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Fascinating Chennai

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Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began - Bishwanath Ghosh, book reviewA city is a lot like a woman. You may fall for it because of a certain physical attribute — the eyes, the smile, the dimple…That is how Bishwanath Ghosh looks at Chennai in his Tamarind City. It’s an odd combination, a Bengali who grew up in Kanpur moving to Chennai because at some point in time his parents had lived in the city and had fond memories of it. However from that arbitrary decision to move to Chennai from Delhi, came one of the first histories of Chennai – not so much a history in the timeline sense, though Ghosh does talk about how the British set foot in Madras and bought land in Masulipatam – but a history that shifts from physical attributes to spiritual to iconic in an attempt to capture the many realities of Chennai.


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The Library Book

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The Library BookLibraries have always played a significant role in my life. Until she retired when I was at university, my mother worked in our town’s central library and had done so for many years. She took me to it on a regular basis from an early age, and I was on first name terms with most of the staff who worked there. She occasionally had to go out and run one of the tiny branch libraries that lay in small villages miles away (so small they opened for just a few hours a week with just one member of staff); if one of these shifts came up in the school holidays, I went with her. Strange as it must seem now, I rather looked forward to these trips.

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The More You Give, the More You will Get Back

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I Have a Dream, Rashmi Bansal, book reviewIt is a truth universally acknowledged that self help books are the trend of the day because they encourage others to dream. Rashmi Bansal has put together a handy collection of the realized dreams of 20 social entrepreneurs to serve as examples for others to follow. The entrepreneurs are clubbed in 3 groups: “rainmakers”, “changemakers”, and “the spiritual capitalist”, with individual chapters which have admittedly intriguing titles like ‘The Girl in the Mirror’, “Soul Food’ and ‘Lead Kindly Light’, to mention a few.

Bansal takes Martin Luther King’s famous speech of August 1963 as the starting point for her book, though she is quick to point out that the people she has chosen ‘are …not Mother Teresa.


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Toilets of the World

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Toilets of the World , Morna E. Gregory, By (author) Sian James, book reviewAround Christmas time the bookshelves of the nation groan under the weight of books targeting the ‘difficult relative’ market; those people you have to buy for but don’t really know well enough to know what to give. People seem to think books are safe but rather boring and that may well be true if you get the wrong one. I’d like to make a recommendation for the perfect book for a friend or relative who’s not the type to sit and read a book from start to finish, who likes a book to dip in and out of and the type who likes lots of pictures and a chance to be fascinated by how other people ‘do’ things. In short, this is the perfect present for the person who likes to do their reading in the ‘smallest room’. Toilets of the World by Morna E Gregory and Sian James will fascinate, horrify and entertain in equal measure and will certainly beat that 15 year old copy of the Guinness Book of Records that’s been stuffed behind the U-bend for the last ten years.

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How To Be a Woman

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How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran, book reviewHow To Be a Woman may seem an oddly titled book for a 33 year old woman to be reading – surely with 33 years of practice I must have figured it out by now? Yet despite this ample experience, being a woman is something I feel I’m a bit rubbish at. I only own one dress (the one I got married in, never to be worn again). I only own one pair of heels that I can’t walk in (putting me apparently way below average on this count). I never wear, and never have worn, make-up (not even on my wedding day – I drew the line at having to wear a frock). I don’t have a handbag, either (why would I need one when I have a perfectly serviceable rucksack and pockets in my clothes?). And the biggest failing of all – I don’t want babies.

How To Be a Woman is described as being part rant, part memoir, and part The Female Eunuch rewritten “from a barstool”. Yes, that’s right: a lot of How To Be a Woman is about FEMINISM. Before a lot of you flee before the very mention of this word, let me say that Moran is far from being one of those scary, aggressive men-hating feminists


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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, book reviewAmerica has long been billed as the land of opportunity, a place where the streets are paved with gold and anyone who is prepared to work hard enough can buy themselves a part of the American dream. “I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work’ was the secret of success,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes. “No one ever said that you could work hard – harder even than you thought possible – and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”

On 22nd August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought about major welfare reform in the US. Couched in terms of promoting a work ethic amongst those in receipt of welfare payments, this act brought about significant change to the American poor, removing any automatic entitlement to payouts and restricting any that were received to a lifetime limit of five years. This reform meant that almost overnight, 4 million women (many of them with children) had to enter the work force in low-paid entry level jobs.


