The Biggest Bluff: Maria Konnikova

Title: The Biggest Bluff (Link to Goodreads)
Author: Maria Konnikova
Genre: Non-Fiction
Published In: 2020
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

This is the story of a woman who holds a doctorate degree in psychology and decides to take up poker as a profession. Maria Konnikova is fascinated by human behavior and is even more fascinated by the emotions and behaviors at play in a game of poker. Instead of studying poker players from a distance, she decides to take the plunge herself and dedicates several years of her life being trained under a champion poker player. The outcome of she cashing in a six figure amount is treated more as a secondary goal when compared to the psychological ‘discoveries’ she made.

I have zero interest in poker and before I read this book I had no idea what poker is about. All I knew was a bunch of players sit around a table and wager money until one of them wins. After reading the book, I still can’t say I know the rules better now, but I am wiser by knowing that poker is not about luck or chance alone. It takes skills to win this game, unlike roulette.

I picked up this book because I was intrigued by Konnikova’s discoveries. What does poker teach us about human behavior? Turns out, nothing new which we didn’t know already. The most interesting part of the book was when she worked with Seidel – which increased her self-awareness and helped her identify the cause of her certain actions & reactions and how to control them. Turns out poker face is a myth and we give away lot more through our gestures than our facial expressions.

The book is not a page turner, but not a difficult read either. The story of her journey is told in a flat, monotonous way, but that is acceptable since this book is not a thriller. The book would have read much better if Konnikova had included some suspense and cliff-hangers.

In short, while I enjoyed reading the book, there was a lack of epiphany for me. None of the revelations Konnikova makes left a mark on me. It has been two weeks since I finished reading this book and I can’t recall an incident or a learning which made an impression. I did not take away anything from this book.

A question which often gets asked by readers – should I be familiar with the game of poker to appreciate this book. My answer: it depends. Sorry for the not very helpful answer, but it does depend on the kind of reader you are. Konnikova does give a quick 101 on poker for laypersons like me and a glossary of poker terms at the end of the book (which I skipped). I was okay with not knowing the game in depth as I was focusing more on her the human behavior angle. But, some readers may want to dig deeper to understand every statement the author is making about the situations she finds herself in poker. So, in short: it depends.

If you are looking to transform your poker career and win a six figure cash money, then this book is not going to help you with that. It is not a “How to win big in poker” book. This is just an anecdotal narration of the author of her journey, focusing on her learning, rather than on the big cash prize.

Beyond the last blue mountain: R M Lala

Title: Beyond the last blue mountain (Link to Goodreads)
Author: R.M. Lala
Genre: Non-Fiction
Published In: 1992
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

The name Tata is not new to Indians and is taken with great reverence. It is synonymous with integrity and ethical practice. The company has seen many a visionary leaders at the helm who have played their part in expanding the business while keeping the company’s core principles intact. The founder, Jamsetji Tata, is credited for sowing the seeds and the Chairmans who took up the baton are equally respected for nurturing the plant and for making it a mammoth tree which it is today. Jamshetji passed on the baton to Dorabji Tata, who in turn brought J R D Tata as the leader. When JRD took over, Tata already had established itself in 14 enterprises and when JRD retired from the company, it had more than 90 enterprises, the most noteworthy of these being the aviation industry – domestic and international airlines.

R M Lala’s book chronicles the life of JRD Tata, from his birth to the last leg of his life, while focusing on how his childhood was influenced by the tall leaders in the family and how he was groomed to be the future leader of Tata & Sons. It is very clear JRD was born with a silver spoon – born in France, educated in elite schools and frequent trips to foreign locales, but a point to note is how grounded he still was to the reality and understood the pain of the masses. His humility is celebrated through the various anecdotes. When JRD established the first mail airline service, he flew the planes himself since there weren’t many pilots, while managing his other responsibilities as a Chairman.

JRD was a visionary. He predicted the importance of airlines in the commercial success of a country and established one even when the country was under the influence of the British. He expanded the Taj group of hotels, envisioning the tourism industry which was to bloom. He was a stickler to punctuality and would ensure that every Air India plane took off and landed at the right time – even if it meant that it flew in circles over the airport to avoid landing early.

