The Return

As far as lightweight summer reading goes, Victoria Hislop is one of my absolute favourites. She writes in a beautiful, natural way, her stories have a nice flow, and the books are so easy to read. In The Return, the reader is transported to Granada, in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.

Our modern day protagonist Sonia, trapped in a marriage with a man she doesn’t even recognise anymore is hoping to let her hair down on a trip to Spain with her childhood friend. But a chance meeting with a stranger in a cafe will lead her into the past. Here she will discover the incredible story of the Ramirez family as they live in a war torn Spain, and the remarkable journeys they go on.

Of all the places I have been to in Spain, Granada has always tugged at my heart. The Moorish quarters, the winding streets of the Albycin, the impenetrable majesty of the Alhambra – it is a city with magic. It also has an incredible history as one of the foremost cities of Andalusia and of great importance in medieval times. Hislop manages to lift these scenes of the pages through the stories of the past.

The reader is completely drawn into the tale of the Ramirez children and the story of this family, as it is brought to the brink of extinction by the Civil War. The backdrop is terrific and really shows that democracies that we take for granted in the modern day were one day, bitterly fought for and snatched from the greedy mouths of dictators.

This is a wonderful book and I very much recommend as a summer read if you are looking for one this year.

Just the Plague

Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya is set in 1930s Russia. Stalin is at the helm. And in a small town, Maier, a microbiologist, is slogging away developing a plague vaccine. Nothing particularly dramatic happens until he is summoned to Moscow to give a progress update to the powers that be. As Maier struggles with what to actually report, things take a darker turn.

A plague like disease suddenly begins to spread, leaked from a lab. Little by little, it transpires that more people are affected. The primary way to contain the disease is to quarantine anyone who catches it, which stops the virus from spreading to others. State machinery kicks in, aggressively tracing contacts of patients displaying symptoms, and taking them into quarantine. To guard against panic, State officials are only giving basic information to those being rounded up.

For the citizens’ greater good, the State puts controls in place. But do people really want their State officials to turn up at their door at any hour, demanding that they drop everything immediately and accompany them? What are the limits of personal freedom vs the boundary of the State? Where do we draw the line? These and other themes, in this novella, far ahead of its times and uniquely prescient, is Ulitskaya’s masterpiece written in the 1980s. Must read.

The Cat Who Saved Books

This beautiful book was on sale at my local store. Since it had two of my beloved things on the cover – cat and books – I had to read it. Turns out, book is also handily sized, so it came with me to two of my long weekend trips in Europe. And it was a great book to carry around, here’s why.

This book’s protagonists are a tabby cat that talks and a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather, thereby inheriting an old and crumbly bookshop. The cat appears one day, out of nowhere, to present the quiet Rintaro of Natsuki Books with a challenge – to save books that are stuck in various labyrinths. These books have come unto the possession of people, who through good intentions or bad, aren’t able to care for books as they should. And so Rintaro must intervene.

What follows are the tales of the journeys themselves, this boy and this talking cat on their mission. The book forces us to think of our own relationships with books – those we own, those we read and those we love. Through introspection it makes us reveal what it is we value about books, and also a great deal about our own ego.

Of course, Rintaro has a lady friend, and she somehow gets embroiled in this tale too. It is very cute. I really loved reading this book. It has all the hallmarks of modern Japanese writing – a quiet protagonist, a cat, a moral somewhere in there and feelings you cannot quite put your finger on. And magic realism, which I love.

In Extremis

I’m not normally a reader of biographies. However, this beautiful hardback came highly recommended by a friend. This is the bio of Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent. Colvin grew up in the States and worked in papers in both the US & UK. But most of her reporting was done from the ground, in the middle-east and Asia.

This is a most remarkable book. It’s the sort of life account that reads like fiction, it is so full of fantastical events in Colvin’s life and the array of people she met & interviewed. The author is Lindsay Hislum, Colvin’s friend & colleague and someone who clearly knew her well. I found myself questioning Colvin’s decision making multiple times, what sort of person willingly volunteers themselves to the most dangerous areas of the world? And is the first in line to get on a plane to get on ground – from Palestine to Sri Lanka, Lebanon to Syria.

