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If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.

The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them  are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.

The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.

All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.

The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits.  Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.

Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.

Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.

This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing  and disgust. But above all, it will arouse  a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.

You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.

 

 

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I have been reading the Readers Digest almost all my life. My first exposure to it was on vacations at my grandfather’s house in Mangalore in the early fifties. I was the only kid there, more often than not, and in the afternoons I used to climb to the lone room on the second floor, a room that no one ever seemed to go to. It was bare except for a couch and two glass fronted cabinets filled with books, mostly bound copies of Readers Digests from the forties.  I spent many happy afternoons there reading those volumes, aware of the passage of time only by the chiming of the grandfather clock on the landing.

As a kid of nine or ten, much of the Readers Digest content was beyond my understanding and of no interest to me. But there was plenty else to fascinate me. Among my favorite features was ” The Most Unforgettable Character I have met”, ” Life in these United States” and ” Laughter is the Best medicine”. I also liked to test myself with the Word Power Quizzes. ( I was terrible at first, but gradually got better). These and articles culled from The Saturday Evening Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, Colliers etc. nurtured my fascination with the United States and things American. This was my only exposure to the larger world since none of the magazines themselves were generally available in India. There were articles by John Steinbeck, Paul Gallico, Clarence Day, Carl Sandburg, Thor Heyerdahl, Booth Tarkington, Ernie Pyle, A.J. Cronin and other famous writers though, at the time, I didn’t know how famous they were.

One of my favorites was a reminiscence by James Norman Hall who later  wrote ” The Mutiny on the Bounty” with Charles Nordhoff. Titled ” Transaction in Tahiti”, it told of a time in his life when he almost gave up on his dream of becoming a writer. In 1925, Hall was living in Tahiti down to his last few dollars and with no prospects of selling his work. He was living on a meager diet of tinned beef and coffee and had given himself three months before he chucked it all and gave up his dreams of becoming a writer. Earlier he had tried to grow his own vegetables but given up the effort after several failures. So he gave away his seeds to an elderly Chinese, Hop Sing. Three days later, Hop Sing turned up unannounced and gave him three watermelons, a bottle of wine, a basket of eggs and a hen. Another neighbor  showed him how to catch and eat the land crabs that had destroyed his kitchen garden and Hop Sings brother-in-law , Lee Fat gave him even more gifts. All this fortified Hall’s resolve and when he dashed off some more articles, his luck changed, they were accepted and he was on his way to becoming a successful writer. I can’t in a few sentences convey how magical the article was but it has beautifully written and remained in my memory long, long afterwards.

After I came to the U.S in 1968, I occasionally tried to read the Digest but it was not the same. I preferred to read the originals in the magazines themselves rather than the condensations in the Digest. And I was turned off by the political bent of the publishers, Dean and Lila Acheson Wallace, which was far to the right for my liking. I did like certain features such as ” Points to Ponder” and  ” Quotable Quotes” that I learned to cherry pick but I gradually lost interest in the Digest.

When I picked up a couple of issues of the Digest at the library last week , it was over 15 years since I’d last touched one. Having now gone through them, I have to say that the Readers Digest today is not a patch on what it once was. That the issues are so much thinner was understandable. After all, as print readership has declined, newspapers and magazines have cut back on the page count. However, what saddened me was the quality of the articles. Many of them were how to articles ( ” Genius uses for your microwave”), medical advice ( “Seeing my diagnosis differently”; “Urine trouble”) and lots of short features without much depth ( ” 100 Word true stories”). Several of the features were collections of anecdotes, which may have been ” cute” or  funny but ultimately felt like  the print equivalent of America’s Funniest Videos.

I also felt some of the old time favorites had been dumbed down to suit today’s readership.  For example, “Word Power” tests readers’ vocabulary with fifteen multiple choice questions. The old Digest, I seem to remember, asked readers to choose the correct answer from four choices; now there are only three alternatives to choose from, thus making it easier for the reader to get the answer right.

I’m sure the publishers have done their market research and are giving the public what it wants. The short fluffy content is no doubt what today’s TV addicted public with its fondness for 30 second sound bites wants or can handle. More’s the pity.

P.S  Some time ago, I picked up a Readers Digest Anthology (” The 30th Anniversary Readers Digest Reader, published 1951) at a library book sale. It was the best fifty cents I ever spent. It contained many of the old favorites including “Transaction in Tahiti”. The new Readers Digest may not be to my liking but I now have something to remind me of what it used to be.

