Biases in Biographies

The book next on my reading list is Ravindra Kavita Kanan by Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. Its a book length essay on poems of the Nobel Laureate Ravindra Nath Tagore. Its very interesting as Nirala was a great poet himself.

He isn’t afraid to express his own opinions and that comes as a joy. Sample this:

अंकुर को देख कर उसके भविष्य-विस्तार के सम्बन्ध में अनुमान लगाना निरर्थक होता है | क्योंकि प्रायः सब अंकुर एक ही तरह के होते हैं | उनमें होनहार कौन है और कौन नहीं, यह बतलाना जरा मुश्किल है | इसी तरह, वर्तमान के महाकवि को उनके बालपन की क्रीड़ाएं देख कर पहचान लेना, उनके भविष्य के सम्बन्ध में सार्थक कल्पना करना, असंभव है | क्योंकि उनके बालपन में कोई ऐसी विचित्रता नहीं मिलती, जिससे यौवन-काल की महत्ता सूचित हो | जो लोग वर्त्तमान के साथ अतीत की श्रृंखला जोड़ते हैं, वे वर्त्तमान को देख कर ही उसके अनुकूल अतीत की युक्तियाँ रखते हैं |

I posted that in original Hindi. To translate, he says that it is impossible to look at a child and to predict the later greatness. There is a selection bias at play when people extrapolate the current greatness to events in childhood. He also says it poetically: All seeds are similar.

This is very different from the usual biographies written by journalists. There is an examination of the early years to show how the great person was different even in early years. Nirala clearly didn’t feel the compulsions that a Journalist does.

Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

 

 

I cringed many times as I read through this book – there are parts which are more of a hagiography than a biography. It was expected as some of the reviews pointed out that book is written by a fan boy. However, by the end of the book, I came to a different conclusion. Vance is playing to the galleries. Elon Musk is an awe inspiring figure for many. Vance is looking to sell his book to the same crowd. So, he paints the picture that his audience wants – with some warts.

However, there is sufficient information in the book that can allow a reader to draw her own conclusions. I particularly love the appendices. Vance needs to be credited for leaving Musk’s statements as they were.

This book does a good job of painting a picture of how Musk is – Driven, analytical, hard working, brusque etc. It also does a good job of unearthing details of his childhood which had a bearing on how he came to be.

However, it does a poor job of telling us how he made SpaceX and Tesla to their current positions. There are hints throughout: hard work and hard drive, working from basic physics up, setting up clear targets, focus on what to do with setbacks rather than allocating blame, hiring and retaining great talent etc. But that is not the main narrative. The narrative is that of the person rather than his amazing work. In that, this book is a bit disappointing. It still doesn’t explain well enough why Musk succeeded where others failed. It doesn’t come anywhere near explaining how he did it two times – simultaneously!

5 Fantasy fiction books I am eagerly waiting for

I love fantasy fiction.

A part of my love is because it’s fantasy. There is a world very different from our own – the laws of physics are different or simply give precedence to magic. There are creatures and phenomenon which are interesting to imagine and to think through.  At the same time, there is a high degree of internal consistency and that appeals to the part of mind that likes coherence. In short, there is a break from the familiar.

Another part of my love is because the characters remain human no matter how fantastic their powers may be. There is a struggle that the main character(s) go through – against their own failings, other people, situations, society/political systems etc. Each of these struggles is familiar in a some way and there is a takeaway from them for my own life. In short, there is something intensely familiar.

Still another part of my love is the scale of these books. Some of are massive epics, where the detail of the world building is awe inspiring. Tolkein, GRRM, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordon are some names that jump to my mind when I think of amazing detailing. But what also stands out is the scale of the crisis – world at risk/freedom at risk/country at risk etc. Such stories tug at imagination like a gale force wind.

So, over time I have read a fairly large number of fantasy fiction books of various kinds. Many of them are favorites. Most of them are series of books that are long done and I could go from the first to last without any interruption. For eg the Wheel of time series. But, some of them are ongoing series and I have been waiting eagerly for the next installment in the tale. Each one of them is a fantastic book series that I would recommend highly. Here I list 5 and also note down why I am eager to read the next book. I have linked each one of these to their Goodread’s page. Each of them has a high rating even before it’s released! That just goes to show how eagerly many people are waiting for these books.

The first two books stand out for the fast pace of action:

The Last Metal: This is a continuation of the fantastic Mistborn series. I rate the first book as one of the best fantasy books ever. It built into a great three book series. Its extension into the next three books is not so great. Still, they have been good page turners. The magic world is colliding with the science world and a sheriff like character is keeping a watch at the interface. Keeping his side is a muscleman who makes very interesting “trades”. The last book promises a climax where this clash gets resolved. Not a book that I would line up to buy but would certainly be on my weekend reading list, the moment it gets released.

