Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a well known author in the non-fiction book world. When his first book, The Tipping Point, came out in 2000, it took the world by surprise. Every book reader was reading and discussing this book. Blink was an even bigger influence on the book lovers. I read it to see what the big deal was and I remember that I wasn't all that impressed with it. When my brother recommended Outliers to me, I was skeptical. I didn't want to say no to him, but also wasn't eager to read this book. It was lying on my bookshelf all these days, patiently waiting for me to pick it up and the time finally came last week. On a whim, I just opened it and read the first page and I liked what I read so much that the current book went on the backburner and I started on Outliers right away.

If you are new to Gladwell, the first thing you notice is the bookcover. There is something captivating about the simple white background and bold, black letters. The bookcover tempts you to read the book. Isn't that what a bookcover should do? Allison J. Warner, is the cover artist, if you want to appreciate the effort.

Outliers looks at successful people and some not-so-successful people and analyzes them. Gladwell compares two individuals who have similar talent, similar IQ but one of them is successful while the other one is not and argues that the different is chance or opportunity. While one of them was given an opportunity, the other was not. Gladwell supports his theory by a lot of examples. These case studies make an interesting read. Gladwell tries to answer the question why Asians are good at math. His theory is interesting, to say the least. Not only does Gladwell talk about raw intelligence or IQ, he even says social skills - convincing and arguing ability are also important for success.

In one chapter, he quotes a study which involved a set of kids from mixed background. It was observed that the kids from rich household were better at studies than the poorer ones. Gladwell talks about a special school for poor kids to train them and make them equal to their richer counterparts. He outlines a typical day in the life of a student in that school and it is disturbing to see that the kid doesn't have even a minute to play. All she does is wake up, run to school, study, get back home, do her homework and go to bed. Agreed that this is for her benefit so that she doesn't miss out on opportunities for being poor, but let the kids be kids, right? Let her play and enjoy her life. She might not score better grades, but she definitely will have a better life. And since when did grades start affecting success? Isn't success subjective? Anyways, this was a chapter which I found very disturbing. I sat there and imagined that little girl who has to go this special school and sacrifice her childhood for better grades and I felt like screaming at the top of my voice, "Are you freaking crazy?"

The rest of the book is great. The chapter on Bill Gates and how hard work is an integral part of the path to success is conveyed very well. In the end, just talent and opportunities are not enough. One should utilize those opportunities and work hard.

An interesting and thought-provoking book. A must read if you are even vaguely interested in this kind of non-fiction work.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This book is part of the BBC’s Big Read – Top 100 books.

One is never too old to read children's books. I, for one, love children's books and movies. I enjoy reading comics and watching cartoons. It had been so long since I read a kids' book, that I greedily lapped up Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and enjoyed every word and letter.

Mary Lennox, who is living in India with her parents, is sent to England to live with her maternal uncle after her parents die because of cholera. As a child, she is unhealthy, stubborn and queer. Her uncle, Mr. Craven, is another queer man who keeps to himself and avoids meeting anyone. His house has as many as hundreds of rooms, of which many are kept closed and are unused. Mary hears a story of how Mrs. Craven died after she fell from a tree in her garden and how Mr. Craven hates the garden for it and hence has kept it locked. He has buried the key and no one has entered this garden for ten years. Mary is thrilled with this idea of a secret garden and wants to see what is in it.

While the plot is kiddish, the message the book conveys is not. The message that runs parallely along the story is that one needs to eat well and play well to be healthy. A main part of the story is about how a sick, unhealthy child learns to enjoy the life around. Nature has a strong presence in the book. Mary owes her health to her secret garden where as she plants the flowers, she grows along with the plants. Dickon, a country lad, is friends with all the wild animals and can even speak to a robin. If we all can learn to enjoy and respect the nature around us, we will have a healthier and a better life. The book is not patronizing. There are no messages passed on as wisdom. One just reads the story and realizes all these. After I finished reading this book, I couldn't help but smile and say to myself "Isn't life beautiful?"

