Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Kim's Review: The Confession

The latest read from the John Grisham stable.

In 1998, in Sloan - a small East Texas city - a beautiful young cheerleader is abducted, raped and strangled. Donte Drumm, an African American football star from the same high school with no connection to the crime is arrested, prosecuted and sentenced with the death penalty.

9 years later, having exhausted all his appeals when Donte is 4 days away from execution - Travis Boyette a criminal with a mile long rap sheet walks into the office of Reverend Keith Schroeder in Kansas and confesses to the crime.

The story is engrossing and is a good case against the death penalty and the way arrests, trials and sentencing is biased in smaller towns across the USA. However at times, if Grisham was within hearing distance, I would say to him "Please get off your soap box and get on with the story"

The story is emotional and Grisham tries to explore the tragedy from every angle. The despair of wrongly accused Boyette, the sadness of Nicole Yarber -the victims- family who also end up milking the tragedy for what its worth, the role of the churches, the tenacity of Robbie Flak - lawyer of Travis Boyette, the scheming of police and public officials, the internal conflict of Reverend Keith Schroeder.

Grisham has very strong views on what he sees as serious flaws in the American justice system and in his last few books he tries to bring these flaws into focus by creating fictional worst case scenarios - that make for interesting reading, but are getting heavier with technical legalese and missing the essence of what made his first few books absolutely unputdownable.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Kim's Review : The Last Empress

The Last Empress continues the story of Empress Tzu Hsi from where it leaves off in Empress Orchid

5 year old Tsai Chun is anointed as Emperor Tung Chih with Empress Orchid and Chief Empress Nuharoo as regents. As he is too young to reign and Empress Nuharoo has no interest in world affairs, it is left to Empress Orchid to rule on her son's behalf. In this task, Empress Orchid depends a lot on her husband (Late Emperor Hsien Feng)'s brother - Prince Kung - to provide a rational voice in the increasingly polarised court. She also depends on the Han Chinese Generals Tseng Kuo-fan, Li Hung Chang and Yung Lu to relay the truth to her on matters concerning the country and its governance and in maintaining law and order, especially along the borders.

Tsai Chun is hence left to the care of tutors, eunuchs and an extremely indulgent Empress Nuharoo who lets him do as he pleases since (even though he is only 5) he is the Emperor of China. Without a firm hand to guide him, and with tutors too terrified of his tantrums to teach him, he grows into a rather callous and indolent youth.

Bored and constricted by the Forbidden City, he takes to visiting city brothels and dies at the age of 19 in 1875 of what was suspected to be an STD. He had barely ruled as Emperor for 2 years even though he enjoyed the title for 14.

Already reeling from the execution of her favourite eunuch An-te-hai, Empress Orchid lost the will to keep living. It is only with great difficulty that her new chief eunuch Li Lien-Ying nurses her back to health.

Since Emperor Tung Chih died without an heir, a new Emperor had to be chosen. But according to Chinese Imperial Family law, the successor to the throne could not be a member of the same generation as his predecessor. Finally, 3 year old Prince Tsai-t'ien, son of Prince Ch'un (Emperor Hsien Feng's brother) and Rong (Empress Orchid's sister) is chosen as Emperor Guang Hsu.

Disappointed with how Tsai Chun turned out and blaming his upbringing, Empress Orchid, vows to do a better and more involved effort with Guang Hsu.

Unfortunately, Empress Orchid soon has to deal with the deaths of her allies in coourt, the Taiping Rebellion, war with Japan, the Opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Add to this the Western nations that were publicly flaying her in the press, while chipping away at China's territory and demanding financial compensation for their defeats.

An announcement was made by the united Western powers, regarding the "spheres of influence in China". Germany & Russia had agreed that the entire Yangtze basin from Szechuan to the delta at Kiangsu was British. Britain agreed that Southern Canton & Southern Yunan were French. A belt from Kausu through Shensi, Shansi, Hunan & Shantung was German. Manchuria & Chihlu were Russian. The freedom-loving United States secured equal rights & opportunities for all nations in the leased areas & termed their attitude 'the open door policy'

Caught between opposing factions with the court, Ironhats, Manchu princes, Boxers, Peasant uprisings, foreign incursions, assassination attempts, Empress Orchid formidably still holds on to power until her death.

