December 6, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo - Steig Larsson

This story has it all: suspense, thrills, espionage, romance and a murder mystery. Steig Larsson has writes a brilliant story about the duo Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Mikael is a disgraced journalist who is trying to get back at an industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. He is employed by Henrik Vanger, the ex-CEO of the Vanger empire, to solve a 36 year old murder of his neice Harriet Vanger.

The story twists and turns around the many members of the Vanger familu such as Martin, Cecelia, Gottfried, Isabela, Anita and Harald, among others. The mystery is on the island of Hedeby where most of the Vanger family live. Lisbeth is an extremly gifted girl and Mikael is a investigative journalist with unconventional problem-solving skills. Lisbeth and Mikael join forces to unravel the myster that surrounds Harriet. The story starts off slow, but it picks pace very quickly. Pretty soon it ends up being a page-turner.

The original title was in Swedish and we see some Swedish words such as Glögg
(a type of wine), Kronor (Swedish currency) etc. This gives it a nice international feel to it.

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Life of Pi won the 2002 Booker Prize. This is a simple book with a very interesting story about Piscine Patel, a.k.a Pi. The book starts of with Pi's childhood in Pondicherry, India. His father is the owner of a zoo and Pi describes the exotic animals. He draws a lot of similarities between animal and human behavior. Pi discusses a lot of philosophical points. For example, he argues that the animals in a zoo are content with their private spaces and regular food as opposes to fending for themselves in the jungle.

The story becomes really interesting when the family decides to emigrate to Canada. Around this time the story takes a turn in such a way that he ends up on a lifeboat with a tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He manages to survive and live harmoniously with the tiger. Its a story of despair, hope, survival and triumph. In the end we realize that the human mind works in strange ways.

October 18, 2010

The Big Short - Michael Lewis

The subprime crisis of 2008 through the eyes of successful hedge fund managers. This books has a timeline of about 2005 - 2010. It weaves through the origin of the subprime mortgages and the events that lead to the eventual financial collapse. The author does a great job of conveying the events in the form of a fast-paced novel.

The author explains financial terms in a very simple manner and shows how major banks and Wall Street manipulate them. It gives a glimpse into the system from the eyes of hedge fund managers such as Steve Eisman, Michael Burry and others. The author points out that some financial instruments can be made so complex, that even the best minds would not be able to perceive the actual risks. He points out the basic flaws in assumptions by many firms. He describes how major banks, rating agencies and the government acted and reacted to the unprecedented events.

October 17, 2010

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Dan Brown takes us on another trip with lessons on Symbols and Architecture. He does a good job of combining facts and fiction as in his earlier books such as Angels & Demons (Illuminati). He discusses groups such as the Priori of Scion and the Knights Templar in The Da Vinci Code. In this book he focuses on Freemasons and their secrets.

In typical Dan Brown style, the book is fast paced with conspiracy theories. He discusses Noetic Science and its implications. One of his characters, Katherine Solomon, is a scientist in this field with research on human thought affecting the physical world around us. 

The book starts with Peter Solomon, a Freemason and friend, being kidnapped. The protagonist, Robert Langdon, is faced with symbols and puzzles that he needs to solve. The story progresses with a lot of twists and turns. While some of the things turn out anti-climatic, others have unexpected twists. Either way it keeps you glued to the book.

This time he is accompanied by Inoue Sato to stop Mal'akh, the antagonist, from doing harm. 

October 3, 2010

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

These are the Fairy Tales and Short Stories by the author of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.

'The Angel' is a moving story of a young child who is carried to God in the arms of a angel. On the way to heaven they visit the places the child loves and carries the flowers he likes. There is a special flower that had kept the company of a sick little boy. That flower is taken to heaven and the Almighty kisses it and gives it  a voice.

'A Story' is a nice philosophical story which describes God's mercy. It changes the views of a pastor who thinks that all men are wicked and that they will suffer.

These and the other stories are available for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg :

The Firelight Fairy Book - Henry Beston

This book has very imaginative and charming short Fairy Tales. Prince Sneeze is the story of a price who has a curse that something bad will happen every time he sneezes. Marianna is the story of the magical adventures of a young girl. The Enchanted Elm is the story of a prince who is turned into a tree. This story reminds you of the walking and talking trees in the Lorg Of the Rings.

'The Lost Half-hour' is the story of a simpleton who goes in search of a lost half hour. Along the way he also looks for a Knight's lost temper and an old man's lost reputation. He ends up working for Father time and his sons: the hours of the day.

These and the other stories are available for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg :

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

Saleem Sinai is the protagonist with supernatural powers. He was born at the stroke of midnight of India's independence. In this story they are hundreds of children born at this magical hour. Each with a gift. The children born closer to the stroke of midnight have more powerful gifts. Shiva is Saleem's nemesis who was also born at the stroke of midnight.

Saleem has the power to read peoples thoughts and smell peoples emotions. Shiva has the gift of War. Parvati had this gift of sorcery. In all there are 420 of these Midnight's Children with spectacular gifts.

The story starts with Saleem's grandfather Adam Aziz and weaves through the history of India during that time. The author takes a very unique look at peoples thoughts through a 'child's eye'. He gives a stunning lesson of the history of India's formative years. He gives a picture of how Mumbai was created, how India came together as a country. He describes the partition eloquently and gives a perspective from both sides of the Border.

He intertwines the magical gifts with the actions of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. He gives a beautiful description of various location such as the mangrove forest of Sundarbans.

