Siddhant Pyasi

Books I read in 2018

Jan 24, 2018 | Read time: 11 min | 2154 words

Since the 1st of January, these are the books I’ve read:

Aaron Cohen - A Brotherhood of Warriors

The story of a man who chose to leave Beverly Hills to become a soldier in the Duvdevan, Israel’s elite counterterrorism force. A very matter-of-fact description of how Israel deals with terrorism, interspersed with the author’s thoughts on his home situation and why he left the US to become a combatant in the IDF. Cohen drives Israel’s counter-terrorism policy’s central point home, a point best stated by Moshe Dayan

We could not guard every water pipeline from being blown up and every tree from being uprooted. We could not prevent every murder of a worker in an orchard or a family in their beds. But it was in our power to set high price for our blood, a price too high for the Arab community, the Arab army, or the Arab governments to think it worth paying. . . It was in our power to cause the Arab governments to renounce ‘the policy of strength’ toward Israel by turning it into a demonstration of weakness.

Rishi Kapoor - Khullam Khulla

A memoir by one of Bollywood’s most storied actors, makes for nice reading. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d seen the movies he talks about.

J.D. Vance - Hillbilly Elegy

An account of the author’s early life in Appalachia - the social and economic conditions prevalent there, something he feels led to the election of Donald Trump.

Sir Mark Tully - No Full Stops in India

A book that analyses India from the eyes of someone who once belonged to the ruling class. Each chapter is about a certain period in independent India’s history. It also includes a delightful (and accurate, I feel) description of the Jabalpur I returned to every summer for the first 17 years of my life. 10/10 would read again.

Norman Dixon - On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

Quite a lengthy book, and it took me a while to go through it. By the time you’re done with it, the author’s thesis becomes quite clear. Physical courage is quite different from moral courage, and what is expected of an armed force’s higher leadership in wartime is the latter, not the former. Dixon describes several campaigns that were disastrous in their outcome, and in each what’s common is the absence of moral courage in the higher leadership.

Tom Wolfe - The Right Stuff

A look into America’s astronaut corps, the pioneers of space exploration. These were the men who came up through the pilot pipeline in the military, where hundreds of candidates do not make it to the next stage, simply because they do not have “the right stuff”.

Admiral William H. McRaven - Make Your Bed

This book follows from the Admiral’s commencement speech, sprinkled with quite a few inspiring anecdotes.

Kevin Kwan - Crazy Rich Asians

Decided to read it after watching the trailer and thinking, “WTF is this movie”.

Kevin Kwan - China Rich Girlfriend

The first book was, lets face it, unputdownable - I finished it in a day. Then I read this one. Finished it in a day as well, then felt that such an attachment to a book series was unhealthy. So, I resolved to not read the third book.

Kevin Kwan - Rich People Problems

Caved in a day later - read this one and breathed a sigh of relief, thanking my stars there weren’t any other in the series. Good series, though.

Coomi Kapoor - The Emergency: A Personal History

An account of the emergency from a preeminent journalist, whose house was a hotbed of anti-emergency activities. Her husband went to jail, while her brother-in-law (the venerable Subramanian Swamy) was forced into exile in the US (from where he returned in a Robin Hood-esque fashion, to mark his attendance in Parliament, and move a point of order, asking for the insertion of an obituary reference to democracy as the Speaker read out obituaries; he escaped before anyone could figure out what the hell happened).

B. Raman - The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Law

An account of the R&AW by one of its own, someone who’s seen it from the time it was born in 1968. A prolific writer, who contributed to various fora, one of which was the South Asia Analysis Group.

Andrew Ross Sorkin - Too Big To Fail

I think the movie was based on this book, and I saw the movie way back in 2015. To be honest, the story was a lot better in the book than in the movie. But I thought the book became a little stretched towards the end, or maybe I’ve read too much about the financial crisis.

Michael Lewis - Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Like every one of Lewis’ books, this one’s a page-turner. Chilling, yes, but a page turner - after all, one doesn’t imagine that some day governments of decent-sized countries will be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Jack Schwager - Hedge Fund Market Wizards

You’ll see that the books I read now will have taken a much more “finance-ey” turn. I loved reading it, and I think I’m gonna read the original and the second one, too.

David Bellavia - House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

A breathtaking account of the Second Battle of Fallujah at the unit level, where Bellavia won a Silver Star. Masterfully written, I finished it in a day - wasn’t able to put it down, even to eat my meals.

Alex Honnold - Alone On The Wall

My interest in Alex Honnold came about when Mark Synnott came down to Northeastern to talk about Alex’s free solo up El Capitan. Mark, in fact, was at the bottom of El Capitan the day Alex climbed it, and he wrote the Nat Geo article I’ve linked to before. “Alone on the Wall” is the kind of book that makes you re-evaluate your priorities in life. It gives you an idea of what guides climbers like Alex, how they keep working at their craft, and just how mad they have to be to continue doing it. Its the kind of book I’ll definitely come back to, sometime in the future.