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Aids Sutra

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Aids Sutra: Untold Stories from India,  Prashant PanjiarI suspect that many people think that a ‘sutra’ is a smutty book due to the only one they’ve ever heard of being the ancient guide to sex known as the Kama Sutra. That’s not the case. Sutra is a Sanskrit word which means a wise saying or aphorism or a collection of such things. In the case of the two sutras I’ve read – Gita Mehta’s River Sutra and the book I’m reviewing here, AIDS Sutra – the term is used more broadly to mean a collection of short essays or stories. The closest suggestion I could give for the word would be ‘Anthology’.

AIDS Sutra was published in 2008 and was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and they open the book with an introduction and a ‘thank you’ to the writers whose work follows. In the introductory chapter, written by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, we learn that nobody’s too sure exactly how many cases of AIDS and HIV there are in India but best estimates put the figure at something like 3 million – just imagine 3 million people living under the shadow of a disease which could be treated and controlled if they lived in a country with greater affluence and access to Anti-Retroviral drugs and without the societal constraints that prevent many sufferers from seeking treatment.


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The Murder Room

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The Murder Room: In Which Three of the Greatest Detectives Use Forensic Science to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases,  Michael Capuzzo, book reviewTwenty years ago, three uniquely talented men decided that there was far too much unsolved crime in the world, and set out to use their talents to do something about it. Put like that, this sounds like a story about a batman-style avenger of the wronged, but the true tale of The Murder Room is something altogether more remarkable. These three men – a former FBI agent, a forensic artist and a criminal profiler – are the founder members of the Vidocq Society, a pro bono crime-fighting society based in Philadelphia, named in honour of Eugene Vidocq, the head of the first known private detective agency. The Society is little publicised but has done a huge amount of valuable work over the years.


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The Damnation of John Donellan

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The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death & Scandal in Georgian EnglandWarwickshire, August 1780.

Deep in the countryside near Rugby stands the Tudor manor house of Lawford Hall, occupied this summer by Sir Theodosius Boughton, his mother Anna Maria, his sister Theodosia, brother-in-law John Donellan, the Donellans’ two young children, and a handful of servants. It is early in the morning of 30th August and something is about to happen that will bring notoriety and scandal to the Boughton household.

Sir Theodosius, aged 20 and suffering from venereal disease he contracted at Eton some five years earlier, has just woken and is visited in his bedchamber by his mother. Anna Maria was keen for her son to take the medicine made up for him by the local apothecary Mr Powell in the hope that it might cure him; he, on the other hand, seems reluctant to take it as a dose he received from the same man the previous week made him ill.


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Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland

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Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, David Rose, book review“Animal in Bed. Probably a Gnu”

Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland is a collection of personal ads placed in the London Review of Books which have been gathered together by David Rose, the editor of the journal’s lonely hearts column for many years. The collection contains examples that are typically laugh-out-loud hilarious, often sad, sometimes so ambiguous as to represent a waste of the advertisers money and frequently deeply troubling. Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland opens a window on the psyche of a sub-group of book-loving, self-deprecating intellectual snobs who clearly make up the advertising readership of the London Review of Books.


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Beautiful Thing – Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars

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Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars , Sonia Faleiro, book reviewBeautiful Thing – Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro is a remarkable documentary account of a few years in the life of Leela, a dancer in a Mumbai dance bar, her friends, her clients and her co-workers. It’s a life set on the wrong side of the tracks which reveals the power of friendship, honour and companionship that belies the sordid surroundings. Even more remarkable is the friendship between Leela and the writer which offers Faleiro an opportunity to go where few writers would be able to and at considerable risk to her own health and personal safety.

I’ve long been aware of the shady world of the Mumbai dance bars because I was in Mumbai in 2005 on a business trip at the time of the crackdown which is described in the book. The local papers were full of the news of the closure of the dance bars and I asked a local colleague what it was all about.

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Playing the Game

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The Winning Way, Anita and Harsha Bhogle , book reviewSports and management have been joining hands in India ever since companies like Tata Steel started hiring cricketers and built a sports stadium in Jamshedpur. ‘Sports is a way of life’ was one of their corporate mottos. What does that have to do with Harsha and Anita Bhogle’s first book? Quite a lot because while many people feel that sport has no relationship to management, it actually shares quite a few values and sports terminology has crept insidiously into management jargon. According to the Tata Steel ethos, good sportsmen make good citizens.

What does sport have in common with management? Quite a few things – most sports rely on teamwork and leadership and so does management.

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