Bengali Cuisine: Chitrita Banerji

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In recent times, I have been reading quite a bit of longform food writing (accompanied by food to stave off hunger pangs), and I was keen to read a more detailed exploration of my homeland’s cuisine. This book proved to be perfect.

Banerjee opens a window into Bengali cuisine by structuring it along the four seasons – spring, summer, monsoon and winter. She talks about the festivals in the seasons and the foods prepared around those, the native fruits and vegetables that get incorporated, illustrates her family traditions through food and sprinkles a few recipes on the way.

What I loved about this book is that it is not a cookbook; it is a food book. Sure, recipes are present, but they are not the focus. The book took me back to my childhood, to all the traditional ways and wisdom that my mother follows, and at many points, I was like, oh we do that too in our home! For non-Bengalis, this book would be a fascinating dip into the intricacies and the differences between the cooking styles and food of West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Banerjee writes with love about her food and its history, and also uses food to provide commentary on social mores, such as the treatment of widows in Bengali (and often Indian) culture. A book that should be read by every person having the smallest interest in food.

The Way of Kings: Brandon Sanderson

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Me (two years ago): I’m not going to start a fantasy series that hasn’t been completed by its author. The emotional investment is too draining, waiting for the authors to come around to finishing what they started.

Me (two months ago): Oh well, Sanderson is a prolific writer. He finished someone else’s series; I’m sure he’ll finish his own.

Ever since the Parshendi assassinated the King of Roshar at a truce-signing feast, the two kingdoms have been at a stalemate war for six years, camped out in the Shattered Plains. Kaladin is a soldier-turned-slave, wracked with guilt over his actions that killed his brother and his squad. Dalinar is the King’s uncle and military strategist, who is worried about the crazy visions he has during highstorms. Shallan is a lord’s daughter who wants to be the ward of the King’s sister to steal her Soulcaster, a gemstone-based device that can transform matter from one form to another. A war is on, but a disaster more ancient and terrible looms ahead.

Sanderson has planned ten books for his Stormlight Archive, so there is a lot of story to be told. Way of Kings is long (~1000 pages), with multiple points of view (POVs) and nuggets of information strewn around, and it does flag in parts. But whenever the book starts to slow down, there comes a kick in the story that grabs your interest. Sanderson isn’t the dark gritty fantasy type, so people don’t get murdered or tortured at the drop of a hat, but he excels at political intrigue, and has enough twists and turns in the book to make it seem like an epic fantasy whodunnit (or rather whatdunnit). For me, it’s always a good sign if I’m interested in the side characters (Jasnah would make a good main POV), but what I like most about the book (and Sanderson’s books in general) is the attention to logic and detail. Magical systems are well thought out, worldbuilding is intricate, and there is no dragon to save the day. And yes, Sanderson finishes what he started.

 

Hidden Figures: Margot Lee Shetterly

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This is a book I read at the beginning of the year, but the review has languished in my Drafts folder for some unknown reason. Discovered this as part of Christmas cleanup and putting it out to the world.

In 1961, Russia sends Yuri Gagarin to space, getting quite ahead in the space race between it and America. There is pressure on NASA, and key to helping it deliver are the human computers, a group of women who performed complex mathematical calculations for the engineers and others in NASA. These women were segregated from the men in the early parts of their careers, and were rarely credited for their work in scientific publications or promoted into more prestigious engineering roles. Yet they powered on, with a mix of intelligence and assertiveness, to become invaluable to the space program.

The movie focuses on three pioneering black women, and the book focuses on them as well, but talks about many more women who were instrumental in sending the first American to space. For those who loved the movie and wanted to learn more about the women and their contributions, the book is the perfect reference. Shetterley’s research is detailed, and her writing brings out the difficulties the women had to face, and the complexities of the era, with racial and gender segregation in force. An important book for anyone who wants to understand the different flavors feminism can take, and the power of enterprising and able women.

A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

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At first one friend read it, and praised it. Then another read it, and raved about it. Then another and another, until it seemed like everyone I knew had read this book and loved it. Of course I had to read it.

Ove is an irascible old man. He dislikes his neighbors, makes daily inspections of the neighborhood to ensure that nobody is exceeding car parking slot timings or parking bicycles where they should not be parked. He’s just been ‘retired’ from his job, and has an over-friendly ‘foreign’ neighbor move in next door.

Now everything had to be computerized, as if one couldn’t build a house until some consultant in a too-small shirt figured out how to open a laptop. As if that was how they built the Colosseum and the pyramids of Giza. Christ, they’d managed to build the Eiffel Tower in 1889, but nowadays one couldn’t come up with the bloody drawings for a one-story house without taking a break for someone to run off and recharge their cell phone.