This biography does justice to the tall image of JRD and gives glimpses of JRD as a Chairman, as a father and as a person. The latter part of the book goes into JRD’s introspection of his life and his contribution to Tata. However, the author often digresses into irrelevant things – a description of Winston Churchill, the number of dishes and gifts offered at a banquet, a few pages on the qualities of Kish Naoroji and Dr Matthai – how do these help in understanding JRD better? If the author had focused only on the personality under discussion, the book could have been easily half its current size. I had hoped to get more insights into how JRD ran his business – the kind of decisions he made, how he weighed his options, how he took risks and how he ran such a mammoth company. The book gives tiny glimpses into this, which is fine, since this is a biography and not a management book.

Despite the length and at times boring narration of incidents, this biography is still a worthy read if one wishes to understand the person behind the name JRD Tata.

Business Adventures: John Brooks

Title: Business Adventures (Link to Goodreads)
Author: John Brooks
Genre: Non-Fiction
Published In: 1969 / 2014
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

I want the year 2021 to be the year where I step out of my comfort zone. I am trying newer things in other aspects of life – work, knitting and even workouts. Why not apply the same to reading, as well? So, this is me reading a book which I never thought I would read. Surprisingly, I quite enjoyed it.

The book cover reads that this book has “Twelve classic tales from the World of Wall Street”. Brooks narrates his experience with companies and Wall Street when he was a financial journalist. Some of these tales are his first-hand experiences, while some are researched and gleaned through interviews. These tales cover cases like the failure of Ford’s Edsel model to the devaluation of the Great Britain’s Pound Sterling; from the success story of Xerox to the nail-biting, thriller-esque story of short-selling and cornering. As someone who was as far away from Wall Street and its stories as possible, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized I was enjoying these tales.

The chapter which I could relate to the most was about Ford Edsel. As someone who is part of a product development team, I could understand the challenges in envisioning a new car model, developing it and launching it. We all do our best, hoping that the product is a bestseller, but only time can tell if we were right. The same is the case with Edsel.

The tale which was the hardest to grasp was the last one – on the devaluation of Pound Sterling and the incidents preceding that. I had no idea this is how global markets work and how coupled they are. The whole idea of the federal bank sitting on (I mean that literally, as the gold is in the basement) a heap of gold was hard to fathom. How US federal bank went out of its way to salvage the London stock market and its cascading effect on the other major markets was eye opening. I always thought the countries are at loggerheads!

Another story which was interesting to me was the one about Goodrich vs. Latex. When an industry expert decides to quit Goodrich and join its competitor Latex, the question of intellectual property and trade secrets come into picture. This is a matter which comes up often in my field of work and most corporates take a common stand of getting the employees sign a non declaration agreement. But to look at it from another perspective – that of an employee and the employer – was interesting.

The edition I read was published in 2014, but as per Goodreads, this book was first published in 1969. As expected, the stories are from old days and lack more contemporary stories, but the finance world is such that the old age stories are still very relevant. I would have loved to read stories about the 2008 recession, the dotcom boom, the explosion of social media companies and the start-ups scene.

The best part about the book is that Brooks does not attempt to answer any question. He presents facts and opinions of experts from both sides of the story and lets the readers draw a conclusion.

Without getting into the details of every chapter, let me summarize by saying if you are even remotely interested in economics and the business side of things, you will enjoy reading this book. You don’t need to understand stock market or financial numbers to appreciate the challenges faced by this corner of the world as narrated in this book.

The Nomad by Henry Shore

The Nomad
by Henry Shore

When our ancestors found that wheat
Was a good bread to eat
They settled in Jericho.
All of us are settled now,
But in our souls there is a great woe:
We don’t know where to go.

I am settled in a fine place
I own a house, I live in grace,
I have a patio
But late at night when the wind laments
And  the garden shivers—my soul is rent:
I don’t know where to go
.

One day when I say good-bye
To life and wife, and die and fly
Somewhere in a great flow
I shall be free to roam again
I’ll try to find but try in vain
Where to go, where to go.

I found this beautiful poem in the book “Beyond the Last Blue Mountain” by R.M. Lala, which is a biography of JRD Tata. This poem is listed as one of his favorite poems in his scrapbook.

