Books

Medium Raw- book review

Anthony Bourdain was one of those special people who was immensely talented, passionate, and curious about food, people and the world. That’s why he succeeded as a cook, a writer, and a TV host who traveled around the world eating local dishes, basically what many of us would consider a dream job. It was a tragedy that he left this world the way he did and when he did, in June at age 61. I didn’t watch his show as I’m not a foodie but I knew that he would visit different countries, eating local dishes and hanging out with locals. That time he ate Vietnamese noodles with Barack Obama in a small Hanoi eatery was especially cool. I decided to read his 2010 book Medium Raw – A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Writing about his past, about people who he admired or hated, being a father, and the joy (lust) of eating great food, Medium Raw is like a collection of essays rather than a biography. It is a fascinating book, which at times is fierce and others is surprising empathetic, such as when Bourdain gives his take on chefs selling out. He isn’t afraid to name names or describe incidents in full detail and honesty, because in some of them he doesn’t always come out on top.

I may be ethnic Asian but I’ve never been passionate about food, especially as I don’t like seafood and I have a sensitive stomach. I appreciate good food but I’ve got a workmanlike approach to eating and I can get by with simple breakfasts and meals. However even I felt something at how tantalizingly Bourdain describes eating food, whether it Vietnamese pho, spaghetti in the Italian countryside, or even seafood.

What makes the book really outstanding is not the passionate food descriptions or the stirring insights into the restaurant industry, but the chapters about famous chefs and food personalities like David Chang. Bourdain even has an entire chapter about somebody he detests, a famous food critic, as well as another chapter on “heroes and villains.” One of the most fascinating chapters is not about a chef or critic, but about Justo, a guy who prepares and portions 700-1,000 pounds of fish everyday for a well-known New York seafood restaurant. Bourdain is a great writer and it is never so apparent than when he makes gutting and cleaning fish sound so interesting.

I might try to get Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s first memoir which launched his literary career, but Medium Raw was enough to make me realize why Bourdain was so special.

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Books · Travel

The India Ride- book review

Two Canadian brothers set off on an 18,000-km motorcycle ride around China in 2010 and succeeded. A couple of years later, they decided to do another epic motorcycle ride around India. The India Ride – 2 brothers, 2 motorcycles, an incredible adventure is the story of this feat of stamina, courage, and most of all, patience. Written by the brothers, Colin and Ryan Pyle, The India Ride details the entire journey which started from Delhi, went northwest along treacherous mountainous roads and to the border with Pakistan, then southwest to Mumbai and the Arabian Sea coast before going back up along the southeast coast up to Bengal and finishing in Delhi again.

The arduous journey was not just a daredevil joyride but a carefully planned expedition that was intended to be fully recorded for a TV show based on the trip. In fact, the brothers were still completing book and television deals for the China trip while preparing for the India trip. The book details the arduous preparations as even before the trip actually began, the brothers had to plan the journey day by day, hire a driver and videographer (the same from their China journey) who followed and filmed them during the whole trip, apply for permits to shoot video at places they planned to visit, and get sponsors.

Not surprisingly, the trip was full of hazardous traffic and road experiences, including a few close calls, mixed emotions, and frustration. India is no cup of tea for visitors, especially ones riding motorcycles around the country. While I’ve never been to India (yet), I’ve heard a lot about the country, which just from afar can seem like an assault on the senses and mind. The brothers’ experiences and insights of India showed the country to be as fascinating, chaotic and frustrating as I’d expected. The brothers don’t hold back in expressing their thoughts on the country, during and at the completion of their journey. Their encounters with locals are mostly positive, such as when a stranger driving by who leads the brothers to a nearby mechanic after one of their motorcycles breaks down on a hilly, rural area.

The book could have been shorter on the planning details at the beginning, and longer on the actual events and sights of the trip. As the main point of the trip was the motorcycle journey and not sightseeing, it is understandable. They do visit some major sights such as the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, the ghats alongside the Ganges River in Varanasi, and major temples. The chapter on the Rat Temple (Karni Matar) in Rajasthan state is a particularly interesting and honest read, though it might put readers off of visiting it. It’s also exactly why I think there should have been more writing about the sights.

The brothers’ India ride was a remarkable journey in a remarkable country, which very few people would ever dare to complete. It is good to see that the journey did not put off Ryan Pyle, the older brother and whose idea it originally was to ride around China, as he would go on to complete another incredible motorcycle ride in Brazil and is still going strong.

