I really love Victoria Hislop. I like her style, the fact that she writes about Greece, Spain, Cyprus; and just the way she spins stories. They are stories about everyday people in remarkable situations typically set against a period of historic significance.
The Island had been on my TBR for a while, but I saved it until I got to THE island. Yes, read the book while on a vacation to Crete and a visit to Spinalonga, the 20th century leper colony that housed so many people plagues by leprosy. It’s a disease that has faced so much stigma and shame historically, that a person contracting it is instantly shunned by society.
The story really is Alexis’s grandmother – Eleni, who is a mother to two daughters, Maria and Anna and wife to Georgio. When a trip to the doctor alters her simple life, she must face her tragic reality. The reader is instantly drawn into the lives of the daughters, their contrasting personalities, and their aspirations in life.
Simple village life on Crete takes on larger proportions through themes of love, passion and ultimately the human spirit against challenges. Such a wonderful read, no surprise that it is prize winning and has sold millions of copies. Here is mine in the Cretan sun.
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.
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!
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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:
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.
Circumstances – so much of how we receive feedback is a result of our upbringing, our circumstances, and how we’re wired.
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.
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.’
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!
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.
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.
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 GrimaWormtongue in GoT, who destroys King Theodenof Rohan by filling his head with nonsense.
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.
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!
Who’s your favourite? Tell me in the comments below!
There are 3 things that I would like to explore in review of this book.
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.
Only 21 women hold the position of Head of state out of 193 countries. In total, only 60 women have ever held the position worldwide. Data shows consistently that women in leadership positions fare better, build more sustainable societies and are more decisive. And yet, due to societal frameworks, few women are afforded the privilege. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is one such woman.
I have been in the same room as her multiple times, but I have met her only twice. It so happened that they were both within a span of three weeks. When I ran into her the second time, she knew exactly who I was, commented on it, and remarked on where we’d met three weeks ago. Coming from a head of state who had met hundreds of people in the interim, I was amazed at her memory recall, her sharpness, and her intelligence. I do not agree with everything that her party stands for, but as a leader, I admire her immensely.
This book collects some of her speeches in office since she has come to power. Their gamut is massive – ranging from climate, to gender equity, to the betterment of remote communities, and the vagaries of politics. There are some political anchors in the book, like the historic SNP win in 2016 and the disastrous Brexit vote. Her commentary on these was nice to reread, since I heard the speeches live when she delivered them.
But most others were delivered in various conferences and fora worldwide. And reading those, as we went through a heatwave, brought to sharp focus the portrait of a lady. Sturgeon speaks honestly, she is intelligent enough to author most of what she talks. As a result, the reader sees everything she stands for, the society she seeks to build, and the principles of state she cares about.
Scotland is not without its problems. It mirrors a lot of the issues felt widely around the western world. But despite that, what it has, is a leader at its helm that genuinely cares about the people she is elected to serve. She does not display hubris, arrogance or the pig-headedness that we have seen so often from male leaders in recent times. She might run a small country, but her thoughts and words span large and global. She is just like the country she represents, whose contributions to the societal fabric of the world is disproportionately large compared to its size. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in wide ranging socio-economic-political issues.
Let’s be honest. Despite the progress with vaccinations, this year too feels like last year in terms of travel. Some of us have also had to deal with difficult personal and professional challenges. The pandemic makes the days blur. Despite all this, I still find reading the best form of escapism. I have read some wonderful books in the last few months. Although, I have been moving from Scotland to England, and I have been busy.
To share my joys, I thought I’d compile some summer reads here for you all –
This is one of the finest pieces of travel lit I have read in a long time. Baker’s prose is evocative and atmospheric. He writes about the remote and forgotten places in my dear country Scotland. And every chapter will take you on a journey through the pages ad reams of time. I found myself thinking about this book long after I had finished reading it. And I can also see myself re-reading it a number of times. If you want to switch off from the world and are happy when your mind is wandering, do read this.
