22.1.16

Book review - The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop by Steve Osborne

I listen to NPR quite a bit (shameless plug - listen to it online on WBUR, Boston's NPR news station) . The Moth radio hour is one of the more interesting shows on public radio. Real world stories narrated by authentic individuals - what's not to like about that. Imagine my surprise when one of those narrators now has their own book. I just had to read it - the show is that good.

Steve Osborne, a decorated NYC cop brings together some of his shows from the Moth hour and fleshes them out in 'The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop'.  It's an anthology of short stories with very few parallels. Steve traces his career as a cop from his first days a rookie to his retirement as the leader of a special unit in a bunch of short stories.

Some of the stories are poignant, some are bawdy and some right surreal. Most are a little loosely written - probably because their original audience was a live crowd. The choice of incidents to narrate is top rate. It almost feels like NYC is a city of magical reality.

Take the story about him ramming the dealer carrying a huge knife with his squad car. And then he takes care of the other dealer being knifed. He even gets him hot dogs. Or as Osborne puts it"You act like a gentleman, and I’ll treat you like a gentleman. You act like an a–hole, and that’s the way I’m going to treat you."

Or take the time when he decides to chase a criminal down the metro and almost kisses an incoming train. Or that time with the millionaire. Or that time with the dead girl.

As you flip through the pages, you realize you have stepped into someone's stream of consciousness. Osborne's narrative is very much geared towards the live audience, so it can read wierd at times. It feels like some statements are inserted more for the standup value than to actual help narration. Casual racism and profane language abound for no special purpose. There is a lot of shifting between past and present which can be off putting. There is also a lot about a cop's place in this universe and how there are scum on the streets of NYC. Again, works great when narrating - on a book, comes across as pontificating and shallow posturing.

Even then, the anthology is worth a read. Cops are a much beleaguered lot in today's world. Osborne was not very different. But, he has interesting stories to tell.In a way we owe it to ourselves ('your liberal do-gooder *insert profanity* selves' as I imagine Osborne would put it) to view the world from a cop's perspective. It's well worth the read and it might be in your local public library.

3 stars.

5.1.16

Star Wars - Force Awakens

My dad was not able to watch 'The Return of the Jedi'. I was not yet one and he wanted to be with his son. Of course, he might just be saving holiday time to watch the Cricket World Cup just around the corner, but what do I know?

I made up for that lapse by going with him to "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens". So many feels were had in the roughly 3 hours that we were in the theatre.I don't know about him, but I had a blast. One of the best treats of 2015 as the ear ended.

Shameless Plug - It was such a great experience that Satish and I ended up recording our latest podcast on the movie.

Beware reader - thar be spoilers ahead

The movie hits all the high notes of nostalgia. This was my first time seeing the crawl on the big screen and I was grinning like a big idiot. Watching Han and Chewie enter the Falcon was just amazing. Harrison Ford can still pull off the rakish rogue, which says a lot about his longevity. My favorite scene was watching Rey and Finn run to the Millennium Falcon. And that was within the first hour of the movie. The rest of the movie cruises on scenes like these. Admiral Ackbar, the charge of the TIE Fighters, the light saber duels... it was goosebumps for most of the movie.

J J Abrams and Disney have done a great job. Disney has decided to pretty much chuck out most of the canon barring the original 6 movies and Clone Wars. That is a bold move - one that may backfire. Ofc if they keep churning out more movies like this, then I don't see how Disney will fail to keep making tons of money. The merchandising is already out and there are Monopoly sets, action figures, puzzles (proud owner of a Kylo Ren floor puzzle which the boy put together in 10 minutes) and so much more.

There are some really deft touches to the story. Rey is hands down one of the best Hollywood heroines I've seen on the silver screen. I was not at all surprised that she was the one with hte force, so awesome is her presence on the screen. Clone Wars introduced us to individual storm troopers, but Finn pushes this to the next level.  And I really hope Poe gets more footage in the next movies - Oscar Issac was really good in A Most Violent Year and he is good here as well. Kylo Ren is iffy - he might grow on me I suppose, but he is no Darth Vader. The returning cast are charming in their own way - their presence lightens the movie and pushes your memory back to the first time you tap into the franchise. And lets not forget the robots - BB8 is great, but 3C3P0 is back and R2D2 is around. The practical effects were great - less CGI and more actual effects enhance the movie experience. Overall it was great fun watching these characters.