Peace Talks: Another Sheriff and this time keeping an eye on the interface between our world and the magical world. Harry Dresden is indefatigable – no matter how hard he is hit, he keeps taking it until he hits back. Think Rocky with a magic duster and s staff. Each novel throws up a harder challenge than the last and Harry rustles up something to better it. Another page turner that doesn’t disappoint.

The next three belong to a different orbit. The characters are deep. The struggles are portrayed deeply. And more than one character is shown deeply. If the first two were akin to pulp fiction, these are like literature.

Door’s of Stone: Hopefully, this will be end of the whirlwind that started with the Name of the wind. It was a debut novel that put the author in the same league as the best authors of the genre. It’s a coming of age story just like Harry Potter but this isn’t young adult fiction but fiction for grown ups. The plot moves at a good pace, the characters are deep and flawed and the setting is complex. It’s a gripping series and the third instalment is eagerly awaited. It currently ranks as the second most awaited book. That is no mean feat considering that the most awaited book has gotten a lot of publicity due to the TV series based on its series. This, in comparison, is still a relatively unknown gem.

Fool’s Quest: Robin Hobb is the best author I have read when it comes to detailing a character. The first person accounts of the lead character, Fitz, can get down to an agonizing second. And now there is another lead character, Bee, who is again very deep. If you liked Tolkein for the entire world he created, you would love Hobb for the entire inner world of the characters she paints. It is so excruciatingly detailed that you will feel every ache of the characters. This book is actually already published and I just got it. No long wait for this one.

Oathbringer: I started this list by one book by Brandon Sanderson and now finishing with another one of his. This will be the third book in a series and hopefully the last in the trilogy. Lots of rich and deep characters. Lots of actions and twists and turns. Sanderson takes another aspect of nature and infuses humans with it – just like the Mistborn series. The big difference between this and the first book in the list is that this one seems to have a lot more life in it. Mistborn series is starting to drag and coming to an end. This one is yet to peak.

So, there you have it. The best 5 upcoming books as I see them.

A noticeable absence is that of GRR Martin’s books. Those books are great too. I went through the first two with gusto and then paused having realised that the series is far from over. I couldn’t bear to wait for the next one after finishing the third one. So, I just stopped. I will wait until the series ends before starting from the beginning.

Which books are you waiting for?

 

Review: Dare to Run

Dare to RunDare to Run by Amit Sheth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love books which share the author’s experiences authentically. Dare to run is a compilation of essays that Amit wrote in his journey from a novice runner who couldn’t run beyond a few meters to an ultramarathoner who finished the 89KM long Comrades that happens over a hilly terrain.

As a runner, I could identify with and feel strongly about several episodes. The self doubt that comes up in the first few days of running; the pain and shame of not finishing, the joy of crossing the finish line – Amit describes them all so well. The bit about crossing the Comarades 2010 finish line with the Indian flag was particularly moving and brought tears to my eyes.

Amit also shares his thoughts that came to him as he ran his long runs and races. It essentially underlines that running a marathon is a personal journey and struggle. Amit’s philosophical musings are his personal ways of looking at the struggle and he shares very generously. Amit also talks about how long distance running changes one’s life – social life changes, food habits change, priorities change. This again is true for many runners and this is the first time I’ve seen a runner’s account of this aspect.

Somehow, some of the parts do not gel into the book. For example there is more description of Dublin rather than the Dublin marathon. It stands out as there is hardly any link between the run and description of the place. The same disconnect is not felt for the essay on Florence marathon because the description of David etc gels in with the run and becomes a Runner’s experience which is what I expect from a book with a title like “Dare to run”. For the other bits, I’d turn elsewhere. For this reason, I’d give only 4 stars and not 5.

Overall: Good read for long distance runners anywhere and particularly in India. I also think that its an important book. As marathons in particular and sports in general bring in more participation in India, there is acute need for personal stories like these which inspire us. I hope that the recent commonwealth games winners also publish their stories.

Review: Keep off the Grass

Keep off the GrassKeep off the Grass by Karan Bajaj

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. Its quite well written. A line about books, from the book itself, describes the content the best – “someone, somewhere thinks exactly like you – and articulates it better”. In terms of style, the prose flows well and easy to read. I think Karan has done a great job in his first book.

I loved the book also because Karan has based several of the characters in the book on the real people who were our classmates at IIM B. In fact, the name of one of them is not even disguised! Also some of the incidents are borrowed from actual history as well. I smiled to myself many times just because I could remember or imagine the actual people saying stuff that they say in the book.

On the whole, it was a personal trip for me. So, I’m not sure that someone else would have the same experience as I did and would probably rate the book a tad lower.

Wholeheartedly recommended to all PGP 2002 folks – particularly those who were in section B. Well worth a read to others as well.