This is for non-fiction lovers. It is also a book I’d recommend if you want to learn more and participate in the race discourse. Through a collection of essays, Miller explores what it is like to navigate the world as a black man. But it is not just another book on the subject. Miller’s work is unique in that he writes about the things he has stopped himself or been stopped from saying. And there is a lot of that. Race is a topic of nuance, and this is a book that respects that and does not shy away from it.
If you cannot concentrate on reading for too long as the stresses of the pandemic are too high, then I recommend this slim volume of poetry. Duffy’s seletion includes poems from a wide range of poets, who all explore the concept of their children leaving. It is, however, a very emotional read. If, like me, you have been forcibly separated from your family during the last 15 months, then this is a book that you will be phoning them about. It is as immense as it is small.
For nature loves, this is a thoroughly delightful and unique read. Canton celebrates the oak tree, one that is central to the British isles. And he does so by picking a particular one dear to him and visiting it for a whole year, through all the seasons. What comes out is a wonderful read about the healing power of trees, the sense of entwinement with the natural world, and some introspection. Recommended read for a sunny afternoon in the park.
If, by some magic, you are travelling, then this is a book for you to take on holiday. Set on the Isle of Bute and with its murder mystery backdrop, this is a great read. The female protagonist is easy to relate to and her seach for the truth amongst the horrors in her past will keep you hooked. You can dive in and out of this, you can read and move on, or you can linger. Your choice!
Along with being a lover of books, I am a big fan of stationery. I still take notes in notebooks, still write thoughts down, make lists, and write letters. To me, writing is committing to memory, and the physical act of writing is important to me. Plus, I have noticed, people love receiving real letters.
There are many notebook brands I love. But my most interesting possession is my ‘Commonplace Notebook.’ A Scottish brand Waverley, make these wrapped with Kinloch Anderson tartan. Of course, it doesn’t get more Scottish than this. The one I own is the Mackay Ancient tartan, and I do love it because it is similar to the tartan I identify with.
Commonplacing was most popular amongst thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. These notebooks were used to jot down thoughts and ideas. The flap at the back was used for storing scraps. Greats who were known to Commonplace were David Hume, Adam Smith, Rabbie Burns and Virginia Woolf.
I use this notebook for the work I do with another wonderful Scottish organisation – Scottish Book Trust. All my meeting notes and reflections go in here. And the size of it means that it fits into a small purse or a large pocket, which is great. I do love this notebook, and must think of buying a larger one.
The end of June means the Summer Solstice. Usually, every year, this would be the time when the Edinburgh Fringe Guide arrives in the post. For those who don’t know, I lead an alter-ego life during August. Edinburgh is home to the largest arts festival in the world – the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. These, combined with Edinburgh Book Festival, mean that my city is overrun by tourists and art-lovers from all over the world.
During this time, I review theatre and events for The Wee Review. I do this all year round, but August takes up a big chunk. I watch stuff in the evenings, stay up late into the light nights writing these up. I use my lunch breaks at work to do some editing and submissions. I have had the fortune of meeting some famous people (Aditi, Vir) though this as well.
So normally, at this time of the year, I pore over the old-fashioned guides. I fill out the forms for the Press and the Journalist passes. I highlight all the programmes I really want to see, and those that I will try and fit into my schedule. I also mark out shows that I do not want to review, but just watch. My friends and I plan the shows we will watch together, and those that I will watch alone. Often, after shows, my friends and I will hang out in the food gardens, and the pop-up bars. We would run from one show to another, along alleyways and up old town slopes. Alongside the day job, I will watch as many as 50 events during 3 weeks in August. On the final evening, S & I have friends round at the flat for drinks and we watch the fireworks from our living room. It is one of the highlights of my year.
This year, of course, all festivals have been cancelled. It isn’t safe. The Book Festival is going online, which is some news I guess. But it won’t be the same of course. So this year, I will just attempt to watch the shows online. Of all the things Covid has destroyed, this has been my biggest personal loss. And I am very sad about this, so I just wanted to share that.