Achee Min's writing offers a fascinating insight into Chinese History and culture. The clearly unfair treatment of China by the Western powers is an indicator as to why relationships between these nations have never been completely mended. The kind of unjustified aggression and disastrous financial penalties imposed upon China by "outsiders" who refused to respect local customs and beliefs would definitely have sown deep seeds of mistrust which will take generations to repair.

Anchee Min acknowledges that her writing is fictionalised and some tales may not ring true with historians, but both these books have been a fascinating read and provided new insight into well established culture.

Rating: 4/5


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Brajesh's Review: The Immortals of Meluha

If u haven't yet, go pick this one up now. Brilliant story telling. Anyone who has grown up on stories of Indian mythology will find amazing new insights and connections with those old stories. Amish simultaneously provides a commentary on modern society's lack of tolerance of multiplicity and also touches on contemporary burning issues. Once you get past the use of modern english to recount a story of 9000BC, it is amazingly gripping. Eagerly waiting for the sequels.

Rating: 4/5

Also read Kim's Review of this book


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Brajesh's Review: The Habit of Winning

This book must be made a compulsory read for every professional manager. One of the best books I have ever read in my life. Must be priced at 2999 and not 299 :) I have been a huge fan of Prakash and my admiration for him admiration has gone up many notches. I suggest you order your copy NOW

Rating: 5/5 - first time I have rated perfect for any book

Also, I just got 15 Copies of "Habit Of Winning" for My team ... Thanx Prakash Iyer for creating such a wonderful read. . . . . .

Read an Interview with Prakash Iyer on BookChums.com

Monday, 23 May 2011

Kim's Review: Empress Orchid

Orchid Yehonala is a 17 year old forced to support her impoverished family after her father died. Her only saving grace - she is of Manchu blood andher Father before he died was above the rank of Blue Bannerman. Forced into a corner by an uncle who provides the roof over their heads but now wants Orchid to marry his son, she comes across an edict that every Manchu girl between 13-17 must present herself among the women whom the Emperor will choose his wives and concubines from.

The Chinese Emperor's polygamy is very different from the polygamy practiced by the Indian Kings and princes. While in India, a royal marriage was often to improve political and financial relations, in China, the purpose is only to procreate. Only a son of the Manchu Emperor and a Manchu woman can occupy the Emperors throne and hence the Chinese Emperor has a one-time ceremony in which he chooses 7 wives (1 main Empress, 6 minor wives) and as many concubines as he desires.

Orchid is fortunate to be chosen as an Imperial Consort of the 4th rank, who then becomes the mother of Emperor Hsien Feng's only son, thus raising her status to Empress Tzu Hsi.

Empress Tzu Hsi has been widely reviled in history, mostly due to the writings of biased European journalists who found themselves in China during the tumultuous changes of the 20th century. Sir Edmund Backhouse was incredibly vicious and claimed to have been extremely close to the Empress.In 1974, he was revealed to be a counterfeiter who had never even entered the Forbidden City. But the damage in the foreign press and at Oxford had already been done with multiple repercussions.

Anchee Min in her 2 books about Orchid Yehonala tries to set the record straight and put the events of those years in perspective from the Empresse's perspective.

Empress Orchid is a gripping tale, especially as it is mostly factual and hence a fascinating introduction into the Imperial Chinese court and its functioning within the Forbidden City.

Everything is governed by rules and rituals. Eunuchs wield enormous power. The Manchu's (5 million population) rule the roost in court, even though they seem to have lost touch with reality. The Chinese Han (395 million population) are more in touch with ground reality and have experienced the harsh truths of the world outside the Forbidden City, but are ignored within the court, in a kind of Apartheid.

The Emperors wives and consorts conspire to gain the Emperors attention and to sustain it once gained. But those who take up too much of his time and interest are punished for that by the Grand Empress (Queen Mother)

Empress Orchid, deals with Orchids early troubles, before she is chosen as an imperial consort. Once chosen, the lonely nights she spends while trying desperately tries to get the Emperor to choose her for the night, how her intelligence and forthrightness evokes a kind of trust, her difficult pregnancy before she becomes the mother of his only son.

Until this point, the novel talks mostly about her, her feelings, her attempts, her fears and hopes for herself. Once she becomes the mother of a child - Guang Hsu, it is then that she begins to look at the larger picture. She starts to help the Emperor with court documents and taking an interest in International affairs given the threats at their doorstep, and her anxiety about the China her son will inherit.

