Review: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I read this book more than a year ago – the e-book version. Then I went and picked up the hard copy of the book because some books just don’t cut it in the e-version. You need to hold the book and savour it.

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is one of the coolest books I’ve read in a long, long time! And I’m someone who consistently meets the GoodReads 50 Books A Year Challenge. The storytelling is so fluid and easy, yet compelling, that you are switch between timelines and plots without that common jarring interlude. I_Am_Pilgrim_-_hardback_UK_jacket

This is a spy thriller, a remanent of the John Le Carre days, set in the modern world. The spies are more intelligent, more severe and so is the other side.

The plot begins, very simply, at the scene of a murder. A murder that seems to be the perfect crime, with absolutely no clues. And it seems to have drawn a lot of inspiration – in terms of how to clean up a crime seen – from one of the protagonists’ books.

The other protagonist is a man born into Islam, a firm believer. His father’s execution by a particular Islamic regime becomes the reason he turns to terrorism, as he believes that they were responsible of the corruption of the society, which eventually led to his father’s death. It is beautifully and compellingly written, drawing us into two distinct worlds and its underbelly without missing a step.

The two men, on ends of the world, and on two distinct paths, are forced to intersect when the former is set on the chase of the latter – and he needs to find him before the man can execute his simple, yet terrifying plan.

Unlike the deluge of crap books and movies that sets everything in the US of A, much of the action here happens outside the US. In little towns, described so well that you can almost smell the dust on the streets.

This is a book that deserves to be read in hard copy. Make sure you have ample time to finish the book because it sure is hard to put down!

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App Review: Kindle App

I use a lot of apps. Even for regular sites like Twitter, I like to try out third-party apps. For work. For games. You get the idea.

But I’d never gotten around to using the Kindle app, primarily because I wasn’t convinced about reading online. I can read news articles and such, but reading entire books was a little tough. It lasted till I forced to switch over to e-books, and finally got used to it. Reading online doesn’t quite have the same joy and fun (and quite often, the sentences just don’t stick in your mind as well). But it sure is convenient. Many books, all the time.

So when Amazon offered ‘Kindle Unlimited’ for just INR 199, I figured it was time to give it a shot.

The first mistake I did was not perusing the books available in this list. “Over 1 million books” says the tag line, but any reader worth his / her salt knows that there are over 1 million crappy books in the world.

Let’s talk about the app itself first:

The Interface:

You’d think that a company whose first business was books would have some insight about readers and what they like. The home page is a film scroll, with editor’s picks listed below. But there is no option for me to make bookshelves. Unlike your book shelf at home, it is annoying to see all your books on a tiny little screen. I’d rather have book shelves on the home page, but that could just be me.

Then the scariest thing: Kindle reads your entire phone. ALL your files. And it lists every bloody PDF, epub, mobi or any other book format that is there in your phone. Now, apparently you can undo this if your documents are not in a folder named documents or books. But I find no way to stop the app from scanning my phone and listing the books. I have several confidential documents on my phone and I hate the fact that another app is accessing it. Even with Cyanogen’s Privacy Guard, you cannot stop this from happening.

There is a folder called ‘Kindle’ on your phone but unsurprisingly, there are no temp files there, but the app thinks it is okay to scan your phone and list all the documents it thinks you want to be listed on Kindle. And there is no option to ‘remove’ the particular file from Kindle. It deletes it from your device. Talk about taking over your phone !!!

The Menu has surprisingly limited options. You can choose ‘All’, ‘Books on your device’ and a couple of other options. Then, of course, settings which is less than nothing. A couple of options for sync, naming your device and that’s pretty much it.

Finding a Book:

If the reason you signed up for Kindle app, like I did, was the ‘Kindle Unlimited’ Option, then you’ll find it frustrating to access the Kindle store. There is no one-click option to access the store. You’ve to click on the cart, go to the kindle store, click on the ‘kindle unlimited’ feature and then you have the further task of narrowing down categories, and browsing through hundreds of titles. I’m not sure what algorithm is used to list the books, but there is no way to change that. This is fine on a bigger screen, but on a phone, it can be tedious scrolling through books 10 at a time.

You can search for a book, but it might or might not be available in the Kindle Unlimited Series. They perhaps expect you to browse like in a library, except on a 5 inch screen.

I searched for nearly 20 titles or more (How to be a woman, Raven Black, Unladylike: A memoir, Wikileaks, Alibi, Secret Sisters, Queen of the Oddballs, Book of Shadows, Run to the Hills etc). Some where available in Kindle format, but the ‘over 1 Million titles’ did not include any of these in the Kindle Unlimited Series.