And yet, I have 2 small areas of disappointment. First - the story. Yes, the nostalgia value is great and it's going to be interesting seeing how the characters develop. But that seems to be the high point of the movie - nostalgia. In a universe of characters, Disney and JJ have decided to stick to the old tropes and the old cliched characters. Heck, they didn't even bother thinking much about the enemy's base - Death Star Killer Base. Not only is the name similiar, Solo even says it - it's just a bigger Death Star. Heck, they even destroy it the same way. If Disney doesn't ush the story any further, then that will be a shame. Pandering to a select group of viewers (granted they are the only ones that can pay) is backwards. You want to push the story forward and explore more ways of storytelling the way Episodes 4-6 did.

The second is the characters - Rey, Kylo, Finn and Poe might just as well be called Leia, Anakin, Luke and Han. Rey sometimes feels like a mush of Leia and Luke and the frontier trope seems boring now. I won't be surprised if Disney plays it safe and makes her a part of the Skywalker family tree. That will be a minor sadness - one special family of humans is basically lording over the rest of the galaxy. The Jedi training is ofc, just starting and I won't be surprised if X-Wings are lifted from the ocean. That will satisfy the legions of fans, but I don't know if that will enhance Rey or make her a stronger Jedi.

This movie will be a classic of our times. Will Disney continue churning nostalgia specials or will we get a meaty story with next episode? Only time will tell. Till then...

May The Force Be With You.




2.1.16

Books in the year past - 2015

As always, ending a year involves more than a limited amount of retrospection. I have been prone to bouts of in years past. Invariably the first thing to come to mind is how have books shaped the past twelve months. I ended up reading a bunch last year, and in that vein, here are a few books I enjoyed reading the most last year.

Better was a interesting book we found for the Inconceivable Desi Podcast. A relatively short book, it is nevertheless a very solid read. Atul Gawande talks about improving healthcare incrementally and with innovative changes gleaned from his years practising medicine. Slightly technical, but mostly human the book is a very inspiring read. I found I could take away a few lessons in my field of work. The deep insight that Gawande brings to his field is illuminating and worth the few days it takes to go thru this book.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
This was a surprise book. I heard of this (pretty liberal) adaptation of a real life incident on NPR and was immediately intrigued. The title comes from a real newspaper headline covering a real life incident involving one of the first women sheriffs in the United States. The book chronicles a slice of the life of 3 sisters caught up in a bit of a situation involving monied bad guys and henchmen. Pithy dialog and a lack of superfluous verbiage make this an exhilarating read at times. The subject matter is unique and handled with limited drama making it a satisfying read.

Cricket remains a great passion of my life and every year I try to educate myself a little bit more about this history of this fascinating game. This books chronicles the history of the game in India. It offers biographies of long-forgotten players like C K Nayudu and Palwankar Baloo. Meticulously researched and written with passion, it will appeal to the fan of Indian cricket.

Vedica Kant's photobook on the travails and experiences of the Indian subcontinent soldier in the First World War is both unique and hard hitting. Most Indian origin soldiers who fought in the war were illiterate and leave very few memories. A photo book is probably the closest we will get to understand their experiences. In a day where religion dominates any discussion on nationalism, this is a unique window into the mind of the soldier before nationalistic fervor gripped India. My longer review can be found elsewhere in the blog.

One of the last reads of this year, this surreal and absurdist romp through the Swedish countryside is uplifting in many ways. It chronicles the story of a 100 year old man who steps out ... well, the label on the tin is exactly what it says. Part satire, part mystical ruminations, almost magical realism - this book offers a heartily enjoyable overview of 100 years of history seen through the eyes of a man who is just an everyday guy. Except when he is not. Surreal.

Honorary Mentions

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian - the movie - is a very racy and technical thriller. The book on the other hand is a solid, technical read. At times, you have to pause and appreciate how well the author has stuck to the contours of a sci-fi book - not a thriller or a fantasy. Totally worth the read even if you have seen the movie.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
This is Pratchett's last work. 'Nuf said.