We all know someone like Ove – a cranky old man who dislikes everything in the world because of the faults he finds with it. But every Ove has a Sonja, one person he likes despite all the things he cannot fathom about her, one person that keeps him going, one person he doesn’t know life without. Ove and Sonja’s story is the warm heart of the book, that brings a smile to your face, while Ove’s story is the comic heart, which makes you laugh out loud. Ove and his idiosyncrasies were delightfully written, and I had a grin throughout my reading of the book, which incidentally I read in one sitting. Possibly one of the best books I have read this year.

Shoe Dog: Phil Knight

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This book was on every best-of list last year – even Bill Gates recommended it. I picked this up at a friend’s wedding (where she gave books as return gifts – super awesome idea!) and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Shoe Dog is Phil Knight’s memoir, chronicling Nike’s rise from an idea he had for his MBA thesis to its going public in 1980. Knight writes about his early years as founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, selling Onitsuka’s Tiger shoes from his car while holding down a job, the medley of colorful characters who join him as he builds his shoe business, the feud with Onitsuka that leads to Nike’s birth, and the various obstacles thereon.

Nike’s origins story isn’t as well-publicized as Apple or Facebook (at least in my corner of the world), so it was with some surprise that I read that Nike had been embroiled in multiple lawsuits and investigations in its formative years. But what caught my attention was Phil’s team. Phil is a reticent, no-praise type boss, the one who just grunts when you get 2x your targets, and while his ambition for growth is what drives Nike, the others, like prolific letter-writing Employee Number One Jeff Johnson, or wheelchair-bound wizard Bob Woodell, are what build it. Knight’s style of writing is warm and funny, and he manages to make even the biggest crises come off, not as earth-shattering dramas, but as big difficulties that can be surpassed.

What permeates the book is a genuine love for running. In many business memoirs, the person becomes bigger than the thing he/she is building, but for Phil, it’s sports first. He is heartfelt about his admiration for Bill Bowerman, the coach who was his business partner and designed many of his hit shoes, and he dedicates almost an entire chapter to runner Steve Prefontaine and his life. This passion is what draws you into the book, and it is what lingers on long after you finish it.

Mortal Engines: Philip Reeve

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Can a crappy book with a good concept be made into a decent movie? Well, the movie version of this book is coming out soon, with LOTR director Peter Jackson producing it, no less, so we have to wait and see. And hope.

In some time in the distant future, cities have turned into large mobile predatory things, chasing each other and gobbling them up for their resources. Tom Natsworthy, a lowly Third Apprentice Historian and an orphan, lives in London doing cleaning work for the Guild of Historians. When he saves the life of Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine from a young assassin, his life is turned inside out, though not in the way he had dreamed.

The concept is great – nuclear war resulting in the rise of a phenomenon called Municipal Darwinism, with cities being turned into giant predatory machines. The world-building is great, with details of the cities’ engineering and the different types of cities etched out quite well. Too bad it is let down by poor storytelling and cardboard characters. Natsworthy is the male equivalent of the damsel in distress, possibly the most useless protagonist I have seen in a while. Some authors have the gift of making wimpy characters likeable, and give them an arc, but Natsworthy’s arc is a mess, and the less said about the storyline of Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, the better. Dialogue throughout the book is stilted, bordering on the juvenile, and near the end, I felt the author was rushing to just finish the book. Hope the movie can salvage some of the mess.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared: Jonas Jonasson

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How can you not pick up a book with such a delightful title? I was sure that the book would be entertaining, at least in parts, and I was definitely not disappointed.

Allan Karlsson climbs out of the window of his room in his retirement home, on the eve of his hundredth birthday party. He goes to a bus station, intending to travel as far as the money in his pocket will allow. At the bus station, he ends up carrying off a suitcase belonging to a member of a drug dealing biker gang, and ends up having the police, the criminals and a bunch of others on his tail.

The story goes back and forth between Allan’s escapades in the present day, and the adventures he has been up to in his hundred years of life, and I don’t know which is more entertaining. Because of his knowledge about blowing up things, Allan meets a succession of international leaders, from Harry Truman to Stalin to Mao Zedong. In the present day, he gathers travel companions as he goes from one place to another, all of who join for the briefcase contents, but stay for something more.

Comic novels are difficult to write, and Jonasson does an admirable job maintaining the tempo and the suspension of disbelief throughout. With quirky characters and even quirkier antics, the book reads like a breeze.