I finally found one story about Wikileaks that I finally downloaded, and another chick lit. Then the process of downloading it to your phone, which means you need to repeat the entire process of going back to the Kindle store and trying to find a book, if you are trying to build up a collection.

In any case, you cannot have more than 10 books at a time according to Kindle. Not sure what the fuss is in this case, but moving on…

Now, if you want to find the book you downloaded from Kindle, there is no one-tap option to choose the file from ‘My Kindle Unlimited’ or some such thing. You’ve to pick it out of your library, among all the other books. For people like me, who are typically reading more than one book at a time, it is plain annoying. And no, I don’t want to be making ‘ collections’ of books to access.

Reading: 

This was one part I thought would be sorted. Perhaps I was peeved by the whole experience of finding a book to read (which took me over half an hour). The minute I opened the page, I found the settings annoying compared to the other ebook readers I’ve used.

Moonreader, for instance, allows you to handle the brightness of the screen with just a tap on one side of the screen. You can even set up scroll options etc with one-tap.

With the Kindle app, you’ve to go to the ‘menu’ on top of the page. Brightness options are limited – there was only ‘system brightness’ and if you manually tried to set the brightness, even the lowest was too bright at night.

The second annoying thing was something I noticed in the first chapter. It says “2 mins to finish chapter’. What the hell? By this point, I was beyond fiddling with controls of the app, so I don’t know if there is a way to turn this off. It is in unnecessary annoyance and I’m not sure what the developers were intending to do with it.

The third thing: ‘Popular highlights’… some of the lines are automatically highlighted while you are reading. This is turned on by default and there’s a way to turn it off, but again, multiple steps. Again, I’m not sure why this is a default feature.

I hate the entire experience of the Kindle app.

Verdict: The app seems to be attractive to bookworms, but with Google Books and many other third-party apps around, there’s absolutely no compelling reason to use Kindle app. There are no good books and it is simply annoying to handle. And thus far, I’ve not found a good collection of books either. Perhaps they are looking to push their device, but this is absolutely not an attractive preview.

The privacy concerns are quite serious.

Next: Uninstall

The Sacred Gandhi

It started with the discovery of a new site that lists the best prices of all the online book stores. Which led to searching of random books and laughing at the prices. Till I decided to look for one of the controversial books – the biography of Indira Gandhi.

This was a book I had looked for in all the local bookstores and they all said they didn’t stock it. Now, it was never clear to me if this book was banned officially or unofficially. But the story remained that it was tough to find on the Indian shores.

A Google search of the book, however, showed that there was another biography of the daughter in law. This one, The Red Sari, was written by a Spanish author and was is originally titled ‘El Saro Rojo’.

Released in 2010 or thereabouts, Sonia Gandhi, I’m told was fighting a legal battle to prevent the book from being released. It was touted by the Congress party was ‘fictionalized biography’ (not sure what that means) and most of the articles I could find online, which were very few, quoted only ONE line as their defence.

“She suddenly thought of fleeing this country that devours its children” is the line that is quoted, referring to Sonia Gandhi’s reaction after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. If that is the worst this book could state about Sonia Gandhi, I’m quite sure Congress wouldn’t have to worry much. But given the fact that there is barely any mention of the book post 2010, nor copies available easily (the Spanish translation is available somewhere), it does make me curious about what Mrs. Gandhi does not want the public to know.

She does have her right to privacy, but as a public figure, there are certain aspects of her life, like her citizenship that should be public knowledge. If she does want to rule us, from even behind the scene, the least she can start with is being legally Indian.

Many readers of this post would perhaps ask why this anti-Congress spree. As I’ve often said, I’m not anti-Congress or BJP, I just hate politics with religion. And I’ve become wiser in the past few months that no party is better off.

And of course, the scams, the controversies and the fact that Manmohan Singh just sold out our country to America’s biggest retail chain.

But the question I’m asking here remains simple. What happened to The Red Sari? Will it ever be available for readers here?

I know the Indian Constitution allows to ban books and other relevant  materials if it is inflammatory. But what could possibly be the rationale behind banning of a book?\

Maybe the people currently fuming over this post and putting this blog on the ‘to be watched’ list have some answers?

Rafa

I finally finished reading ‘Rafa’ – the semi-autobiography of Rafael Nadal. This was a book I had expected to get through in one sitting, but it took me almost a week to get through it. And at the end of it, I get the feeling that there is something missing still.

Little history – I’m not a huge fan of tennis. I’ve probably watched a few matches but through the decades, there has always been one player that captured my imagination. This could be after they had retired or while they were just budding… but while the entire world around me was supporting Federer, I was rooting for Nadal. Was it just the underdog issue or just his playing style, I don’t know. As I said, I can’t really speak much about tennis and styles.

