Posts Tagged ‘Books’

The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

India is a place that I haven’t seen enough of, and don’t know enough about. But at least I’m lucky enough to have been there twice. And let’s face it, you could spend a lifetime exploring India and not see it all – it’s a big place!

“The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone” has been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long (since my last trip to India in fact), but I finally got into reading it this year, and I am really glad that I did. Shashi Tharoor is a former UN diplomat, so he knows India, having grown up and spent much of his life there, but he also has enough of an outsider’s view that he doesn’t assume too much knowledge of the country for the international reader like me.

The book is a series of fairly short and easy to read essays on all of the major subjects of Indian life – politics, religion, history, economics, and of source cricket. What is clear is that the writer has his own opinions on Indian life, and although he loves his country and is very proud of it, he is honest about the good and bad of India in the 21st century. Although this is a forward-looking book, some of my favourite parts were about Indian history – the campaign for independance and the people who led it, the pain of partition, and the politics since then. I’ve always known a little about Gandhi, but not so much about Nehru and others, and I think my next non-fiction reading might be to find out more about them.

If the book has a central message, I think it’s the great diversity of India. When I was there, I was astonished by the profusion of languages as I travelled around, and wondered how a country could stay bound together without a single common language. But perhaps that question says more about me than India;  we struggle with division in Northern Ireland, even though it’s not that big and there aren’t that many of us. And Scotland isn’t much better these days…

His answer to that question is that India is at its best when it embraces the diversity that spans languages, religions, castes, ethnic types – pretty much everything. India is proud of its democracy, the massive exercise that ensures that votes are gathered from every corner of the country, and rightly so. And it’s proud of its secular society, where prime ministers, politicians, cricketers, and celebrities come from all of the different faiths.

India will be the most populous nation on earth before too long, and with its combination of science and technological leadership, and a massive diaspora of Indians all over the world, it’s a culture that we need to take notice of.

I really enjoyed this book, and it makes me want to find out more about a country that I have even greater respect for now.


Monday, October 31st, 2011

Wired had a couple of articles in the past few days on the books that geeks should have read, here and here. Lists of books are obviously very subjective, but I did like these lists:

The first one is:

  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax (1979)
    Okay, I don’t think I ever had a copy of the original 1st edition DMG, but I have certainly read through it, and its many successors through to the current 4th edition. I love how Wired describe it as a book for building worlds. But be warned that much of the charm of the first edition was the crazy tables for all sorts of things, which are handled in the modern editions in a much less entertaining way.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
    An absolute classic, as a book, a radio series, or on tv. Really can’t be recommended highly enough – he really was a comic genius. Up until last week, I had the tv series on my iphone, for emergency watching in boring situations, since it couldn’t fail to cheer me up.
  • Watchmen, Alan Moore (1986 to 1987)
    Yes, it’s unpleasant in places, and the whole Curse of the Black Ship thing is a bit random, but as a study in humanity it’s a rich and interesting book, which happens to be told in pictures as well as words. Though I do feel that the conclusion of the film actually improved on the original.
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter (1979)
    The first one on the list that I haven’t read. Though I did search for it on ebay last month, so there is some kind of intention to read it sometime. All I know is that it was a course text at Queens for the History and Philosophy of Science, wchi has always both attracted and repelled me…
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
    I read this a lot of years ago, and I remember it as a gripping and surprising book. I also remember that the sequels were very different, and a bit disappointing.
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
    Another one that I haven’t read – possibly next on my reading list.
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954 to 1955)
    The one, the only, the classic. I remember reading it as a young teenager, and getting a bit bogged down in the middle book, but it is a great set of books, with an important message – little people are important!
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte (1992)
    I’ve never even heard of this. Wired make it sound interesting, but I worry that it would only lead to fancy powerpoint slides. The one I am least likely to read.
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
    Again, one I haven’t read. I’ve heard of it, and I suppose I the right time to have read it was 20 years ago when it wasn’t at all dated. I rather suspect it will have aged a bit, in a way that he Lord of Rings hasn’t 😉

And that’s all for the first list. Will get the second tomorrow perhaps.

    Another day on holiday

    Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

    Today I went out cycling with a group from the local bike shop. The rest of the group all looked a whole lot more professional than me, and it turned out they were. But not quite all of them. I ended up third from last most of the time, which I was happy enough with. Just happy not to be last! In my defence, myself and second last were the only ones riding the shop’s cheaper alloy road bikes, while all the others were riding flashy carbon jobs.

    But unfortunately I forgot to start runkeeper, so I have no track of it. And the bike computer was set for the wrong wheel size, so I didn’t even have that. But from the other guys, we did 52 miles, in 3 and a quarter hours.

    I then took some advice, and had a dip in the hotel pool.