However as the foreign invasions continue, the Emperor and his family are forced to abdicate to Jehol where Emperor Hsien Feng succumbs to his illnesses of body and spirit. As Guang Hsu is very young at the time of his passing, a powerful court official Su Shun tries a coup. But Empress Orchid uses every tactic she knows and presses every contact she knows, to prevent this from happenning and places Tsai Chun on the throne as Emperor Tung Chih with herself and Chief Empress Nuharoo as regents

The book ends with the 5 year old Emperor Tung Chih and his court returning to the Forbidden City and the proper burial ceremonies for Emperor Hsien Feng who died when barely 30 years old.

It was a good change to read Chinese History from this perspective. There is always more than one side to a story and it is important that a tale like this is told and read and acknowledged. It gives insight and perspective into future actions and reactions.

I can't wait to start The Last Empress which deals with the 2nd part of Empress Orchid's life and one in which she takes a prominent political role.

Rating: 4/5

Buy Empress Orchid from flipkart.com


Kim's Review: Chandrakanta

My husband who grew up with Hindi Literature, always has an onset of nostalgia whenever anyone mentions the name "Chandrakanta". Growing up down South, where Hindi was an enforced third language, there were no libraries stocking Hindi books, nor did there seem to be any inclination to do so, since no one seemed interested in books written in Hindi.

Chandrakanta was also made into a television serial a couple of decades ago. But that too was in Hindi and we barely gave it a 2nd glance. Our 1 hour ration of tv time on Sundays was carefully conserved for the Famous Five, those Laugh-out-Loud tele-sports programs or the other rare English programming on state run Doordarshan.

Even today my Hindi reading skills are dismal, as I only studied it for 4-5 years, so I eagerly await any English translations of Hindi books that my husband has ever talked about. Unfortunately, a lot of the poetry and language gets lost in translation, but at least I can get the gist and flavour of the story.

Devakinandan Khatri is an author who is highly acclaimed in the Hindi speaking parts of India, as the first author of authentic prose in Adhunik Kaal (Modern Period). A writer who wrote in a version of Hindi that could be read and understood by the masses. Chandrakanta was serialised as bayans/chapters and had people deperately awaiting the next installment. It is said that many people learnt to read Hindi, just to be able to read Chandrakanta for themselves.

The story line is itself straightforward. A Prince - Virendra Singh - is in love with a Princess of the neighbouring kingdom - Chandrakanta. The king's minister's evil son Kroor Singh wants Chandrakanta and her Fathers kingdom for himself and hence forments trouble between the 2 kingdoms. The names of the characters immediately identify them as good or evil.

The mesmerising quality of the story comes from the aiyaars - magicians who are illusionists, herbalists, and many other things combined. Female aiyaaras are as competent as their male counterparts if not more so. Chandrakanta's companion/aiyaaras Chapla and Champa are both very strong characters.

The 2nd setting of intrigue comes from tilisms - an alternate reality with secret traps that seems completely believable to a person trapped inside it and which can only be destroyed by someone (often pre-ordained) who can break all the codes and locks set in place.

It is said the Devakinandan Khatri was heavily inspired by the tales of dastangos and the enchanting ruins of old forts near where he lived and worked.

Deepa Agarwal has done a good job of translating this novel, so that non-Hindi readers too can enjoy this mystical tale. Its well paced and easy to read in one sitting if you have the time. You will most likely find yourself irritated by having to break for mundane things like eating and sleeping.

Devakinandan Khatri has written a much more monumental work in Chandrakanta Santati and then another on Bhootnath I hope someone translates these 2 books too, as it would be wonderful to read the adventures of Chandrakanta's and Virender Singh's offspring too.

Rating: 3.5/5

Other books by Devakinandan Khatri:
Chandrakanta Santati (Hindi in 6 volumes)
Kajara ki kothari: Tilasmi jasusi upanyasom ke janaka ki amarakrti
Katora bhara khuna

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Brajesh's Review: If God was a Banker

Was told this was a fictionalized account of life @ City Bank in the 80s to 00s. I was shocked to read the amount of sleaze, power-play and politics. Checked with a friend and was told only 40% is true and rest are Author's fantasies. Pick only if you nothing else to read on a flight, easy read.

Rating: 2.5/5


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Brajesh's Review: Writing on The Wall

Collection of essays. Some serious issues raised, some attempts at offering solutions. However most solutions were devoid of any urgency or passion. Not a book for general reading. Pickup only if you have keen interest in North East. Anyway difficult to find writings for the region and thanks to Sanjoy for that. Have picked up his "Rites of Passage" as well.