But I was curious about his autobio. Well, co-authored autobio. It struck me as a little arrogant to write your story when the story is still going on, professionally at least. And it went against everything that I did know about Rafa, which is he is intensely private etc.

The book seemed clinical. The story is told in fits and starts and never gets a feel of a ‘story’. It reads like a scorecard and I saw more passion on court than in the story. The book, unfortunately ends just when the flow starts.

A biography of any sort takes you into the heart of a story. There is drama, there is comedy and there is honesty. I loved Andre Agassi book, even with all its references to tennis and the matches and the hate of the game.

I cannot put my finger on what exactly went wrong with Rafa’s book but I guess I’m not going to reading anything more about him anytime soon.

***

To continue on the same note about biographies, what makes one better than the other? Everyone has a story, some just tell it better than the others.

The first biography I ever read was about Katherine Hepburn. Not Audrey Hepburn. It read like a novel, rich in drama, flair and comedy. I was completely drawn in by the book, even though I had no idea who Katherine Hepburn was.

There have been very few books that have made such an impact since then.

Scar Tissue (RHCP); The Diary of Anne Frank (Which is in a genre of its own, actually); I know Why Caged Birds Sing (Maya Angelou) are some…

 

The Secret Of The Nagas

When I first saw this book a few months ago, I was tempted to pick it up. But I was just getting out of  my disastrous run with Indian authors, which I do a few months every year, and decided not to pick it up.

But it lay there, as soon as you enter the book store, every time, taunting and tempting me. Just as I figured what could be the harm, a friend highly recommended the book as well.

And a copy fell into my path… and easily, one the best books I’ve read in recent times, that too by an Indian author.

This book is not for those who dislike mythology. For people who are not aware of the intricate relationships of Indian mythology, this will probably seem like a good read.

The Shiva Trilogy as it is called, beautifully draws on mythological Indian characters and Gods in a reincarnation situation. It is, fortunately, not the 21st century but a land where Kings still ruled. Yet, in their reincarnated forms, these people are human yet gods.

I started at the second book, so it is sort of like walking into a movie midway. Yet, I was impressed by the way the author drew in various characters of mythology into different situations with familiar relationships.

Perhaps I’m easily influenced by plotlines where the author manages to insert a different set of characters into another situation yet keep true to the essence of the relationships. But I rarely like the book. I was interested by Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel but lost interest midway.

Kali & Sati, two faces of the same coin. Shiva/Neelakanta and Rudra – reincarnations perhaps. Ganesha, Veerabhadra, Nandi… all of them exist in this. I like the way that these characters, which are considered avatars of the same God, are treated as siblings in this story. There are reasons behind every action and land, and they seem so logical that you might almost believe this was the mythological story.

Perhaps it is also the fact that Shiva is one of the few Gods that I admire. He is completely in his human element here, yet being the decision maker and Lord.

I look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, which I’m told is tentatively scheduled for the end of 2012. Don’t you just hate it when they leave you hanging for the ending?

***

On a separate note, out of insomnia, I picked up a book that was abandoned halfway more than a year ago – Confessions of A Wall Street Analyst.

This book seemed highly relevant and interesting during a particular journey of my career. It might Wall Street seem so much more fun and exciting. As I continued where I’d left off, I realised that it does not get any less exciting now that it is no longer relevant. I continue to see the warning flags that the US regulatory agencies should have seen… it is the journey of Wall Street that has brought us to one of the greatest economic hurdles in history.

Concepts that I had forgotten, little rules that we had to navigate by and yet find a story, rumors and facts, speculation and billions of dollars that seemed inconsequential – the life of a Wall Street Reporter.

Real life reporting is no where are glam as the book would perhaps make it seem. Much of your time is spent chasing down analysts who do not want to speak or trying to put the phone down on one who speaks too much but tells you nothing. Then you worry about if what you have is authentic and you can print it. Then you spend more time substantiating what you have written to your editor, doing more follow ups and always trying to stay a step ahead of your peer and a step inside the law.

And yet, when you live in that little hole with your computer as the source of light and a telephone as your contact point, it feels quite adventurous.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Today’s post was supposed to be about Steve Jobs and how the internet has hurried up the speed of everything, including the time period it took for the eulogies to move onto the bad parts of the person.

But then I got hooked into reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’d long avoided the book… I’d never read Lolita, because I picked up soon after I read a book by Marquez and was a little tired of old men and young girls. (Yes, horrible conceptions, I know!)

I like most of my books to have happy endings or a vaguely happy ending, like To Kill A Mockingbird or even Catcher In The Rye. And Reading Lolita… did not seem to have any of those aspects.

But the book just draws you in with the mere quality of its writing. Phrases that continue to haunt you long after you’ve turned the page that you are just compelled to go back to savor the statement and try to imagine it in various ways.