    And then ignored the rest of the advice, and spent the afternoon lying on a sun bed and reading Stieg Larsson’s “The girl who played with fire”, the sequel to the famous “The girl with the dragon tattoo”. It’s quite a read, as I finished it in 2 days. I’m not sure it’s just as good as the first one mind you. My major disappointment is the character of Ronald Niemann, who seems like a James Bond villain unexpectedly dropped into the wrong book. Maybe I am being picky, but I thought that this character kind of cheapened the book. But having said that, I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one, and I suppose that’s the best sign of a good book. 

    The Stand

    Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

    I started reading Stephen King’s The Stand just before Christmas, and finished it at the weekend.

    “The end of the world as we know it” is very fashionable just at the minute. Over Christmas, we had the Day of the Triffids on television, and Survivors is just starting up again. In the cinema we had 2012, and we’ve now got The Road and The book of Eli arriving. I don’t know whether this has been caused by environmental concerns, swine flu, or the global recession, but there’s certainly a lot of it about.

    So how was The Stand? Well, Stephen King is well known as a master of horror, and so I guess I was expecting this to be gruesome. But the story is a bit more subtle than that. The first third of the book tells the story of the plague, and the tales of the individual survivors. While it didn’t give me bad dreams, it is unsettling, especially in the context of this year’s swine flu. The second part of the book is the story of how the groups come together and form a community. What I found most interesting here was the character of Mother Abigail, and the fact their dreams led the survivors to an old Christian lady. I somehow can’t imagine that being the case in a more contemporary book, and I found her to be a beautifully written character. The final section is then the climax of the story, when the communities of good and evil collide. And there’s lots to like here too. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that good triumphs over evil not by resorting to evil themselves, but because evil defeats itself. And yet at the end, there is no definitive happy ending – the human race has survived, but what will the society that they build ultimately look like, and will they just create the same problems all over again?

    This is a big book, but it’s a real page-turner that’s very easy to get into, and not a difficult read. It’s a little dated now, not surprisingly since it was first published in 1978, but I thought it was a good book, that deserves its reputation as a classic.

    Pushing Ice

    Sunday, October 11th, 2009

    I bought two books to take with me to Dallas. The first I read was Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds. I read his House of Suns in Lanzarote last month, and really enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed this one even more.

    The story begins with Janus, one of the moons of Saturn, unexpectedly breaking orbit, and heading off to a distant star system. The Rockhopper, an asteroid mining ship is the only vessel in position to follow it. The book then follows the story of its crew as they follow this alien object to its destination. The characters were interesting and engaging, and the plot varied and imaginative. But what really impressed me was that every time I thought I knew where the book was going, it would do something unexpected. I liked that. I also liked that the cover of the book was relevant to the story, which seems to be not often the case these days in sci-fi.

    So some solid sci-fi, that’s an enjoyable read, and hard to put down.


    Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

    I finished my first holiday book standing outside the airport waiting for a coach to take me to my resort.

    It was Moonraker, by Ian Fleming, one of the original James Bond books, and in fact only the third in the series (though it was a much later movie).

    I like James Bond books to take on holiday. They’re physically small and light, and psychologically not too heavy going. Because of our familiarity with the films, they’re often quite predictable, but not this one, where the film has almost nothing in common with the book. In this book, millionaire Sir Hugo Drax is building an independant nuclear deterrant for the UK, in the shape of the Moonraker rocket, thus cementing Britain’s place in world politics. But all is of course not quite as it seems, and James is sent to investigate.

    In this day and age, the idea of Britain having a world-leading nuclear missile programme, seems preposterous, but of course Trident is still up for replacement, so you never know. The action takes place mainly in M’s gentlemens’ club in London, and at the Moonraker launch site in the south of England, so there’s not a lot of glamorous locations.

    But I do like the plot, which is much more straightforward and reasonable than that of the film, involving a massively complex revenge rather than the extinction of the human race. I found it just predictable enough to make me feel clever, with action and some vintage charm. There’s also an unexpected twist at the end, which I rather liked.

    Dawn of the Dumb

    Thursday, May 21st, 2009

    I finished reading a very interesting book a few weeks ago, but hadn’t got round to writing about it. It’s Dawn of the Dumb by Charlie Brooker, a collection of essays from his newspaper columns for the Guardian. I’m quite shocked that some of these got published – he must keep their lawyers fairly busy. It’s a book that no-one should enjoy, as it is shockingly pessimistic and negative about basically everything that Charlie encounters. I would say that he hates everything, but every so often he unexpectedly admits to liking something, and writes a few warm and enthusiastic words. But it never lasts because he’s a complete misanthrope.

    Here’s a quote from the back cover, which is a reasonable summary of the book:

    “I don’t get people. What’s their appeal, precisely? They waddle around with their haircuts on, cluttering the pavement like gormless, farting skittles. They’re awful.”