Rating: 2/5

Writing on the Wall: Reflections on the North-East
Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India's Northeast.
Bhopal: The Lessons of a Tragedy

The State Strikes Back: India and the Naga Insurgency
India's Northeast and the crisis of migration
From Bhopal to superfund: The news media and the environment

Kim's Review: 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising

It is true that History is written (dictated) by the victors and extremely true in the case of the Great Uprising of 1857. Every available account is from the British perspective and it is only now that a few books have come into the market with an Indian perspective. The first one I read was Mahmoood Farooqui's Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857 which is a unique perspective in which Mahmood has translated correspondence between aam aadmi - common people - during the run up to 1857.

1857: The Real Story of The Great Uprising is an even more interesting perspective because it is a true first person account by a humble Konkan Brahmin - Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar- who unfortunately chose the exact same time to seek to improve his families fortunes by travelling northwards to perform Brahminical duties at kingdoms governed by Konkanis - the Rani of Jhansi, the Shinde's in Gwalior, Nana Sahib & Bala Sahib Phadnavis & Tantya Tope in Bithur, the Holkars of Indore, the Peshwas among others.

Thr story behind how this book got published is also very interesting. On his return to Versai, Vishnu Bhatt wrote down his memoirs (in the Modi script) and handed them over to a client - Bahadur Chintamani Vinayak Vaidya - to publish after he died, so he could not be persecuted by the victorious British forces for subversion. Vaidya made changes in the story to make it seem semi fictional and published it via 2 different publishing houses, so even if one publisher was shut down, the other might survive. The original manuscript he later handed over to a group of Indian historians - Bharatiya Itihas Shodhak Mandal. Datto Vaman Potdar & Prof N R Pathak then translated this manuscript in its original format into Marathi on behalf of the Mandal in 1948. It was later translated into Hindi by Madhukar Upadhyaya in 2007 and the English translation by Mrinal Pande was released by Harper Collins about a month ago.

Even though Vishnu Bhatt is almost 30 years old at the start of this book when he conceptualises this plan, the "elders" in the family need to meet and agree to him carrying out his ambitious plan and he is only allowed to proceed because his fathers brother - Ram Bhatt - who had already worked in Jhansi before, promises Vishnu Bhatt's father that he will accompany and guide him on this journey.

There are strange contradictions in the thinking of Vishnu Bhatt which become more and more apparent as one keeps reading and it brings forth the rigidity of Brahminical thinking in the 19th century. While Vishnu Bhatt stresses hard in different ways about only eating food cooked by Brahmins and hence needing to cook for themselves even when nearing exhaustion, on the one occassion that he does manage to con his uncle into staying put at Ayodhya while he makes a quick detour with young friends to experience the courtesans and other pleasures of Lucknow, he seems to rebel like a child saying "we slept little, ate whatever we felt like and went wherever we wished to go. There was no one here to discipline us or say no"

This one statement to me implies that the rigidity of thought came only from familial and social pressures and even though he prided himself on his Brahminical knowledge (frequently citing examples at which he comes out tops against the Gauda Brahmins and other learned and senior Brahmins), he did not completely subscribe to it.

Vishnu Batt and Ram Bhatt's travels are fraught with danger - mutinying forces, sudden sickness and dangerous bites, constantly changing political situations and boundaries, dacoits and thugs. The 2 occassions when they did manage to save up some money without being robbed - Vishnu Bhatt whiled it all away at Lucknow and the 2nd time, they gave it all away in feeding and charity to other Brahmins. So while their initial purpose was to make some money and help alleviate the family debt, they returned home practically penniless with just Holy Water to bathe his parents and cleanse them of all their sins - an agreeable compromise in Vishnu Bhatt's eyes

What really stands out in the book though are Vishnu Bhatt's descriptions of the war. The tales of looting, burning and pillaging by the marauding English army are horrifying and disgusting. And even though these events took place over 150 years ago, it is humiliating just to read what happened, I can completely understand the burning desire for revenge in the hearts of the affected locals. However as is the case with most wars, it is the poor, the innocent and the weak who suffer the most from the mindless carnage.

While sections of this book could be easily used to incite negative feelings against the British, I think its ultimate lesson is the pointlessness and mindlessness of war and the sooner we learn this the better.

Rating: 4.5/5

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