What struck me while reading the first few chapters about Marie’s childhood, is how ‘regular’ it was. And in some ways, it reminded me of another rebel biography, that of Ed Snowden. Individuals like them are shaped by their regular childhood in surprisingly irregular ways. And in so, they find some deep down need for truth despite the danger to their lives. It is fearless lives led like these that make for the most interesting retellings!

Parts of this book are slower than others, obviously. But such pages are few and far between. For the most part, this is an incredible read and certainly a biography worth reading. What a fascinating woman Marie Colvin was!

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

CW: Child Abuse

I have been meaning to read this book for years. I acquired a copy and finally got round to it. It felt like it would be in a similar frame of reference to my previous read. And I wasn’t wrong! Maya Angelou’s autobiography is powerful, riveting, and devastating all at once.

In the account that spans her childhood and teenage years, she describes, uniquely and fully, what it meant to be a black girl growing up in America in the 1930s. Themes of identity, gender, and race come together in the mind of this young girl, striving to thrive in the world. She and her brother are being raised by their grandmother and at every point in the story, the choices available to them are limited. Limited because the cycle of rasicm and poverty means that doors shut on their faces, the chance of an honest life snatched away.

Particularly hard hitting, is the account of Angelou’s sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s new partner. It is difficult to read, but at the same time, has to be read. It forms a determining part of her life and her identity, how can it not! And just like the reality of millions of girls & women worldwide, the consequences to bear are always for the abused than the abuser.

Anyway, this is a classic of American literature. And I do highly recommend you read this – it is beautifully written, has some funny interludes and is no wonder so famous!

Pather Panchali

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopdhyay is one of Bengal’s most well-loved writers. I grew up listening to his name being discussed in circles whenever literary merit was discussed. Like a lot of other Bengali stalwarts of his time, his reach remained largely regional. But it was the genius filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose adaptation of Bandyopadhyay’s work brought it due fame and recognition.

Unfortunately, I have lost my fluency to read lengthy works in Bengali, and so I must console myself with the translation. And after all these years, I decided to read ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road) to start off my 2022. The Folio Society edition is translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji and at the very outset, I must admit, how excellent the translation is. The decisions to write names phonetically, and place names in transliteration is the right one.

I grew up with stories of rural Bengal. My father & my grandparents grew up in villages and they regaled me with stories of the trees, the rivers & ponds, and the unique ways of village life. In this book, the reader dives into the lives of siblings Durga & Apu, siblings growing up in the village of Nishchindipur. Their father, a poor but proud Brahmin, struggles to make ends meet. Eventually he leaves the village in search of work prospects.

Their mother, uneducated, poor and with no agency, is left to tend to the house and the children. Through Apu & Durga’s eyes the reader journeys through the seasons and time. It is a reminder of the vicious cycle of poverty and the deep pits it throws its victims into. The innocent and sublime lives of children are moulded in ways that age them faster.

Through the book as the story progresses, characters come and go. But the family and the weight of their circumstances remain, shackling them to their poor luck. It would be condescending of me to say I loved this book. It felt more like coming face to face with a literary great, as one may speak of Marquez or Toni Morrisson. An immense work, and such a way to start this year’s reading.

5 Books for Program Managers

I did a talk at work where I talked about 5 books that made me a better Program Manager. So I thought I would share them here for non-fiction lovers. These are just captioned with the notes I made for myself as talking points!

