragic, as a biography and as a work of history.

While reading the book, I had to read ‘against the grain’, while reading every sentence, every passage, every page. For example, when Johnson mocks Corsica, I had to tell myself that someone who came from such a humble background accomplished great things and that is inspiring. When Johnson says that Napoleon didn’t have any principles but was an opportunist because he was an atheist but he also wasn’t against religion (Johnson uses this opportunist argument again and again in different contexts), I read against the grain and took it as evidence of Napoleon’s liberal attitude, that he didn’t believe in religion but he also respected people who did. It was hard for me to read the book, because I couldn’t let my guard down and trust the author – I had to separate the facts he stated from the analysis he described and I had to use the facts and come to my own conclusion. Reading against the grain was a lot of hardwork and it made me mentally tired.

The blurb at the back of the book describes it as an unsentimental, unromantic biography of Napoleon. I laughed when I read that. Because this book is neither of that. It is a biased biography dripping with pure venom on every page – it reads like British propaganda against the French. Paul Johnson has written many books which have become bestsellers, including a history of Christianity and a history of the Jewish people and a history of the twentieth century. I don’t know whether they are similarly biased. I have read a few British historians during my time, including John Keay, J.M.Roberts, Arnold Toynbee, Bamber Gascoigne, Simon Winchester, H.G.Wells, E.H.Carr, Norman Davies and have loved them all. British historians have a long reputation of sticking to the facts and trying to give objective analysis of historical events, though they might lean towards the British point of view. Paul Johnson’s book is an insult to all these wonderful historians and their work.

As a palate cleanser, I have to now read a biography of Napoleon by a French historian, maybe by Georges Lefebvre. Hopefully, that is better.

Many of my friends, fellow book readers, tell me that I always say nice things about every book I read, and I never have a bad thing to say about a book. Well, as they say, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven“. I think the time has finally arrived for me to say not-so-nice things about a book, to write a negative review. This is that one ☺️

Have you read Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon? What do you think about it?

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