Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, A History Book Review

For those of you intimidated by reading History, I would encourage you to give it a chance. Yeah, history books are long, hundreds of pages; it at first appears that it can be dry. This is not the case when well written, and when reading History patience does have its rewards. Oh, now there might be a lot of names, places, dates and it might be tough to follow. Again if well written and presented, then it should be easy to follow, stay with it. From History you not only learn about the past, the past also teaches us about the present situation and what could potentially happen in the future. For me those little nuggets of historical trivia also excite me. Growing up I had learned a lot about India’s fight for independence and Gandhi. When I read the cover of this book about Gandhi and Churchill, I was immediately drawn in, and I had to read the book.

This brings me to the topic of this review, Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, written by Arthur Herman, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for 2008. Herman is a former professor of history from Georgetown University, Catholic University, George Mason University, and Smithsonian’s Campus. His interest in Indian History spawned as a youth from his father, who himself has written about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gandhi. As the author writes “I was in High School when I helped my father to correct proofs of his translation of the Bhagavad Gita”.

Arthur Herman provides a revealing accounting of the politics of the British Empire in India. While as the title indicates the major players in this author’s account of the colonial history are Gandhi and Churchill, the book also nicely pieces together the relationships between all the key political figures in India, England, and also world events like a puzzle. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the author’s fascinating recounting of World War II and also specifically Japan’s invasion of Asia and the impact of these events on the cause for India’s Independence. The author’s account of Japan’s invasion of Asia during World War II reads like a fast pace action novel, while also providing interesting historical facts. The following is a sample of the action from the book:

“After a year’s preparation, the Japanese attacked India. One thrust ran southward toward Imphal, less than fifty kilometers west of the Burmese border. The other stretched to Korma, as thousands of Japanese infantry poured through the thick jungle hoping to encircle the massive British base being built at Dimapur.”

The author paints Gandhi and Churchill as complex characters. Both men were characterized by discipline, determination for a cause, and strong principles. One way these characteristics were highlighted was through the author’s use of referencing primary sources of information throughout the book. The author described the seemingly parallel lives, yet integrally linked, of Churchill and Gandhi using fluid prose and nice transitions. It is fascinating how two great men, rivals, shaped the course of destiny for not only India, also the future of the World.

One feature of the book that I enjoyed was the footnotes that the author made along the way. The author at times would have relevant sidebar discussions on the footer, and I found that this provided a lot of interesting nuggets of historical facts. Overall the book provided a wealth of information on Indian History during the British Raj through Independence and also provided a view into the workings of the British Empire of the early 20th century.

I would highly recommend this book to all history aficionados. More specifically to those interested in India’s rise to Independence or the workings of the British Empire in India. This writing presents an objective and balanced view of Churchill and Gandhi. Also, as I commented at the start, if you are not sure about reading History, give it a chance; it can be fun and informative.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Imperium, A Historical Fiction Book Review

Do you enjoy reading good legal thrillers, how about politics, or history? If the answer to this question is all of the above then I have the book for you. That book is Imperium by Thomas Harris. The first part is legal thriller a la Steve Martini meets ancient Rome, and the second part is about the politics in the first republic of the world. For those of you that have read Steven Saylor’s historical fiction on Rome, Thomas Harris’ Imperium is similar although more focused on the legal, and politics for Rome rather than the wonderful mystery of Steven Saylor’s books.

The central character that drives this story is the historical Roman oratorical figure of Marcus Cicero. The story is narrated from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary, Tiro. At the start of the book the writing style can seem legal in nature and too Romanesque. As the story moves forward, I found that this same language and style immersed me into that period of time. It became as if I was taken back in time and were listening to Tiro directly.

In the first three quarters of the book the author builds a nice foundation, which picks up momentum to a dramatic climax and then leads to an exciting conclusion. The initial foundation is developed with the rise of Cicero as an orator and lawyer by taking on a challenging case. This case and all the political drama involved was conveyed through some descriptive storytelling.

I would highly recommend this book for advanced readers of court room dramas or political thrillers. Imperium achieves all this with the backdrop of ancient Rome. A way of getting excited about History is to start by reading Historical Fiction. This book may peak the curiosity and interest of those non-history lovers to give History a chance. In this case the excitement of Ancient Roman Republic history.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Last Lecture, A Book Review

The Last Lecture is a small packet of interesting lessons from life that packs a good punch. The author, a terminal cancer patient and a professor, conveys a nice compilation of his learnings through a natural, and fun manner. This book is a summary of a lecture that he delivered to students at the Carnegie Mellon University. Each short chapter, which conveys a different message, can be read easily before bedtime. While reading this book, I really felt as if I was attending his Last Lecture Seminar. It’s a great book for those couples wondering about parenthood, and also those people that like to dream. It is a highly recommended book to keep by your bedside for that nighttime reading.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, A Book Review