It is only right that the book talks about enjoying little things in life. Burnett, who was born in a poor family, knows what are the important things in life. Materialistic things like clothes, money, wealth and grandeur are things that Burnett feels are useless and hence get no mention in the book at all.

This is one of the rare books which cater to minds of children and adults alike. Didn't someone say there is a child residing in everybody's heart? It is very difficult to try and please a variety of audience, but Burnett manages it with such ease. One can treat this book as a kids' book as well as a serious book which preaches ways of leading a happy life. No matter how you want to take it, it's a book worth reading. I so badly want to give this book to my son and say, "Read this now". I wish he was big enough.

A legal copy of this book is available online for free.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

This book is part of the BBC's Big Read - Top 100 books.

Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War is exactly that - a book about love and war. I had never heard of either the book or the author before I saw the BBC's Top 100 list. I would never read this book if not for this book being chosen as the Book of the Month for March by the Ladies' Literary League on Goodreads. I love these reading groups, lists and challenges - isn't these how we discover new authors and books? Even though the title had war in it, (I don't like war books, you see), I still started this book with a broad mind and a genuine wish to like this book. But I failed. This book was a disappointment for me.

Birdsong is about Stephen, a hard-working, young boy who visits France to learn the trade of mills. He stays with the owner of the mill where he meets Isabelle, wife of the owner, and falls helplessly in love with her. Isabelle finds herself responding to Stephen's feelings and they end up having an affair right under the husband's nose. As it always happens, the husband comes to know of the affair and Isabelle draws enough courage to abandon her husband and her step-children to elope with Stephen. They settle down in a small place and start their life. I can't reveal more without spoiling it for the readers, so go and read the book to know what happens next.

The book grabs your attention from the very first page. Even though there is a lot of action in the rest of the book, I lost my interest as the story progressed. I found the war scenes especially boring. Didn't I say I dislike fiction books on wars? Even the story that proceeds seemed implausible to me. The characters lacked depth. The romance of Stephen and Isabelle failed to draw any reaction from me. Isabelle's action needed justification. Stephen's reaction to Isabelle's actions should have been stronger. And the characters that are introduced later on (can't name them here) also were poorly developed and could have used some layers. The book should have been about just war or love - the mix of both somehow didn't work for me. Or the author didn't do it well. I liked Atonement, where Ian McIwan has the same ingredients - love and war and he has done a wonderful job of supporting the main love story in the backdrop of war.

In the end, there is nothing I took back home from this book. No memorable characters, no quote-worthy lines, no 'wow' moment - nothing at all. I am not saying that people will not like this book. I am sure many readers will like this and praise this book. All I am saying is I didn't like this book.

Changing Places by David Lodge

One fine day, when I was done with all the books borrowed from the library and didn't have anything tempting to read from my own collection, my friend lent me the book A David Lodge Trilogy. I had never heard of the author before, but was sure it will not disappoint me since I and my lending friend share similar tastes for books. The trilogy contains three books: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.

David Lodge is a British author and has more than 20 books to his credit. His latest book, Deaf Sentence, was released in 2008. His work, Small World and Nice Work were shortlisted for Booker prize and were made into television series later on. How Far Can You Go? won the Whitbread Book of the Year for 1980.

Changing Places is about Philip Swallow, an academic working at Rummidge University and Morris Zapp, Professor and an expert on Jane Austen at Euphoria University. As part of their exchange program, these two gentlemen swap places and assume the job of the other. Swallow is excited with this as he gets an escape from his drudgery, his wife and his kids. He remembers the time when he visited America last and he looks forward to having a wonderful time alone at the States. Zapp, on the other hand, is already tired with his journey and has agreed to this only because his wife has agreed to postpone their divorce if he moves out of their house for six months.

As the both of them settle down with their new jobs and surroundings, they also experience some amount of cultural shock. While Rummidge is a small, rural town where all the people live like one big, family, Zapp misses his night clubs and adventures. Swallow is overwhelmed with the freedom in Euphoria. Both the gentlemen end up having an affair with the other's wife. Some incidents and events in both the places make them want to stay on in their new place rather than go back to their previous lives.