Work Rules

The importance of building and nurturing an open and transparent culture

Importance of OKRs – of setting and demonstrating that we are making progress

Examples from consultancies, finance, telecom, manufacturing – bringing in the best of lateral thinking

Thanks for the Feedback

All about receiving feedback effectively – personal & professional

What are our triggers, how are we uniquely wired

Turn feedback into actionable items and move forward

How can we give feedback better

Lean In

Find her hugely inspiring

Career is a jungle gym (so true for TPMs) who have a wide variety and diversity of backgrounds

Specifically helpful for women, but also anyone else who is ‘not the norm’

Everyone who wants to be an ally or is raising kids should read it

Stereotypes and how important  they are in shaping our sense of self

Mentors and how important they are in shaping our sense of self

How she negotiated her FB offer, the initial years of hosting important people and her TED talks

But also some special reflections, anecdotes and people from the early days of FB

Zero to One

A lot of work I have done in my career is zero-to-one

Requires being comfortable with ambiguity

When I built and ran my own startup I followed – how to compensate, how to hire, who to hire, how to price. 

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Zoom out and take a big picture view

Ask the big hard questions when the detail isn’t clear

What is our vision, our north star and why should we care?

How does what I do fit in with the wider society and humanity. 

How can we inspire those around us and those that come after us 

“We never really know where the next great scientific discovery will come from, nor who will make it. Opening up the thrill and wonder of scientific discovery, creating innovative and accessible ways to reach out to the widest young audience possible, greatly increases the chances of finding and inspiring the new Einstein. Wherever she might be.

So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”

Thanks for the Feedback

This isn’t the kind of non-fic that would normally appear on my radar, but I read it for a book club discussion at work (yes, we have those). Written by authors from the Harvard Negotiation Project, this book is about the art (and science) of giving and receiving feedback. The hook is an instant draw-in, as the authors frame the concept of feedback as universal. Every interaction in most relationships, they argue, is a form of feedback. At times, people conflate coaching or evaluation as feedback too, and there’s ways to sift through those.

This is a very practical book. It reads like a manual for situations where we might struggle to receive feedback. Like layers of an onion (with the tears too), it peels back the triggers and causes for it. It provides guardrails for recognising our own behaviours in response to feedback and course-corrections that help absorb the nuggets of truth. What is particularly wonderful though, is that it recognises that not all feedback is helpful, or to be taken at face value. Not all feedback givers are helpful either, sometimes lacking as much in tact as content. Chapters discuss these situations and how to deal with them.

Some points that I took away:

  1. Triggers – this is key to understanding why we react the way we do and how we can separate the feedback from the giver, the situation, or our state of mind. This is particularly useful for those of us who pride ourselves on our high EQ.
  2. Circumstances – so much of how we receive feedback is a result of our upbringing, our circumstances, and how we’re wired.
  3. Disagreements – Even if you understand and clarify the feedback you’re given, you still may disagree with the fundamental point and that’s ok. Also what to do about it.
  4. Gut – Spotting multiple tracks in feedback (coaching/evaluation) is hard because your initial reaction tends to take over. Also, what to do about that voice inside head.’
  5. Giving feedback – If receiving feedback is hard, there is quite a bit the giver can do to be heard. Choose your words carefully.

Ultimately, this is one of those books that I can see myself returning to when I need to. In my current workplace, there is a big culture of giving and receiving frequent feedback. No doubt, someone is bound to point a blind spot to me and I can imagine the techniques I have found in this read will prove useful. I am looking forward to our book club discussion now to see what insights others share!

Top 5 Literary Villains

Another booklover on Instagram prompted the thought of antagonists in literature. It’s the characters that drive us to hate and repugnance, the ones we gnash our teeth at when we read. I thought I’d compile my top 5.

In fifth spot – Joffrey Baratheon

Ah Joffrey, the first-born of the Baratheon clan, with a strong claim to the throne. All he had to do was to live his life, lead his subjects well, and not be a misogynist. These would probably have tilted popular opinion (ie the masses) in his favour somewhat, and prevented the disaster that ensued. Joffrey was vile and evil, and every scene he was part of made me so livid. Shoutout to Jack Gleeson, who did such a fantastic job portraying him on TV.