The words of this poem carried me away to a different place and time and put me in a wistful mood. Thus decided to copy it here for posterity.

A Burning: Megha Majumdar

Title: A Burning (Link to Goodreads)
Author: Megha Majumdar
Genre: Fiction
Published In: 2020
My Rating: 3 on 5

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel has been creating ripples and waves in the literary world and has been receiving rave reviews from different corners. “A Burning” is about three different characters who feel like outsiders for their own reasons and have “a burning” to feel belonged and even move up in the ranks of the world. These three characters’ lives and fate are intertwined and the book reveals whose wishes come true and whose don’t.

At the center of the book is Jivan, who is a Muslim girl from the slums in Kolkata and working her way out of the poor economic conditions her family is in. An innocent post on Facebook condemning the government’s actions and, of course, her religion land her in jail, as she is accused of helping the terrorists in planting the bomb at a metro station. She leans on Lovely, who Jivan used to teach English to, to help her prove her innocence. And thus we are introduced to the second main character Lovely, who is a hijra and taking acting classes and English lessons (from Jivan) to make her foray into the acting world. The third main character is also an aspirant – one who is aspiring to get out from his mundane, routine life of a PT teacher and gets into politics through sheer luck. Jivan brings in PT teacher also to vouch for her innocence and commitment to studies and sport.

Majumdar has given Jivan and Lovely their own voice as their narration is through first person POV, while PT Sir’s story is narrated through a third person POV. I found this interesting (though it took a bit of time to get used to the changing narrative) and wondered why the minority characters were given their own voice and not the typical male character. I found Lovely’s voice to be interesting – use of broken English, sentences which are a literal translation of Hindi or any Indian regional language. Her words touch the heart the most.

I am opening a card as if it is a flap of my heart. Opening and closing the card, opening and closing the card – I am ready for my heart to be tearing at the fold.

But the center of attention is Jivan. As she is judged by people and is already sentenced as a terrorist by the media, she fights for herself and her innocence.

On the fourth day, a reporter, or maybe a passerby, spits on my face outside the courthouse. My lawyer finds a canteen napkin with which wipe my face, but there is no time to find a bathroom and wash. I sit with that stranger’s hatred on my face all day.

As Jivan’s case is played out in the court of the masses and the judicial court, she needs to fight her own battle along with her not-so-competent lawyer. Her attempt at changing her image in the media backfires, causing her more damage. While Jivan is tussling to save her own life, PT Sir and Lovely have their own tussles – whether to help Jivan by giving their witness at the court or set up their own lives by sacrificing Jivan’s life.

As I finished reading the book, I was puzzled about the author’s choice of name for the main character. Jivan, which means life, is not a very common Indian name and even less so for a Muslim. A name like Husna or Razia brings up a Muslim woman’s face, but Jivan? Not to me, at least.

Majumdar’s debut book is about a very serious and pertinent to the current situation in the country, but I found the book lacking in bringing out the gravity of the situation. I found the book to be on the lighter side and the story being narrated in a detached manner which failed to stir any emotions in me. Even the last chapter (will not get into details since I don’t want to mark this as a spoiler), which is supposed to have been a gut wrenching lacks intensity.

The Motion of the Body Through Space

Title: The Motion of the Body Through Space
Writer : Lionel Shriver
Published: 2020
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

The fitness craze which has recently engulfed the world is at the center of this book, which is entwined with the life of a couple whose marriage is threatened by this very fitness craze. Remington and Seranata are in their sixties and are basking in marital bliss which gets shaken up when Remington announces that he is training for a marathon. Sera, who herself is a fitness freak (but in her own way, as she does not believe in following the crowd and its craze), is shocked by his announcement and is against it from day one.

Shriver takes us through the emotional roller coaster of Sera who vacillates between supporting her husband’s endeavor and resisting it. Her pain, anger and resentment come through so well that I was hurt and pained every time Seranata did. Remington is the typical husband – aloof, indifferent to his wife’s emotions and progressing steadfast on his goal. What starts as a disagreement between the couple turns into a three pronged game when Bambi enters the scene – the fitness trainer who pumps up Remington to train for a triathlon.