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Picking through the Mystery/ Thriller section at the library, I came across Her Nightly Embrace– Book I of the Ravi P.I series by Adi Tantimeoh. The cover showed an Indian face, a facsimile of an Indian actor whom I remembered having seen in a CBS series three or four years ago. Ravi is a popular Indian name and yet the author’s name definitely did not sound Indian. I decided to look a little closer and peeked at the back flap to find out more about him. Adi Tantimeoh, it turns out, is of Chinese – Thai descent and grew up in Singapore and London. And here he was , writing a book about a private detective of Indian origin who operates out of London… a book for which the blurb was penned by Deepak Chopra.

Is that a right proper mishmash of a novel or what?

Out of curiosity I checked the book out and I must say it isn’t bad. The protagonist, Ravi Chandra Singh, is a former high school teacher and religious scholar who now works as a private investigator for Golden Sentinels, an upscale security firm in London. Ravi has an unusual affliction; he constantly has visions of gods, usually Hindu but sometimes Buddhist. They shadow him as he works on cases, chatting with him , taking great interest in his work and giving  him  unwanted advice.  His co-workers are equally eccentric. There’s Benjamin Lee, a McGyver like techie, David Okri an ambitious lawyer from a well connected Nigerian immigrant family, Olivia Wong, a Hong Kong heiress and financial analyst who is also a hacker par extraordinaire and Ken and Clive, two gay ex-cops with  a mean streak who are up for anything including murder. Overseeing them all are the smooth talking Roger Golden  and Cheryl Hughes.

The cases Ravi tackles are equally odd. The book’s title refers to the first of his cases, one in which the UK Prime. Minister- to- be complains of being forced into sex by the ghost of his dead fiancée. Other cases involve searching for a Pakistani girl from a rich family who runs away to escape an arranged marriage, an author whose books are regularly trashed by flash mobs who invade bookstores and a banker whistleblower who  fears for her life.

The author, Adi Tantimeoh, has over twenty years experience writing radio plays and TV scripts for the BBC and various Hollywood studios. He also writes graphic novels for DC comics as well as a weekly column on pop culture. All these influences show up in his writing. Her Nightly Embrace is fast paced , heavy on the action but light on  descriptions and character build -up.  The characters are larger than life, utterly unscrupulous and given to all manner of debauchery. It is fun to see them get their just desserts with a little push from Ravi and his colleagues. The book is slickly written and a fun read but one volume is enough for me. I don’t think I’ll be reading the next two which are as yet in production.

Her Nightly Embrace . Book I of the Ravi PI series. Adi Tantimeoh. Atria Books ( Simon and Schuster). Published 2016. $ 26.

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Except for the hassle of checking in and getting through airport security, flying does not bother me. Once I’m in my seat and the plane takes off, I can easily occupy myself. I always carry a book of crossword puzzles and another book, one I’ve been meaning to read. Once the plane has leveled off, I first skim through the inflight magazine and do the crossword puzzle ( if someone hasn’t already done it). Then I start on the crosswords in my book. Since I never do crosswords, except on airplane flights, I’m not very good at them. I allot myself 45 minutes or an hour for each after which I look at the solutions and fill in the answers to clues I’ve been unable to solve. Three or four puzzles, a little reading, discreetly checking out my fellow passengers and wondering what they do and where they been and where they’re going, looking out the window if I can… all these keep me engaged. Before I know it, we are being to told to return to our seats and buckle up as the plane begins its slow descent.

Because we’ve traveled so often between New York and Los Angeles, a five hour flight is something I’m accustomed to. Anything longer can get tedious. On longer flights, I spend a lot of time following the progress of our flight on the video monitor. I note the current speed, the altitude, the distance we’ve already traveled, the distance to the destination, the outside temperature and the ETA. As they keep changing, I do all sorts of mental math with the numbers. Still, there is a limit to how long I can keep myself busy. On long flights, like the 14 hour non-stop from New York to Tokyo, the last two or three hours seem interminable.

That is why I was fascinated by Pico Iyer’s account of his twelve hour flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles which he gives in his book The Art of Stillness.

The passenger next to him was a young attractive German woman who  exchanged a few friendly words with him as she settled into her seat. She then sat quietly, saying nothing , doing nothing for the rest of the flight. During that time,  Iyer himself dozed a little, dipped into his novel, checked out the options on the monitor and visited the toilet. She however never moved, wide awake but absolutely still and completely at peace. As the plane began it’s descent, Iyer asked her if she lived in L.A. She said not, that she was off for five weeks of vacation in Hawaii, a welcome respite from her stressful job as a social worker. She told Iyer that she liked to use the flight to decompress and get the stress out of her system. Thus, she could arrive at her destination relaxed and ready to enjoy her vacation.

