Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Philosophy of Religion - John H. Hick

Philosophy of Religion Philosophy of Religion by John Harwood Hick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was advised about reading "Philosophy of Religion" by an uncle of mine as a response to another post. I had put it on my reading list and even got myself a copy but the dry schoolbook-like text had put me off the task of reading it for quite a while. Eventually I did get to it.

The book starts of in a rather dry fashion, but you need to remember that this is primarily an academic text. The author goes into great detail about the concept of God as seen in the Judaic-Christian way. Then he expounds on multiple theories that have been proposed to support and to deny the existence of such a being. It was on limited interest to me because I belonged to a household of different faith before turning agnostic. But it did shed some very interesting light on the way that human beings tend to see God. Towards the end the book did get more interesting when it got to the concept of religion and the various contradictory claims by the many religions in the world.

The book is in no way exhaustive and I do not suppose any book can ever be comprehensive on such a varied and evolving subject. But I felt that the book was primarily designed for the followers of Christian faith in order to understand their religion and God better. In parts it was interesting but overall a rather dry book. Perhaps it's use is limited to the academia.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don't Tell You - Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don't Tell YouShikhandi and Other Stories They Don't Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend recently told me that he had read Dr. Pattanaik's "Jaya" and had found it quite interesting. I had been meaning to read it for some time and found myself browsing through the shelves of the bookstore at Jaipur airport for the book. Of course they had it, but another book caught my eye. "Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don't Tell You" seemed to be quite interesting so I got it instead. "Jaya" would have to wait for another time.

I was immensely impressed by Devdutt Pattanaik's "myth=mithya". He seemed to be one of those sensible mythologists who seek out the history in mythology. This book tried to justify the LGBT movements that India saw recently in terms of Hindu religion and mythology. Dr. Pattanaik uses the word queer to refer to any sexuality that is not sanctioned by the major religions. Though the usage of the word might seem a bit ironic, especially when the author is arguing that the queer are just as natural as the non-queer, but if you rid the word of all the negative connotations that it has gathered over time, it is just another word. The book looks into all the twisted stories from various mythological sources of Hindu cultures across India and tries to establish that diversity in genders and sexuality are not only present from times immemorial but are also accepted and celebrated by the pantheon of Hindu gods.

The book talks about gods and men who find themselves in a position to do many of the acts that modern religions (including modern Hinduism) find inappropriate and unnatural. These include acts of changing gender, same sex love, cross dressing, castration to fit a role and many such acts that seem outrageous to our trained minds. All these acts are either done out of volition or as a result of a curse or boon. But never are the subjects of such action frowned upon or outlawed in these stories. Dr. Pattanaik also tells how and why such stories have been suppressed from popular mythology or modified to more suitable forms.

The short read was quite impressive in terms of showing how stories are forgotten when the popular culture does not support them. It was also quite interesting from a point of view of curiosity as it shows the diversity that the Hindu folk lore contain. However, reading the book I felt that Dr. Pattanaik is not an unbiased observer. He is rather someone who holds Hinduism in a higher esteem than other ways of life. Not that there is anything wrong with it, especially when it is being used to bring about a change in the uptight style of living that the monastic order has made popular. But this attitude also tends to distort the interpretation of mythology and things get modified in translation.

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The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh

The Glass PalaceThe Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I thought I had sworn off Ghosh for good. But an uncle (the same one who had lent me his copy of "In An Antique Land") told me to pick this book since I was about to go to Burma. With a rather divided mind I eventually got a kindle version of this book and started reading it a few days prior to my departure to the "Land of Gold". The reading continued well into the trip and I finally finished during a train journey to the northern state of Kachin.

This is definitely one of Ghosh's better works. It tells the rags-to-riches-and-back story of a certain Indian boy who made it big in Burma. It was partially in line with Haley's Roots. The exile of the last king and queen of Burma was worked in quite well. The trouble : there was a lack of something pivotal in the story. The protagonist lost center stage at times and while other characters tried gaining focus, they were pushed back into obscurity before they could make their presence felt. It seemed a rather hastened narration of fictionalized history. All this rendered the book rather dry and, had the purpose been so, didactic. Ghosh could have done much better with this story. His research is very evident and the way he has managed to make a story of all the historical events is also very impressive. If only the story-telling had been up to the mark, this book would have been a delight. For me, however, the history of Queen Supayalat and King Thibaw and their palace in Mandalay was a delightful knowledge when I actually saw their effigies in the Mandalay Palace. In a certain way I could relate to the palace through Ghosh's words, for which I shall ever remain thankful.