I consider myself to be an analytically inclined person that enjoys science. An interesting book that I read made me realize how science can be applied in different ways. I’ll start with the following: what do you think of when I say the word “epidemic” (pause to think for a few seconds before reading on)? Well for me it would be, the black plague, viruses, and disease. There is somebody that had a different way of applying this word, which keenly surprised me. That somebody is Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point. He applied a scientific concept to social phenomena that is observed in society. In the Tipping Point he expertly describes this way of thinking, and discusses results of different social studies in an easy way for readers to understand. One of the concepts that Dr. Gladwell describes is that of stickiness, and this is the idea that a certain threshold level of popularity needs to be reached before a concept would quickly gain mainstream popularity. In science this can also be viewed as a form of momentum. In the book the author describes in detail the process and the components that are involved for a concept to gain stickiness or go mainstream. Is this not a simply amazing application of science? The author cites many examples in society where he applies his theories. The concepts Dr. Gladwell explained in the Tipping Point really made me think and gave me a peak of phenomenon in society from an interesting angle.
This book is certainly a must read for those MBA students in graduate school. I found the book in the Management section of the bookstore and I would argue that a book like this could be found in many different sections in the bookstore, such as self help, or sociology. I would also highly recommend this book for those of you like me who enjoy analyzing data, looking at trends and then applying them, in this case to social issues. If you want to become wiser about things around you and learn how to be better positioned in life then read this book. Oh by the way, if you want to learn some interesting trivia facts, that’s also another reason to read this book. I always enjoy these nuggets of historical facts. Was there anybody else making the famous ride along with Paul Revere? Why is Blues Clues such a successful educational show compared to Sesame Street? I think I’ll leave you in suspense, just read the book for these answers and more. Now when you ask me what would I think when I heard the word epidemic, I would include the Tipping Point, and the spread of social trends.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Strokes of Genius, A Tennis Book Review

Tennis is great. At the time of this writing, it is Middle Sunday, the traditional Sunday without action during Wimbledon. The non-appearance of Nadal at this tournament due to injury, combined with Federer’s historic win at the French Open and the reading of a book (more on this in a few) has made me reflect on the significance of last year’s Wimbledon Mens Final. In the last several years Roger Federer has become my favorite player to watch, due to his grace, fluidity and ease of play. Some of the other players I enjoyed watching before him include Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, and Mats Wilander. All these players had rivals, and that made them raise their games to the next level. For Andre Agassi, of course it was the greatness of Pete Sampras, for Edberg it was Becker and in the case of Wilander one of his main rivals was Ivan Lendl. Still many people talk about the rivalry between McEnroe and Borg as the greatest, which I was too young at the time to fully experience and enjoy. What led me to think about this on a Middle Sunday during Wimbledon 2009? The answer to that question is L. Jon Wertheim’s book, Strokes of Genius. This book is about Federer, Nadal, the rivalry, Pascal Maria (the match umpire), the game of tennis and most importantly about the greatest game played, Wimbledon 2008 Mens Final. The author does a great job of weaving the story of the game together, from the pre-match ongoings, the sights and sounds of Wimbledon and the historical background of the game of tennis. The author delicately crafts historical information about the game of tennis at the right junctures as the match is being described, like flashbacks in a movie. This book has been an easy, fast, and an enjoyable read. It makes me want to pick up a racket again and play tennis. It is a book that celebrates the greatness of tennis. This book is a must read for all, and including those up and coming young tennis players. Thanks to Mr. Wertheim for capturing this great moment in tennis history and hopefully further jolting the popularity of tennis.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Guns of August, A History Book Review

I have read many historical fiction books such as Colleen Mccullough's First Man in Rome series, the Alexander the Great Trilogy by Valerio Manfredi, Tides of War and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. All these books and more have made me a fan of history. Like other history aficionados, I have also enjoyed watching television documentaries on various time periods in history shown on PBS, the A&E, and History channels. Though, as many other casual history admirers, the one thing I was never motivated to do was to go to the non-fiction sections of a bookstore or a library and buy or check-out a book on history. This was due to the belief that a history book had to be dry and without energy or passion. One of the first history books that I read all but showed me wrong regarding my previous views on history books. The reader of this article may ask, why I decided to pick up a history book at that time. A good question indeed. The answer is that it was a suggested extended reading option from a Western Civilization course. I decided to take the risk and invest my own spare time to read this book. Well without further delay and added suspense let me move to the point of this article, and that is the Guns of August.

The Guns of August, written by Barbara Tuchman, 1963 Pulitzer prize winning non-fiction book is a wonderful book describing the events of the first month of World War I. The Guns of August is a great example of how history should be done and depicts history with beautiful literature. Mrs. Tuchman captures the readers right off the bat in the first chapter with her description of King Edward's funeral. She creatively weaves in the background to the impending catastrophe of World War I by describing all of the royalty and dignitaries that are present at the funeral parade. The first paragraph in the first chapter is well written and representative of her literary skills.

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England ..After them came five heirs apparent, fourty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens-four dowager and three regnant The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Mrs. Tuchman does not imagine or use her creativity in figuring out what was on the minds of people, she instead tells the reader exactly what the historical figure said or if she does not know she tells the reader so. She conveys the private emotions and the thoughts experienced by the great minds during that tense first month of the war, quoting from sources such as memoirs and autobiographies. Her ability to inject quotations from sources while maintaining her fluid prose style is amazing. She uses her creativity and imagination in weaving the facts together in a story. Last but not least what adds to the reading experience is the author's cunning ability to show connectivity between historical people and events. One of the great scenes in the book is depicted when King Albert makes his speech declaring that Belgium will not surrender to Germany. Meanwhile looking on is his son, who later as King Leopold III surrenders to German forces in 1940. Although at times some of the descriptions of the troop movements could seem tedious reading, the author provides detailed maps and studying these maps for a few minutes gave me a good understanding of the military strategies.

Based on my overall wonderful experience of reading the Guns of August, I would recommend it as a must read for all those casual history lovers who have always awed at the thought of picking up a history book. Although it is a book focusing on the first month of World War I, in my opinion it is a good book to be read in introductory Western Civilization courses to make the students aware of how creative writing history can be. This may at least inspire more students to read more history books, and then maybe a few of those would go on to become the next great Barbara Tuchman. For now, at least for a casual lover of history such as myself I will settle myself with the conclusion that reading a history book can be lots of fun.