How different this is from what most of us do. When we are on vacation, our minds are rarely still. We are constantly worrying about tickets, connections, hotel accommodations and sundry other details. Or we are worrying about things we should have done before we took off. Or we are worrying about what’s happening at the office while we are away or what awaits us when we get back. And , even in the plane, we are keeping ourselves busy with books, inflight movies, crossword puzzles and the like. We are never truly at rest.

On his next trip, from New York to California, Iyer decided to emulate his co-passenger’s example. He didn’t turn on his monitor and he didn’t read a book. As he writes, ” I didn’t even consciously try to do nothing; when an idea came to me or I recalled something I had to do back home, I pulled out a notebook and scribbled it down. The rest of the time ,I just let my mind go foraging – like a dog on a wide empty beach. ”  Iyer relates that when he arrived in L.A his mind was absolutely clear and refreshed.

We are going on a flight to Europe next month and I’m going to try this out myself. Even though the journey isn’t boring ,it can be tiring. I must admit that when we arrive at our destination I am far from refreshed. Let’s see if the anonymous German lady’s technique works for me.

P.S Just in case it doesn’t I’m taking along my crossword book.

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Ann Morgan is a Cambridge grad,  an avid reader who blogs about the books she reads. Back in 2011, she was struck by the fact that most of the books she had read were by English and North American authors. In order to correct this imbalance, she set out to read one book from each country on the globe and blog about it. It was an ambitious year long project , since it meant she would be reading and blogging about four books every week in addition to working at her job as a full time job as a journalist and taking care of her home. The World Between Two Covers is the title of the book she wrote describing the difficulties that she encountered and what she learned about the world of books and publishing; the book’s subtitle is Reading the Globe.

I must confess that when I began reading the book, I wasn’t sure about the usefulness of her project. My reasoning was that she would not get a feel for a country by just reading a single book from(about) it. The problem would be compounded in the case of large countries which are home to a variety of cultures. For example, the Indian book that she read was Kaalam by M.T Vasudevan Nair, a writer from the southernmost Indian state of Kerala who writes in Malayalam. A book set in Kerala has little in common with others set in Punjab or Bengal or Maharashtra; each state in India has its own language and is very different from the others. Even in the case of small countries, one book hardly defines its literature, its society or its customs, no matter how good it might be. When you consider that the books she read included classics, folktales, novels and short stories her mission seems even more quixotic.

I was mistaken.

Reading one book per country may not give you a clear picture of the country or its society but, taken in the aggregate, it gives you a clearer picture of the world we live in. The World Between Two Covers is a compelling book that covers many different subjects. Some of the topics she covers:
How Culture skews our impression of the world and our place in it.
Cultural identity and the problem of authenticity.
The dominance of the English language.
The difficulty of becoming a published writer if you don’t write in English and/or are not from the UK or the US.
The Internet and the rising tide of self publishing.
Oral narratives and the difficulty of getting them down in writing.
Censorship. propaganda and exiled writers.
And many more…

What started Ann Morgan on this journey was the preponderance of books published in English. I had known English was the world’s dominant language but not the extent of its primacy. On a trip to Jamaica some years ago, I entered a bookshop looking for a book on West Indies cricket. To my surprise, there was not a single book published locally; every single one was imported, mostly from England. No wonder the famous writers the Caribbean has produced ( V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid to name a few) are all expatriates. As English consolidates its position, other languages are losing ground. Of the 6,000 tongues spoken in the world today, it is estimated that 90% are in danger of extinction. Morgan quotes an expert who gives this saddening statistic:” … every two weeks, the last speaker of a fading language dies”.

It is heartening to read of the help Ann Morgan received from different people, many of them strangers who came to know of her endeavor through her blog. People whom she had never met were generous in helping her obtain books from little known countries. Finding titles from countries like Burkina Faso, Benin, South Sudan or North Korea would have been next to impossible without such helpers. In many cases, they made recommendations. Sometimes they gifted their own copies. In one case, they even helped by translate the book into English. There is a camaraderie among book lovers and , perhaps, Ann Morgan’s benefactors recognized in her a kindred spirit.

A book about topics such as reading, language, censorship and publishing can very easily become tedious. Not this one. Morgan writes extremely well and tosses in the odd fact that keeps the reader engaged. Who knew for instance that the puritanical US postal inspector Anthony Comstock was aided in his censorship efforts by the YMCA which gave him $ 8,500 ( a huge sum in 1872)? Or that James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered the finest novel of the 20th century, might not have seen the light of day except for the efforts of Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company? I certainly didn’t.

