Thursday, December 31, 2009

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana

Author: Pankaj Mishra
Published: 2006


This book is neither about butter chicken nor about Ludhiana. It is a travelogue narrating the author's experience in several small towns in India. The title of the book derives its name from a snatch of conversation extolling the taste of butter chicken available in Ludhiana,which the author overheard in a restaurant in one such small town.

In 1993 as a young 24 year old, author got a commission from a publisher to write a travel book on small towns in India. He then visited Ambala, Bundi, Shimoga, Murshidabad, Jehanabad and many more such places and captured his experiences in this book.

He traveled like an "aam aadmi (common man)" in buses, trains and stayed in cheap hotels.
At that time the Indian economy had just been liberalized by the government and the whole country was in transition to a new lifestyle. This book is mainly about how the people from small towns whom the author met were handling this- a convent-educated young woman from Jhansi was aspiring to be a beauty queen; a rich young man in Gujarat was speaking casually of murdering Muslims; Naxalites in Bihar were trying to instigate revolution; small shopkeepers were planning a vacation in London. All such interactions are described by the author in a very insightful and witty manner with a sense of humor.

However the author has focused only on the negative aspects of these small towns. This while may be a true account does not give a complete picture of the situation. I also found the author having a tinge of intellectual snobbery while he narrates his story.

I would suggest the author to write a sequel to this book, undertaking the same journey again and describe the the towns and the people whom he visited 17 years ago. Surely that would be an interesting read since a lot of changes would have taken place during these years.

On the whole a very good book to read for travel enthusiast.
I look forward to read other books by the author.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Story of Film

Author: Mark Cousins
Published: 2004

Pavilion Books
Amazon Link: Click Here

This is a very well written jargon-free history of cinema. Readers interested in knowing about the finer aspects of film making will find it very enjoyable.
In this book the author a film critic, producer and documentary director has dealt with film personalities, technological advances and changes in production, well supported by discussions on the groundbreaking scenes from the films. He describes how film makers influenced each other and how contemporary events influenced them. As per the author the film makers who questioned established techniques and traditions are the ones who truly enhanced the medium of cinema.
The Story of Film goes beyond the confines of the Hollywood cinema and English films. It adequately covers the art of film making practiced in the countries like Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, India, China, Iran, Egypt etc.
There are more than 350 stills (both in Black and White and in Color) from the films to support the points made by the author.
The chapters in the book are classified under three eras of the cinema - Silent, Sound and Digital.
Silent (1895 - 1928): This part deals with how the first filmakers devised shots, cuts, close-ups and camera moves; the emergence of Hollywood, the star system and the first great directors; mainstream filmmaking and its dissidents in Germany, France America and the Soviet Union.
Sound (1928-1990): This part deals with movie genres, Japanese and Italian masters; the spread of realism in world cinema; international melodrama and new,early-modernist directors;breakdown of romantic cinema and the coming of modernism in 1950s; political cinema around the globe and the rise of blockbuster in America; the influence of video and MTV; challenging films made in non-Western countries.
Digital (1990 -2004): This part deals with how computerization took cinema beyond photography to discover new possibilities in film making.
A must read for all the serious lovers of cinema who want to develop the art of film appreciation.
It can be a very good introductory text book on history of cinema.
I consider myself very lucky to find this 500 page excellently produced and well-written book at a bargain price of Rs 450 (approx. $10) in Strand Book Exhibition, Bangalore.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Brief History of Painting

Author: Roy Bolton
Published: 2006

Publisher: Magpie Books

This is a sort of guidebook on 4000 years of paintings (mainly of the Western World) written by an art expert associated with Christie's.

It is a very good introduction to the history of paintings.

The book begins with an introductory essay called "The Inner Life of Painting" by Matthew Collings (an art critic). Here he gives tips on how to develop an appreciation for a painting.

This is followed by eight chapters covering - the paintings of the ancient world, the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Europe Renaissance, paintings of the seventeenth century, Rococo and Neo-Classicism, Romanticism and Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionism and Post Impressionism, Modernisn and the Contemporary Art.150 representative paintings are selected from different traditions and arranged chronologically in these chapters.