Ironically his son is born at the stroke of Midnight when Emergency is proclaimed in India. His son is born with large ears and implied to have supernatural hearing. Towards the end Saleem predicts 1001 generations of such children.

This is a very unique book that mixes magic and history. Be patient with this book as it is long and divided into three books. Saleem and the band of Midnight's Children do not come till much later in the book. This book will reward your patience with a rich picture of human emotions and the emotions of Nations.

April 3, 2010

Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a book of short stories and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri tells stories mostly about first and second generation Indians in the US.

The Temporary Matter: This is a story about a week in the life of a couple. This is the week with an hour of power cut. It talks about how they avoid each other after the loss of their child to stillbirth. Coincidentally they start a game to go along with the power cut. Through this game we come to know of their pasts, their emotions and an unexpected climax.

When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine: This is the story of a man separated from his family during the time Bangladesh was becoming independent from Pakistan.

Overall a good book dealing with complex emotions in a simple language.

February 9, 2010

The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga writes about the life of Balram Halwai: a driver turned entrepreneur. It a dark story about rags-to-riches. The book is in the form of an autobiography where Balram writes about his success in letter. Balram writes the written over seven nights.

The story starts with Balram's childhood in a poor family. His village is under the control of ruthless and greedy landlords. The poor in the village are in a vicious cycle of debt. Balram is the brightest kid in school and is impresses the official who took surprise inspection at his school. This official calls him 'The White Tiger':  one that comes once in a generation. Balram's father is a rickshaw puller. After his father's death he is forced to drop out of school. From there his life takes a turn and he starts off by breaking coals at a tea shop. Balram has keen interest in the latest news and learns by evesdropping on the customers. This inquisitiveness is instrumental in shaping his future.

He has realistic role models in local people such as the bus conductor who rose from a family of 'pigheards'. This is a low caste in Hindu caste system in India. The author emphasizes how the caste system influences peoples perception. He overhers someone say that that there is good money to be made in being a car driver for the rich. He convinces his brother and granny to come up with the training fee and learns the skill.

Once he learns driving he goes door-to-door looking for work. He realizes that people hire drivers only based on recommendations. Destiny however had something in store for him. He ends up getting hired by a coal mining family. He drives Ashok and his wife Pinky, who had returned from the US to India. The author touches on topics where the wife wants to return to the US while the husband wants to stay back. The story goes into political dealings of the family to avoid taxes. Balram watches large sums of money change hands.

The story is a page turner because it weaves into his experiences. Balram's story is almost like an anti-climax where he starts off with what he has done. It keeps your attention till the very end and you are eager to know how and why he did it. The author writes in a simple language with easy words. This novel has all the dark elements: betrayal, poverty, corruption. Its a Machiavellian story where Balram decides that the end justifies the means.

January 31, 2010

Between The Assasinations

Seven days in a town in India : Kittur. Aravind Adiga's book goes over incidents that happen with different people in the town in 1985. The stories mostly unfold from the eyes of the poor. The stories are fairly independent of each other but all happen on the same steets and neighborhoods of Kittur.

The books starts with a poor honest boy, Ziauddin, who comes to Kittur hungry and broke. He works hard at a teashop and gains everyone's trust and favor. As the story goes on, he does wrong things for another fair-skinned Pathan who treats him well.

The next story is about a honest businessman Abbasi. He is torn between running his business and blinding the women who do the delicate embroidery work. Every step of the way he is faced with corruption and bribery.

The authors characters think deep, a class apart from their peers. The philosophical thoughts come from the journalist, the communist, the cart puller and the guy who earns a living spraying mosquito repellent. Some characters like "Xerox" Ramakrishna are ironic. The illiterate guy sells illegal photocopies of bestsellers. The irony is not only in his profession, but that he loves books in his own way.

There is a common thread in all his stories: the caste system in India. He describes the struggles of the Hoykas; both the underprivileged and the rich. Shankara Kinni is has as upper caste father and a lower caste mother. He struggles to get accepted in society ends up doing a serious mischief. Continuing with classrooms, the author talks about assitant headmaster Mr D'Mello. He pins hopes and expectations on his favorite student who he cares about more than his own children.

Keshava is another character like Ziauddin. With sheer harwork he rises among his peers, only to be forgotten once his is on no use to anyone. Gururaj is a journalist who wants to do the right thing. However, he realizes that the facts are doctored and controlled by the people in power. Chenayya is the cartpuller who realizes that he is going nowhere with his current job. His struggles to get a new job and his hardwork give us a glimpse of the unpriviileged.

The author deals with abuse in the story of a construction worker. Jayamma's is the story of an unmarried old Brahmin woman who spends her life working as a maid the houses of various rich people. George earns the trust of Mrs Gomes with his hard work but eventually falls in her eyes.

Ratna Shetty is a quack who turns selfless when the situation demands it. The author deals with how society perceives a childless couple. Murali was a budding author with an interste in politics. He devotes his entire life to Communism only to have second thoughts about it.

There is a similarity in the stories that Murali wrote and this book. It talks about people who just think and want nothing. The book takes you to a different place and time. Its easy to get immersed in the story and empathize with the characters.

While we have our own worries, this book pull us into the dregs of humanity. There are people who are in absolute poverty. When we tap away at our computers, there are people struggling to ends meet. Struggling to gain acceptance. Struggling to survive. This exisied not just in 1985, but sadly now as well.