    From this, you’ll guess that he isn’t really a people person. Doesn’t he say terrible things about our fellow human beings? Except of course that we all feel that way some days. Well I certainly do anyway.
    Here’s the start of the introduction:

    Thanks for buying this book. I hope you enjoy reading it more than I enjoyed writing it, because I hated every minute. Well almost.”

    I did enjoy reading it. He has some great ideas, and is very witty. Just flicking through, I found his theory about the link between dark matter (which scientists know exists, but can’t find) and Emmerdale watchers (who apparently there are millions of, but who knows anyone who does), who he claims are “Dark matter with shoes”. Perhaps there’s something cathartic about reading a collection of such angry thoughts. Perhaps revelling in irritation, and really throwing yourself into it helps you to let it go. I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to reading his other book Screen Burn, which I guess is more of the same.

    But before I go, I can’t resist a few quotes from the essay called “I hate Macs”.

    “I hate Macs. I have always hated Macs. I hate people who use Macs. I even hate people who don’t use Macs but sometimes wish they did. Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper compuers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui”

    What a hoot 🙂

    What are they teaching them??

    Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

    A friend bought a reading book for his young son the other day. Highly commendable! I approve.

    But when he showed it to me, I was unexpectedly horrified.

    The first page introduced the characters, by showing them all in a line with their names underneath them. You can find the same characters here, as it’s also been made into a television series. Mum and Dad – seems perfectly reasonable. No problems there.
    Then Biff. Now that seemed odd to me, for lots of reasons. For a start, Biff had long hair in a ponytail, which says to my simple mind that Biff is a girl. The text confirms this assumption. But I thought Biff was a boy’s name. It certainly is in Back To The Future, and the Hardy Boys books. A quick wikipedia search for the name Biff shows a reasonable list of people, and crucially all of them seem to be male. But that’s not all – most of them are also American, so I assumed that this must be an American book.

    We move on. The next character is Chip, Biff’s brother. Well, that clinches it – it must be an American book.

    Then the final child in the family, Kipper. No, hold on, Kipper must be the dog’s name. No, the dog is called Floppy. So the family called their youngest child Kipper.

    That’s not American – it’s just NUTS!

    Then I discover that the book isn’t American at all, it’s published by the Oxford Univerity Press. So what are they trying to teach our children? Apparently Biff and Chip are twins. Friends of mine had twins recently, and I gave them many helpful suggestions for twin names, – Zig and Zag (which is beautifully simple), Laurel and Hardy (which works very well – Laurel is a nice name for a girl, and Hardy has just the right amount of upper-class twittery to make it a fashionable boy’s name in these troubled times in which we live), Lilo and Stitch, Shrek and Donkey (or, I suppose Fiona). But none of these suggestions are as silly as Biff and Chips. Especially if Biff is a girl.

    So what are the boffins at Oxford University trying to teach our children? I’m only an amateur conspiracy theorist, but I have to say that this sounds like some kind of grand psychology experiment to me. Apparently these books are very popular, and lots of children read them. What kind of ideas are they planting? And why? Quite frankly, I have no idea. But I worry for the poor kids, whatever their names may be…

    Books: The Protestant Revolution

    Sunday, March 9th, 2008

    Today I finished reading The Protestant Revolution, a book I got at Christmas. My knowledge of the history of my own religion is a bit poor, so when I saw this I thought it was a good opportunity to improve it. The book goes into reasonable depth about the theological twists and turns of the story of protestantism, from its difficult birth through to it’s impact on the world through some significant people like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King. It also goes down some of the side roads and dead ends along the way, which is always interesting. It’s definitely a history book more than a theology book, but it’s a good balance, and I know more than I did before I started.

    It’s interesting to note that Martin Luther himself only ever intended to
    reform the Catholic church, and never intended to create a split from it. It’s depressing to read about the history of the religious wars that raged across Europe as various rulers tried to assert their faith over their people.

    But the part that I found most interesting was the difference between the
    magisterial reformers and the radical reformers, and how that continues to echo through lots of contemporary situations. The magisterial reformers believed that all of society must be reformed, and so were compelled to force their beliefs on other people to “bring them into the light”. However, the radical reformers were happy to break off from the main body of society (or the church) in order to follow their beliefs on their own.

    I think this fits into a lot of situations where we have the choice of trying to change and improve something from within, or walking away and starting again. It also raises the question of trying to impose the rules of your religion on the wider society. If that is anti-slavery, it’s a good thing, but if it is anti-gambling, or against Sunday shopping, is it still as valid? And is it our duty regardless? Where does religious freedom fit in, and respect for other beliefs.

    The one good thing that all those wars did give us was that the people in charge decided that the cost of state religion was too high, and they gave us the freedom to make our own decisions on matters of faith. It would nice if that kind of freedom existing everywhere in our troubled world.