Here's looking at some more great reads in 2016.

21.9.15

Book Review: Agent Zigzag: A true story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

The Second World War remains the most important conflict in human history. It's massive bloodshed has determined the fate of nations to this day. It's 6 years of warfare brought forth great leaders, horrific villains, heroes and demons. There were also the kind of adventurers who shine in the time of conflict, misfits and outlaws who are created for war. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal  by Ben Macintyre chronicles the life of one such character.




Agent Zigzag aka Eddie Chapman was a professional crook in interwar London who rose to become one of the stars of the Double Cross (XX) system run by the British Intelligence services. The XX system was designed to recruit captured Nazi spies landed in England and make them double agents in His Majesty's Service. A spectacular story of deception, misinformation and sleight-of-mind emerges from the archives of this arm of the British services. Alongside Tricycle and Garbo, Zigzag (all code names) was one of the prime drivers of the show. This book does a stellar job of narrating the story of Chapman and has done some great research into his time with the Nazis and his great fortitude in asking to serve as a double agent himself.

Chapman's character comes into full bloom in the pages of the book as the author supplies engaging narration and documents conversations between the main characters. From this style emerges a picture of a cruel, witty gangster who was unwittingly thrust into the hands of the Abwehr - one of Hitler's Intelligence agencies. The book takes us through the period on France where Chapman was trained in sabotage, small arms and explosive by the Abwehr. He managed to convince them that he was heart and soul Nazi, while apparently ready to go back into the fold of his mother country. Once back in England, to perform sabotage and general mischief to deter the British war effort, Chapman managed to make himself an indispensable part of the XX roster. He even went back into France, lived (and loved) in Quisling's Norway and managed to come back with some great intelligence for the British war effort.

While probably not the most important spy of WW2 (Richard Sorge probably has claim to that), this book brings out a portrait of a conflicted, adventure seeking egomaniac. While his loyalty to his country, his family and his German trainer conflicted at times, he rendered some extraordinary deception services which threw off German intelligence especially with intel (or bad intel) on the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

The author is definitely fascinated by Chapman's character. What could have been a shorter monograph has been blown up into quite a big read. The pace is very brisk though and the author manages to keep you occupied throughout. It's a perfect easy-reader to get started with if you are interested in the XX history.

Well worth the read - 4 stars.

14.9.15

Book Review: Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon Bonaparte - Emperor, Conqueror, Revolutionary -  is a figure greatly embellished by history. Equally reviled and worshipped, Napoleon is perhaps one of the best documented and most researched historical characters. The Napoleonic wars were fought in a period of a printing boom. This was a time of diaries, memoirs and busy letter writing. Andrew Roberts does a great job tying these different strands to present a well-documented and thorough portrait of the great man in Napoleon: A Life
Love him, hate him or find him absurd, this book leaves you with the impression of the monumental achievements of Napoleon. While not an Alexander or a Genghis Khan, Napoleon was able to latch on to the Great Revolution and ended up fashioning France to his image. The book takes you on quite a fantastic voyage from Corsica through Metropolitan France, Egypt, Italy, Russia, Elba and St. Helena. It walks you through the different events in his life. To name a few - the Brumaire Coup, his Italian victories, his Russian debacle his exiles and his Waterloo. Each chapter of the book traces a high note of Napoleon's life - success or failure, the Emperor was always a powerful personality. The book does a great job bringing together biographies of Napoleon's enemies, vassals, his own letters (of which there are an incredible number), memoirs of the victors and the vanquished and academic documents from many years. A striking feature of the book is the description of the the different battles that Napoleon fought. The tactical maps are decent and will make for a good reading for military history buffs.
The enormous size of the book is definitely intimidating. At 800 pages, it tries to tie up way too many sources to offer a complete picture. In the eyes of the author, this complete picture is complimentary. Material from Napoleon's own words are used to justify poor judgement and excuse indiscretions. Some of the battle movements are clumsily explained and it feels like a hastily summarized view. It especially loses momentum in detailing his many defeats especially before his first exile.
Overall, this is a pretty good one-stop reference on Napoleon. Verdict: 3 stars. Borrow if history is not your thing, or buy if you are missing a work on Napoleon