Each chapter has a summary at the beginning which describes how some of the historical events influenced the art of some well-known artists of that period.
The paintings selected as representative samples are mostly shown as full-page photographs on the odd numbered page (right page of an open book). They are accompanied by a brief guide to the painting and a short biography of the artist on the even numbered page (left page of the open book). Such an arrangement makes it easy for the reader to examine the painting while he reads the accompanying guide. However I wish the size of the book was slightly larger (this was a pocket-size edition) so that the details of the paintings were more visible.

After these chapters there is a pictorial timeline which locates artists and art movements in relation to one another in time. The book concludes with recommendations for further readings and a glossary which explains art terms and art movements.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested to develop appreciation of paintings.

I had borrowed this book from the British Library, and while reading it I discovered to my horror that some pages had been torn off, obviously by the previous borrower (s). I wonder how people who have an aesthetic sense in art stoop down to such deplorable acts. This clearly demonstrates their lack of aesthetic sense as far as their morals and ethics are concerned.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Author: Dan Brown
Published: 2009
Publisher: Bantam Press
Amazon Link: Click Here

I got this book in hardback format literally free by a enchasing a gift certificate which I got when I became a book club member at .

Fast paced thriller featuring Professor Langdon again, after his Da Vinci Code adventure. Here he teams up with Katherine Solomon a noetic scientist, whose brother Peter has been kidnapped by Malakh. Malakh is holding Peter to ransom. In exchange of Peter's life, Malakh wants Langdon to unravel a Ancient Mystery, the clue to which is hidden in a Masonic pyramid in Langdon's possession. One clue leads to another ala Da Vinci Code style till everything is revealed in the end.
One of the clue is a magic square (a grid of consecutive numbers arranged in such a way that all the rows, column, and diagonals added up to the same thing). Here I came to know that even nowadays devout Indians draw special three-by-three magic squares called the Kubera Kolam on their pooja altars. Sometimes it takes a non-Indian to educate us about our culture and traditions !
The story has got two unexpected twists in the end. One is an unexpected one (though some people may guess it, I couldn't), but the other one concerning the Ancient Mystery though it makes perfect sense and I fully endorse it is rather a let down. I was expecting something more esoteric. The end is a somewhat stretched .
Like his previous books Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, this book also is a mix of facts and fiction.
The story is set in Washington D.C. and so the book has vivid description of its history and architecture of its famous monuments. It is all very interesting and may draw more tourists to this city.
It also provides a good introduction to Noetic Science the basic premise for which is "Human thought can transform the world". I came to know through this book that there exist an organization called Institute of Noetic Sciences which systematically conducts research in this area.
While describing the Ancient Mystery the book also makes references to certain interesting facts contained in major religious scriptures (including Upanishads,Vedas, Bhagavad Gita ).
Dan Brown tries to clear several misconceptions about the Freemason organization through Prof. Langdon's lecture in the book . A couple of extracts to illustrate this:
1. (How open minded and tolerant Masons are)
"One of the prerequisites for becoming a Mason is that you must believe in a higher power. The difference between Masonic spirituality and organized religion is that the Masons do not impose a specific definition or name on a higher power. Rather than definitive logical identites like God, Allah, Buddha, or Jesus, the Masons use more general terms like Supreme Being or Great Architect of the Universe. This enables Masons of different faiths to gather together."
"Sounds a little far-out," someone said.
"Or, perhaps, refreshingly open-minded?" Langdon offered. "In this age when different cultures are killing each other over whose definition of God is better, one could say the Masonic tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable." Langdon paced the stage. "Morever, Masonry is open to men of all races, colors, and creeds, and provides a spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way."
2. (I liked this passage a lot; probably the best in this book. The message is in the last sentence of the extract)
"Well if you were to ask Mason, he would offer the following definition: Masonry is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."
"Sounds to me like a euphemism for 'freaky cult'."
"Freaky, you say ?"
"Hell, yes!" the kid said standing up. "I heard what they do inside those secret buildings! Weird candlelight rituals with coffins, and nooses, and drinking wine out of skulls. Now that's freaky!"
Langdon scanned the class. "Does that sound freaky to anyone else?"
"Yes!" they all chimed in.
Langdon feigned a sad sigh. "Too bad. If that's too freaky for you, then I know you'll never want to join my cult."
Silence settled over the room. The student from the Women's Center looked uneasy. "You're in a cult?"
Langdon nodded and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Dont' tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh."
The class looked horrified.
Langdon shrugged. "And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel before the crucifix, and take Holy Communion." (The punch line)
The classroom remained silent.
Langdon winked. "Open your minds, my friends. We all fear what we do not understand."
(How true ! Hope this leads to different societies developing a sense of appreciation of one another.)
Now how about this passage with an Advaitic touch ? Here Peter is explaining to his sister Katharine how the key to our scientific future is hidden in our spiritual past.
“Well . . . like entanglement theory, for one!” Subatomic research had now proven categorically that all matter was interconnected . . . entangled in a single unified mesh . . . a kind of universal oneness.
“You’re telling me the ancients sat around discussing entanglement theory?”
“Absolutely!” Peter said, pushing his long, dark bangs out of his eyes.
“Entanglement was at the core of primeval beliefs. Its names are as old as history itself . . . Dharmakaya, Tao, Brahman.
In fact, man’s oldest spiritual quest was to perceive his own entanglement, to sense his own interconnection with all things.
He has always wanted to become ‘one’ with the universe . . . to achieve the state of ‘at-one-ment.’ ”
Her brother raised his eyebrows. “To this day, Jews and Christians still strive for ‘atonement’ . . . although most of us have forgotten it is actually ‘at-one-ment’ we’re seeking.”
(Wow what an interpretation !
Mystics from almost religion have recognized this fact. For e.g.
Aham Brahmasmi (Hindu), Annal-haq (Islam), I and the Father are One (Christianity))
I really enjoyed this book and recommend to everyone who is looking for something more deeper than a storyline. It is the several digressions (similar to ones quoted above) made in the book which held my interest, though the ones who are just looking for some adventure may consider them unwelcome.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bill & Dave - How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company

