Review of Midaq Alley

(A review by Sidharth Vardhanof Midaq Alley by Naguib MahfouzFirst written on October 1, 2016) I can see why it is called Naguib Mahfouz’s best novel (although I personally like his ‘Children of the Alley’ more). It has a large number of well-developed and complex characters built with great psychological insight. The Egypt of second world war comes alive in these pages. The lower-middle-class characters – barbers, sweet shop owners etc which populate the book are very much like people belonging to similar classes that I have met in India. Their psychology, their motivations which Mahfouz draws out so beautifully are universal though. The sexual desires suppressed because of social pressure, the strong desire to move up from one’s station in life, the constant consciousness of luxuries that are beyond one’s reach – which also turn some people towards corrupt ways. In this novel this desire also makes the youth (among which it is felt most) take part in the war as British army. Of course, once the war is over, the army lays them and their dreams out. One feels for Hamida whose fate is similar to those who, like her, ignore their emotional needs in face of the

Rumi and Forty Rules of Love

(A review of ‘Forty Rules of Love’,a novel by Elif Shafak Review first written on June 11, 2019) “Eternity does not mean infinite time, but simply timelessness.” Elif Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love) I had my doubts about the book. It looked like a love story with just amorous interpretation of selected Rumi quotes thrown in to produce some cliche rules. It is those things – Ella a married woman and housewife for years fall in ‘oh so forbidden’ love for a dashing Sufi writer with (no points for guessing) a tragic life while translating his book. This book, novel within the novel, ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ is about Shams To be honest, the author seems to be using Shams and Rumi to show her own views but in the end, I didn’t mind. Author’s use of mysticism often results in so many beautiful quotes and forwards a philosophical system in its own right. “it has been such a long time since I last knocked on God’s door that I’m not sure if He still lives in the same place.” Elif Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love) “The sharia is like a candle,” said Shams of Tabriz. “It provides us with

A review of Das Capital

(A review of ‘Das Capital’ by Karl Marx Review first written on July 12, 2019) To judge a book by the way it affected the world is a mistake, though a tempting mistake. If we are to do so, almost all religious books will get a one-star rating because of the violent actions of followers of the respective religion. I don’t wish to be so cruel as to judge Marx, his ‘Das Kapital’ or socialism, on the basis of human rights violations in communist Russia and China. ….. But even if we are to give in to this temptation, we will find that Marx has a mostly positive impact. Before him, the world was driven by a blind capitalist force which burns down everything to profits – mostly based on the exploitation of workers who (often mere children) worked more than 16 hours at times. Some laws for the benefit of workers were already being made by the time Marx wrote the book, but I think it is mostly thanks to Marx that overexploitation of workers is no longer taken for granted in the west. Socialism can’t be any more blamed for the suffering of people in communist countries (blame

Of Africa’s Hopes and Impediments

(A review of ‘Hopes and Impediments’a collection of essays by Chinua AchebeFirst written on August 12, 2015) This is an excellent collection of essays and journalism – most of them manage to look into African cultures in particular, while at time analyzing a theme fr humanity in general. North and South Achebe uses words ‘North’ and ‘South’ in same sense as we use ‘West’ and ‘East’. His North means Europe and also includes USA. He argues that Africa has so not been allowed to speak for itself – it has been assumed by west that it is incapable of doing so as if Africans were children or worse still animals; that even if Europeans (in Africa, Americans too are called Europeans) want to know about Africa, they will send their own expert to study it rather than listen to what Africans might have to say for themselves. To take a contemporary example, look at all those Discovery-Wildlife channels describing local cultures where all the hosts are Americans. Wouldn’t it be better if someone closer to those cultures was to describe them? There could be enough Africans who could explain their culture to world, even in European languages. But Achebe tells

Jokha Al-harthi’s Celestial Bodies – a review

(A review of Jokha Al-harthis’s Celestial BodiesWon International man booker 2019 for English translation by Marilyn BoothReview first written on June 3, 2019) When it comes to diversity, International Man Booker presents nice trends – 3 of 4 winners have been from the third world and 3 have been women. That said, Jokha Al-harthi’s Celestial Bodies ain’t the most deserving one in my arrogant opinion – Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ is the best of 5 books listed in the long list this year that I have read. The summary saying it is the story of 3 sisters might suggest it is a family story – which it is, but it manages to capture a lot of Onami life including the slave trade, politics, changing education scene, smuggling, etc. In fact, at times, it seemed like the book might as well be described as the story of Abdullah who has to his credit the biggest number of chapters. The stories of 3 sisters, by themselves, get a much smaller number of chapters – in fact, the stories of two younger sisters don’t start till much later. Jokha Al-harthi For the most part, the book occurs in flashbacks. Alharthi would pick a