It gets more disturbing… more compelling halfway through the book. Images of Iran’s revolution, bloody universities and imposing a veil over the country – an act that be interpreted as a literal act of throwing a black cloth over the culture and the beauty of the entire region.

My first brush with the Iranian revolution was when I was 15. I was reading a book – the title I barely remember now – about a love story set in the backdrop of the revolution in Tehran. It was in an university, as they are the hotbeds of both revolution and romance, and it was forbidden. The book was more of a political commentary about two individual viewpoints that are supposed to co-exist but actually end up hating each other.

Of course, at the age of 15, I heard only the burning buildings and the murders and the gore.

I met a number of Iranians in college, all of whom seemed to be so affluent and absolutely removed from the trouble ‘back home’. They proclaimed themselves to be non-religious… infact, the only sign of turmoil was a caption signed on a peace campaign – Save Iran! Stop the fighting!

I was not even aware that there were Iranians and all that political turmoil was something that was ongoing. The world was focussed more on Iraq and its fight with the U.S.

Every country has a bloody history and I guess Iran is undergoing that now. But as I read RLT, what disturbs me is the volte-face the country has taken in terms of its stand on Islam. The radical interpretations of Islam, imposing the veil on women and… does it only get worse from there? Is it wear the veil today and stop driving and voting tomorrow?

The world has ways to go to really accept women as equals… as people who are capable of things more than cooking and raising a child – two REALLY difficult acts, btw.

But what would one do if the liberties we take for granted are taken away? The liberty to wear what I choose, when I choose and walk down the street without being hassled by ‘moral police’. That every little act is interpreted as a possible disturbance to peace, as the author says.

Do we women really have so much power that just by the image of a strand of hair or exposing a partial wrist we can incite people to wars and furies? Are these the same people that are thought capable of not having the intelligence to do anything more than cook and bear kids? 

These statements seem funny… and yet hold a particular kind of horror. Horror that there are people – both men and women – who believe in this.

Mr.Bahri is a particularly interesting character in the book. I wonder how often one has heard his statement – ‘there are better issues to focus on right now than a woman being mistreated.’

What is a better issue? Wars? The environment? Perhaps. But how can we win battles with one whole segment of the population locked away, without having a say? Particularly in a place like Iran, where every person’s voice in important, if women are not allowed to come out, to have a say, where is the revolution?

 

Identity

I’ve probably spoken about this quite often here – identity.

My camera is my identity. When I walk down the street, there are people who do not recognize me without the camera. When I do meet people, they just expect me to have a camera with me and want me to take photos. It is kind of reassuring to see that my ID card is my camera.

It gives me access to places that I probably wouldn’t wander alone. Of course, a little naive that… thinking the camera is also a shield but sometimes, it actually is. People wave you away, frown and grumble but they let you be.

You feel safe with an ID card, declaring who you are and your identity. I feel weird and out of place on certain occasions when I do not have my camera. With it, I stand by the road, clicking away, aware of the glances and perhaps stares at me but they all just bounce off me. But put the camera away and I wonder how to respond to the query “what were you shooting? who are you shooting for?”

***

I recently picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m barely through half the book and I’m swayed by the quality of writing. It is almost poetical and puts the most mundane thing to the forefront of your mind. The sentences seep into you, haunt you, making you repeat them over and over again, trying to fit the pieces. You try to understand how it works, emphasizing various words.

It makes you more aware of the pieces of your existence by the virtue of its absence in another part. And hopefully learn to appreciate it.

One such thing is freedom.

Yes, we have all read about how bad the situation is with women in the Middle East. They aren’t allowed to drive, not allowed to travel without a male relative. Education is absent and many such things.

But then you think about Tehran, Iran… a place that enjoyed all these ‘freedoms’ and are now struggling under the weight of radicalism. Where wearing  a veil is no longer a personal choice.

Imagine if your freedom to colours were taken away from you. Your freedom of music, of chaos, of noise, of making irresponsible decisions, of living through your errors and learning, of reading what you chose and saying what was on your mind. Of perhaps that is too complex.

Imagine that you could never wear any other colour but black. Nobody around you can live in another colour but black. Everywhere you see it is black. The only splash of colour is that blue book. Or the blue sky that you see from a narrow patch.

But you are scared to look up in public.

A line from the book made me laugh and cringe. “Imagine,” it said, “having such power as to make one lose control of themselves.” It was loaded with sarcasm, and in the context that a stray hair seen on a woman’s head could induce people to such frenzy. You have the power to give those radicals sleepless nights, thinking about that one person who would induce people to revolt and rebel. Not by huge speeches and movements. By just leaving loose one tiny strand of hair.

I imagine such darkness. And I’m grateful for the small freedoms that I do have.