Rajkumar Raha, the protagonist of the story, is a young boy who finds himself in Mandalay when the English defeat the Burmese kingdom and make it a part of the Empire. While the king and queen are being exiled, he sees a strikingly beautiful girl, Dolly, in the queen's entourage and falls in love with her. Years later Rajkumar is wiser and has made a fortune for himself in the Burmese wood industry. He seeks out Dolly in Ratnagiri, asks for her hand in marriage and takes her back to Yangon. The story follows their lives and the lives of the next two generations of their family and the ones closely associated with theirs. In the background take place the Great War and the age of rubber plantations, World War II, Japanese invasion of Malaya and Burma, the struggle for independence of India and Burma, and even the modern usurping of power by the military junta and the struggle for democracy by Aung San Suu Kyi.

I am not sure whether I enjoyed this book or not. Apart from it's dryness I cannot really find any fault in this one (as opposed to "The Calcutta Chromosome"). Ghosh's forte remains his research. I still find his storytelling not compatible with my palate. Unless there is another strong recommendation, I would not bother picking up Ghosh's work proactively.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A conversation with a friend reminded me that I had been meaning to read more of Murakami for quite some time now. He told me that he was then reading "Kafka on the Shore" and went to tell me in uncertain terms as to how he felt about that book. I tried drawing comparisons to the only Murakami work I had read till date, "The Elephant Vanishes" - a collection of short stories that I had thoroughly enjoyed and which had left me quite curious about Murakami's other works. While browsing the collection of Murakami's works, I came across "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and remembered a part of it being a short story in the collection I had read. After much deliberation, I decided to make this the first Murakami novel that I would read. The ratings weren't bad and the name sure was interesting.

I am not quite sure what it was that Murakami wanted to do with this novel. It was an interesting mix of the natural and supernatural. There were prophesies and omens, battles fought in the brain, wars of yore, all coming together to make something that was never one fluid story. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and if taken in parts, the work was brilliant. But somehow it did not really feel like a "story" in itself. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was that Murakami was trying to convey here. Perhaps the limits to which desperation can drive a man, or maybe the extent to which someone can fight for something it loves. I cannot really be sure.

The story revolves around a certain Toru Okada who is currently takes care of the household while his wife, Kumiko works. They have lost their cat and while Toru goes around trying to find it, he meets women who add complexity to his life. He also receives help from a clairvoyant, Malta Kano and her sister Creta Kano. These women have been recommended by Kumiko's brother, Noboru Wataya. Creta comes close to Toru and tells him his story and how Noboru once raped her. Then Kumiko suddenly vanishes and Toru is told that she has left him for good. Toru does not believe it and thinks that Noboru is holding Kumiko against her will. With the help of two new friends that he acquires, Toru takes on Noboru in his quest to get back Kumiko.

I had really liked Murakami's storytelling in the first book of his that I had read. That one was a collection of short stories. I still think that Murakami writes beautifully. But I think I prefer his short stories to a full fledged novel. His story is rather pointless and it becomes a bit of a drag if one is forced to read hundreds of pages of pointless rant. In smaller amounts, these rants are beautiful food for the brain. Anyway, I think I will give him another shot before I decide whether to love him or hate him. For now, I will take a break.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Five Weeks in Amazon - Sean Michael Hayes

Five Weeks in the AmazonFive Weeks in the Amazon by Sean Michael Hayes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After Ketkar's "Tales from the Road...", was throwing random travel book suggestions at me. I opened a few that looked interesting, many of which were titles by Indian authors. The short descriptions seemed extremely interesting : some were talking about dirt cheap hitchhiking through India, others talking of conversations over chai in various parts of India, or a motorcyclist's journey through the country. We do know how to come up with wacky projects! Among all those titles, Sean Michael Hayes's "Five Weeks in the Amazon" popped up. I debated a long time whether to get this one or not, but since I have had Peru on my mind for a long time and since the book highlighted ayahuasca ceremonies which I was interested in knowing more about, I decided to give it a shot.

I picked this book up with next to no expectations. I had not even checked the goodreads rating or reviews for this one. But the first few pages of the book were quite gripping. So I went forth without much further thought. Hayes knows how to write, that's for sure. He has structured the book as a candid mention of the more important of his daily activities and thoughts. But somewhere after the first three weeks into his five week journey, you come to realise that this truthful account of events in the authors life has turned rather dull. The thoughts are more or less on a similar pattern and the author's belief in his own goodness and the goodness of humanity in general sounds somewhat redundant and pontifical. I would have loved the book had it been a third shorter but it dragged on and lowered the sheen of the more relevant parts as well. The most important audience for the kind of writing that Hayes did would probably have had been his self but there is a big difference between what you write for yourself and what you write for others.

The book starts with the author looking for a cab outside Lima airport. He had landed in Peru with very little knowledge of Spanish and an idea of what he wants to accomplish in his time there. He spends the first week in Lima, partying and skateboarding through the streets of the city. Then he moves to Iquitos in search for a recommended shaman with whom he wishes to undergo the ayahuasca treatment. Hayes is looking to heal from his heartbreaks and go on a spiritual journey that would help him find his place in the world. He lives in the amazon jungles for close to three weeks, undergoing various treatments prescribed by his shaman and taking part in multiple ayahuasca ceremonies. He eventually leaves the jungle cured of his depression and ready to take on life with a new vigour.