Books · Travel

The Longest Way Home- book review

Former actor and writer Andrew McCarthy seemed to have the ideal life, combining a busy globe-trotting writing career with a relationship with a loving and patient partner as well as two children. But a decision to get married to his girlfriend and mother of his younger child sparks a sense of panic. As McCarthy struggles with whether he is doing the right thing, he takes off on a series of trips to come to terms with his personal issues.

From traveling on a cruise through the Amazon to a remote part of coastal Costa Rica to wandering Baltimore with his best friend, the writer slowly realizes what is holding him back. This involves McCarthy reflecting on his part, especially his relationship with his father, which at times was estranged but has improved. While this might all sound self-indulgent, the author is honest about his doubts and flaws, as well as the toll on his partner who has to look after their child while he is often away. It is over-reflective at times but this means McCarthy holds nothing back in examining himself.

The writer’s travels during this long period of pre-wedding reflection include a hike up the majestic Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and trekking in Patagonia in the southernmost part of Argentina. He describes the places well, bringing their remoteness and beauty to the fore. Despite his own penchant for solitude and continuous travel, McCarthy is surprising skeptical of some of the expats, including fellow Americans, he meets in remote places, especially in their motivations for live there.

Without giving away things too much by being too specific, I’ll just say the book comes to a happy conclusion in Ireland, where his girlfriend is from. The Longest Way Home is both a decent travel book and memoir that illustrates how travel can sometimes be a good way to know yourself more.

Books

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

Books

Smarter Faster Better- book review

A lot of books claim to boost your productivity, efficiency, thinking etc, but Smarter Faster Better makes it very clear about what it intends to make readers become.

Using 8 main concepts, each of which is described in one chapter, Charles Duhigg aims to help readers become better in work and in life. These concepts include motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing others, decision making, innovation and absorbing data. Like other books on behavioral economics and neuroscience, Duhigg provides lots of interesting facts, studies and examples from the real world to illustrate his concepts.

What makes the book especially good are a number of vivid real-world examples, such as how Disney made the massive animated hit Frozen, how a woman won a $2 million professional poker tournament, the creative process behind Saturday Night Live (the US late night weekend sketch show), and even how the FBI solved a kidnapping case.

There are interesting points that go against conventional wisdom. For instance, it’s normal to think that in a successful and creative team, everyone in the team should get along well and like each other. But Duhigg uses Saturday Night Live to illustrate that people don’t need to be friends or be nice to each other to be productive and creative, but to be able to express their opinions openly. It’s not about team members agreeing with each other all the time, but to be able to listen to their fellow team members and in turn have their ideas listened to.

Another surprising point is that the most innovative ideas aren’t necessarily original and new, but combine existing ideas in new ways. This can be seen for plays, electronic devices and even scientific papers. Duhigg uses Frozen and West Side Story to illustrate how those hits came about through their creators meshing different ideas.

We all wish we could predict the future but of course, that is impossible. But what is possible is being able to come up with multiple outcomes in your mind and estimate the various likelihoods of them happening. This is called probabilistic thinking, which according to Duhigg, helps decision-making significantly, as it did the female poker player who beat more established players to win a US$2 million jackpot.

The tragic loss of an Air France flight flying to Brazil over the Atlantic in 2009 is used to illustrate the problem of cognitive tunneling or overly focusing on something to the detriment of the overall situation. Basically, the pilot reacted wrongly after encountering a stall and his copilots focused too much on the flight display screen unknowingly ignoring the pilot’s mistake.

According to Duhigg, the key to countering cognitive tunneling is to have strong mental models. This means thinking up ideas or stories in your head relating to your work or other areas of life and coming up with possible solutions. This is useful for a lot of work situations, whether it be a nurse figuring out a patient’s abnormal problem or flying a plane. Not only does this help you become more focused on details, but you can understand how things work on a deeper level. This chapter on focus started with an air tragedy but ended with a positive story. A Qantas flight lost a wing in mid-air but avoided crashing and landed successfully. The captain had a habit drilled his crew constantly before each flight, so when disaster struck, they were able to react calmly and correctly. Thus, a great example of the importance of developing mental models.

Some of these ideas do seem obvious, such as combining both short- and long-term goals instead of fixating on only one, but the hard part is implementing them. The examples in the book show why and how they work.

Smarter Faster Better is a very helpful book that should enable readers to achieve at least some of what its title promises. I’d say it is one of the most entertaining books of its kind that I’ve read.

Books

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.