The initial pages of the book took me by surprise. The fine characterization, witty lines, sarcastic humor reminded me of Tom Robbins, another favorite (humor) author of mine. This is the best part of the book. The humor quotient of the book dips as the story progresses. Each chapter of the book is structured in a different way. While the first chapter is laid out like the usual prose, we see another chapter written out in the form of a play and yet another like a script. The author was bringing in some humor no doubt, but it didn't work for me. I felt the author was trying too hard. He should have stuck to the prose structure and tried to add more wit to his story. The book also ends in an ambiguous way where the story just stops abruptly and the reader is left to wonder what happened. I personally don't like stories which end up being happy ones just to please the readers. Any deviation from this is welcome.

Another thing which I really liked about this book is the portrayal of cultural difference. Lodge, being British himself, has had the nerve to laugh at British and Americans alike. In the second chapter especially, where we see Swallow and Zapp settling down in their new places, the contrast that the author draws between the two characters and settings is amazing. Be it the lifestyle (Mrs. Swallow complains that Zapp visited her late at night where as it's just evening), culture (Mrs. Swallow is too polite to ask Zapp to leave), night life (Melanie and her parties), academic life (Swallow has not published any papers, yet he is a lecturer) - all these are so well brought out that I sometimes laughed at myself. I could see the similarities between our culture and the British and I just had to laugh and shake my head in amazement.

At the end of the day, the question is do I recommend this book? I say yes. It's an entertaining book, not a thought-provoking one and serves its purpose of making people laugh. So, go ahead and read it.

The Kalam Effect: My Years with the President by P M Nair

A P J Abdul Kalam is a name which draws attention and curiosity. While his own books Wings of Fire, Ignited Minds, India 2020 became popular and were raved about, this book about him, written by his secretary failed to make any news. Nevertheless, the book drew my attention and I read it in one sitting.

The book states its goals very clearly. It is not meant to be Kalam's biography or his journey in life. It is about P M Nair's experience of working closely with Kalam for those five years when Kalam served as the 11th President of India between 2002 to 2007. It is not about how Kalam was born or what a troubled childhood he had or how he became a scientist. This book is about Kalam, the President, through Nair's eyes.

Nair has a great respect for Kalam and it shows. He points out Kalam's generosity, child like innocence and the dream he had for India. He set out to make a mark as the President in his five-year tenure. He made a mark and how! The book talks about many incidents to showcase Kalam's nature.

Don't we all read about Pratibha Patil going on foreign tours, one after the other, accompanied by her village family? Here is a change in the scene. When Kalam's extended family paid him a visit at his presidential house, Kalam ensured that not a penny from the government was used. He spent 2.5 lakhs on his family's expenditure - cars, hotels, tours, food. Doesn't that show this man's integrity? Nair jots down many incidents like this which makes you respect Kalam even more.

Nair is quick to point out certain qualities which Kalam should work on. Kalam's punctuality (the lack of it) is something that annoyed Nair and no matter how much he tried, Kalam never changed his ways. Kalam's innocence, which the entire world knew about and took advantage of, put Nair in trouble sometimes. People would write to Kalam to give them jobs, education and money or else they will commit suicide. Kalam was genuinely moved by these letters and would ask Nair to fulfill the people's wishes.

There are tidbits like this which give us a glimpse of Kalam and the man he was. Bush's visit to India, Musharraf's visit, Mohammad Afzal's pardon plea, Sonia Gandhi's prime ministerial candidate - all these find a mention in the book.

While the book is interesting to read, it doesn't leave you better than what you were when you picked up the book. You know a few more things about Kalam, but what's the use of that? Narrating an incident is not enough. One should narrate it in a way that the reader gets inspired and that is not one of Nair's skills. The book is bland in its form, but rich in content. If you really want to know about Kalam, isn't it better to read books written by him than about him? I am indifferent to this book. No recommendations, no dissuasion.