Source: Wikipedia

In fourth spot – Dolores Umbridge

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – I read when I was 13. As an angsty teenager, I was convinced that adults could be up to no good. Umbridge was a cloying character, like a horrible pill you had to swallow. Her actions were evil, but it was her delight at torturing students that set her as the true sociopath. I remember shaking the book with rage when she dismissed Prof Trelawney and her dialogues made me feel that no joy was left in the world. A brilliantly written character and also played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton.

Source: Warner Bros

In third spot – Uriah Heep

I had to read David Copperfield in school (Class 7, I was 11). I distinctly remember how relatable Heep was, with his unguence and sycophancy (also words I learnt that year). Heep was defrauding his employer – all the while being another one of the sickeningly cloying personalities. I am sure we have come across many such people in life, who are so fake you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. If you haven’t read this wonderful classic, then think of this character as Grima Wormtongue in GoT, who destroys King Theoden of Rohan by filling his head with nonsense.

Source: Wikipedia

In second spot – Mrs Danvers

It is impossible to read Rebecca and not be terrified of Mrs Danvers. The second Mrs De Winters is utterly traumatised by Mrs Danvers and everything she stands for. As I reader, I remember wondering if perhaps she was actually supernatural – a ghost or a witch. Her complete devotion and obsession with Rebecca becomes clearer as we progress through the plot, culminating in a truly unsettling scene in Rebecca’s bedchambers, which Mrs Danvers continued to preserve after her death. Terrifying.

Source: The Female Villains Wiki

In top spot – Captain Ahab

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite novels. I was 8 when I read the abridged version one summer. Over the years, I have re-read it many times. Captain Ahab is narcisstic, obsessed and the worst version of himself. But in his portrayal lies the seed that we have seen in so many male world leaders of late. Being in seats of absolute power, but using it only to drive authoritarian regimes of hate and divisiveness. Even if you ignore the political themes, Ahab’s single-minded focus on the whale is a wonderful piece of writing and a brilliant thing to lose yourself in, as a reader. My feelings for him are worse than anger, hate or repulsion – he makes me sick. And that’s what makes him my top antagonist!

Source: Wikipedia

Who’s your favourite? Tell me in the comments below!

Permanent Record

There are 3 things that I would like to explore in review of this book.

Edward Snowden book 'Permanent Record' with pothos plant
My pothos was looking particularly nice today

The first is the story.

This book is the autobiography of Edward Snowden, the 20-something man who shot to global fame when he exposed the mass scale surveillance that the US carries out on people through their devices. Every time we look at our phones, log on to a computer, swipe a credit card, we are tracked. And infinitesimally small pieces of information are stored about us. Over time, companies can build a fuller picture of our lives by stitching together this data. When you think of the billions of people and their daily activities, the mind is boggled by the amount of data that is added to data stores across the world every minute. The scale of the ‘privacy problem’ is massive, and leaking it caused the US goverment to start a manhunt for Snowden, who now lives in exile. This is a shared issue that affects all of us and the rules of the game are just being written.

The second is the book.

The book itself is a slow read. There are aspects of it which I found fascinating – like Snowden’s background and the episode about 9/11. It was incredible to read of his time at the CIA and the NSA and the inner workings. But most of all, it was interesting to understand the ethos of the ‘state’ and how we have arrived at mass surveillance being a blase affair. Equally, a number of other bits are slow going. Since the reader already knows what Snowden is going to do, I felt that there was a huge chunk of buildup that I wanted to skim read. When he actually makes the leak public, that’s when his story becomes extraordinary. But between that day and the final intercept in Russia is only a span of a few days, and makes for heady reading.

The final is the man.

It would be amiss to read an autobiography and not form an opinion on the protagonist. I felt that the detail of Snowden’s background added a lot of colour to his final actions. Somehow, it all just made sense, sort of like things do in hindsight. But regardless, it must have taken an immense amount of grit, courage and existentialism to have done what he did with the risks he took. He will live out his entire life in exile, although not alone (thankfully). What a huge sacrifice to make to bring about fundamental shift in thinking, global awareness, and policy changes. I have followed him on Twitter for years and I do truly admire him.