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.

Fresh off the Boat- book review

Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.

Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.

Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.

Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.

At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.

The Happiness of Pursuit- book review

The Happiness of Pursuit is about finding a “quest that will bring purpose to your life,” as its sub-title states. At first glance, this might sound a little vague and sappy, but the book is surprisingly fun and inspiring to read.

Author Chris Guillebeau already embarked on his own quest of visiting every country in the world before 35 and succeeded. But instead of focusing on himself, he interviewed over 50 people from different walks of life who went on quests such as walking across the continental US, birdwatching around the world, or cooking food from a different country every week. The point of pursuing these quests, Guillebeau emphasizes, is not to brag or show off, but to create something meaningful for yourself by setting a major goal to pursue. These major goals include personal enrichment, protesting illegal logging by living in a tree for over a year, investigative journalism, setting up charities, traveling the world, and breaking athletic records. There is something for everyone to relate to in terms of striving for a goal.

The Happiness of Pursuit draws from the collective experience, lessons and insights of all these people to provide a guide for readers to pursue their own great quest. There are success stories, planning tips, warnings and even examples of failed quests in which people had to face up to their failures and re-dedicate their energy to pursuing other worthy quests.

Some of the key points include having a clear goal, being prepared for setbacks and persevering, following your passion and that understanding what bothers you is as important as knowing what excites you. Some of this might sound obvious but the hard part is to actually follow through. The people Guillebeau features in the book have all done that.

Instead of just giving advice and platitudes, Guillebeau provides real-life examples of people who actually did those things. In this, The Happiness of Pursuit is different from a lot of other books that try to inspire people to improve their lives. By not making the book all about him, the author makes sure readers can be inspired by the many different people he features.

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.

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

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.