My biggest complaint with the book was that it was not what it advertised itself as. It was supposed to be a backpacker's journey through the Peruvian jungles, his experiences with ayahuasca and his observations of life in the jungle. These themes made up less than half of the book. It was more about a man's spiritual healing and discovery. Five weeks could have been much more eventful had the author not had a completely different agenda. That Hayes was there to heal himself and that was his primary goal needed to be mentioned somewhere in the description of the book. Hayes knows how to use the language but I am rather skeptical about picking up another work from the author. This one seemed to be a general rant.

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Remote: Office Not Required - David Heinemeier Hansson & Jason Fried

Remote: Office Not RequiredRemote: Office Not Required by David Heinemeier Hansson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was told about "Remote: Office Not Required" when I had first started mentioning the lifestyle that I was planning to experiment with. A friend's friend mentioned this book in the passing, stating that the founding members of 37signals were the authors of the book. If anyone really knew about remote working, it was these guys. Though remote working was not really what I had in mind, the more I read about the book, the more interesting it seemed and I decided to give it a shot. I recently acquired a kindle and thought I would add this one to my digital library.

Throughout my professional career thus far, which I admit has not been very long, I have been involved with startups in India of varying sizes. One thing that I can say with an immense amount of surety is that the country does not believe in remote work. There might be a few exceptions to the rule but I am talking about a generality that exists in the over enthusiastic startup frenzy that the country is seeing. The problem exists because of both : the employers as well as the employees. The employers have trust issues and the employees give them no reason to think otherwise. It is perhaps this personal experience with working in such environments that made this book especially interesting to me. Of course it is not a treasure chest of knowledge where you will find the recipe to get remote working right. It is just a handbook of the 'why', and a pretty good one at that. The 'how' is for you to figure out, for it will differ from one institution to another.

The book talks about what remote working is and why it is the way forward. It lists out the reason why people need to be enabled and even encouraged to work remotely - in the interest of time, efficiency and personal life. It covers many angles and challenges that remote working involves, some very obvious and some that might not have crossed your mind unless you have actually been there and done that. It also talks about the common apprehensions against remote work and the common pitfalls that might lead to those apprehensions. The book mentions some impressive businesses who are already riding the "remote wave" and successfully so.

I personally found the book rather interesting. It affirmed quite a lot of things that I already believed and added quite a few new perspectives. Apart from remote working, I believe that it is a good handbook for general attitude pertaining to work and maintaining a healthy balance between personal and professional lives. But I am not a big fan of such "self-help" books, although I can now see why people are so charmed by it. They tend to affirm your suspicions. Who doesn't like that! No more such books for me but that's a matter of taste.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

An Unsocial Socialist - George Bernard Shaw

An Unsocial SocialistAn Unsocial Socialist by George Bernard Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was back in the days, when I had a compulsion for buying books, that I found myself in the back alleys of the famous M.G. Road in Bangalore. I was wandering without purpose when I found myself in front of a second-hand-book-store. I was in love with graphic novels then, having discovered Moore recently, but my browsing through the shop resulted in this book. I made a mental note to come back to the shop again when I needed books but, as happens with most notes, it got lost and I never went back to that shop. However, the book persisted in my collection; hopping shelves in Bangalore and Delhi before I picked it up recently, almost two years since I had picked it up from the small store in Bangalore.

I was introduced to G.B. Shaw in Roorkee through "Candida", one of the plays that was a part of an elective course. I liked his writing then and I had remembered this book being mentioned by a then close friend over our endless telephonic discussions. Hence Shaw's novel was something that held an intrigue and I was looking forward to what lay in store. The novel proved to be quite amusing. The story was interlaced with dollops of humour, so subtle that I still wonder about what it was that the author tried to mock! I initially thought he was mocking socialism, but later it seemed his views on socialism were in the earnest. Maybe the Victorian society as such. Or maybe there was no mockery at all, the humour being a result of the ridiculous nature of the conflicting demands of society from individuals.

The story revolves around a certain Sidney Trefusis who is introduced as an eccentric character. Having found his marriage unbearable, he flees his wife and hides from her. He takes up the life of a common wage worker and is introduced to the young ladies in Alton College, in whose vicinity he has chosen to hide. His social conduct is appalling and he tries his best to cause outrage in social settings and gatherings. His grooming, which he tries to shun so, comes back in his dealings with the ladies of the society, who he never fails to charm. The story twists and turns with Trefusis's socialist propaganda and his resumed social contact with a three ladies of Alton : Jane, Getrude and Agatha. There are flirtations and outrages and absurd social meetings. With Sidney nothing is ever quite simple!

The novel lived up to any expectation that I might have had from it. It was fast paced and thoroughly entertaining. I specially liked the subtle humour and the complete unassuming way that Shaw had weaved it with his story. This will definitely make me look up more of Shaw's novels in the future.

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