Morgan has a light touch and a way with words. As a young child, she saw protesters burning piles of Salman Rushdie’s ” Satanic Verses” and it left a deep impression on her. A few years later when she was still in her early teens, she used her precious pocket-money to buy a copy of the book. Alas, she was in for a disappointment. In her words, ” … I pushed myself on to the final page with the same sense of duty that I applied to Brussels sprouts on Christmas Day: the thing just had to be got through.” (LOL)

At the end of the book, Morgan gives a list of the 197 books that she read. If you want to know what she felt about each of those books you can read about them on her blog ayearofreadingtheworld.com. It would be interesting to know how she feels about a certain title and I plan to dip into her blog now and again. Whether you do or not, you might want to read The World Between Two Covers. It is an interesting book on many levels and your time would be well spent.

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Who can resist a book with the title The Top Ten Things Dead People Want To Tell You ? Not me. Even before I read that 70% of the responders on the Amazon had given it a five-star rating I knew that I wanted to read it.

I have never been more disappointed in a book. It’s title is  the best thing , perhaps the only good thing, about it.

The book is written by Mike Dooley, a former tax consultant turned entrepreneur. He is the author of two previous best sellers and the founder of Notes from the Universe, an uplifting daily free e-mail that goes out to over 700,000 subscribers. The central premise of Dooley’s book is that when people die they ascend to a happy place where their every need is fulfilled. However, these dead souls still retain their attachments to those they left behind and follow the fortunes of their loved ones on earth. The Top Ten things are what Dooley imagines they want to pass on to those they love. Dooley doesn’t offer any proof of this premise; he says he just knows this is true. Some readers object to this postulate; they seem to have thought that Dooley would use the actual experiences of people in writing this book. I am not one of them. In saying” I know. Just trust me.”, Dooley is not doing any different from all the major religions. They too do not offer any proof for their beliefs.

My problem is with the rest of Dooley’s assumptions. He tells us that everyone, regardless of whether they were saints or sinners goes to the same place, even the scum of the earth. The only punishment is the knowledge of what they have done during their earthly lives and the guilt for their actions on earth. The idea that there is no other retribution for one’s sins is difficult for me to swallow. Also problematic is his belief that all of those who have died yearn to come back to earth and particularly the idea that they choose the identities they will assume in their next incarnation. Perhaps eternity can be boring, perhaps souls want to return to an earthly existence to experience things but why would they want to choose anything but comfortable, positive environments. Why would anyone choose to be born desperately poor or physically handicapped?

I must confess that I skimmed the latter half of the book. The writing is so annoyingly saccharine, so relentlessly rah-rah, so full of fluff that I just could not will myself to read it more thoroughly. The Top Ten Things are far from earthshaking and are little more than platitudes. Number 8 for instance is ” Life is More Than Fair” and Number 10 is ” Love is the Way, truth is the Path”. You will have to read the book if you want to know the other eight but I don’t think it is worth your while. Trying to read this book is like opening a beautifully wrapped gift box only to discover that it is empty.

Why did so many readers find this book great? Perhaps it is the idea that the departed are in the other world still watching out for us, loving us. It is a comforting thought; many of us have surely felt that someone is watching out for us when we fortuitously overcome problems. It also helps explain why , at the moment of death, not a few people call out to their long dead mothers.

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Towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, there is a famous often quoted passage which runs as follows:

” Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes  before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter __ tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our hands farther…. And one fine morning _________ “

That extra – long dash at the end of the final sentence fragment has been subjected to much scholarly analysis and interpretation. All kinds of meanings have been read into it. Some critics have even suggested that it represents the end of Gatsby’s own dock, the one where we see him at the end of Chapter 1, stretching out his arms to Daisy Buchanan’s dock across Long Island Sound. They postulate that if ” we run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, we will one day , inevitably, fall off the end of the dock and drown, just as Gatsby drowns in his pool.

When I first read about this interpretation, I thought to myself ” How can anyone read so much into a dash, no matter how long it is? ” Fitzgerald’s writing is often deliberately vague and larded with symbols and it has spawned a veritable cottage industry of analysis and comment. However, this particular suggestion, I thought, was too fanciful, the product of an over active imagination.

Then, by the merest chance, I read a review of Saul Bellow’s collected non-fiction in the New York Times Sunday Review of April 27th.  In the review, Martin Amis reproduces a passage from  Bellow’s ” Deep Readers of the World, Beware’ ( 1959). In it, Bellow imagines the following classroom conversation:

” Why , sir” the student wonders, ” does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy? … Well, you see, sir, the ‘ Iliad ‘ is full of circles – shields, chariot wheels, and other round figures. And, you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all made for geometry.”

” Bless your crew-cut, head” the professor replies, ” for such a beautiful thought. Your approach is both deep and serious.Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.”

Amis adds “ Critics should cleave to the human element and not just laminate the text with additional obscurities“.

I couldn’t agree more.

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