Published: 2008
Penguin Group

Happened to see this book in the bargains section in the Landmark book shop and picked it up for just Rs. 149 ($3)
I being an ex-HP employee was interested to know more about the legendary founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

Starting right from the childhood days of Bill and Dave, it covers their lives as students and how they met and started the Hewlett-Packard (HP) company in a garage in 1939. The book then focuses on how the company developed subsequently under the guidance of these two able leaders till their retirement and passing away.

The story behind the landmark HP products like Oscillator, Calculator has also been narrated. The book also describes the circumstances surrounding the major decisions made by the founders(for e.g. HP Way; the decision to go for IPO; the decision to get into the business of computers).
The reader will come to know that many of the best practices in management common today especially in IT companies - Management By Walking Around (MBWA), Employee Stock Options , Flexible Timings, Allocation of 10 - 20% time to work on innovative projects (adopted by Google) - originated from HP.
The last few pages are deals with how their successors John Young, Lew Platt, Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd managed the company.

While telling the story of HP and its founders, the author also gives brief life-sketches of Fred Terman (the mentor of Bill and Dave, who is also considered the father of Silicon Valley) and may other early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

A couple of interesting facts which I did not know about before I read this book : Bill Hewlett suffered from dyslexia as a boy; Steve Wozniak, the founder of Apple Computers once worked for HP.

The author intended this book to serve as a reference text that entrepreneurs, corporate executives revisit regularly. So throughout the text of the book, the key lessons and decisions of Hewlett's and Packard's career are indicated clearly with an asterisk (*) placed after the crucial sentence. Then all these asterisked portions are compiled in a appendix with a cross reference to the page numbers . One can read the key lessons in the appendix and can easily go to the relevant pages to study the larger context.

A very well written and informative book for anyone who is in IT and Instrumentation industry.
A compulsory read for the HP and Agilent (a HP spin-off) employees (also the ex-employees), so that they can feel proud of their heritage and make a sincere attempt sustain the core HP culture which is timeless.