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.

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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.

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.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: David Sedaris

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A friend recently asked me my opinion on David Sedaris. Now, I love offering opinions, and I was in an awkward position to offer an opinion on something I had no opinion about, having not read anything by him, so I set about rectifying the situation.

Sedaris’ book is a collection of essays in two parts. Part one deals with his life in America, with his childhood and family in North Carolina and his years doing odd jobs in New York. Part two is about his years in France, getting used to the French language and milieu and trying not to stick out as a sore thumb.

Sedaris’ writing is sharp and his observations relatable. It’s like reading a standup comic’s show, and sometimes I suspect a lot of standup comics may have been ‘inspired’ by Sedaris’ work. I found the part on France funnier, probably because Sedaris is like a fish out of water amidst the French language and habits. Sedaris draws upon everyday occurrences and common tropes, but his descriptive ability and imaginative visualizations add a different dimension to the instances he describes. It’s a nice breezy read,

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo

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I don’t want to read about poverty and desperation, a friend said, when I told him of this book. I see so much of it every day, why would I fill my head also with words about it? Because when we see something every day, we become removed from it, like it’s a movie, but words have a way of making it relevant for you again.

The book is set in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport, and follows a cast of slum-dwellers – Abdul, a teenage garbage sorter looking to make enough money to move out of the slum; Asha, a kindergarten teacher looking to become the first female slumlord of Annawadi; Manju, Asha’s daughter who looking to get a college degree and escape marriage to a soldier from her village; Sunil, a skinny scavenger looking to make it by. When Fatima, a one-legged neighbor of Abdul sets herself on fire and falsely accuses Abdul of being the cause, his life is thrown into a tailspin, while the 2008 Mumbai attacks affect the lives of other residents in unanticipated ways.

I travel past the airport slums every other week, but it was only on reading this book that I began looking outside my air-conditioned car and into the shanties that lined the busy road. Boo writes with empathy for all the characters, be it the hapless Abdul or the scheming Asha, and the empathy seeps into you as well.  The Beautiful Forevers are one of the many fancy high-rise complexes coming up in Mumbai that builders promise will bring Paris or London or New York to Mumbai, but Boo exposes the shit behind the shine.

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life.”

The book is a very uncomfortable read, especially the parts which describe the life of the scavengers and the conditions of the slum, located beside a sewage lake. At points, I felt it delve into poverty porn realm, such as where the slum-dwellers eat rats and frogs when they have no money to buy food, but then I realized that she’s reporting facts, gory as they are. It’s Indian tendency to be angry at Westerners writing about Indian poverty, but the fact remains that someone has to write about it, about the hundreds of slum murders and suicides that are reported in police books as “illness”, about the desperation of young women in slums who want to have a life better than being married or a mistress at fifteen, of stench and filth and homes no larger than packing cartons. Maybe we need a Westerner to write about these things, because we Indians have become indifferent to it all. For most of us (yes, I too am part of Indifferent India), poverty is something we turn up our windows to so that it doesn’t seep into our homes and our cars; maybe the sharp words can make it more alive for us

 

The Good Girls Revolt: Lynn Povich

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Have you ever watched a TV show or a movie based on a book, and found the screen adaptation full of flaws, yet been intrigued enough by the kernel that it’s based on, so as to want to read the book? That happened to me with Girlboss, and that’s what happened with this book as well.

Late 1960s in the US were a time of awakening, on multiple fronts – civil rights, women’s rights, counterculture and all that. Print publications published stories about all these awakenings, but were dozing worse than Rip Van Winkle. Women were hired as researchers and never made it as writers or editors, even when they had demonstrated the chops time and again. In fact, publications like Newsweek claimed that it was a newsmagazine tradition to not have women writers. The women of Newsweek seethed, and came together to slapp the first sex discrimination at workplace lawsuit on the Newsweek management, on the same day that Newsweek published a cover story on the women’s rights movement.

The book begins in the present, with three Newsweek women writers feeling that despite all the reported advancement of women in the workplace, they still fell behind the men. They dig and learn about the lawsuit 50 years ago, and how the women of Newsweek learned that the division they had taken for granted – women would be researchers and men editors or writers – was actually illegal. It’s a powerful story of a group of women standing up and fighting for their rights, and a consciousness-raising moment for the entire industry, as women working in publications from Readers Digest to The New York Times followed suit and began suing against sex discrimination.

What I found most interesting was the fact that most of these women understood that they were fighting for their careers, but also for a cause bigger than their own careers. In fact, other than the author, no other woman became a senior editor at Newsweek, but none regretted participating in the lawsuit. What is also interesting is how some women, including the publisher Katherine Graham, struggled to overcome their own prejudices in how they believed women should act in the workplace. Graham reportedly never supported the women and usually dismissed their demands as inconsequential, though she later went through some consciousness-raising of her own, courtesy her friendship with the feminist icon Gloria Steinem. The book left me with a question: how will the Me Too movement be viewed 50 years hence? Would it be a consciousness-raising movement, leading to visible change in how women are treated, or would it just be a trend that will run its course?

Soccernomics: Simon Cooper and Stefan Szymanski

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With the football World Cup final a couple of hours away, it’s only fitting that I write this post now. I began this book just as the World Cup was starting, and finished it a couple of hours ago, so it’s been a companion of my World Cup journey, so to say.

The book is framed around questions which every soccer fan (and non-fan) has asked over the years: Is England always destined to lose? How much does money matter in a club’s performance? How random are penalty shootouts? The answers given to these questions are based on crunching a mound of data across different types of matches – World Cup, country Leagues, Euro etc, and the answers – not really (they’ll win once in 50-odd years), a lot and not much if you analyze players’ past performances – are sometimes surprising and sometimes not. The authors make the argument that some of the great myths of football can be broken if you Moneyball the game, and they apply statistics to answer questions about clubs, fans, countries etc.

While I enjoyed reading the book, I must say that the answers to the main questions did not add much to my overall knowledge base. It’s quite obvious that black players were discriminated against (in selection and in salaries) for a long time, just as they would have been in other spheres of life; of course higher player salaries have a strong positive effect on club performance. What I found more interesting were the small tidbits that came in the process of answering those questions: Croatia has the highest TV viewership of soccer (advertisers who read this book stand to make a lot of money in today’s final); Norway is the most soccer-crazy country (based on playing, live watching and TV viewing statistics); how well a club takes care of its players off the field (relocation assistance particularly) matters more than how much it pays them. Also, knowing a bit of math and statistics, their analysis and conclusions often seemed to be a bit of overreach, but I’m willing to discount that due to quality (or lack) of data. My other peeve was the enormous focus on EPL; even the Champions League was barely spoken about, and non-European leagues didn’t even get a mention. I believe that as the book touting to bring economic scholarship to all aspects of the great game, I believe they could have done with a bit more inclusivity and rigor.