Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: The Cossacks

An Artists view of Olenin proposing to Maryanka (Source:
Dmitry Olenin is young, single, rich and bored of his civilian life in Moscow. He is in the search of purpose of his life and wonders if he will ever be able to love any one in his life. In the conquest to find fulfilment he joins the Russian army, gets posted to the picturesque Caucasian hills where a community named Cossacks live.

Olenin begins to like the place, becomes close to an elderly Cossacks person Eroshka joining him on hunting expeditions. He falls in love with a village girl Maryanka whose marriage is proposed with another Cossack Lukashka who lives in the same village. Olenin is jealous of Lukashka but yet makes friendship with him, gifts him a horse generously. Despite knowing Maryanka’s marriage is already proposed, Olenin expresses his love to her and requests her to marry him. Maryanka puts off the decision. Meanwhile in a fight with Chechens, Lukashka gets killed and after this incident Maryanka rejects Olenin firmly. Dejected Olenin leaves the place but Eroshka and Maryanka do not seem to bother.

This short novel of Leo Tolstoy was published in 1863. This was one of his earlier works published well before his popular novel War and Peace. While the plot of the novel looks simple, the flow of the story, characterization, examining human nature reveals Tolstoy in the making. The emotional experience a reader goes through reading Tolstoy’s novel cannot be captured through a book review and is best experienced through first hand reading.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: Why Nations Fail

This book is about inequality and why few nations prosper and others remain in poverty. The main thesis of the authors is that ‘nations fail because their extractive economic institutions do not create the incentives needed for people to save, invest, and innovate’. And the nations which had inclusive economic institutions prospered.

Authors define inclusive economic institutions as those help in maintain law and order, secure property rights, provide public services and regulation for markets, open to relatively free entry of new businesses, and opportunity for the great majority of citizens. And these economic institutions need to be supported by political institutions which allow broader participation of public in economic growth and place constraints and checks on politicians and rule of law.

If growth comes with inclusive institutions, why there are fewer nations which have such a system and why are extractive institutions so prevalent throughout history and even today? Authors present case studies from history to evaluate the reasons and find that it is the political power concentrated in fewer hands and their fear of losing it out is the major barrier against the emergence of inclusive institutions. Consequently, even though growth is possible under extractive institutions, this will not be sustained growth. But history is not destiny. Political revolutions and civil wars, if they are successful, will lead to reforms aiding inclusive growth bringing prosperity for the nation.

This is a well written book on recent world economic history. While you understand why nations fail reading this intriguing book, you will also know the reasons for prosperity. And that inequality is not a problem which will go away on its own.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: Hampi Express and Mohanaswamy (Short story collections in Kannada)

Hampi Express is a collection of seven stories. The first story is about the traditional beliefs of an orthodox family but in a funny style. The second story is about parrots turning red in the background of evils brought in by rampant mining in Bellary. Next story is about lives of people living in a large apartment complex in Bangalore and social networking sites becoming their platform for their gossips and venting out their ire on each other.

All of the stories in this book are set either in Bellary which is author Vasudhendra’s native or in Bangalore where author lives at currently.

Mohanaswamy has eleven stories in it. The first six are about Mohanaswamy who is a homosexual. Rests of them are unrelated to this theme. There is a story on the contradictions of life faced by those employed in IT industry.  Another story shows how a person can invite a crime by exposing oneself on a social networking site. One more is retelling a sequence from Mahabharata through Draupadi.

Though these are fiction, they are not far from reality. All of them have biographical appeal. Vasudhendra is no doubt a treat to Kannada readers of current generation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: The rise and fall of Bear Stearns

This is the biography of Alan Greenberg and also of the investment firm he did run, Bear Stearns. The credit crisis of 2008 led to collapse of Bear Sterns and it was taken over by JPMorgan. Bear Sterns was already eight decades old company by then and it had survived many crisis Wall Street had seen including the dot com bust. But the sequence of events and the situations they got into during the crisis of 2008 made the executives of Bear Stearns run out of options and watch helplessly fallout of their company and market capital of their firm melting away into thin air.

The first few chapters are about the childhood days of Alan Greenberg growing up as a sportsman, and learning business fundamentals from his father. A small town boy ends up in Wall Street with a grand plan and rises to the position of CEO and Chairman of Bear Stearns. Later chapters are about the nuances of investment world. He also takes digs at the people he worked with at Bear Sterns. And the final portion of the book is about the downfall of Bear Stearns. Even though he was retired from the post of CEO during the time of crisis, he makes every attempt to keep the firm afloat but they do not yield expected results.

This is a straight through and honest assessment of the company, industry and the people he worked with. And the book has lots of common sense lessons about risk management and human behavior.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: Cotton – The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

A thousand years ago cotton clothes were the visible differentiation between a civilized man and a nomad. Even today, practically everyone on earth are wearing cotton or using something made out of it. This crop was domesticated first in Asia, Africa and South America and took its prominent place in the journey of human civilization.

Cotton textiles were the major export of Indus valley civilization and were exchanged for grains, spices and other goods. An English traveler called the cotton plant a “Vegetable Lamb”. Traders and travelers spread the usage of cotton and made it a valuable crop. Cotton processing mills were at the center of industrial revolution. Mahatma Gandhi’s cotton spinning wheel became a political symbol in India. In a way, biography of cotton is a reflection of human evolution. So the biography of cotton cuts across centuries and circles around the globe.

Author Stephen Yafa has done extensive research of tracking the history of cotton, its evolution and adoption. He provides lots of insights and reveals fascinating facts to the reader making the biography of cotton no less interesting than the biography of human beings.