Thank You For Smoking

thank-you-for-smokingThank You For Smoking

by Christopher Buckley | 272 Pages | Genre: Fiction | Publisher: Allison & Busby | Year: 2003 | My Rating: 9/10

“That’s the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
― Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking

I started reading this book at a very interesting time, when I finally kicked the butt after 13 years of smoking cigarettes. I know the havoc it has played on my health in past several years, and I don’t need any scientific data to tell me that smoking is bad. I know that there’s people out there way smarter than I am, but a tobacco lobbyist is NOT one of those people! I shall no longer be yanked around by their stinking propaganda. It is my hope that others can also break free from tobacco’s hold. It’s hard. It’s worth it.

Nick Naylor, the main character, is a tobacco lobbyist and the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a tobacco industry lobbying firm that promotes the benefits of cigarettes. He spends most of his time making media appearances to spin whatever claims that any health professional makes about the harmful effects of tobacco. He often laments throughout the book that the media does not give him as much screen time as “health professionals”. Nick’s a player and women are attracted to him like moths toward flame. He’s part of the MOD Squad – the Merchants of Death. It includes him, representing the tobacco lobby, and then a lobbyist for alcohol and for the gun lobby. Because of his ability to easily be unethical and convincing he has become a target for anti-tobacco terrorists and is under investigation from the FBI. The main wheels of the story starts turning when Naylor is kidnapped and is almost killed because his kidnappers stick Nicotine patches all over his body, which he miraculously manages to survive the effects. His doctor says it’s because he is a smoker and his body was therefore not as overwhelmed by all the nicotine patches as a non-smoker’s body would have been. The result is that Naylor can no longer smoke cigarettes ever again because there is now too much nicotine in his system. I enjoyed Naylor’s voice because he is so cynical but also very self-aware. Sometimes he seems like he really believes in the things that he is spouting to defend the people who write his pay checks, but then in the next paragraph, he’ll use the same line that he uses for everything, which is “Where are the data proving this?”

This humorously toned, sharp and witty political satire set in Washington, DC is my Read of the Week.

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Outliers

outliersOutliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell | 307 Pages | Genre: Non Fiction | Publisher: Allen Lane | Year: 2008 | My Rating: 7/10

out-li-er \ noun

1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main of related body

2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample

“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”
― Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success, be it for Bill Gates, Bill Joy, The Beatles, or Joe Flom – seems to stem as much from context as from personal attributes. Intrinsic ability appears to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for exceptional achievement, and what’s essential is hard work (practicing a skill for at least 10,000 hours) along with being born at the ‘right time’. Interestingly the cohort of computer giants were all born in 1950s. Though I think that Gladwell’s claims are used more as a means of getting the reader to think about patterns in general, rather than a pursuit of verifiable statistical fact.

Outliers is divided into two parts. In Part One, called “Opportunity,” Gladwell attempts to debunk several notions, viz., that geniuses are born not made, and that individuals succeed largely through their own initiative. In Part Two, called “Legacy”, he tries to show how important history and culture are in promoting success of one kind or another.

This book about complex sociological phenomenon and full of inventive theories (with gaps) is my Read of the Week.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

200px-Ramanujan_biography_coverThe Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

by Robert Kanigel | 438 Pages | Genre: Mathematics/Biography | Publisher: Penguin Books| Year: 2000 | My Rating: 10/10

“Dear Sir,

I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at madras on a salary of only 20 GBP per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as ‘startling’. I would request you …………….. Being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me. Requesting to be excused for the trouble I give you.

I remain, 

Dear Sir,

Yours truly,

S. Ramanujan”

– Excerpts from a letter dated “Madras, 16th January 1913” to Cambridge Mathematician, G.H. hardy.

This brilliantly researched and well written book by Kanigel is a biography of an incredibly genius and among the greatest Mathematician of all times in the same league of Jacobi or Euler, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, commonly known as ‘Ramanujan’. Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3900 results (mostly equations and identities).  Most of his claims have now been proven correct even after 90 years of his death inspiring a wide range of new research, which is still continuing.

In 1913, while working as a clerk at Madras Port Trust, Ramanujan wrote a letter to the premier English Mathematician of his time, G. H. Hardy, and thus began one of the most productive and unusual scientific collaborations in history, that of an English don and an impoverished and unparalleled genius from India. Hardy arranged a fellowship for Ramanujan to sail for England and come to Cambridge University, leaving behind his wife and family in Madras. Ramanujan’s isolation from his family and the intensity of his work eventually took their toll, and within seven years of leaving India he was dead due to tuberculosis at a young age of 32. Ramanujan was creative and an original thinker, more so than perhaps any other mathematician in history. Hardy had said for his formulas, “They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

This biography with all the drama, the richness with an insatiable love for numbers, and the cultural sweep of a fine historical novel is my Read of the Week.

Kabul Disco

kabul-discoKabul Disco

by Nicolas Wild | 148 Pages | Genre: Graphic Novel | Publisher: HarperCollins India | Year: 2009 | My Rating: 8/10

“What do I draw?” he asks.