While fitness is the major topic in the book, Shriver also introduces other “craze” which has taken over the world – political correctness. Remington’s rocky relationship with his black, female boss and how she uses her gender and race card to get him fired gives us a different perspective to the race/gender issue.

We need to talk about Kevin was my first Shriver book and I absolutely loved it. I have a read a couple of Shriver books after that, but nothing comes close to the way Kevin affected me. This book attempts to be at the same level as Kevin, but fails.

Shriver is known to express her mind freely and this book is a glimpse into that. While I do not agree with everything Shriver says, this book, purely as a fiction, is a good read. But, if you are new to Shriver, then no better book to start than We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Verity by Colleen Hoover

Title: Verity
Writer : Colleen Hoover
Published: 2018
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

There have been many instances in the past where a book has got me so hooked that I have sacrificed sleep, pulled an all nighter, just to see what happens next in the book and how it ends. While this was common during my teenage or 20s days, this is a rare phenomenon these days. But, there comes a book which sweeps you off your feet, steals your sleep and does not let you sleep even after you finish reading the book at 4 AM. Verity by Colleen Hoover is one of those books.

Amongst the umpteen books which are labeled #PsychologicalThriller, this book, thankfully, turns out be one. The book literally grabs you from the very first word. A woman witnessing a horrific road accident and getting drenched in blood is how the book opens. What starts off as a big jolt is kept alive all through the book and the twists and turns and the jaw-dropping revelations is what keeps you awake till 4 AM.

Lowen is a mediocre, struggling writer who is trying to make ends meet, while having lost her ailing mother recently. She gets invited for a meeting with a publisher and when she is on the way for this meeting, she witnesses the tragic accident. The kind-hearted man who helps her recover from this shock turns out to be her “client” who wants her to write the final 3 books of the very popular thriller series authored by his wife, as the original writer, Verity, is deposed due to an accident. As part of her research work, Lowen visits Jeremy and thus begins the mind bending, jaw dropping journey for her and the reader. Lowen comes across a manuscript for what appears to be an autobiography of Verity. What begins as an innocent curiosity for Lowen quickly turns into revelation of true colors of Verity and the working of her mind.

Writing is so gripping and the scenes are so well created that as a reader, even being miles away from the actual scene, one can’t help be very scared of Verity – despite she being bedridden. The many shocking moments are created beautifully and I sometimes looked over my shoulder to see if that scene was actually happening in my house. The master twist is the last chapter, which I just did not see coming. This was probably an attempt by the author to answer the verity of “Verity”.

Interesting characters, jaw-dropping twists, quite a few accidental deaths – all ingredients needed to make a great thriller. Throw in a psychotic person as one of your main characters and you have a wonderful psychological thriller on hand.

Entry #3 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

 

 

The Empty Nest

Title: The Empty Nest
Writer : Sue Watson
Published: 2019
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

Ever since the popularity of Gone Girl and the likes, the number of books tagged with the genre of psychological thriller has increased exponentially. Some do justice to this tag, while some just want that tag to gain attention. I am afraid this book belongs to the latter category.

A teenage girl, a helicopter mom, a laid back stepfather, an abusive biological father who is forced to stay out of the girl’s life are some of the elements that make up this thriller. One fine day, the girl goes missing and nobody believes the mother that she is actually missing until it is too late. Cops go on a goose chase while the mother takes help from her daughter’s friends to start a social media driven chase of her own. A cursory visit from the biological father hopes to increase the suspense factor, but doesn’t really achieve that.

My main disappointment with the book was the disconnect with the characters. The author tries hard to give the characters flesh and blood, but in the end, they are just left with two dimensions and never bloom into full fledged personalities. I am supposed to sympathize with the mother for her fear and anxiety over losing her daughter, but I found myself getting frustrated at her long winded, oft repeated arguments. The center of this story – the girl who goes missing – is so poorly developed that even after finishing the book, I still cannot make out if she was mean or kind to her friend, did she hate her mom for being over protective or was she understood why her mother was like that.

Leaving aside the psychological aspect of the thriller, the book disappoints on the thriller factor too. There aren’t many twists or turns, the whodunnit is not suspenseful enough and when the culprit is revealed, it is not really a shocker.