Khushwant Singh - Truth, Love and a Little Malice

Written in typical Khushwant Singh fashion - a breezy, been-there-done-that kind of account about the life of India’s most famous joke book compiler, who also wrote a masterful history of the Sikhs, and edited The Hindustan Times. He was also, at different times, a lawyer, a diplomat, and a UNESCO employee. The bit below was my favourite, which describes what was going on in Khushwant Singh’s mind at the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, having bought tickets to see a movie

I was torn with conflict in my mind. Was it right to see the world’s greatest sex symbol while Bapu lay dead in Delhi? Ultimately, we decided to go to the theatre.

S. Hussain Zaidi - Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts

Read this around the time Sanju came out, to try and get an idea of the sequence of events of the 1993 blasts. Learnt about how the case was cracked, and about Sanjay Dutt’s involvement, among other things.

Daniel H. Pink - The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need

Johnny Bunko is your typical cubicle-bound employee who has no idea of what to do with life, until a fairy comes to him and gives him tips on how to think about his future. She gives him 6 rules to live by; the one I liked the most was Think strengths, not weaknesses, ie, be the master of one trade, as opposed to being the jack of all.

In fact, this one ties in with the Israeli Special Forces (SF) philosophy that was explained by Aaron Cohen in his book (the first one I read this year) - he says that in Israel, they know that each SF operator has a particular talent, and they get them to work on those, as opposed to making them all-rounders, something that happens in the US SF.

Walter Isaacson - Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Ben Franklin is remembered as the genial, Albus Dumbledore (minus the beard) type figure that you see peering at you from a $100 bill. I got this book on the 27th of August, so it took me about a month to complete it, and since I’ve started reading it, Ben Franklin has become my god. And why wouldn’t he be? The man clearly knew how to dabble. He invented the lightning rod and the bifocal glasses. He improved upon electrical storage batteries and was an early pioneer of using electricity to fry chicken turkey. He figured out the gulf stream, thereby reducing trans-Atlantic travel times by atleast a week. And he came up with several aphorisms, one of which was “early to bed and early to rise makes a man …”, because of which he has the honour of being remembered by Mark Twain as follows

(Franklin) prostituted his talents to the invention of maxims and aphorisms calculated to inflict suffering upon the rising generation of all subsequent ages…boys who might otherwise have been very happy.

Truly my kind of guy.

Shiv Kunal Verma - 1962: The War That Wasn’t

An account of the 1962 debacle. Like in The Psychology of Military Incompetence, it is quite clear that this turn of events was because of a lack of moral courage on the part of the Army’s senior leadership. Physical courage was shown by our men, as it always is, time and time again. It is only towards the end, when people began to realise that the war at NEFA was lost, did they lose physical courage as well.
It also describes the bravery of several officers and men, which went unnoticed at the time of giving out gallantry awards, showing that our system for awarding gallantry is kinda broken. And of course, the author begins the book with these haunting lines

We died, unsuccoured, helpless
We were your soldiers, men of bravery and pride
Yet we died like animals, trapped in a cage with no escape
Massacred at will, denied the dignity of battle
With the cold burning flame of anger and resolution
With the courage both of the living and the dead

Our unplayed lives
Redeem the unredeemable sacrifice
In freedom and integrity
Let this be your inheritance
And our unwritten epitaph

from Harji Malik’s poem, ‘Nam Ka Chu: October 1962’

Angela Duckworth - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Angela Duckworth uses her experiences at neuroscience research, management consulting at McKinsey and teaching high school kids Maths to illustrate one basic point - long term success is a function of crazy perseverance and passion, that’s all. There’s no “genius”, who’ll walk in the room and wow all the elders - if there is, then you don’t see the amount of work they’ve put in, and the passion they have for the subject.

Repetitive practise is of NO USE AT ALL, unless you practise with a goal in sight, ie, do what’s called deliberate practise. This is what chess players do, and musicians do, and all those who want to get somewhere in life do. Deliberate practise is what counts, that’s all.

Adam Kay - This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

A look into the Britain’s NHS, from a jaded doctor who left the service for warmer climes. This book is of the laugh-out-loud funny variety, packs just enough sensible material in it to make it a book that I can recommend to others.

Abhinav Chandrachud - Supreme Whispers: Conversations With Judges of the Supreme Court of India

Imagine a Supreme Court justice writing a tell-all memoir. Now imagine 66 of them doing so, with their opinions neatly catalogued by a very dedicated chap under different sections, so you can see how their opinions affected Indian jurisprudence. Reading it made me feel like I was a fly on the wall of the Supreme Court’s ante rooms, lunch rooms, and justices’ chambers, which helped make legal luminaries a lot more human in my perception. Most importantly, I learnt about how appointments were made to the courts (tussles between the judiciary and the executive are nothing new, they’ve been around since Independence).

Lt Gen Yoginder Sharma - Musings of a Military Maverick

Lt Gen Sharma lost a leg in the ‘71 war, yet rose to be Central Army Commander, the highest rung one could hope for. The book makes for interesting reading, as he’s had a long and eventful career, serving all over India.

To conclude, I read 26 books in 2018, at a very healthy rate of 1 book every 2 weeks. Lets see if I can replicate this in 2019!

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