“Make it symbolic by representing the ethnic balance: 45% are Pushtuns, 36% are Tajiks, 12% are Uzbeks, 14% are Hazaras, And then there are a few Nuristanis, of course. Draw some wearing shalwar kamiz with turbans, patoos or pakols. Then others wearing three piece suits. Out of the 300 members, 25% are women.”

“Of course,” he says. Only: “I just wanted to know, what do Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Nuristanisshalwar kamiz, patoos, pakols and women look like?”

– Nicolas Wild, Kabul Disco

Nicolas Wild has written a marvelous satire on the big global business that is Afghanistan and its reconstruction post American bombing of the Country to get rid of Taliban and Osama. This novel thus is an entertaining account of the French graphic artist’s life in the Afghanistan working with a development agency, of international NGOs, coalition forces, nascent democracy and the not-so-diminished Taliban. At times hilariously ridiculous, and at others poignant in its observation of the prevalent times, the book brings to life the contrasting mindsets of the two cultures. Wild captures the pretentious, privileged, vaguely Eurotrash existence of the professional expat do-gooder with a suitably wicked eye. He has hilariously portrayed the protected lifestyles, the local “utility men”, the SUVs, the suspiciously connected American and, of course, the expat party scene. Skillfully he has kept the political references limited to comments on the Bush administration, and sexual tension is kept to a minimum.

This ironical and hilarious graphic novel is my Read of the Week.

The White Tiger

whiteThe White Tiger

by Aravind Adiga | 318 Pages | Genre: Fiction| Publisher: HarperCollins India| Year: 2008 | My Rating: 9/10

“You Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs – we entrepreneurs – have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.”

– Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

In his debut novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, Aravind Adiga has brilliantly portrayed the modern India with its newfound economic prowess through its narrator, Balram Halwai aka Munna with an obsession for China, Chandeliers, and Corruption, rising from being a ‘country mouse’ from a nondescript village of Bihar to a business entrepreneur in technology driven Bangalore. Balram’s narrative is framed as a letter to the visiting Chinese Premier, written over seven nights while sitting at his office in Bangalore. In his letter he talks about the initial years of his life spent in Laxmangarh attending school for few years before moving to work with a tea stall, and later moving to Dhanbad with his brother Kishan, where he learnt how to drive and became a driver for a weak-willed son of a feudal landlord from his village. For him ‘the darkness’ represents the areas around river Ganges deep in the heartland marked by medieval hardship, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude and elections are routinely bought and sold. Later he moved to Delhi with his employers, which he has described as moving from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, and one rainy day he slit the throat of his employer with a broken bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, which he justifies as an act of class warfare, took seven hundred thousand rupees in cash and fled to Bangalore. His life in Delhi has taught him the corruption of government and politics, inequality between rich and poor, which he uses to set up his business of transportation for call centers with a motto of ‘driving technology forward’.

This novel as a penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India’s new prosperity is my Read of the Week.

The Shadow Lines

shadow-linesThe Shadow Lines

by Amitav Ghosh | 288 Pages | Genre: Fiction| Publisher: Penguin Books India| Year: 1988 | My Rating: 8.5/10

“He said to me once that one could never know anything except through desire, real desire, which was not the same thing as greed or lust; a pure, painful and primitive desire, a longing for everything that was not in oneself, a torment of the flesh, that carried once beyond the limits of one’s mind to other times and other places, and even, if one was lucky, to a place where there was no border between oneself and one’s imagine in the mirror.”

— Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines

Amitav Ghosh captures the lines connecting time and events, and people with each other bound by ties of blood and history. This work of fiction is narrated by and follows the life of a young boy growing up in Calcutta with his grand mother and parents, and later in Delhi and London for his higher education. His Grandmother and Mayadebi are sisters, who grew up in Dhaka pre-partition. After the death of her husband, grandmother works at a school to raise her son without depending upon any charity, while Mayadebi marries a Diplomat and lives a life of luxury. Two characters plays pivotal role in the narrator’s life are Ila, a distant cousin of his from Mayadebi’s side to whom he is attracted yet his yearnings go unrequited, and Tridib, who’s Maya’s son. The story unfolds through flashbacks, then progresses occasionally in the present.

This book with numerous characters and intricate web of memories moving back and forth, is my Read of the Week.

Zero

zeroZERO: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

by Charles Seife | 248 Pages | Genre: Mathematics/Science | Publisher: Penguin Books| Year: 2000 | My Rating: 10/10

“The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything. Used unwisely, Zero has the power to destroy logic.”

Charles Seife has presented the complexity of esoteric math and philosophy for popular readership without taking the beauty of numbers throughout his book, Zero. The books starts with the prehistory of numerals, before the number system was discovered. It was only with the advent of numerical notation and arithmetic that zero as a discrete concept became necessary, first as a simple place holder in the Babylonian number system, and later, with the Greeks, as an important astronomical tool even though they didn’t like zero at all.

It was India that first domesticated zero, through the Hindu familiarity with the concepts of infinity and the void. Rigveda states, ‘There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the skywhich is beyond. What stirred? Where?’ Zero is between the void and the absolute.

This elegant and enlightening book about the strangest number in the universe is my ‘Read of the Week’.

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