Monday, May 31, 2010

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Ori &Rom Brafman are brothers and did some broad research before coming up with this book. Like other books of its genre it states something that is obvious to most but a little difficult to overcome. Very easy to read as one can identify with many of the situations. Although easy to read, the authors sometimes follow a train of thought, then trails away from it and fails to come back in time. By the time they do, the reader is engaged in the new events. You may not learn anything new but it could be interesting/comforting to know that most people in the world are in the same boat as you when making irrational decisions:-) The power of sway is somewhat similar to 'first impressions are the best impressions'. People are easily swayed by outward appearences as evidenced by how they totally ignored world class violinist Joshua Bell playing on his 3.5 million worth Stradivarius because he was playing on the New York Subway dressed as a street musician. They would pay through the nose to hear him if only it was in a concert hall! Or how an investor refuses to sell a stock that is slowly going underwater against the advise of his agent and lost all his investment in the process. I know many can empathise with this one including me.

All of this reminded me of a story I had read in India when little. I believe it was about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar but I have heard many variations of it. The story : One day this well respected scholar was travelling in a train with a youth. The youth did not find it amusing to go with this person in simple attire and showed his displeasure in many ways. The guy was going to attend a lecture by the famous Vidyasagar after all and belonged to the higher echelons of education.  Imagine his surprise and remorse then, when on reaching the destination he saw people waiting to garland the simple guy who travelled with him as the famous scholar! To  my delight I found a version of this story as well as more details on Vidyasgar here. I love telling this story to my kids. So the book Sway is a collection of many such instances helpful for the new generation where the old adages 'all that glitters is not gold' or 'think before you leap' etc. may not suffice.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kaffir Boy & Lying Awake

True, I'd been MIA the past few weeks but books were never far away. Reading is my favorite form of relaxation. Yes, above eating, sleeping and shopping!  I see at least a few heads nodding in agreement. So I got to finish a bunch of extraordinary books which will be shared as time permits. Time to go to the first of the two books featured today.

Kaffir Boy By Mark Mathabane

Mark Matahabane's Kaffir Boy strikes you with such force in the first paragraph that you feel as if you have no choice but to read it. And read is what I did. A visiting relative brought it with him and me being me, could not keep my hands off the book. He kindly decided to leave it behind. It is a painful read but you are forced to go on wanting to know how this incredibly strong person survived the tough life he was dealt.

This is an autobiography and Mathabane's is a success story but the pitfalls and sufferings he had to overcome simply blows the mind. Born in Alexandra, South Africa inside one of the numerous black ghettos that surround the city Mathabane had to live each day as it came. Apartheid was at its height and if it was not for his Mom & Grandma he sure would have ended up dead in some tsotsi gang fight or another. As it was, he managed to put himself through school, developed a voracious reading habit and had the lucky break of being introduced to Tennis through his Grandma's white employers. Tennis was the ticket that got him to America. The land where he knew black players like Arthur Ashe were admired and roamed freely. He has written a few books since then but none compares to the forcefulness of the events of his difficult life in this book. His relationship with Mom & Dad are also explored in depth. It simply had to have been cathartic for him to finally be able to express all the pent up feelings of living as a black man in oppressed South Africa.

Each page takes us through the abject poverty and utter cruelty  that the black people had to weather just for the bare minimum of survival. Think Dharavi and add to it a totalitarian state against the black people.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton has long been a favorite of mine for the story it tells as well as the almost lyrical, down to earth portrayals of both the beautiful country and its people. Hands going up. Yes I own it. Beautiful, beautiful book. In contrast, Mathabane's book talks of a similar plight but with a force that makes it impossible to look away. It took me a while to finish but couldn't dream of abandoning it. To do so would be a betrayal. The book is being used as school reading material as well as at College levels I believe.

Lying Awake By Mark Salzman

Having read his Soloist before I didn't hesitate one bit to pick up this Mark Salzman book. And what a read it was! If you liked "To Kill A Mocking Bird" or "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" then I need to say no more. Just find the book and read please. As for the content, Cronin's "The Keys of the Kingdom" comes to mind. It might appeal to you only from a certain stage in your life. It came to me at this right moment and I loved every single line. It reads like King David's Psalms. Sister John of The Cross goes through duelling phases of total faith and serious doubts in a cloistered Carmelite Monastery.  Salzman seems very attuned to spirituality in general. His portrayal of Zen Buddhism in The Soloist was revealing. I'd be getting any of his books that are available with the confidence of a fulfilling read.