Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Tools of Titans- book review

Written by the same guy who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans is a fascinating collection of inspirational tips and helpful advice from over 200 entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and other successful people.  The book is massive, with over 650 pages packed with interviews and profiles of, as the book’s sub-title states, “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.”

Tools of Titans is divided into three parts – the first focuses on health, exercise and nutrition; the second is on work and productivity; and the final part is on life tips. In addition, Tim Ferriss also sprinkles chapters of his own insights and tips for things like dealing with critics, creating a podcast, investment, and work-outs. For me, the second and third parts were the most interesting and helpful. Ferriss interviews writers, artists, entrepreneurs, fitness experts, an ex-Navy Seal and even a yoga instructor. The sheer number and scope of people profiled and the advice given means readers will definitely something useful and applicable for their own lives.

Among the tips I found interesting were come up with 10 ideas a day (writer and blogger James Altucher), suffer a little regularly and you cease to suffer (Tim Ferriss advises based on the philosopher Seneca’s teachings), and listen to a song or album you like repeatedly while working to improve your focus and awareness (which Tim Ferriss points out that some successful people do). From Nicholas Nassim Taleb, getting everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity and it is better to be care about the many who would love your work than the few who hate it. Venture capitalist and a math research fellow at Oxford Eric Weinstein says something similar in that people (like writers, entrepreneurs, and artists) should strive to be known and respected by 2,000-3,000 people rather than be widely famous because this then gives one the freedom to do what he wants.

One especially meaningful piece of advice is from tech CEO and investor Naval Ravikant who says that in any situation in life, you have 3 options: change it, leave it, or accept it. It sounds deceptively simple but I’d never thought of that and there are a few instances in my life I should have applied this.

Tools of Titans is both fascinating and helpful, and will also give you lots of ideas to boost your work, health and lifestyle.

Joseph Anton- book review

Salman Rushdie is one of the world’s most famous living writers who has written many good books, one of which he almost paid the ultimate price for. After Rushdie put out The Satanic Verses in 1988, the ruling mullahs of Iran were so angered at the book for supposedly insulting Islam, they issued an official ruling or fatwa in 1989 calling for Muslims to kill him. Joseph Anton is a memoir by Rushdie about the 10 years he spent in hiding, living under 24-hour state protection, while the fatwa was in effect.

Written in third-person form, Joseph Anton is an interesting and unnerving memoir that doesn’t draw back from showing the frustration, anger and helplessness that Rushdie lived under. This included having to withdraw from public life and move constantly, accept 24-hour protection from the British state, and even using a false name, Joseph Anton, drawn from two of his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov, hence the name of the book.

The fatwa to kill Rushdie led to numerous threats to his life that was staggering in how vehement and blatant they were, such as public rallies and threats in not just Iran, but in the UK by local radical Muslims. Iran also did try to send out assassins, which shows just how deranged their rulers were. Having been forced to hide from public life almost suddenly in 1989, Rushdie and his protectors initially thought the whole controversy would die down soon, never imagining that it would drag on for so many years.

While Rushdie and his lover, who he eventually marries, are forced to live under circumstances that would reduce most of us to nervous wrecks, they are helped by generous and understanding friends, many of them Rushdie’s contemporaries and important figures in the literary and arts world. People do get shot, like one of Rushdie’s publishers, or die such as the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses who was stabbed to death in 1991 by a Bangladeshi in Japan.

Rushdie fights back, giving interviews and writing columns defending himself and condemning the fatwa, whilst trying to persuade Western governments and media outlets to argue his case. He also tries to regain his freedom little by little, such as flying overseas to the US or France to make short appearances at forums and meet with dignitaries. Even then, he is generally banned from flying on most airlines and visiting a lot of countries, such as his own birthplace India, which refused to let him visit until after the fatwa is lifted. Rushdie must also contend with criticisms from people in the West, such as from spy novelist John le Carre, that he brought on the trouble for himself. Rushdie is dismissive of this, saying that if this were the case, then writers should never write about anything significant or speak up for values such as free speech.

Just as important is Rushdie’s determination not to bend to the Iranian mullahs and apologize or censor his book. The core issue is freedom of speech, whether literature can be censored or silenced merely due to supposedly offending people or even religion. In these times, this debate is even more apt and at times threatened, but the importance is undiminished.

For me, personally, I read The Satanic Verses and whilst I didn’t like the book too much, I didn’t think Rushdie wrote anything hateful about Islam. It is really shameful that the Iranian leaders would use religious authority to compel the Muslim world to threaten a writer like this and make him lose 10 years of his life.

Through all this, Rushdie is frustrated, depressed, and enraged, but he never loses hope. Of course, this is helped by the fact he had state protection, a faithful lover, his son, and numerous friends and allies who secretly hosted him in dinners or let him use their homes as temporary or holiday accommodations. The whole affair really demonstrates the best and the worst of people.

Joseph Anton is a monster of a book, being over 600 pages, but it is a fine account of a valiant struggle that puts not just the life of a writer, but the sanctity of freedom of expression at the fore.


Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

Antifragile- book review

Having introduced the idea of the black swan to the world in his 2007 bestseller of the same name, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is on a mission to spread the concept of antifragility in Antifragile – Things That Gain from Disorder. Antifragility, the opposite of fragility, is the attribute of being able to benefit from chaos and shock, which in the turbulent world we live in would seem to be very relevant. However, antifragility differs from robustness in that it doesn’t mean simply enduring chaos, but actually gaining from it.

As to be expected, Taleb has a lot of fascinating ideas and provocative arguments. Using history as a constant example, Taleb doesn’t hesitate to take aim at the likes of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher; medical science; and even academia or book knowledge. Some of these arguments go against regularly accepted norms. Going to the doctor and taking medicine for minor ailments can make your problems worse, Taleb says, as it is an example of “naive intervention.”

Meanwhile, sometimes theoretical concepts are useless as they only came about after the events or phenomenon they referred to. Taleb mentions the idea of birds flying despite not knowing about centrifrugal force, as well as how ancient bridges were built even though the builders had no concept of mathematics, but relied on tools and empirical methods.

Taleb is a huge critic of iatrogenics, solutions that actually cause more harm than benefits and which are often found in economics and government policies. And the people who propose these dubious policies are often those without “skin in the game,” meaning they don’t actually get affected by their policies.

As examples, Taleb brings up follies like the US decision to invade Iraq in 2002, a conflict which is still going on now, and the 2008 financial crisis, both of which he argues were caused by people in power making reckless and harmful policies without having to personally bear any of the consequences (US leaders who ordered a war whilst never having served in one themselves, for eg).

A very compelling concept is that via negativa (the negative way), which means knowing what something is not, is of the utmost importance in approaching problems. In other words, sometimes knowing what not to do is more useful than knowing what to do. It’s a very reasonable idea and I’ve also read a similar argument in another book.

Antigragile covers a lot of different topics, and sometimes this makes it difficult to keep track of all the points and arguments. Taleb is a very self-assured and supremely confident writer, which makes his arguments seem very convincing. However, it is necessary to apply some skepticism to his arguments as one should to whatever he/she comes across. Angifragile is a hugely fascinating book with lots of compelling arguments that definitely convinced me of the merit of antifragility and how vital it is for life.

The Epic City-book review

Up until the 1970s, Calcutta used to be India’s wealthiest and largest city. Since then, Calcutta (now Kolkatta) has experienced a steady decline as it has relinquished its economic crown to the likes of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. But despite this, Calcutta is still a proud city that has a legacy of producing literary and political greats. Whether it has more than just its legacy in the 21st century is a question Indian-American Kushanava Choudhury tries to answer with his book The Epic City – The World on the Streets of Calcutta.

Choudhury was born in the US to Bengali parents who later returned to Calcutta to work, then came back to the US after they realized things were not as idyllic as they had thought. By the time Choudhury graduated from university, he decided to do the same and went to his ancestral city to work for the Statesman, the city’s oldest English-language newspaper. After two years passed, Choudhury had had enough and went back to the US to pursue graduate studies, before deciding to return to Calcutta to write a book. The Epic City is the result.

Calcutta is a fascinating city, having been the home of the great Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore as well as countless famous Indian writers, poets, and politicians. Calcutta is the heartland of the Bengali people and culture, and was also India’s capital when the British ruled India. However, growing unrest made the British shift the capital to Delhi. After independence and partition, when Pakistan was created, Calcutta lost its Bengali hinterland which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.

While The Epic City starts off slowly as it introduces the city and the author’s family background, the book becomes more compelling as Choudhury tackles historical and political issues. Truth be told, it can be depressing at times as readers learn about past famines and massacres, and the city’s widespread poverty. Ironically, Calcutta has been relatively free of political turmoil in the last few decades as it underwent economic decline. This is cited by someone Choudhury talks to as the reason Calcutta lacks modern greats, with all its heroes dead, as nothing happens in the city anymore. Choudhury points out the further irony that these greats all lived during British colonialism.

There is also colour and excitement, in the form of the Durga Pujo festival when the city’s neighborhoods are filled with large pandals, bamboo lattices built to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. We are also introduced to para and adda, which mean the neighborhood and long discussions with friends respectively, that are a big part of Calcutta life. The city’s literary culture still exists, from its myriad secondhand bookstores to the “little magazines” of poetry, stories and politics.

Choudhary does not romanticize Calcutta though, he freely admits it is a tough place to live with little to do or see, which sounds a bit harsh. His wife Durba, a Delhi native who he met in graduate school in the US, detests Calcutta, which is the source of fights between them. Choudhary is hard on his beloved city as well, pointing out how thousands of years ago, the first ancient Indian cities had covered sewers but yet, in modern Calcutta, the smell of human piss is everywhere, which Choudhary hilariously points out.

The book was written in 2009-2010, so perhaps by now, even more of the old neighborhoods and way of life described by Choudhary have already gone. The Epic City is a heartfelt tribute and record of a proud city that, though a shadow of its old self, can always count on its writers to maintain its proud legacy.