Of Forth On the Daydream and suffering that awaits there

(A review of ‘Forth on the Daydream’A novel by Boris VianReview first written on May 22, 2019) More like 3.5 stars. It has a kind of Disney reality in which animals, for example, talk to people and there is that somewhat infantile humor. The book begins in a kind of innocent world of some young people who haven’t come across the suffering yet. The characters resist and are afraid of things that are for grown-ups – especially having to earn a living. The girls want to buy pretty things and boys want to be able to buy those things for them. As the suffering in its countless forms raises the ugly hand for the four youngsters that are central characters of the book, they struggle to keep the happiness they had gained in their innocent times. Boris Vian The surreal art, as far as I understand, tries to use elements from the unconscious mind, and since ‘meaning’ is an invention of the conscious mind – everything surreal must be definition be meaningless or at least have a meaning that is very difficult to put in words. I am not sure surrealism is the word for strange occurrences of the book.

Asimov’s Foundation – a review

(A review by Sidharth VardhanOf I, Robot by Isaac AsimovFirst written on November 26, 2015) “PSYCHOHISTORY–…Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli..” Isaac Asimov (Foundation) Psychohistory is interesting but not as interesting as robo-psychology (which is subject of ‘I, The Robot’). One of the reasons I love reading Asimov is that he is one of the few science fiction writers who does not make scientists look like fools. Most science fiction I’ve read or seen is about scientists releasing some kind of problem on the world – zombies created by T-virus, monsters created using parts of dead bodies, artificial intelligence gone mad and looking to destroy the world, time machines taking people to 10000 B. C. and so on. You could expect them to know better. ” such folly smacks of genius. A lesser mind would be incapable of it.” Now Asimov is different. Here, scientists are rather cool people often solving problems even before they arise. That is what made psychohistory so interesting – it gave them the ability to foresee future problems. “Any fool can tell a crisis when it arrives.

Robots with an existential crisis – a review of ‘Machines Like Me’

(A review of ‘Machines Like Me’A novel by Ian McEwanReview first written on May 20, 2019) “there are tears in the nature of things.” Virgil Turing Test Alan Turing, one of biggest names in field of artificial intelligence world, devised a test known as Turing test. To pass the test, the machine will have to fool a human (who won’t know whether he or she is talking to human or machine) into believing that he or she is talking to a human being. This mechanical art of talking or acting like humans is only a simulation, the machine might act like humans but it is still not motivated by the same forces. This genius was accused of “gross indecency” because of his homosexuality and committed suicide at around 42 years of age. In the book, a few events of his last days are changed and he survives to bring forth an alternative history in which first Androids hit the market in the 1970s which is when the events of the book happen. A good part of the book goes to developing the alternative history – of robotics, politics and social. The plot itself is rather simple. In ‘Do androids dream

Samarkand – A Review of Amin Maalouf Book

(A review of Samarkand,a novel by Amin Maalouuf First reviewed on May 6, 2019) “Omar Khayyam mourned his disciple with the same dignity, the same resignation and the same discreet agony as he had mourned other friends. ‘We were drinking the same wine, but they got drunk two or three rounds before me.’” Amin Maalouf (Samarkand) Among other things, this book has among its motifs – Omar Khayyam, Hassan-i Sabbah, Persian liberation efforts at the beginning of 20th century, Titanic, Mongols etc. Omar Khayyam Have you ever detests the ‘x’ of algebra during your math classes, well Omar Khayyam is the source of that ‘x’. “to represent the unknown in this treatise on algebra, Khayyam used the Arabic term shay, which means thing. This word, spelled xay in Spanish scientific works, was gradually replaced by its first letter, x, which became the universal symbol for the unknown.” Amin Maalouf (Samarkand) He was a polymath – a true polymath, not one of the modern-day self-claimed ones who learn basics of many fields without mastering any. Omar wrote thesis in maths and astronomy and wrote incredible poems famous all over the world – and that had a really strong influence on sufi

Weakness of strong men – a review of ‘Things Fall Apart’

(A review of ‘Things Fall Apart’,a novel by Chinua AchebeFirst written on April 6, 2015) Called the father of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe is widely respected in Africa. Nelson Mandela, recalling his time as a political prisoner , once referred to him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”. He has inspired some big names in literature including Tony Morrison, Margret Atwood etc. ‘Things fall apart’ despite its ridiculously simple story is very aptly recognized. It involved breaking new grounds – the very choice of language of colonialists over any of domestic dialects was a major decision – Achebe thought English was the only language that can be used to communicate all over Nigeria; rather than country’s multiple dialects. There was an effort at creating a common dialect but the common dialect ‘just didn’t sing’. Set in Nigeria of 1890s, Things Fall Apart (Title is taken from a poem of W.B. Yeats) doesn’t wave any Tolstoyan worlds or tries to go into the depths of individual psyche like James Joyce. What TFA does is that it breaks new grounds; puts a dot of light in that undiscovered plane, which was so far summed up by

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