I picked this up after reading positive reviews on Goodreads. Neither the story, nor the characters created an impact and I was left with disappointment. Counting the positives – atleast the book was small and I finished it fast, so not much time wasted.

 

 

Posted in 2020, Books. 2 Comments »

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

Title: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary
Writer : Anonymous
Published: 1945
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

 

There are countless books written about World War 2 – some are historically accurate while some are fictional accounts. Most of these books highlight the sufferings of the Holocaust victims, which is absolutely needed. Very rarely do we get a glimpse of people on the other side of the war – the Germans. Anne Frank’s diary gave us insights into the atrocities carried out against the Jews and how the general mass stepped up to help the Jews in whatever way they can. This book is a diary of a woman who lives in Berlin and her ordeal at the hands of Russians, long after the war was won by the Allies.

The author remains anonymous to the world, but we know she lived in East Germany, wherein women have made attics and basements their homes to protect themselves from airstrikes as they wait for something worse – Russians conquering Berlin and pillaging the city. The book chronicles the fear as the women wait for Russians to land at their doorstep, the disgust at witnessing the pillaging and rape which the Russian soldiers recklessly carry out and the bravery they show to going to any extent for survival, including striking deals with the soldiers. While the West Germany was conquered by sophisticated enemy of Britain and US, the East Germany people were not so fortunate as they were taken over by the hooligan Russians, most of them being illiterate and rustic.

The author strikes as a woman who is extremely self-aware of her own strengths and weaknesses and the bleak situation she is going to face. The writing is beautiful and tugs at your heart. I knew what to expect from this book – the violence, rapes, starvation, deaths – but this book still left me speechless. The levels to which a human can stoop to took me completely by surprise (or shock). This is not an easy read, definitely not a light one, as the book stays with you long after you have stopped reading it and one needs some time to come out of this painful phase.

Out of all the numerous World War 2 related books, this book stands out for the perspective it brings and its excellent prose. The book is grim and casts a cloud gloom on the reader, but this still remains a very important read.

Entry #3 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020
Entry #2 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

Freedom at Midnight

Title: Freedom at Midnight
Writer : Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre
Published: 2001
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

India’s independence was a moment of celebration, but also a painful memory as the country was partitioned and millions of people lost their lives. Every year as we take pride in raising the tricolor, our heads also hang in shame for the brutality which we caused in the name of religion. While every school teaches the children when India got its independence, very little is said about the events which led to this historical moment and more importantly, the violent events which followed this moment. To fill this void, I decided to read this book, well knowing, that neither of the authors are Indians and nor were they a witness to these events.

The book starts off heaping a huge praise on Lord Mountbatten, who apparently was influential in India attaining her independence. While there may be some amount of truth in it, the sheer adoration, the flowery praises are so over the top that one starts wondering if this book should have been named “An ode to Mountbatten”.

This book is a result of the interviews with Mountbatten and some archives which he had saved over time. This gives the book a very “English” perspective and can come across as biased in some places. Wish the authors had heard the other side of the story too. While the Mountbattens are admired for their bravery and leadership, we do not see the same treatment for Indian politicians. Gandhi is revered, Nehru gets a few notable mentions, Patel is largely ignored and Jinnah is painted as a monster.

This book did strike a chord with the chapters on the actual partition – the drawing of the line – the exodus that followed and the eventual murder of millions of people. The authors paint such a horrid picture of these ghastly events – the train full of corpses is still a haunting visual for me. The mindless pillaging, rapes, murders, mutilation of human beings by other so-called human beings is so mind numbing – one wonders how religion can become more important than human lives.

The book makes a segue into Gandhi’s assassination. This section of the book reads like a thriller – building up suspense, ending the chapter on a cliff hanger – and has all the elements of a page turner.  If you want an outsider perspective on the freedom struggle and eventual independence, albeit with a touch of fictional narrative, do read this book, by all accounts. If you want a more neutral perspective or even an insider view, then pick up a book by local authors, which is what I am planning to do next. On this point, any recommendations on what book I should read on this subject?

 

Entry #2 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020
Entry #1 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020